Report: IAF Seminar on Freedom of Movement by Yohannan Nair
The recent civil war in Syria, as well as ongoing military conflicts and sectarian violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia have resulted in a refugee crisis in Europe. A UNHCR report in 2015 stated that there were 65.3 million displaced persons around the world, 21.3 million of whom are refugees, who attempt to flee their homeland hoping for a safer and more secure future abroad.
Germany, the host country, took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015. This natural experiment provided an excellent case study to examine the various short and medium-term consequences of a sudden influx of immigration across economic, social and political dimensions.
Against this backdrop, I had the privilege to attend IAF’s Freedom of Movement Seminar at the beginning of June 2016. I was joined by 24 other talented participants, mostly lawyers and human rights activists from all over the world, including one from Chile and Tibet respectively.
The seminar began with a session that highlighted the clear distinction between economic migrants and refugees. The former move localities to improve their economic condition and can return home if needed, while the latter move because he/she is no longer safe in their country of origin. For the purpose of writing this report, I will only focus on refugees.
The first few days were dedicated to theoretical discussion sessions on a) the reasons why individuals choose to move (this included avoiding war, religious persecution, starvation, terrorism etc) and b) the problems that host countries face when admitting migrants (which included increased economic inequality, added strain on local social services, overpopulation in cities etc).
There were also individual presentations by a few pre-selected participants. I was particularly moved by a Palestinian colleague, who spoke emotionally about the constant suffering of his countrymen since the occupation by Israel in 1948. I learnt that Palestinian civilians live in constant fear of being bombed, attacked by Israeli foot soldiers and the possibility that their land could be confiscated by Jewish re-settlers at any time. In addition, Palestinians are not able to move freely from one part of their country to another, for example from Ramallah to Gaza, without requesting permission from the Israeli government. This situation brought about a great deal of stress and resentment among the local population, which was compounded by the fact that economic blockades were sometimes imposed - resulting in a lack of essential items such as medicines and food.
I also had the privilege to attend a talk by Katja Hoyer, who was the Vice-Chairperson of the FDP parliamentary group in the city council of Cologne. Miss Katja spoke about the various problems faced by the city as a result of the sudden migrant inflows, including the infamous New Year’s Eve incident - where German women were sexually assaulted by ‘North African looking’ men in Cologne. We also learnt about the myriad challenges that Germany is facing in its effort to integrate these newly arrived individuals. In terms of education and skills training for example, there were serious language barriers. In addition, some refugees were unskilled and did not have any formal training. Some, on the hand, had experienced severe mental trauma, and as such were not able to attend the free classes that were provided. In spite of this, Miss Katja was hopeful that they would eventually integrate into German society given time. She also called on other European governments to play their part and take in refugees as well, i.e not merely relying on Germany to shoulder the load.
The other noteworthy event was a debate session between the participants. We were divided into 2 separate groups, one in favor of an open border policy while the other favored a more regulated approach to migration. Many philosophical, ethical and economic arguments were put forth from both sides of the divide, but at the end, many agreed that the most humane and efficient migration policy is one that had free, open borders for migrants and refugees. One caveat was that these individuals should pass a mandatory security and health check, and prove that they can actively contribute to the economy of the home country before being allowed safe passage.
The most memorable experience for me was the site visit to a military facility which had been transformed into a makeshift refugee camp in Hamburg. It was a surreal experience. I was almost moved to tears when I heard the heart wrenching personal stories of the refugees from Syria and Iraq whom I spoke with. One Syrian refugee said that he was previously a car mechanic in Allepo. He had lived a comfortable, middle class life with his wife and children, but lost everything when the civil war broke out in 2012. He was forced to flee his home and family and start fresh in a country that he knew nothing about, and where people conversed in a strange language that he didn’t understand. His story made me realise that refugees are human beings, just like you and I. They too have hopes, dreams, fears, and want to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
It upsets and worries me that many right-wing groups are gaining popularity in Europe due to their anti-immigration stance. Why should refugees be treated or viewed with such hatred and scorn? When it’s all said and done, they are just innocent victims, who have had the terrible misfortune of being born in the wrong country, at the wrong time and are trying to do something to improve their odds.
Overall, this seminar was truly inspiring and life changing. I learnt many important lessons and met many wonderful friends, who I will cherish and continue to stay in touch with. Learning about refugees and the problems they face on a daily basis has also made me more appreciative of all the little things that I used to take for granted. I also have a new resolve to be more compassionate to my fellow human beings, to empathise with their struggle, and to try to help them in whichever way I can.