Sometimes when I read the news, I am ashamed to be European. And ashamed to be German. Since 2015, I have been working with refugees. First in Germany and then later in Austria. In recent years, the development in the treatment of refugees in Europe has been terrifying. Step by step, borders were closed, asylum laws impaired, and exclusion was fostered. While the public discourse includes more or less the many people dying in the Mediterranean Sea, I hardly hear about the violent actions carried out, for example, by the Croatian police. Nor about the violation of the right to asylum in my own country – be it more or less obvious.
It is not only an Austrian phenomenon that the discourse about refugees shifted from a focus on humanitarian aid to one on the inner security of the nation state (which the refugees were trying to enter). All over Europe, as well as in the United States of America, these shifts were noticeable throughout the last years. Media analysts recognized the shift in the way it was reported about refugees in the European media. While a high percentage of reports focused on humanitarian aid and moved to a welcoming tone in 2015, the focus shifted on presenting a mass which was and is too big to handle from 2017 onwards.
It is especially interesting which words were dominant in media and public discourse and how often certain terms got mixed up. Eventually, people had different ideas about what a refugee actually is. A couple of months ago, media presented “refugees dying in the Mediterranean”. Nowadays many headlines talk about “migrants dying in the Mediterranean”. Why?
Let’s clarify the terms: migrants usually leave their homes voluntarily in order to improve their living conditions. In case a migrant returns to his/her country of origin, s/he will enjoy the protection by his/her government (UNHCR Austria 2019). A refugee, on the other hand, is a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution (UNHCR Austria 2019). Two quite different labels which, in reality, are filled with thousands of different stories.
In media and minds…
So why does it matter if media reports about refugees or migrants in the Mediterranean? Because it creates images and leads to various connotations. Labels and categories usually come with images. Nowadays, one image which comes with the word “migrant”, is people in inflatable boats. Then, associations can go wild. Migrants. Aren’t migrants usually leaving their homes voluntarily in order to improve their living conditions? Why should they risk their lives then? Isn’t it their own fault then? Especially the constant use of the plural form implies that all these people are the same and have similar reasons to put themselves into those shaky boats. Individual stories are forced to the background.
You can do a simple self-check. Read the words and observe which images come to your mind.
Do you notice the difference? It matters if you categorize yourself or if others put you in a box. Categories always bear the danger of classifying people into first-, second- and third-class people; classes which significantly influence the access to human rights.
I am a migrant? Yes, indeed.
Due to the existing connotations of the term “migrant”, it is no surprise that it took me a while to realize that I, too, am a migrant. Being a German citizen, living and working in Austria, I am a person who left my country to improve my living conditions. In the event that I return to Germany, the German government would still ensure my safety. It is not the case that it has always been my dream to migrate to Austria. Moreover, a combination of destiny and coincidence made me stay here. Having studied my Master’s in Peace Studies in Innsbruck and being offered a job immediately afterwards, made me decide to stay in this beautiful area surrounded by mountains and a stunning landscape.
Being from the very south-east of Germany, I am used to living in a mountainous area. Also, German is the official language of Austria, so the assumption is that I do not have to face a language barrier. Especially as I have the advantage of speaking a Bavarian dialect which is quite similar to the Tyrolean dialect spoken in my new place of living. Regarding my outer appearance, it is not obvious that I am not Austrian. Yet, as soon as I start talking to people, it becomes obvious that I am “not from here”. “At least from Bavaria, that is only just about acceptable”, is a sentence I have heard countless times. Prejudices about Germans in Austria are old. You could even say it is part of a tradition. Often, those prejudices are expressed with relative ease. Yet, it is due to such small remarks and gestures that I have the feeling that I am just an accepted guest here and not a full member of society.
Labels influence living conditions
It feels quite restricting to be firstly judged by my nationality and only afterwards by my personality. Labels and categories – be it the label “German”, “Migrant” or “Refugee” - do indeed influence daily life through small gestures and passing remarks. Further restrictions come at an institutional level. I, being a German migrant, am allowed to participate quite freely in society. I am confronted with prejudices on a regular basis and am not allowed to vote here. But these are basically all the challenges and limitations with which I have to live. Also, I am free to go “back to where I came from” any time.
I am working with unaccompanied minor refugees and these boys fall under another category: the category refugee. This implies restricted access to education and the labour market. It means being treated differently by political and institutional organs. And it means to be at the government's mercy, as fundamental changes are being made to the framework of asylum law and integration measures restricted.
The way refugees are talked and written about in public discourse and media justifies treating migrants and refugees as second- or third-class people. Many people connect the word “refugee” to the many people who already came and still want to come to Europe and think about the challenges within European countries. The words “refugee” or “migrant” are rarely connected with an individual story which can be understood on a personal level.
Breaking mainstream narratives
Through individual stories healthy, respectful, and productive relationships are formed by people listening to, understanding, and knowing each other’s stories. Through narrations, we can learn to understand people and their realities, connect with them and develop empathy. Witnessing that many people talked about refugees during the last years, but hardly anyone talked with people being categorized as refugees, I decided to conduct a storytelling-project for my Master thesis.
Under the title “Kleine Gesten der (Un)Menschlichkeit. Ankommen in Österreich” (Small gestures of (in)humanity. Arriving in Austria) I collected the stories of four young men who came to Austria as so-called “unaccompanied minor refugees” at the age of 15 to 16 and spent the last years trying to arrive in a new country. Hearing and reading about individual struggles to access education or being allowed to work for an decent wage, brings the discussions from a meta- to a micro-level. It eventually becomes apparent again that beyond those labels and the plural-forms, there are very individual human beings with individual stories and the same right to have rights as national citizens.
All migrants, all human beings
The word migrant derives from the Latin word migrare, which means to walk, to move (out), to settle, to change, to transition. Looking at the word on a larger scale, including its linguistic origin and historic developments, a different perspective comes in. In history, it has always been the case that people migrated or fled. Communities changed, transitioned, and moved on; due to natural changes, to war, or for economic reasons. If it is not you, yourself, who migrated or fled, some of your ancestors definitely did. We are all migrants. We are all human beings. And we all deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect.
Tamara Tries is a Social Worker and holds an MA degree in Peace Studies. Since 2015 she is working with refugees in Germany and Austria and is currently the director of a home for unaccompanied minor refugees in Tyrol. Observing and analysing the political shifts in the treatment of refugees, she is researching the power of individual stories in order to contribute to the public discourse and break through established narratives.