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Shifting the Global Conversation on Refugees: An interview with Sarah Green

“They know how many drown. They know what the risks are. And they still take that risk. Because what they’re leaving is appalling.”

Recently, vast numbers of people have been moving across borders, catching global media attention and producing complex responses from countries—those which host these refugees, and those which refuse. The same phrase is used repeatedly in describing the exodus: refugee crisis. As a linguistic anthropologist, I can’t help wondering how understanding these terms differently might help us do better at handling the suffering involved, and perhaps even prevent it. I spoke recently with Sarah Green—a social anthropologist from the University of Helsinki whose expertise is in what is referred to as “mobilities.” Her area of interest is Europe, and her long-standing involvement on Lesbos provided her a unique take on the events we were witnessing. I wanted to understand better what was going on in the Eastern Mediterranean, and how the entire process described as a “refugee crisis” might be understood from an anthropological perspective.

Monica Heller: Sarah, you’re a social anthropologist at the University of Helsinki. You’ve been working for a very long time on the issue of borders and border crossings—in particular in the area around what is now Turkey, Greece, and Albania—which of course is an area that we’ve all been watching very carefully lately.

You’ve had a long association with the island of Lesbos, which has been in the news a lot. Could you tell me a little bit about your experience in that area: what you’ve been seeing lately, and how we might understand it?

Sarah Green: Well, I started working directly on Lesbos, though I’ve known the island for a very long time because I actually spent some of my childhood years there. But I’ve been working there as an anthropologist since 2006. There was an issue about undocumented people crossing onto the island even then. It became a very significant quantity of people this last summer, but it’s been an issue there for some time. Part of that is obvious–its geography. The island of Lesbos, along with the other Aegean Islands, is very close to the Turkish coast and, at certain times of year, the trip is relatively easy to make.

Monica Heller: When you say ever since 2006, did something happen then, or was it just that you happened to show up there?

Sarah Green: I moved my research from the Greek-Albanian border, where I had done a lot of work on border issues–which is in northern mainland Greece–to the Aegean region, which is where Lesbos is located, in 2006. The issue with significant numbers of undocumented people arriving on the island had probably started shortly after 2001.

Monica Heller: What happened then?

Sarah Green: Well you might remember the 9/11 events happened. It caused a very quick response on the part of the United States in Afghanistan initially. And that caused the first wave of people fleeing– from a variety of routes, but one of those routes was the Aegean via Turkey.

Monica Heller: And how did that route open up?

Sarah Green: Turkey shares borders with a variety of countries, and those borders aren’t very controlled. Or they weren’t very controlled. They’re very, very large borders; there is a lot of area there that’s very mountainous, very difficult terrain. And people knew that once they got through into Turkey they probably wouldn’t be stopped until they got to the coast. So it’s not a hard route.

Monica Heller: So why are we paying attention to this now?

Sarah Green: Because of the numbers of refugees arriving in Europe. Prior to this, there have been very significant numbers that have arrived in Arab-world countries and other near Eastern countries. And it’s still the case. For instance, Turkey now has about two million refugees on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Monica Heller: The people who you describe as undocumented who came through Turkey into Lesbos, what’s happened to them in the last fifteen years?

Sarah Green: Over time there has been a procedure that has developed. It came under severe strain this last summer, in 2015, because there just weren’t the resources to deal with the numbers of people arriving all at once. But the procedure generally follows EU regulations. The Aegean has two borders: a national border between Greece and Turkey, but also an EU border between the EU and its near outside, which is Turkey. So the EU has regulations, called the Dublin Agreement, which require that the first port of entry of somebody who’s undocumented–that country has to document them. And there’s this thing called Eurodac, which is a fingerprinting system, which fingerprints them. The Dublin Agreement suggests that people who are undocumented have to go back to the country from which they first entered the EU to be processed. So if they manage to escape attention in Greece and get, say, to Germany, the Dublin Agreement means that they have to be sent back from Germany to Greece to be processed. The processing happens in Athens.

So in terms of Lesbos, people have their fingerprints, their details taken, they go onto an EU database, then they get put on one of the ferries to Athens. They get fully processed there, in terms of their claim for asylum. This summer, when the island of Lesbos was receiving between eight hundred and three thousand people a day, the system just collapsed; they didn’t have the resources to deal with the sheer volume of refugees to be processed. And, in any case, it was a perfect storm in a way because Greece is in the midst of one of its worst economic crises in its modern history. This summer was even worse because there was this referendum on whether the Greek people wanted the government to accept new austerity measures from the EU in return for further funds to avoid a Greek default on its debts. Nobody knew whether Greece was going to be given a bailout by the EU and so on. The banks were closed in the run-up to the referendum to prevent a run on the banks, so there wasn’t enough money even to feed the people in the reception centers.

“That’s also one thing that’s actually really important that anthropologists can do, is to understand those who really don’t want the migrants. And understand where they’re coming from and what that’s about.”

Monica Heller: What’s been happening now? What’s happened since the summer?

Sarah Green: This summer was rather extraordinary. There was absolutely no NGO help in the Aegean Islands. There was no UNHCR, there was no Red Cross, there was nothing. There were just the locals and the tourists and the police and coast guard and Frontex, which is an organization hired by the EU to control the EU’s external borders. Since that time, there has been a whole raft of NGOs that have moved in. It’s now become very organized. But still, the EU now has woken up to the seriousness of the problem–in terms of the EU, in terms of the regulations never having been designed for something like this to happen. And people are trying to find other kinds of solutions. In the meantime, the processing of people is still going on, day in and day out.

Monica Heller: The usual response is, “We need to be very careful because not everybody is actually a refugee.” There are “terrorists”, quote-unquote, being smuggled in. What should we think about that?

Sarah Green: This is one of the things that I find a bit peculiar about the way the news reports the arrival of these people. Even the sympathetic reports suggest that people who arrive are going to be somehow much better human beings than most people in the world. That you’re going to have people who are perfect humans and completely innocent of anything. And that’s not the case of any population, right?

But also, these people have been through hell and high water. In order to get to the point where you are going to risk your life, knowing what might happen, because people read the news, they have smartphones, and they know what happens. They know how many drown. They know what the risks are. And they still take that risk. Because what they’re leaving is appalling. None of them are going to be perfect people, and they’re going to be quite traumatized, actually, by their experiences already. And of course, it is inevitable that some of the people who they’re trying to run away from will also possibly be amongst their number. A very, very… well… easy way to spot those people is to ask the others. And very rarely does that happen because, for some reason, people don’t ask refugees–even those who are well meaning. They’ll ask refugees, “How can we help you?” and “What do you need from us?” They very rarely ask refugees, “How can you help us?” And those people often bring skills and knowledge that can make the assistance more mutual than just one-way. In the case of Syrians, it’s particularly the case because the Syrians who have managed to get across the Aegean usually are people who have much higher than average income. Syrians, in any case, are highly educated, very well trained people who have a huge number of skills that they could help with and probably would be willing to help with. A lot of doctors and engineers, teachers, you know, all kinds of things. For those not working directly with the refugees, there tends to be an assumption that all they are is refugees as if that is all there is.

Monica Heller: Why do we have that binary, and what–let’s say as anthropologists–can we do to shift that frame?

Sarah Green: I think why we have that frame is partly because of the media, the way in which the whole thing has been reported. I think what anthropologists could do is do what they do best, which is to understand that people are social beings who have relations that are not only within their own places but across many borders. And to understand the variety of needs and wants and desires and traumas and so on that people experience. And to be a bit more realistic about the fact that this population, just because you give them a name–”refugee” or “asylum seeker” or “migrant” or “illegal” or something–doesn’t render them anything other than ordinary human beings. And a lot of the debate seems to be about how to try and locate the debate in a moral way so as to find out who’s got the moral high ground. Is it the moral high ground to throw these people out? Keep them out? Build more walls? Or is the moral high ground to take care of them and to let them in and be humane? And I think so long as that debate keeps going in that way, the practical solutions seem to get forgotten.

Monica Heller: What kinds of things could be good practices? What kinds of things are put in place? Because the image that you get in the media is never that this is about temporary asylum. And that effort needs to be put into the way home if you like.

Sarah Green: I suppose what’s happening is there’s a variety of things in different countries. Different countries are responding in different ways. So Finland, for instance, where I’m living at the moment, has got this practice of housing people in people’s private homes. So there are some reception centers, but they’re very remote and you know Finland, it’s an awful lot of open space with forest in it. So there’s been a lot of rehousing people in people’s homes. Families, especially. And that’s been very effective. But also, just realizing that these people are really not wanting to be there in order to take other people’s jobs or anything; they’re there because of an emergency. And given the emergency going on in their homeland and not knowing when it might end, they’re going to have to settle; they’re going to have to find a way to live and make their way and learn languages. I think the best thing for both sides, actually, is a lot of learning about what is and isn’t acceptable for each.

There’s some big trouble over that. I’m sure you read about it in the newspapers during the New Year. Celebrations happened in a number of countries. Germany, in particular, but also several other countries where there was insufficient education on the part of both sides about ways to behave. But I think it’s also really important to realize that these people really can be asked to give something back. And want to. You know, to be able to do something, even if it’s voluntary work. They’re very skilled people. They have a variety of things that they can be doing. And also to try and maybe do it with schools and so on, a bit of history about times when each group, whether it’s now the group that’s the receiving group or has had moments when their people have been refugees, have had moments where their people have had to migrate and move from one place to another. And to try and understand it. But at the same time, to really work to understand the fear. That’s also one thing that’s actually really important that anthropologists can do, is to understand those who really don’t want the migrants. And understand where they’re coming from and what that’s about.

Monica Heller: We were talking earlier about the ways in which people and phenomena get labeled. And that’s one of the ways in which we can see how it is that people are feeling, right, about things? There’s this movement that I’m sure you’re familiar with around the word “illegal” and to say, you know, nobody is illegal. “Illegal” is not an adjective you can apply to a human being. To try to push back against that notion of, you know, undocumented illegal alien. Terminology that tends to come up on a regular basis around these phenomena. So I was curious about whether you’ve seen things like that and what you think about them.

Sarah Green: The language thing is really interesting. The words to use and not to use. And I think it’s very, very good that we have the debate. At the same time, I think it’s also quite important–I think there’s a difference between saying that an illegal is a thing and recognizing that it’s a formal status.

I was talking about this today, actually, at a conference. I was talking about what’s going on in Athens right now. And I was pointing to a very big difference from when I remember Athens in the 1960s. It’s almost impossible to believe in this day and age that Greece did not have any migration legislation in the 1960s. It was not possible to be a migrant in Greece because there was no legal way to do that. It didn’t exist. It was a country that sent people out to the United States amongst other places. Many other places. Greece wasn’t used to the idea of receiving people then. Now in the 1960s, of course, people did come. It was almost impossible legally to stay in the country, but nobody really cared. You know, the people were just wandering in and out of Athens, so anti-apartheid campaigners, as they were escaping South Africa, would often find themselves living in Athens because it was an informal … you were allowed to stay as long as you didn’t attract the attention of the authorities. It was no problem. It was really only after 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that Greece was forced to start introducing migration legislation because people were coming in from Albania and from former Yugoslavia, once former Yugoslavia broke up, and through Greece getting to the EU. And so this kind of let-it-all-hang-out approach towards migration didn’t really exist because migration didn’t legally exist, as it actually wasn’t on the law books.

It makes one realize that the word “migrant” is a legal term. It’s a legal term that refers to your status when you cross a border from countries that have legislation that concerns migration. Otherwise, you’re just moving from one place to another. And also, “refugee” is a legal term, as is “asylum seeker.” So the words thing, on the one hand it’s correct to say that people are illegal because legally they are illegal. But that’s quite different from saying that a person who may have broken the law is a particular kind of person by doing so. It’s like the difference between saying somebody stole something and saying they’re a kleptomaniac. It’s about whether there is something fundamental about the person, rather than saying there is something that they did that the government defines as not legal.

Monica Heller: Right, and I think that the discussion around that has been in the way that people talk. It attaches the term to people. Other than saying, this person, looked at through the eyes of the state, does not have the documentation that the state requires. Part of the push-back has also come from a recognition between the contradictions that I was talking about before, where, you know, on the one hand the state says you have to have some kind of documentation we tell you that you have to have, but at the same time we don’t stop a cyclical process of people coming in, working from a very vulnerable position–because they’re not documented–so they can be exploited, they can be housed horribly, and then kicked back across the border whenever people want to. And that process, from the state’s end, is never actually attended to so that there’s no attention to the employers who take advantage of weak borders. There’s only attention to the individuals who are trying desperately to make a living, and who are caught in that particular web. So it’s a question of saying, “How do we be clear about where the gaze is from and also where the gaze is oriented to and where it’s not oriented to?”

Sarah Green: That’s absolutely right, and I think one of those three articles that recently came out in American Ethnologist was about this—one of them started with a Hannah Arendt quote, saying, “For a start, we don’t like being called ‘refugees.’” And the whole point is, again, that kind of Kafkaesque thing about the stigma that somehow you become that thing beyond everything else. And as you were pointing out, the debate gets circulated around the people who have arrived, and not so much what caused them to leave where they left. Or the circumstances under which they’re being allowed to move or not to move in a particular way. And one issue relating to that is EU border policies. Greece joined the Schengen zone at the same time as it introduced migration legislation in the 1990s. Now you might think, “Well, you know, that’s a very nice thing for Greece to be in Schengen,” but actually Schengen required huge amounts of new controls and surveillance of people who were coming in. And it was in order to try and control what they saw as a leaky border into the EU that Greece was put into Schengen. And that book, Illegality, Inc. by Ruben Andersson, it won a BBC Best Ethnography award this last year. It was about the massive increase in the infrastructure and the business of border surveillance and border control. In this case, it was in Spain, but it’s happened everywhere. So that all those labels actually reflect an underlying entire infrastructure and system that is designed to catch people in its web. And so, in fact, we’re all getting caught in its web in one way or another; it’s just very visible for the people who are doing it in a way that that system is designed to catch.

Monica Heller: That raises all kinds of questions again about the nation-state and the situation of the nation-state under contemporary conditions. So one last question. Is what we’re seeing now new? Or are we just living through something that has been going for a really long time, and for some reason we keep forgetting that?

Sarah Green: I think it’s both. What’s new is what I was just talking about the level of border surveillance control, legislation, management, and so on. This level of it is relatively new. On the other hand, there have been wars and conflicts from which people have fled, flown, run away to save themselves for about as long as there has been human history written. And it’s very, very easy to forget, and I think it’s also very easy to forget quite how often this has happened in Europe, too. First World War, Second World War, just in recent history. A massive movement of peoples. A displacement of peoples. As a result of stuff going on elsewhere, and it’s sort of–well, maybe it’s understandable, but it’s kind of strange to me to realize that people don’t know that people are running away from the areas that were first most hit and destabilized by the aftermath of 9/11. That, you know, the biggest numbers of people that we’ve been receiving across the Mediterranean have started from 2003 onwards. And it’s not a very difficult thing to understand why that might be.

Also, there is a lack of recognition in western Europe that, in the countries neighbouring the conflict zones, in Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan, for example, they are actually housing massive numbers of refugees, many more than are being taken in by European Union countries. What we’re going through in places like Europe, let alone the United States or Canada, is so tiny in comparison to the level of problem which is not getting anywhere near that kind of news, you know. The Turkish government has just got on with it, built enormous refugee camps, and is just taking care of that situation. And, you know, it’s like Europe with its enormous wealth and resources somehow can’t cope with a fraction of that number of people. Which I find extraordinary. So we do keep forgetting, and there have been, you know, times…If somebody’s in New York, go to the Ellis Island Museum, have a read of what happened there: the sheer numbers that Ellis Island was dealing with at various points in its history were absolutely overwhelming. Certainly a lot bigger than what we’re dealing with now. And the US government, public services and the American people managed.

Monica Heller: And so it makes you wonder, you know, why it was possible, and it is presented as impossible to manage now.

Sarah Green: Yeah. Or that somehow something has changed about what it means to be somebody who is running either from destitution or from destruction and trying to get help elsewhere, in large numbers. Why that is so much of a bigger problem now than it was in previous decades or centuries. ●

Sarah Green came to Helsinki in 2012, after having worked in anthropology departments at the Universities of Manchester (1995-2012) and Cambridge (1992-1995). She currently specializes on the anthropology of location and borders, especially in the eastern peripheries of Europe which provide a means to analyze how people classify the world, their location in it as well as the location of others. She is interested in the political, social, economic, epistemological and historical dynamics involved in that process of defining the difference between here and somewhere else and then attempting to make it so.

Monica Heller is a Professor at OISE and at the University of Toronto, and past president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Her research focusses on the role of language in the construction of social difference and social inequality in the post-nationalist, globalizing new economy. Her ethnographic, sociolinguistic research mainly examines these processes as they unfold in francophone Canada. She is also involved in work in these areas conducted in western Europe, and in their relevance for policy in the areas of language and education and training, the workplace and public space.

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