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At the Border of People and Policies: Closing the Distance Through Storytelling

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Once again, the world is obsessed with the supposed decadence and fall of Greece.

In Athens and Brussels, journalists and politicians scramble over budgets, banks, and broken promises to try and explain the drama of failed domestic and European Union (EU) policy. But with all the news and handwringing on Greek economic policy, let us not forget that there are people affected by these policies. And I am not just talking about the pensioners who have had to survive on tight austerity measures. Nor the once middle class who are limited to 60 Euro a day. Nor the shopkeepers that are trying to figure out if they will need to accept the Drachma (the old Greek currency) once the Euro runs out. They have been rightly profiled and interviewed – their voices are part of the conversation.

I am concerned about the people who are not yet part of the conversation. What can we learn about democracy, human rights and economic policy from those clambering to get to the shores of Europe?

Child sleeping en route to the Republic of Macedonia – Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos

Thousands of People Per Week

The economic policies of the EU have brought hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to the shores of Europe to search for a decent life for themselves and their family. Where are they in the international conversation on economic policy? Let us not forget that it is an economic policy that causes people to leave their homelands to come to Europe, and it is an economic policy that blocks policymakers and politicians from crafting a consistent and humane European response to migration.

I use the term “migrants” because in the nuanced world of immigration policy there is a distinction between people emigrating for economic opportunities and people emigrating to flee fear of persecution. Of course, in reality, these lines are often blurred (you cannot find work because you are the “wrong” ethnicity or religion), but this distinction is important because if you are emigrating for economic purposes, you must apply for permission to enter a country (this is what it means to obtain a visa). If you are claiming asylum (asking for refugee status from within that country rather than from abroad) then you must physically reach the country, ask for protection, and certain international law grants you certain rights: food, shelter and basic health care as well as the right to work and go to school.

Because of the ease of movement across Europe, as well as the rights granted to people claiming asylum, refugees, and people seeking better economic opportunities will often travel to Europe together. It is for this reason that the term “migrants” is often used to discuss all these people as one group.

In the EU, it is not illegal to move to another country for better economic opportunities for you and your family. If you are a citizen of the EU you can live in any European country for three months and, if you can find work, you can stay longer. In addition, if you have a Schengen visa or are a citizen that is part of the Schengen zone (i.e. Macedonia), you do not need a visa to travel throughout other countries in Europe. If seeking employment, you will most likely need to apply for a work permit.

On the rights of refugees, migrants, and the failure of the states and the EU
According to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Refugee (commonly referred to as the Refugee Convention), every person who fears persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a social group has the right to seek safety in another country. This is a non-dirigible right, a right that cannot be taken away. This is a right that is being violated on an hourly basis by the very same countries that promote themselves as the ambassadors of human civilization. When the EU expanded its borders in 2004 and again in 2005 it created one of the few policies on refugees: once a person claims refugee protection in one European country, they are unable to do so in another. This was to put an end to the supposed “shopping” for the best refugee/social service benefits. There was, however, no effort to harmonize services provided to refugees in the EU. Thus, in Malta, refugees are warehoused in open-air soccer stadiums in temperatures reaching over 100 degrees and denied the right to work or go to school; whereas in Sweden, they are offered free language classes and job-skill training. Where would you want your children to go in order to seek safety and a new life? Sovereignty is based on the notion that each country can do what it wishes within the borders of its country and/or with its citizens. The EU is constantly trying to balance the notion of “union” of European countries with the sovereignty of each individual state. Such tricky politics mostly results in a lot of inaction. The EU consistently fails to develop comprehensive immigration and refugee policy. In April 2015 this inaction leads to Italy using human lives, and deaths as a form of political maneuvering. After being overwhelmed with 10,000 migrants in one week, the Italian Coast Guard threw up its hands and called off rescue efforts. The UN estimates over 400 people died in one boat crossing. It worked. After being lambasted by the EU community, Italy tried another tactic – it threatened to offer Schengen visas to all migrants, which would allow refugees coming into Italy the ability to move and live anywhere in the EU. Following this threat, the EU called a meeting for rescue efforts that week.

Reframing Immigration

The language of politics and policy allows us to create and perpetuate distance. This, in turn, allows us to dehumanize and create policies that help “manage” an “issue” rather than engage with the messiness and inconsistencies of human’s lives. For example, in US immigration policy there are serious debates in the New Mexico and Arizona state legislature as to whether or not it is illegal to leave water for dying people in the desert. Is such an act aiding and abetting “illegal aliens”? We can only have such discussions when language takes the human out of the picture and replaces them with “a flood of illegal immigrants.” Distance is created.

But storytelling can close the distance, and this is where the storytellers come in. Ari Belathar and Dolores Durantes – both refugees from Mexico – use poetry and experiential theatre to reframe the story of how US economic and foreign policy has created and perpetuates the flow of migrants across the US and Mexico border, and they do so by foregrounding the human in the policy and bringing the audience into visceral proximity with “the issue.”

As storytellers, they force a closing of the distance between policy, politics, and people. This is critical because when hard decisions need to be made, be it in the US or in the EU, such distance can, literally, be deadly.

Migration and Money

As Greek and EU politicians battle out austerity measures in Brussels and wring their hands about how it affects their citizens, a minimum of eight people a day are dying as they try to get within the borders of Europe. In the process, they are often beaten, raped and robbed by smugglers as well as police and border guards. According to Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and the International Organization on Migration (IOM), the majority of people entering Europe are fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq as well as forced conscription in Eritrea, countries that are the symptom of western foreign and economic policy.

Even as the headlines about the refugee crisis in Europe fade, replaced by banking challenges or a Greek/German showdown, the people keep coming. The people keep coming because these two issues are not separate: migration and money are intertwined.

As of July 1, 2015, there are over 60 million refugees worldwide. In 2015 alone, over a half-million migrants have attempted to reach Europe via land and sea routes. Every day, bodies wash up on the shores of the countries that promote themselves as the pinnacles of art, music, and democracy– Italy, Spain, and Greece. According to the IOM – since the new millennium, 40,000 people have died trying to reach Europe.

Tragically, once refugees arrive in Europe they are again faced with persecution. The inhumane conditions in Malta and Italy (the countries where migrants are most likely to arrive by sea because of geography) are widely known and documented by the UN and the EU. It is also widely known by migrants themselves.

Because of this, as well as the dangers in crossing by sea, more and more people are choosing to go the land route through the Balkans: Greece to Macedonia and often onward to Serbia and Hungary. However, this alternative is not much better. Although the number of deaths is lower (according to Amnesty International about 150 people have died since January 2014), once they reach Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary they consistently face beatings, extortion and forced return at the hands of the border guards. Amnesty International created the map below based on their four research missions in 2015 investigating the human rights conditions along the Balkan Route.

image credit: Amnesty International

This abuse is also a political response to the lack of a comprehensive EU policy. As Amnesty International explained in the report released on July 7, “The ever-growing number of migrants and refugees taking the Balkan route is a consequence of a broader failure of EU migration and asylum policy, over which Serbia and Macedonia have no control…Rather than prioritizing improvements to the asylum systems of countries along the Balkan route, the EU has invested in its efforts to strengthen its ‘border management’ system.”

Once again, people are seen as “a problem” that needs to be corralled and managed through policy. The absurdity of this distance is illustrated by British tourists who complained that the asylum seekers’ presence and detention at the Kos Island in Greece last May were “ruining their holidays and turning the island into a disgusting hellhole.” The tourists do not recognize their privilege in immigration policy (they don’t need a visa to holiday in Greece) whereas they cannot see why people are risking their lives on leaking boats because they cannot enter the country any other way.

Psychologist and philosopher Sam Keen (1988) famously wrote in Faces of the Enemy that the only way that humans can treat humans inhumanely is to strip them of their humanity. This has become the basis of the European migration policy. In this state of being overwhelmed we all try and create distance and thus create policies that can contain and manage the problem rather than the people.

The Storytellers

I want to share with you the work of storytellers who choose to confront “the problem” a bit differently. Rather than creating distance, they engage directly with the people who are the unintended and forgotten result of Europe’s economic policies. These are photographers, journalists and cartoonists – some of whom are migrants and refugees themselves.

Myrto Papadopoulos is a photographer and filmmaker in Greece who has done immersive (embedded) journalism with the Golden Dawn (the neo-fascist movement in Greece), worked the brothels of Athens to document the stories of sex workers, and most recently traveled the Balkan route with migrants. Her photos were part of a three-part series published in Le Monde in May 2015.

A silhouette of a man that stands right at beside a greek shore, a boat full of people are seen in the distance on the water as they arrive.
Arriving at Greek shores – Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos
families all around stand waiting for their transportation.
At a transit point in Kos Island, Greece –Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos
Men sit against a wall inside a dimly-lit space as they wait.
En route to the Republic of Macedonia – Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos

After the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, ran a screaming headline accusing asylum seekers of killing and roasting the Queen’s swans for dinner, migrants knew it was time to reclaim the conversation about immigration and asylum policy. Some chose to do it through policy and law, while others chose to do so by changing the story and identity of migrants in the larger public. Migrant Voice is a tiny NGO in the UK that has been working for over five years to reframe the story of migrants by creating their own newspapers and online publication (stories were written by migrants, about migrants), educating mainstream journalists about migrants and migration, and training migrants how to tell their stories to journalists. Working with 2.5 staff out of a closet of an office (literally) they bring together over 100 volunteers, almost all migrants themselves, to pass out tabloid-style newspapers on the streets of Glasgow, Birmingham, and London. The means of distributing the paper forces person-to-person engagement. Once again, the human emerges from the policy.

Mohamed, Anne, and Nazek standing as they pose with copies of Migrant Voice at their hands.
Mohamed, Anne, and Nazek delivering copies of Migrant Voice to the Members of Parliament in London, February 2012 – photo by Shayna Plaut

Joe Sacco is a Portland-based journalist best known for his graphic novel-style journalism, which includes publications such as from Safe Area Gorazde, which is about the Bosnian War, and Footnotes on Gaza. Many people, however, do not know about the work he’s done in his native Malta. In 2010, Sacco produced a piece called The Unwanted, where he interviewed both the migrants and Maltese, who are sweltering on the small island country that has always been at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, to investigate what is happening. What he found was both disturbing and unsustainable. As migrants became prisoners in their search for freedom – unable to work and sustain themselves – racism became endemic among the local population resulting in more and more restrictive policies.

And I, too, have my own story to share about the power of storytellers.

My name, Shayna Plaut, means “Beautiful Refugee,” and, among other things, I work with people to tell stories to change the social-political realities of their – our – world. Most recently I have been working with the Global Reporting Centre on a project called “Strangers at Home” that seeks out storytellers in Europe to explain what the rise of xenophobia, anti-Romani sentiment and anti-Semitism looks like in their countries. We are working with artists, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, photographers, and cartoonists – we even have some people embedding with neo-fascists to explain the logic of hate: one in Italy and one in Russia, both countries on the frontiers with borders to “protect.”

We storytellers are using this medium because we have hope. We believe that if you bring the human – and particularly migrants who bring a radically different perspective and mirror of society — into the high-level policy conversations about Greece or Europe as a whole then the economic and immigration and social realities become clearer. The distance closes and the solutions can become both more humane and more sustainable.

Similar artistic work regarding migrants/refugees on the US/Mexico Border

Theater and poetry — Ari Belathar

Experiential poetry – Dolores Durantes

For more information on the migrant crisis in Europe

The full Amnesty Report

Le Monde article (in French) with Myrto Papadopoulos’ pictures

Human Rights Watch response

Open Society Foundation released six videos profiling different people’s journeys for hope.

Zed Nelson’s film for Channel 4, “Europe’s Immigration Disaster” and accompanying article in The Guardian

1 Comment

  1. Nicole Jackson sent me the link to your compelling work in relation to migrants. As a Mexican, I’ve observed the absurdity of this issue for a long time. My first (artistic) solution was to hide people in products that easily cross borders. Later, when the U.S started building the wall on their southern border, I thought of another way of ’helping’ people cross it : the Zzum Shoxs and Spectral Thixotropic Accelerator Suit. You can see them at:

    Sadly, it seems that the migration dilemma is multiplying exponentionally.

    C de la Cajiga