Archive for June, 2013
If there is a place on earth that seems to sum up the grim chaotic reality of the refugee crisis it’s Goma. Chiwetel Ejiofor described it recently in The Observer:
“I was in Goma,” he recalls, “which is an extraordinary place to be. We crossed the border from Rwanda and were almost immediately in the midst of these camps, thousands of displaced people. People had been there for years in some cases. They had got caught up in the fallout from the Rwandan genocide, which became their own war, and all that time the eyes of the world have looked away.” He talks about some of the people he met in a place that “was as close as I have ever seen to despair… a woman who when the rebels had come in and killed three of her children in front of her had grabbed the fourth and fled and ended up here. And what did she dream of? You know, a sewing machine so she could start to rebuild her life…” And he talks too of the other unpalatable side of that conflict, the fact that it is fuelled to a large degree by the world’s need for Congo’s mineral wealth, particularly coltan, the rare ore that is a key component of all our computers and mobile phones. (Observer, 16 June 2013)
When Paul Kagame’s army took control of Rwanda and ended the genocide in 1994, over a million Hutus fearing reprisals (just because they were Hutu, or because they had taken an active part in the massacres) headed over the border into DRC and Goma – just 1 km from Gisenyi in Rwanda – was where they ended up.
The camps quickly became caught up in ongoing violence between Hutu and Tutsi (who fled the 1994 genocide itself, or previous pogroms) from Rwanda and neighbouring countries, and over 10,000 Hutu militia and former troops effectively controlled the camps, including food distribution and information (eg about possibilities of safe return). The confusion was such that humanitarian organisations found themselves feeding and supporting genocidaires – as Ben Barber says, ‘For Americans and Europeans who saw the televised images in 1994 of the smoky plain in Goma covered with 500,000 starving Rwandans – men and women wrapping the bodies of their children and their elderly in straw mats to hurl them into mass graves – a refusal to help would have seemed inhuman.’ (Barber, 1997, p. 13). Add to that the collective guilt that we had all stood by whilst 800,000 were massacred, and it is no wonder that an outside world which had barely grasped what had happened in those few weeks after 6 April 1994 should have assumed that the refugees now so visibly suffering in Goma were people we should help.
Nearly twenty years on, Goma is still a focus for refugees, for military activity, for human misery.
Refugee camps are amongst Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ – ‘transit points and temporary abodes … under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity’ (Augé, p. 78). They are also ‘hors-lieux’, ‘outside of the places and outside of the time of a common, ordinary predictable world’ (Agier, p. 323), sites of segregation, where ‘life has to redefine itself within wholly unprecedented and unknown contexts’.
This redefinition can be emancipating – Twa refugees who had fled Rwanda during the genocide were able for the first time in Goma to win official recognition, having been previously amongst the poorest and most marginalised community in Rwanda, scorned by both the large ethnic groups (Godding, cited in Agier, p. 335). So this place, ‘predicated on collective suffering and interpersonal conflicts’, can provide an innovating framework.
A refugee camp should be a neutral place of sanctuary – but it can also become a training camp for a routed army, suffer internal control by exile groups, and its inhabitants can become the shields and targets of local military operations. It can also of course be a focus for disease – around 40-45,000 refugees died of cholera or dysentery during the month following their arrival in Goma in July 1994.
The refugee camp is a liminal space. Like a border or no-man’s land, it is a place through which people pass, but not a place where they should live. It is a between-space – between the place from which the refugees fled and the place of safety which they hope to reach (which may, of course, be the place from which they fled, if conditions and circumstances have changed). The camp’s inhabitants are uncitizens, marginalised and separated both from their former home and from the country in which the camp sits. It’s a waiting zone where nothing can be fully brought to fruition, a place of quarantine. Is it purgatory – a place of temporary suffering, though without the promise of paradise to come? Or limbo – the first circle of Dante’s Hell?
There are many Gomas out there.
UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report covers displacement that occurred during 2012 based on data from governments, NGO partners, and the UN refugee agency itself. The report shows that as of the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared to 42.5 million at the end of 2011. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries. The report does not include the rise in those forced from their homes in Syria during the current year. War remains the dominant cause. A full 55 percent of all refugees listed in UNHCR’s report come from just five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. The report also charts major new displacement from Mali, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Sudan into South Sudan and Ethiopia. “These truly are alarming numbers. They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and head of UNHCR. The report highlights worrisome trends, including the rate at which people are being forced into situations of displacement. During 2012 some 7.6 million people became newly displaced, 1.1 million as refugees and 6.5 million as internally displaced people. This translates to a new refugee or internally displaced person every 4.1 seconds. (http://www.unhcr.org/51c071816.html)
Michel Agier, Between War and City: Towards an Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps, Ethnography, 3 (2002), 317-41
Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995)
Ben Barber, Feeding Refugees, or War? The Dilemma of Humanitarian Aid, Foreign Affairs, July/August 1997
Alain Deztexhe, The Third Genocide, Foreign Policy, 97 (winter, 1994-5), pp 3-17
Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello Books, 2009)
Barry Levy & Victor Sidel, War & Public Health (Oxford UP, 1997)
Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed (Zed Books, 2009)
Kate Nash, Between Citizenship and Human Rights, Sociology, 43, 6 (Dec. 2009), pp. 1067-87
A passport can be synonymous with freedom. It can open doors – to pass through the ‘porte’ of the city wall. A safe conduct pass, For a refugee seeking asylum it can mean the end to months or years of uncertainty, of near-destitution, of fearing the knock on the door which could mean deportation. Indefinite leave to remain – the right to work, to settle, to pursue your education, to have a family life. And the right to leave as well, on holiday or to see family, without fearing that the door will close firmly behind you.
To be ‘sans papiers’ is to be a non-person, invisible to employers, health care services, landlords, police – but at the same time often to be a target, a scapegoat, the ‘usual suspect’. ‘To not have a passport is to be less than fully human, a non-entity, since in a global world one must be under the aegis of a sovereign state’ (Colin Dickey, 2007).
But as Dickey goes on to say, ‘to have a passport, paradoxically, does not suddenly liberate you, it simply re-inscribes you into a control society of surveillance and micro-power’. At worst, having those necessary and dangerous ‘papers’, that secure your identity in relation to the state that you inhabit, can be a sentence of death…
Colin Dickey, ‘On Passports: W G Sebald and the Menace of Travel’, Image & Narrative, 19 (November 2007)
This article and poem, from Bristol Somali Media Group, were added as comments on my blog, but deserve a higher profile.
Refugees are a fact of everyday life today. They come from all over the globe and mainly live in developing countries. Their story is one of hardship, misery and courage in the face of adversity. One cannot help, but be humbled by the stories of courage and immense patience as refugees flee their homes and spaces they love to start anew elsewhere far from their heart, culture and those they love. Many would have us believe that these people are only after exploiting the developed nations’ benefit systems and hide under the banner of refugee while seeking economic advantages. This is a misguided and false accusation that is intolerable. Refugees deserve better treatment and welcome especially in those nations that claim to champion Human Rights.
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… and so were an astonishing number of the other great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century.
These famous photographs are from the 1927 and 1933 Solvay Physics Conferences, and given the dates, it is interesting to ponder what became of those gathered there, not in terms of their scientific contribution (about which I am not qualified to speak) but how they fared as Europe was engulfed in barbarism.
P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;
I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Skłodowska-Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch.-E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson
Erwin Schrodinger left Germany in 1933 to work, in the UK, but took up a post in Austria. In 1939, after the Anschluss, Schrödinger was dismissed from the University and fled to Italy. Wolfgang Pauli fled to the United States in 1940. Leon Brillouin resigned from his post in France after the Occupation, and went to the United States. Peter Debye left Germany in early 1940, and became a professor at Cornell. Max Born was suspended from his post in 1933 – he emigrated to Britain, where he took a job at St John’s College, Cambridge.
Niels Bohr gave refugees from Nazism temporary jobs at the Institute, provided them with financial support, arranged for them to be awarded fellowships or found them places at various institutions around the world. Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and in 1943, fearing arrest, he fled to Sweden, where he persuaded the King to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide asylum, helping to effect the rescue of many Danish Jews.
Albert Einstein was visiting the US when Hitler came to power in 1933 and did not go back to Germany. He spoke at the inaugural public meeting of the Academic Assistance Committee (later CARA).
The seventh Conference, in 1933: Seated (left to right): Erwin Schrödinger, Irène Joliot, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Abram Ioffe, Marie Curie, Paul Langevin, Owen Willans Richardson, Lord Ernest Rutherford, Théophile de Donder, Maurice de Broglie, Louis de Broglie, Lise Meitner, James Chadwick. Standing (left to right): Émile Henriot, Francis Perrin, Frédéric Joliot, Werner Heisenberg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, E. Stahel, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Paul Dirac, Peter Joseph William Debye, Nevill Francis Mott, Blas Cabrera, George Gamow, Walther Bothe, Patrick Blackett, M.S. Rosenblum, Jacques Errera, Ed. Bauer, Wolfgang Pauli, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, M. Cosyns, E. Herzen, John Douglas Cockcroft, Charles Drummond Ellis, Rudolf Peierls, Auguste Piccard, Ernest O. Lawrence, Léon Rosenfeld.
Max Cosyns, from Belgium, joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in Dachau. Enrico Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape Mussolini’s racial laws that affected his Jewish wife, and emigrated to the United States. Rudolf Peierls
was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge when Hitler came
to power – he was granted leave to remain in Britain, and worked in Manchester
under a fund set up for refugees.
Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew, escaped to the Netherlands, with help from Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse. From the Netherlands she went on to Stockholm, and worked with Niels Bohr.
George Gamow worked at a number of Soviet establishments before deciding to flee Russia because of increased oppression. In 1933 he was suddenly granted permission to attend the Solvay Conference. He attended, with his wife, and arranged to extend their stay. Over the next year, Gamow obtained temporary work at the Curie Institute, University of London and University of Michigan.
In addition –
Ugo Fano left Italy for the US in 1939 because of anti-Semitism. Liviu Librescu was born in 1930 to a Romanian Jewish family, and was deported first to a labour camp and then a ghetto in Focsani. Walter Kohn came to England with the Kindertransport after the annexation of Austria. Both of his parents were killed in the Holocaust. Svein Rosseland fled Norway after the German occupation and went to the US. Otto Stern resigned his post at the University of Hamburg in 1933 and became Professor of Physics at the Carnegie Institute. Guido Beck studied physics in Vienna. Jewish born, he travelled in the 1930s to avoid persecution in Germany, but was imprisoned in France in 1937 at the start of the war – in 1941 he fled to Portugal and then in 1943 to Argentina. Felix Bloch left Germany immediately after Hitler came to power, and emigrated to work at Stanford University. James Franck left his post in Germany and continued his research in the United States. Otto Robert Frisch left Vienna for London to work at Birkbeck College. Hilde Levi fled Denmark when the round-ups of Jews began, moving to Sweden, where she worked at the Wenner-Gren Institute for Experimental Biology in Stockholm. Edward Teller left Göttingen in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue Committee, worked in the UK and then in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, before being invited to the United States in 1935. Arthur von Hippel left Germany in 1933, mainly because his wife was Jewish, but due also to his political stance against the new regime – he was able to secure a position in Turkey, then spent a year in Denmark before moving to the US to work at MIT. Viki Weisskopf was born in Vienna, and worked with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen – Bohr then helped him find a position in the US.