Bridging the Gap: Refugees, Rights and a Place in the World


The past year has shown clearly, and in stark terms, how cheap human life and human dignity become in the face of securing borders. Death at sea, detention, deportation and prolonged periods of destitution associated with asylum procedures have been an integral part of a policy of deterrence that is “punitive in intent and effect” for decades (Pickering & Weber, 2014: 1006). This despite the fact that most European countries are parties to human rights conventions, both on the international as well as the European and EU level. How can this be?

The answer may be found in the Origins of Totalitarianism and Arendt’s discussion of statelessness. She posits that the “inalienable” (1968: 291) rights of man prove unenforceable when it comes to those who have lost the protection and “officially recognized identity” (Ibid: 287) of a formal citizenship. She argues that refugees in the interwar period were reduced to a “condition of complete rightlessness” (Ibid: 296) because they lacked the most basic right: the right to have rights. According to Arendt this stems from a loss of political community where speech and action are in any way significant. At the same time the refugee suffers the “loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world” (Ibid: 293).

There is a lot to be said for Arendt’s approach, and the argument that formal citizenship remains the surest guarantee for rights. However, this analysis also disregards any kind of agency on the part of the stateless. In fact it is precisely the passivity and obsoleteness of the stateless individual that defines him or her and renders them “outlaws by definition” (Ibid: 283). As Arendt puts it: “Innocence in the sense of a complete lack of responsibility was the mark of their rightlessness…” (Ibid: 295). However, countless refugee-led initiatives, political activism and daily subversions and tactics in the face of extreme vulnerability, I would argue, show the opposite. Refugees act and speak – the very definition of politics according to Arendt (1958) – to change their own situation. Moreover, I would argue that they are able to make a place in the world for themselves, the very loss of which according to Arendt is at the heart of their predicament.

rrn3I will focus here on one initiative in particular, the Refugee Radio Hamburg. It is an independent, self-organised social initiative led and operated by refugees living in the city. The radio is multilingual and has programs in Deri, in Pashtu and in Arabic among others as well as in German and English – an eclectic mix of cultures and languages. The scheme for the online radio includes world music, a migrant news hour, an African news hour, live poetry readings from refugees, a refugee women’s show, and a show for refugee kids.

I am from Africa and I do this (work with buntkicktgut) because it is something good and when I go home I sleep well, it’s necessary because we are all the same… And I would like to say (to refugees, who are thinking of giving up) you must always stay strong, it’s difficult but me too, I am not different from you.. and I think that all of us can do what we can to help them (Unnamed Member of Buntkicktgut, Interview with members of Buntkicktgut – a football organisation working with refugees, Refugee Voices, Refugee Radio Network; orginal in French, translated by the author).

The goal of the online community radio program, one of its founders told me, is to change the local perceptions of refugees and to provide a counter narrative, and a voice to refugees in the media landscape in general:

(Its) for everybody, for both (German people and refugees). That is why we say we like to bridge the gap (Larry Macaulay, Co-founder of Refugee Radio Network).

Larry believes that programs featured in Refugee Radio Network meet the urgent need from refugees to tell their stories – about what they are facing, about their living conditions, the problems in the camps, the discrimination along ethnic lines. Larry knows that these are entrenched and familiar issues for refugees in Germany, and nonetheless it is important to address them:

It’s not new, it’s institutional and it’s been there for decades. It may never change, but there is nothing wrong in fighting back (Larry Macaulay).

I would argue that this way of phrasing things is highly significant. Larry understands the programs on the radio as an act of defiance, as a part of a struggle. Therefore, it can be characterised firstly as a form of rights claiming. For Rancière, rights claiming means that the people involved “exercise through their action the rights of citizen that the law denies them. They thus demonstrate that they indeed have the rights they are denied.” (2006: 302) It is politics, a rupture in the given and those who are not accorded citizenship or full citizenship but instead simply “belong to the human race” (Arendt, 1968: 302) are in fact the ones to make politics (Rancière, 2004).

Holmes and Castaneda argue that there is a struggle over meaning, legitimization and power in representations of the refugee crisis, specifically in Germany ( 2016: 12). Thus the role of the media has been extremely important, as narratives of solidarity and the personal stories of suffering of the refugee, on the one hand, compete with narratives that are less positive, and distinctions that are made between the deserving refugee and the undeserving opportunistic migrants posing as refugees. Refugees’ stories are being reproduced by mainstream media, their images are used to spark compassion or outrage, they are discussed by politicians and journalists and quoted in one line or two to make a point. What was missing, in the media landscape were the voices of refugees themselves, published and framed in a way they could control:

‘cause we are one of the few if not the only refugee run project in Deutschland at least. So that has got no white face on it. The people in society, not all of them, but many are not comfortable with that they always want to tell us our story. We have a system which has to do with colonisation and imperialism that wants always to be right. You know, they want us to follow their narrative (Larry Macaulay).

Not letting others “tell us our story” involves a broader act of resistance against global structures of neo-colonialism and racism. Therefore, the radio can be seen to conform to the three characteristics of acts of citizenship- a concept developed by Isin to denote acts which constitute groups as claimants of rights, responsibilities and justice that they did not have before (2009: 380). It expresses a social transformation, in that those discussed as a ‘problem’ are now a part of the conversation. It is a form of justice seeking, as those involved in the radio see themselves as a part of a struggle against neo-imperialism and no-colonialism. It is also dialogical, because it seeks to engage the German population as well (Barbero, 2012: 534-535).

Due to the “the particular concentration of symbolic power that media represents” (Couldry, 2000: 3) mainstream media is in the privileged position of defining and framing realities. Within that position of power, there is often profound inequality and power imbalances in society itself are reproduced, as the more powerful are better able to represent their own conception of social realities. At the same time, representation through the media reflects and reproduces neo-colonial imaginings, and the pursued domination and fixation of racialized others. Thus “the politics of representation … revolve around issues of power and control over one’s own self, and its representation and reproduction by others” (Salazar, 2008).

Deutsche zeitung flüchtlingeMedia power draws its influence precisely from its ordinariness, its ubiquitous and normalised nature. It becomes part of the habitus – the socialised norms or direction that lead actions and thinking (Bourdieu, 1984: 170). Geographers describe a similar phenomenon where media consumption becomes part of a ‘habit’ or routine. The routine act of reading the same newspaper everyday becomes a ‘habit field’ and so a form of place (Moores: 19, in Couldry & McCarthy, 2004). As repetition and habits are deeply connected to place-making, I would argue, so is media consumption. This may also be the case on a larger scale of a sense of place or identity. Barnett connects media power to the construction of modern nationalism (62, in Couldry & McCarthy, 2004).

Thus, we can understand the insertion of Refugee Radio, the many non-white faces and new narratives, as a disruption of the former ‘habitus’. But not only that, we can also understand it as performative place in the world. Following Kesby’s suggestion of a performative conception of place where a person is not merely the passive recipient of a “place in the world” in the sense of possessing and exercising the right to reside in a territory but comes to “have” a place and to constitute places through their action” (Kesby, 2012). Refugee radio forms a “habit field” for its listeners, native Germans and refugees alike, becoming part of their everyday life and routine. At the same time, those involved in refugee radio constitute a place for themselves in the media landscape, in the public discussion and consciousness and they are doing it on their own terms.

Perhaps we can take on Keane’s suggestion that “the public sphere is better understood as a complex mosaic of different sized, overlapping and interconnected public spheres” (1995: 8). As a part of the mosaic, Refugee Radio is still relatively small, but it overlaps with mainstream media, and engages with it, and I would argue will perhaps in the long run change mainstream media itself, common conceptions of ‘German’ realities.

How many black faces do you see on your mainstream media? In my opinion that is what they are all afraid of. They are afraid of diversity, of change of multiculturalism… But the minute we cross that line the fear will be eliminated. I think that will change, it’s just a matter of time (Larry Macaulay).

The important thing, Larry emphasises, is to be creating things and putting them into the world. This does not have to be in the form of a radio: it can be in print, in photograph or music: “as long as we are visible”. He is not alone in this idea, projects and online platforms for creative ventures of refugees are proliferating (UNIS Wien, 2015; Hölter, 2016).

For Arendt, speech discloses who someone is – “his qualities, gifts, talents and shortcomings” (1958: 179) – as opposed to what they are, the mere description assigned to them when they are in complete silence and perfect passivity. By self-organising, by networking and creating their own forms of media and making public their creative endeavours refugees counter the passivity Arendt associates with the loss of the right to have rights, the loss of social or political significance. They resist the denial of a place in the world, imposed on them by their lack of citizenship and the vulnerability that comes along with it. They create a place in the world, in material ways and in less tangible ways through communities and networks and routines.

Nonetheless refugees in Europe are acutely vulnerable, and face adversity every step of the way. These organisations and ventures are set against the hardship, danger and grief caused by an increasingly securitized border policy. This makes such activity all the more remarkable – and all the more radical. One of the problems of human rights, Larking argues, is that it ignores the political achievement involved in constituting individuals as equals (2014: 135). Perhaps it is time-high time-to re-evaluate the moral and apolitical “rights of man” (Arendt, 1968: 279). Perhaps we need a new guarantee for rights, one that is based on equality, participation and solidarity, one that builds on intercultural perspectives of international law (for example Onuma, 2000; An-Na’im, 2016).

Meet the author

Jana Loew graduated from the European Master’s Program in Human Rights and Democratisation (E.MA) in 2016. Before that, she studied Geography and Economics at the University of Edinburgh. She is from Vienna Austria, and is currently a study visitor at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in her hometown. Her particular areas of interest are migration and gender issues.

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