Habib is a hard-working father of three who left Syria with his family in 2013 in order to apply for asylum in Germany, where some of his family members have lived for decades. Habib speaks English and immediately signed up for German courses at the local community centre in Karlsruhe. He is a trained electrician, which happens to be a highly in-demand skill in Germany, so it was not difficult for him to find work. Habib is Muslim, but not overly religious. He does not think that Sharia law should apply in Europe, nor does he expect his wife or his daughter to cover their hair when leaving the house. He fasts during Ramadan, but that’s about it. Habib’s children are going to primary school. One of their older cousin’s who was born in Germany helps them with language and homework. Their mother, Fatma hopes to learn German quickly, so that she can start working as a nurse again, which was her profession in Syria.
Habib is a good refugee. He should be given asylum. Right?
The narrative of the good migrant or good refugee has emerged as a genre in its own right – NGOs working with refugees and migrants have “success stories” plastered all over their websites, while the UNHCR tells us “refugee stories” combining text, photos and videos into accounts of suffering, resilience, survival and, quite simply, a deeply shared sense of our common humanity. These stories fulfill an important purpose: they aim to make readers feel empathy. In an age of growing desensitization to human suffering, where we increasingly think of refugees and migrants “in bulk” rather than as individuals, these stories are important and necessary.
However, they also have potentially nefarious consequences.
A rather disturbing example of the “good migrant” genre is Deutsche Welle’s Documentary “Black Skin, German Passport”.
It goes to painstaking lengths to portray the life stories of German nationals who at some point in their lives immigrated to Germany from different African countries. The protagonists seem to have been selected exclusively based on their “black” skin colour, since they do not have anything in common beyond that. The underlying message being conveyed is that these “black Germans” are exceedingly good at being German, to the point where their stories sometimes seem like satire: a young man who came to Germany from Cameroon when he was a baby is training to become a police man, a woman who migrated to Germany from Ghana after she married a German has specialized in the art of cake baking, while a man in his 50s who left Angola in his early 20s to go to university in the GDR and was unable to return after war broke out in his country of origin is now the proud new owner of a “Schrebergarten” somewhere around Dresden. The documentary depicts him listening patiently as representatives of the owners’ association recite dozens of rules about what he is allowed to plant exactly where on his tiny plot of land. I personally would have struggled not to hit those small-scale bureaucrats on the heads with their folders, but then again, I do not have to prove that I am a good German because I am already white…
This precisely is the problem. While different in tone and quality, all these narratives have one thing in common. They produce a one-dimensional representation of migrants or refugees as inherently good or flawless individuals, who are willing and able to seamlessly integrate into Western society by adopting European values. This, precisely, is where these stories can be detrimental. Although they aim to produce positive stereotypes, they are still producing stereotypes. These stereotypical representations are inherently simpler and less nuanced than the underlying reality. They pander to those on the European right who think of “integration” as a process of completely abandoning one’s original culture in order to fit in with a new one. They are based on an understanding of culture as static, set in stone. They aim to reassure those who believe that the arrival of large numbers of individuals from outside Europe will change European culture by implying that this is not the case. That is a wrong and dangerous idea that, in the long run, will create more problems that it solves.
These stories anchor a false narrative in people’s minds, namely that migrants or refugees should be welcomed because they are good, and that what counts as good is defined according to European values.
People leave their countries for different reasons. War, natural disaster or famine are extreme situations pushing millions to leave everything behind. They are deeply traumatic experiences for any human being, that might leave a lasting impact on their psyche and affect their personal relationships for years to come. However, these experiences do not in and of themselves drastically reduce the complexity of human interactions or societies. Before the war, Syria had doctors, nurses, laborers, unemployed youth, secular individuals, religious fanatics, Christians, criminals, old people, children, mentally ill people, rapists, gays, lesbians, progressives, conservatives… whatever groups you like to think of as making up a complex society, Syria had them. Syrian refugees are representative of Syrian society in all its complexity. They differ from anyone else only in that they are victims of a conflict that has killed thousands and left formerly beautiful cities in rubble. They qualify for asylum in third countries, including European countries, because they have been displaced by armed conflict.
Being a good person is not a requirement for asylum, nor is adherence to certain values that we think of as appropriate.
The situation is of course different for migrants. Indeed, some argue that migrants have no inherent or inalienable right to remain in their host country and that their permission to stay could be withdrawn at any point, namely because they are seen as “not integrated enough”. I do not agree with this idea to start with, however, it becomes truly insidious when one considers that second generation immigrants who are born in the host country, as well as naturalized citizens (see Deutsche Welle) are still seen as having to constantly prove their level of integration. The title of Deutsche Welle provides a strong clue in this regard: “Black skin” is seen as the defining feature of these individuals, a feature that no amount of social integration will ever erase, a feature that makes them have to prove their German-ness over and over again.
Migrants and refugees are not all good or all bad. They are full-fledged human beings, who have exactly the same level of complexity as everyone else. Everywhere in the world, some people are great, some people are assholes. But all of them are people and they have rights just by virtue of being people.
Time has always changed societies and cultures. My worldview has been shaped by that of my parents but it is not identical to it. Every new generation radically changes a country. It is therefore only logical to expect that individuals who arrive in a country not through birth but through migration have exactly the same effect. The sooner we accept this reality, the better.
Both asylum and a life in dignity are rights. They are not privileges one earns for good behaviour.