Published on October 27th, 2015 | by Karl Werner
FROM THE OTHER SIDE – IMMIGRATION 101
Immigration is a big topic, especially these days. The news is full of stories from European countries, where wave after wave of human cargo arrive, mainly from the African continent but also from the Middle East. Partially, these news items are tragic, such as when ships sink in the Mediterranean and hundreds die. Partially, they are connected to problems and challenges European countries have to deal with in order to take care for thousands of new people. In general, I feel that immigration does not have a good reputation. As I mentioned, in “our” countries of central and northern Europe, it is linked to problems, trouble and discomfort. But doesn’t already the word “immigration” already sound somewhat negative? A bit like… they come to us into “our” countries; they migrate into “our” countries? But isn’t immigration on one side always also linked to an emigration on the other side? To take it a bit further, since we are all humans and are all the same on the inside, isn’t it just a migration? Animals migrate, frequently and over continents; what we call migrations. But if somebody migrates into “our” country, which is defined by a line on a map, we call it “immigration”. And that can cause big problems, as we can all see these days.
Why do humans migrate? If we want to answer this question, it makes sense to look at why animals migrate. And that is mainly because the area they live in cannot sustain them anymore. As a logical consequence, they migrate to look for a place where they can make a living for themselves as well as their families. But large scale migrations as we find them in nature also bear risks. They are costly, take time and energy and animals are exposed to unusual threats. A direct comparison between animals and humans is dangerous, but I think in our case a lot of parallels can be drawn. The question why humans migrate can be easily answered with very similar arguments as are used for wildlife. Humans migrate because the place where they live is not suitable anymore or dangerous for them and their families, which may be due to various reasons. But our view on migration is somewhat biased, I think mainly due to the reason that most of us come from countries where people mainly migrate to, and where emigration is not common.
To find out and to understand what makes humans move away from their homes into an unknown future, I talked to a young man who came to Norway from an East-African country several years ago. The guy I interviewed wants to remain unknown, so I had to fake the name and could not mention the country he came from.
I meet Rahim on a grey and rainy Sunday afternoon, just a typical late-summer Bergen day. He is a dark-skinned young man, around 1.75 m tall with excellent Norwegian and English skills. Rahim tells me he is a student in the last year of his Bachelors and he really looks forward to finish his studies soon. As a central aspect of my interview, I wanted to find out more about the motivation of people from East-Africa to migrate to Europe and as well more about his personal background. The first major issue Rahim explains to me is that if we want to understand the background of immigrants in Norway, it is important to know that people are allowed to migrate to EU-countries or Norway on political or humanitarian grounds, but not due to economic reasons. That means that refugees are officially allowed to seek for asylum if they are harassed by their government because they work for the opposition or carry out propaganda against the leader in a dictatorship. Humanitarian reasons include, for example, wars or hunger crises. He explained that you will not get asylum permitted coming from East-Africa, if you only come to seek a job or because you find your standard of living to be too low in your home country. That is important for us to understand, since a lot of prejudices are based on the opinion that immigrants come to “take our jobs”, or live off the social services. But they do not migrate to Norway, Germany or Italy because something pulls them to them Europe, but because the circumstances push them out of their own countries. I ask Rahim what these circumstances and reasons were that he had to leave home. He does not specifically want to answer that question though. Too high appears the chance to him that people would find out who he is and Rahim explains that the situation was very dangerous for him at home and remaining unknown is really important. Rahim tells me furthermore that it might be very difficult from our perspective to understand the situation as it is in many East-African countries now, but it is very important to know that many young people and families do not have a future there. In Somalia for example, the government is in a constant civil war with a rebel group which has caused the deaths of thousands of civilian lives throughout the past years. Rahim continues and describes that in many African countries you are highly endangered if you stand up against the regime and the terrible conditions in the country. People who fight for rights and democracy simply disappear sometimes, or end up in prison, what in many cases ends up as the same. It also explains why people who migrate here or who are already here cannot come here just to look for a job, or, as we often think, because the standard of living at home isn’t as desired.
Afterwards we continue to talk about the actual emigration and the different ways and costs how people from Africa come to Europe. We are often tempted to think that a journey from Africa to Europe is very expensive, and connect that with the assumption that the situation actually cannot be so bad if people can afford that. Rahim replies that especially the crossing of the Mediterranean, which is a common way to leave Africa, is not as expensive as we think. He says that it is often the last chance but that people are obviously aware of the dangerous voyage and emphasizes that that shows how bad the situation for many people is, considering that they take on the huge risk of failing overboard or dying. Rahim furthermore mentions that refugees also escape individually and are brought to Europe via smugglers, which is somewhat more “exclusive” because it is more expensive. He says we also have to be aware of that immigrants often do not know where they will end up during the whole journey. It indeed is a travel to nowhere with many, many uncertainties.
During our talk it becomes very clear to me how much the journey and the chance of starting a new life somewhere else must mean to the individual and explains that some leave their families and friends from one day to another. From my point of view, it is really important to understand the individual cases behind the people who come to Europe and I think that it is something that everybody should consider and look at. It is not just a huge crowd of immigrants which comes to “our” country, but it is a number of individuals with a lot of remarkable stories. What we see as somebody hanging out on the street with a different culture and some strange habits might be someone who fought for democracy and human rights and had to escape because his life was threatened. Refugees live right in between us and they are a part of our everyday life, but we don’t really know a lot about them or their backgrounds. We might be afraid of them, because they look different and have a very different culture. But before you judge them easily, the next time you walk among a group of Africans you should remember to see them individually. Ask yourself if not one of them might have been your friend if you were born in a different country with a different skin colour.