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In 2009 about 3.5 percent of the world’s population (about 220 million people) lived far away from their homes – legally or illegally. Their reasons are as varied as the political or economic situation, they leave from. Many of them do not go voluntarily.

In this dossier, fairplanet investigates our notions of escape as something inexorable from society, as well as normal human behaviour. We look at escape from different angles: escape from war, from economic and political crises, from climate change and from culture itself. We consider if escape challenges our notions of nationhood, rights and even humanity, by challenging our political will and the power of definitions.


Escaping is not new in history

The ten long years of the Trojan War are mostly dull. Skirmishes and stalemates, minor manoeuvres, attack and counter. Both Greeks and Trojans dream of opportunities for heroism, while they languish on the beach or sigh and flag in the listless city. And after Achilles and Hector, comes Odysseus and his great equine gift idea.

While the topless towers burn, Aeneas, a soldier, carries his infirm father out of the city through a secret passage, and with a small group of friends and loved ones, sails away from the city. Their small fleet is tired and they beg the Gods to help them find a home. After years of struggle, false starts and failures, they eventually settle in Italy.

Aeneas’ descendants will found the Roman Empire.

That’s literature. If Aeneas’ world was a little more like ours, we could imagine gangs of shabby Trojans hanging around Italian train stations and park gates, waiting for Carthaginian and Phoenician tourists to drop by, buy some of that crazy Delphic stuff.

It’s not like life, but it holds some instructive thoughts for us. Firstly, the war: Aeneas has to flee from his own country – a war caused by the ambitions of another nation (and not by Helen). Secondly, the struggle: it’s a story of unbelievable and narrow odds that includes loss, drifting and homelessness. Thirdly, the help: the Gods and some people provide respite and welcome to Aeneas and friends, and necessary help for them on their journey. Finally, the sense of destiny which pushes Aeneas on, and pulls him out of despair. This final one is instructive for us, because it’s a reason that we commonly ignore; war and settlements we can fathom, but to believe that people flee when there is no war – that people leave because they want to make better lives for themselves – is dismissed as wrong, or worse, soppy stuff for bleeding hearts.

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, Federico Barocci, 1598 Galleria Borghese, Rome

Well, Aeneas could escape or face certain death. He may have lived – as a slave – but escape was de facto a necessity, as was the desire to settle too.

Not everyone fleeing Troy was destined for great things, and our perception of Aeneas’ journey is coloured by his sense of destiny. But do we need escapees to be “great” in order for us to see who they are and what they want? When we look at today’s refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, do we even see the person behind the title? Do we allow for the possibility that those people might have had to flee for their lives? What’s more, do we allow for the possibility that those people might have certain desires and intentions to complete their escape? Do we allow for the possibility that migrants and refugees might contribute great things to our society?

After all, Aeneas’ escape was just the beginning of his struggles. Escape isn’t complete until you settle.

What is escape?

The stories we tell are not only forms of escape themselves, but they are often about escaping:

  • The Buddha tried to escape the self.
  • Oedipus cannot escape his destiny.
  • Dante demonstrated that there was no escape from the divine Will.
  • 1984 warns us about having to escape government power.

And nearly every love story ever made has to do with escape – from Romeo and Juliet to Anna Karenina; from Dr. Zhivago to Brokeback Mountain – if only the lovers could get away from it all!

IMDB’s list of the best 250 movies of all time as voted by users, is topped by The Shawshank Redemption – a movie about escaping from prison, and escaping from a form of mental tyranny in which the individual accepts society’s control; where such power over the individual is both normal and justified.

In other words, the stories we tell ourselves aren’t simply about escape per se; they’re not just about unnecessary struggle, nor are they about simply escaping circumstances. They’re about escaping into freedom. Our emphasis on self-determination probably comes from a need to remember its value. We expect it so naturally, our need to repeat stories about struggles towards self-determination is a reminder that there exist forces and constraints which would bind us, control us, rob us of our freedom. Freedom has not been traditionally championed in human history; duty and service have been the chief virtues in many different societies the world over. Even as an idea, freedom has needed to escape certain shackles: the enduring legacy of the Enlightenment is liberty, fraternity and equality, but only for a select few. Slavery, the oppression of women and minorities continues today.

Escape, and the stories we tell about it can act therefore as a challenge to our beliefs: how free are we really? Do we believe in freedom and equality for all? Do we believe in sharing freedom with escapees?

The world is full of people like Aeneas, looking for their chance to escape, and lands in which to settle. Do our stories about escape really live up to the world we’re creating? Do we really allow people to escape into freedom?

Escape in history

Escape isn’t merely a literary notion or device, a way of demonstrating the value of freedom; escape is a reality for people the world over.

Tied up for entertainment: Harry Houdini’s feats in some way dramatise the escapee’s spiritual struggle. Image: Daily News

Escape isn’t a moment, it’s a process. You don’t stop escaping until you’re where you want to be, until where you’re safe; until safe settlement is achieved, the circle isn’t complete. That makes the moment of escape simply the first in an act towards self-determination; the first step is all about trying to create the conditions for you to become who you want to be. Houdini’s feats are probably seen as mere entertainments, but in some way, they enact the struggle towards freedom we don’t see: mental, emotional and spiritual escape. The question is, once you’ve got the chains off, what do you do?

For our ancestors, what they wanted to do and who they wanted to be was pretty straightforward: they wanted to live and be left alone.

“Out of Africa” is the name of the theory. It states that somewhere between 125,000 – 60, 000 years ago, homo sapiens left Africa, and that these humans replaced other populations of the genus Homo. These anatomically modern humans replaced homo neanderthalus in Europe, and homo erectus north Africa and Asia. A competing view holds that homo sapiens left Africa and inter-bed with homo erectus groups.

Both views hold that migrations took place. Using complex genetic reconstruction and historical detection, anthropologists and scientists have created a world picture of early homo sapien migrations, which looks like this:

Map showing early homo sapiens migration and technology. Image:

According to National Geographic, one of the main motivating forces for early humans to leave Africa was the climate; a sudden drop in temperature was the first cause which made humans migrate to every continent except Antarctica, over the course of 50 millennia. .

The astonishing breadth and scale of human migration shows us one thing: migration and settlement is the story of humanity. Migration is not an exception to the normal human state – for most of our recent history, we were on the move.

The complexity of escape

We’ve seen that escape as a notion might be central to our idea of our own freedom, and we can see that human migration prompted by a need to escape has been normal for most of our recent history. Yet, our notion of escape, and who gets to escape into luxury, and who has to stay in a filthy camp is deeply politicised.

Escape is complex. It is impossible to identify single causes that lead to escape; war or climate alone don’t prompt people to escape. Indeed, conflicts are often linked to resources, and resource scarcity caused by environmental factors. Furthermore, these conflicts often take on a more sinister sectarian aspects. This complexity is also exacerbated by the socio-economic and cultural status of actors in the giving community and the receiving one, if such terms are applicable. Furthermore, add the amorphous media to this mix, with its images of “the good life”, as well as local political climates, and there we really are speaking about intensely complicated issues.

To talk of escape from conflicts, political and economic crises, climate change or even boredom and convention therefore, is an enormously simplified way of discussing the causes of escape.

What’s the difference between a refugee and asylum seeker? How are they different from migrants? We might think that war made Syrians escape – and to an extent, that’s true. But what about the social networks involved in the process? Richer, better-connected people had access to resources, networks and knowledge which not only made their escape efficient, it gave them a different status within the new culture they entered; these people didn’t have to escape through refugee camps.

Map created by UN: Who is hosting the world's refugees?

Think about Spanish and Greek migrants to other EU nations; the current rationale says they’re escaping their countries’ poor economies to find jobs elsewhere. But what about less well-educated people? People tied into a system of reliance on local and family networks? As such, their escape not only becomes unlikely, but when it is possible, makes their escape a function of their status. That’s to say, their prospects in a better economy aren’t all that much better at all. Economic migration, again, is only part of the evidence that helps us understand what escape is, who gets to do it, and where they end up.


Sheltering refugees - a centuries old Indian tradition

When the plight of Syrian refugees is discussed world over these days, many in India and outside do not know that this country has hosted refugees since centuries.

According to a 16th/17th century legend, the collapse of Zoroastrianism in Iran led a group to migrate to the present Gujarat state. After Partition in 1947, 7.2 million Hindus and Sikhs (and very small number of Muslims) moved to India from Pakistan.

After the abortive 1959 Tibetan uprising, more than 1,50,000 people followed the 14th Dalai Lama, of which 1,20,000 are still in India. Their government in exile is functioning from McLeodganj. In 1960, the present Karnataka state allotted 3,000 acres of land for their settlement.

The Government of India has built special schools for them for providing free education, health care and scholarships for those who excel. They are given a permit to live in India, which is renewed every year or six months, but not to new arrivals. Every Tibetan who has crossed 16 years of age has to apply for this permit. The Government also issues "Yellow Book" to a refugee after one year, which allows them to travel abroad.

During the Bangladesh Liberation War, India opened its border for Bengalis fleeing genocide by the Pakistan Army’s SSG units. Indian states such as West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura accommodated them in camps.

There are also 400 Pakistani Hindu refugee settlements in India. More than 60,000 Afghanis came to India after the 1979 Soviet-Afghan War. In India, they are not recognized as refugees, but UNHCR conducts a programme for them. In 2015, the Indian government granted citizenship to 4,300 Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan. More than 1,00,000 Sri Lankan Tamils were also sheltered in India during the Civil War.

The latest arrivals are Rohingyas from Burma who have been declared as the most persecuted ethnic group in the world by the UNHCR. The Indian government does not officially recognise them as refugees, but has allowed the High Commissioner to operate a programme for them.

As per the latest UNHCR data, the number of refugees registered with it till August end 2015, is 27,000 and asylum seekers 6,000, mostly from Somalia, Afghanistan and Myanmar. A small number of 59 Syrians also live here. Some of the refugees this reporter met said that they are not very happy to stay in an alien country but thanked India for providing them shelter.

According to Ms Suchita Mehta, senior communications and public information assistant, UNHCR, Delhi, "A refugee is given a card that facilitates him/her to get free education till the age of 13 and medical facilities in government hospitals." But, like any other Indian, they also have to stand in queue for availing these medical benefits.

A Somali refugee, who has been in India for the past seven years, said, “The Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi died once, but every day we die here of our lives.” Another Rohingya refugee, who has been here for the past three years, said, “I want education, a livelihood, and a place to live. The place I live can hardly be called a shelter.”

A visit to their settlement shocked this reporter -- stinking surroundings, potholed roads, no streetlights and no proper food. Locals think they are rich as they are foreigners. So they charge more for any item they buy. They also face threat from local residents. One cannot take up a job as they have no residence proof. Even if they manage to get one, they are paid less than their Indian counterparts. They end up in doing some menial jobs for a living. For example, a qualified anaesthetist was found working in hospitality business. One refugee said he had to pay $2 to a local resident to get him one SIM card on his identity.

"India’s refugee policy is an example for the rest of the world to follow"

“Traditionally, India was liberal towards asylum seekers and refugees,” said Saud Tahir, project coordinator of Refugee Rights Initiative, a part of Human Rights Law Network. However, no law exists in India to deal with refugees as the country is not a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. “The ad hoc nature of refugee policy in India and the absence of a robust domestic legal framework have led to uncertainty and arbitrariness in the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees,” said Shailesh Rai, senior policy advisor, Amnesty International India.

However, a local raised voice against the government for accommodating these refugees in the country. "Hundreds of Indians go to bed without food every day. Instead of taking care of us, the government is interested in projecting a good image of the country abroad. Many refugees are involved in drug trafficking and women in other illegal activities," rued a youth, Rajinder Singh from a nearby slum.

* Names of refugees are withheld on their request.


Escaping from conflicts and oppression


Middle East as a case study

There are many isolated refugee crises around the world. As the crisis in the Middle East spills over into headlines, we look into the recent history of Afghanistan to understand the nature of escape as it has played out in the last thirty years or so; to see how the causes and methods of escape are often complex and heavily contextualised, and how “who” gets to escape is determined by wealth. While the Syrian and other refugee crises are arguably more relevant, we hope to show that escape isn’t simple, and to evaluate its reasons and causes requires time and sufficient contextual knowledge; we hope the current article provides greater insight into the Syrian refugee crisis, as it continues to unfold.

Refugee: a definition
A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster
Oxford English Dictionary

Afghanistan in history

In January this year, the UNHCR announced that Syria overtook Afghanistan as the number one source country of refugees for 2014. This statement does two things: it illustrates the wildly escalating situation in Syria (which shows no signs of abating), and it downplayed the nature of Afghan migration.

UNHCR Get the data Created with Datawrapper

Every year since 1978, Afghans have been fleeing the country. Over the past 25 years, the number of refugees from Afghanistan living abroad has never once dipped beneath the two-million figure. Until this year, Afghanistan was the world’s top source of refugees for 32 years in a row.

Examining the past four years yields even more startling results; the figures are erratic, and do not project a predictable stabilising or decrease in the numbers. That means that while some thousands of those two million abroad are returning home, it doesn’t look like a major trend. Even after a formal end to hostilities in Afghanistan, the average number of refugees abroad is well-above that of most other unstable nations.



Afghanistan’s recent history is mired in narrative confusion. The grand ideas which precipitated Soviet – and later – American armies to its cities and villages, its deserts and mountains, dissolved. The conflicts on its tired earth have reasons as numerous and scattered as poppy seeds.

The nation has been in permanent crisis since 1978 – the year of its revolution. It was supposed to enshrine socialist principles in the nation’s heart – making the secular life glorious by dragging the country into the modern. Tribal practices and religious privilege were to be abolished. Women and minorities were to be given more rights. But it didn’t take. Instead: wars, oppression and terrorism. Conflicts between States and disparate groups of reactionary religious fighters have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the dwindling of minority populations.

As well as becoming of key strategic importance during the Cold War, upheavals in Afghanistan’s political landscape created internal sectarian tensions which made conflicts throughout the country unpredictable and messy.

"Worldwide, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum."
(Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees)

The tumultuous decades that followed 1978 are under constant revision by academics; where there is agreement on the date of the revolution, the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the civil war in the 1990s have been harder to describe. Guerrilla warfare and competing objectives made violence erupt for myriad reasons, not necessarily political or religious, including conflicts over land, resources and utilities. While the Soviet Union was officially allied to the government of Afghanistan, fighting against a loose band of organisations and tribes under the banner of the Sunni Mujahideen – parts of which received American training and funding – there is no consensus as to the war’s significance: was it a war in its own right, or was it part of a decades-long civil war? Nasreen Ghufran, Professor of International Policy at the University of Peshawar, for instance, describes the civil war as being a continuation of the initial revolution. In this interpretation, the violence up until the war with America in 2011 was part of a single vast spectrum made up of different phases. Today, while official hostilities with America and the coalition have ceased, Afghanistan is marked by a continuing insurgency in the Taliban and growing unrest.

Conflicts and wars merge in a spectrum of undifferentiated destruction. The country has almost enshrined its enclosure on our imaginaries of violence, its recent history only comparable to the Middle East in severity and devastation. Each conflict is complex, related to local as well as national, strategic issues, with multiple actors.

The conflicts are distributed throughout Afghanistan. Borders being the only hope for thousands of innocents; but the borders are particularly dangerous.

This map displays the location of civilian casualties and insurgent attacks between 2009-10. In truth, it could have been made for any of the years between 2001 until the present. The border with Pakistan is the most dangerous, and still, Pakistan is the main destination for Afghan refugees.


The Syrian refugee crisis

Rather than going deep into the causes and the nature of the Syrian conflict, which is as, if not more complex than the Afghan situation, it’s better to look at some of the routes taken by Syrians, and their desired destinations.

Camps have been set up in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. Here is a tour of one in Jordan.

And here is one which is a gamification of refugee camps, in general.

EU Refugee Policy

The EU is committed to granting asylum to those suffering persecution or serious harm in their own country, and has its legal basis in the Geneva Convention. Since EU member states share open borders, a joint-approach to refugee issues is considered by national leaders like Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel as imperative to ensuring a robust approach to solving the refugee crisis. The Dublin Regulation is a rule that allocates a single member state of the EU shall determine the asylum application of the applicant; this is to stop asylum seekers from lodging multiple asylum claims. The asylum claims made in Greece by Syrian refugees, however, have come under heavy scrutiny.

However, the EU’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis has been woefully slow, and no resolution being adopted by the member states. Like Afghanistan, escaping Syria is a necessity for many, but access to escape is difficult – and the borders are dangerous. When trying to get to Europe, the land route is arduous and riddled with challenges. So many Syrians attempt to come by sea. The New York Times produced the following example to demonstrate a Syrian’s potential sea-route:

Where in Afghanistan, refugees had to face a wall of fire at the border, land-mines and drone-strikes, Syrians brave the sea on boats. Here the access to escape has been exploited by smugglers and “experts” who require payment to get people to the boats. The testimony from many Syrians is that the boats are unsafe, the safety provisions non-existent – and many die on the way to Italy.

Europe has not proven a safe-haven for escapees of the Syrian conflict; with many people settled in areas of extreme hardship, such as the Island of Kos in Greece, or in Heidenau in Germany; places where anti-migrant feeling is strong, and the EU response has been called the equivalent of dumping.

FRONTEX has assessed that nearly half of the refugees entering Europe are from Syria – and many are doing so illegally, through airports.

Local politics has made this very messy indeed.


The unending dilemma of Afghan Refugees

Khadija and her sisters in Karachi

This comes at a time when the world is mourning a heartbreaking image of a Syrian kid lying dead on a shore in Turkey. With ragging conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the fears of a Taliban return in Afghanistan, the refugee crisis is taking its toll on vulnerable communities that see escape at any cost to a relatively safe places in the world as the only way forward.

But, what if even then their miseries are not over? Afghans; for instance have been living in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan as refugees for over three decades now. 11-years old Khadija, like her two younger sisters and an elder brother, collect recyclable waste on the streets of Pakistan’s financial hub Karachi, seven days a week, for at least ten hours a day.

This hard labour that has deprived them of their childhood, education and opportunity to grow as healthy members of the society earns them just enough to make ends meet. Not willing to speak, shy and afraid Khadija just managed to reply to one of Fair Planet’s questions. Why don’t you study instead of working on the streets? “We are poor, what we would eat if we don’t work?” she replied.

Pakistan hosts an estimated 1.6 million refugees, most of them Afghans who have been issued Proof of Registration cards by the government while as around one million more Afghans live in Pakistan as unregistered migrants. As the status of their stay has never been decided for good, the refugees live on year-to-year extension granted by Pakistan.

A proposal for the latest extension came in August that would allow Afghan refugees to stay in Pakistan for two more years. The decision awaits the approval of Pakistan’s government.

“This uncertainty has left us nowhere, our parents came here (to Pakistan) decades ago, many of us are born and brought-up here yet we remain alien and are forced to go back (to Afghanistan) where we have nothing”, Islamuddin, an Afghan refugee living in a camp on the outskirt of Karachi, said.

“Pakistan is a Muslim country just like Afghanistan, it is not my fault that Allah decided the faith for me and I was born here, what am I going to do in Afghanistan”, he said while explaining his state of being torn apart between two identities. Islamuddin is not the only one facing this puzzle.

Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) has blocked some 80,000 ID cards belonging to people with suspected refugee background.

As Pakistan’s Army intensified its anti-terrorism campaign following a brazen militant attack on a school in Peshawar that claimed the lives of more than 150 children, authorities have rejected the national identity cards of a number of individuals with a suspected refugee background. Loss of identity means whatever valuables these people posses do not belong to them!

Refugees feel they have been stigmatized and made a victim in this regard. Local media often report about Afghans been nabbed by the police in different cities and put in prison on different charges. There have been reports about the law enforcement agencies taking into custody traders with refugee background and confiscating their property.

Rifts between the two countries means more trouble for the refugee population.

Khadija and her sisters in Karachi

Khadem Husen, Pakistani political analyst believe the refugees truly feel the heat in north western Peshawar city that has border with the tribal area adjacent to Afghanistan. “One can observe on daily basis that most of the Afghan refugees are arrested from various localities, most of them are registered but still they are arrested for being suspected, moreover, even if they are not arrested, they are continuously harassed by the law enforcement agencies everywhere. It seems to be the policy of government to keep the Afghan refugees under continuous pressure for reasons best known to the authorities”, he told Fair Planet.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognizes the challenges posed by terrorism and extremism to national security prerogatives; it advocates with relevant authorities not to compromise the genuine humanitarian needs of Afghans who fled conflict and who cannot all return in a short period of time, Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Pakistan said in this regard.

She noted that the prolonged Afghan refugee situation is entering its 4 decade soon, making this the world’s largest protracted refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate.

“Since most Afghan refugee households have moved to Pakistan in the early 1980s following the Soviet invasion, the majority (75%) of the registered refugee children and youth have been born in the second or third generation in Pakistan. Some have never visited Afghanistan, lack linkages with their ancestral country of origin and will therefore require strong incentives for return and adequate opportunities for sustainable reintegration”, she stressed.


MR Exclusive: 2015 Transit Patterns Into the EU

This is Migrant Report’s map highlighting the migratory routes out of Africa and the Middle East in 2015. It features other routes which are no longer used, or have become less favoured paths but the focus is on what is happening this year. Migrant Report’s goal is to build on this map. They will be updating it and adding more information, photos and even corrections from time to time. If you have information or would like to contribute to this project get in touch on


Could Australia’s "Stop The Boats" policy work in Europe?

If you are an asylum seeker on your way to Australia via boat, you can only be sure of one thing: that you will never be resettled in Australia. You may arrive in Australian waters to have your boat turned away or towed back to wherever you departed from, or you may be taken to a detention centre in an entirely different country, such as Nauru or Papua New Guinea, where Australia has struck a deal to have you processed offshore, ensuring you never live on Australian soil.

Australia’s Stop the Boats operation does exactly as its common name suggests. Known as one of the harshest border policies in the world, is it really the right model for the world’s home of human rights?

Five years ago, Australia faced a similar migration crisis to the one facing Europe now. Boatloads of people seeking asylum arrived regularly from Indonesia, where migrants from as far away as Afghanistan gathered in preparation for what they hoped would be the last part of their often months-long journey: a boat trip to Australia.

Although the numbers of migrants attempting to enter Australia never reached the number currently fleeing across the Mediterranean, migrant deaths were still frequent. As bodies washed up on Christmas Island in 2010, all parties agreed that something needed to be done.

Immigration policy has galvanised elections in Australia for years. In 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard commissioned a panel which recommended a series of policy reviews, including a structured pathway for migrants to reach Australia safely, via a stop off in Malaysia. In order to make this process smoother, the panel also recommended reopening detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru, and turning back boats in very specific circumstances.

However, it was mostly the asylum-deterring recommendations that were put into practice. And when Tony Abbott’s opposition party ran for election in 2013, they promised to further strengthen these deterrents. They were elected largely on the basis of the ‘Stop the Boats’ campaign. Abbott was ousted by another member of his party last week.

After Abbott’s party’s election in September 2013, Australia introduced Operation Sovereign Borders. Human rights campaigners have rallied against the operation and its treatment of asylum seekers ever since. Facing allegations of child abuse in detention centres, and with Amnesty International calling the site in Nauru "a human rights catastrophe with no end in sight", the operation continues among widespread international criticism.

Escaping persecution to end up in detention

The practice of mandatory detention means that people entering Australian waters who claim asylum will be automatically detained while security and health checks are taken. They will only be released when they are granted a visa, or return to their home country. This could happen through force (denial of a visa), but some choose to go home of their own free will. It’s easy to understand why returning to your persecutors is an attractive choice when you see the appalling living conditions in mandatory detention, and how long one might spend there: The Australian Human Rights Commissions reports that the average time a person will spend in mandatory detention is 350 days, but as of June last year, 168 people had been held for more than two years.

But these are only the figures for the nearly 4000 people held in detention in Australia. The majority of people claiming asylum are rather processed offshore, where the figures become the responsibility of the third country. This way, the Australian government can keep the latest numbers hush hush because these people no longer arrive on their soil, so the Australian public never has to know just how many desperate people are being turned back, or detained, perhaps indefinitely, elsewhere.

Under Operation Sovereign Borders, asylum seekers arriving by boat are held in processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. A deal signed last September means that those granted refugee status (and therefore released from detention) in Nauru are eventually given permanent resettlement in Cambodia – but that’s not necessarily much better. Many human rights organisations (including the Australian Human Rights Commission) condemn this practice – of shirking international responsibility for people who are legally entitled to claim asylum, and sending them to other countries where the human rights record and living conditions are not of the same standard.

The Commission’s official statement is that: “Seeking asylum in Australia is not illegal. In fact, it is a basic human right. All people are entitled to protection of their human rights, including the right to seek asylum, regardless of how or where they arrive in Australia.”

And yet it continues. And it’s not only adults exposed – children arriving by boat are detained as well. In February the same Commissions’ Forgotten Children report was released, detailing child abuse in mandatory detention.

“It is the fact of detention, particularly the deprivation of liberty and the high numbers of mentally unwell adults, that is causing emotional and developmental disorders amongst children,” the report said. “Children are exposed to danger by their close confinement with adults who suffer high levels of mental illness. Thirty per cent of adults detained with children have moderate to severe mental illnesses.”

The report uncovered alarming figures: in a 15-month period, 300 children threatened or exhibited self-harm, 30 reported sexual assault, almost 30 went on hunger strike and more than 200 were somehow involved in instances of assault.

The majority of children kept in detention are in Australia, rather than offshore – the report indicated that many of these cases had even occurred on Australian soil.

Option for Europe?

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently told press that she had received “numerous requests” from European officials seeking advice on border protection policy during her visit to the continent in April – the month in which a record number of migrants died attempting to reach Europe by sea.

But While Tony Abbott outwardly recommended that Europe adopts its own Stop the Boats policy, Julie Bishop stopped just short of that, saying the geographic implications meant Australia’s strategies would not necessarily fit Europe, nor the larger number of people arriving by boat.

If Europe was to redirect migrants elsewhere, where could that be? Australia has generally targeted much poorer nations nearby who enjoy payoffs from the trade. Furthermore, could EU leaders really justify the huge investment in detention facilities offshore rather than focusing on domestic investment, settling willing and able migrant workers who could ease the economic pressure of an ageing workforce?

But those are merely practical concerns. The biggest question rests in morality: could Europe really cope with the shame?

In 2001, Australia refused entry to the Norwegian ship MV Tampa, carrying 438 asylum seekers, which resulted in a diplomatic dispute with Norway. The asylum seekers were mainly Hazara, fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, who had been rescued by the Tampa crew after their boat got into distress.

The Norwegian government condemned Australia’s refusal in the strongest terms, reporting them to the United Nations, as well as UNHCR and the International Maritime Organisation for failing to comply with their international legal obligations. After days at sea with many suffering dehydration, some dysentery, the majority of the migrants were eventually settled in Nauru and New Zealand after Australia immediately introduced harsher border protection laws in an obvious effort to keep these people out. Nauru or New Zealand – I know what I’d choose. This was the beginning of the ‘Pacific Solution': redirecting asylum seekers to other nearby nations.

Norway is not currently a member of the EU, but it does belong to Europe. The Norwegian reaction to this desperate situation was a clear indication that what Australia did (or didn’t do) was not good enough. Could they tolerate a similar response from their European neighbours? With a reputation for spreading democracy and human rights to the rest of the world, could Europe really do that to itself?

Latest news

It is not publicly known precisely what the island nations receive in exchange for accepting Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers. But it is increasingly clear just how far the leaders of these nations will go to keep the deals running smoothly.

In May the Nauruan government confirmed that it had blocked Facebook, a main source of information for locals about the asylum seekers detained on their island. In lieu of local press reports, which already tended to ignore the issue, asylum seekers had been using social media to report on their own living conditions. Now how would anyone hear them scream?


Escaping from economic conditions and climate


Migration differs

The turn to attention and mindfulness in Europe and America isn’t surprising. The world has become increasingly noisy – the commonly-cited reasons are probably true: there’s more information we have to handle, more distraction from technology, the bombardment of perceived choice. People, desperate for a way to break through the noise and become aware of their own thoughts seek mindfulness and focus-building practises.

One of the main culprits is advertising. Far from being quiet, informing our choices and decisions, advertising is becoming more invasive and louder. While not an original point, it’s estimated that on average, in Europe, a person sees somewhere between 300-700 adverts per day[1] - streamed into your home through your television, propping up your inbox, greeting you wherever you go.

What gets marketed isn’t too interesting; how it does, is. Several commentators have reduced marketing down to three core images: images of social bonding, personal freedom and time for reflection. A new phone doesn’t give you apps and texts and a camera – it gives you greater connection to friends and family. Cars = freedom, and chocolate gives you your well-earned me-time.

This is the good life, as we’re shown it to be; buying is the key determine our own beings and our future – there simply isn’t any other way more effective and beautiful at creating our own identities and our own happiness.

The necessity to have these things therefore is impressed on us every day – without them, we don’t lack objects; we lack self-determination. To be without the opportunity of such goods therefore, is all the more difficult.

Take a step back

Eurostat gives us this image:

This shows the age structure of immigrants by citizenship within the EU 28 excluding Slovakia.

This graph shows migrants’ previous country of residence. While there is a distribution among the origins of people – some countries have more migrants from non-EU countries than others – but the age range of migration shows that overall, it’s younger people who have migrated. It might not surprise us that these people are not only the most likely to uproot and travel than other demographics, but also they’re the ones to seek work elsewhere.

58% of migrants to Germany previously lived in an EU member state. As did 64.5% of the migrants now living in Austria, 53% of those in the Netherlands and roughly 40% each for both the UK and France. Luxembourg’s is at a whopping 90%, but that surprises no one.

In short, we can infer from these combined data that people generally gravitate to centres of relative economic prosperity. While we might not be so swayed by the good life that marketing offers us, many people want the opportunity for economic prosperity – and are willing to leave their homes for it.

Greece and Spain

As early as 2012, news agencies were commenting on Greek and Spanish migration, particularly to Germany.

Reuters commented:

“Immigration to Germany jumped by 15 percent in the first half of this year from the same period the year before, due mainly to an influx of people from EU states including crisis-hit Greece and Spain, where unemployment levels are soaring.

Although the largest number of immigrants to Europe's biggest economy came from neighbouring Poland, the statistics office said arrivals from Greece increased by 78 percent and were up 53 percent from both Spain and Portugal.”

Both the European Union and the Schengen Agreement allow for the free movement of people between member states and signatories. Yet, each economy functions differently. While each European economy is tied each other, particularly with the shared currency, variation between economies exist due to the independence each economy retains – and while economists argue over why this is – some suggesting lack of full integration, others arguing that integration remains irrelevant in economies of different stages of development – which means while some economies can fail, others can still do well.

Though a description of the crisis is inevitably biased one way or another, but here’s Vox’s interpretation of what caused the Greek crisis – the Euro:

The ongoing battle between Greek politicians and the EU to hammer out a solution to Greece’s economic crisis has seen the relationship between Greece and Germany break down in popular terms. The extreme austerity demanded of Greece and Spain by the troika of the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) led to popular discontentment of many Greek and Spanish residents who started grass-roots political movements to act against these measures, and also to influence similar movements across Europe. Both Podemos and Syriza were greatly influenced and in some cases directly shaped by these people, and the parties have attempted to redress the entire dialectic surrounding austerity politics of recession and post-recession Europe. Their claims, generally, that the money used to bail out both Greece and Spain should actually reach the nations – and not circulate directly back to large, international banks – and that debt relief could be provided, as well as much needed social service upgrades. Syriza, as we all know, has all but collapsed; Podemos currently marches on, but the knock-on effects of Syriza’s capitulation to the troika will have had an effect.

As many as 320,000 Greeks currently live in Germany, with about half of that number coming after 2009, or the apex of the initial recession. The unemployment rate of Greece and Spain among people of working age under 25 stands at a considerable 50% - whereas in Germany, it is at around 7%.

Young people are moving because they want to work – as well as for recreation – but mainly because they wish to find work. This kind of migration has had its negative effects too – too numerous to relate as they happen in real-time; we must wait and analyse the full impact of this crisis in retrospect, with perhaps a decade or two between now and then. But, the most common implications are almost certainly going to occur:

  • A brain drain: if the most educated brains leave the country, then the economy and culture of the place of origin lose capacity.
  • Stunted development: young people who aren’t able to fully integrate into the economic system quickly are left with developmental issues, including increased anxiety during the twenties due to lack of security.
  • Xenophobia: the receiving countries tend to develop more xenophobic attitudes as a result.

The latter point is probably best evidenced in the rise of right-wing parties across Europe – UKIP, Front Nationale among others have all benefitted from the recession, and the economic migration of European citizens – claiming that their native culture is being destroyed. Indeed, Jose Manuel Barroso believes UKIP, Syriza, Front Nationale and Podemos to all come from the same nationalistic place:

“Nationalistic sentiment pervades both the tone and the message of parties from both the extreme left and the extreme right, and this is counter-productive to the European project: Podemos, Syriza, Front Nationale, among others are using the same tactic and we should reject this.”

This Migration is different

Economic migration differs from other kinds of migration because it is strictly speaking, supported by more commonly understood legal frameworks, as well as being socially-accepted by many people because it is driven by a desire for productivity. It is not seen as escaping a desperate situation, like being a refugee is, for example – which is seen by many people as being not unlawful, necessarily – but insufficient for migration. “Why should they come here?” is the sentiment underpinning the latter.

What’s more, economic migrants are also mobile without a desperate need to move for a job. The EU permits migration between member states freely – and many communities of expats are built up. This in itself is a loaded term, implying a “higher” kind of migration – one that is sealed in by cultural walls, but also, more fundamentally – one that has choice in deciding to live there. Not like refugees or asylum seekers, who are forced to live wherever they can and are able, wherever the machinations of political institutions and local authorities drive them.

Which makes Kos such a tragedy

The Greek Island of Kos is a receiving space for refugees from Syria and several African nations. Many institutions have covered this story – here’s VICE:

An overburdened economy and land with little tolerance and time for new migrants due to known hostilities caused by the current crisis, the rise in xenophobia means the challenge to accommodate these refugees is heightened to the point of overcapacity.


Economic and climate escapes are connected

It’s impossible to talk about different factors for migration without taking into account the climate.

fairplanet spoke with Adrien Detges, PhD student at the Freie Universitaet, Berlin.

Adrien Detges

People migrate from their homes for many reasons; through your work and experience, have you found any evidence that suggests people migrate because of climate change? If so, please explain; if not, are changes in climate felt indirectly? E.G. failed crops etc.

Adrien DetgesIt is hard to really pinpoint climate change/ climate change-related problems as a cause of migration. Climate Change is frequently mentioned in cases of displacements and altered migratory routes of pastoralists, but it’s almost always accompanied by insecurity/conflict and the loss of livelihoods due to diverse factors (climate-induced shortages of water and land, but also human-induced shortages through pollution, land degradation etc.). So it’s really hard to disentangle all these things in a given situation.

Also, the distinction is often not entirely clear between seasonal movements as a standard coping strategy of communities facing erratic weather conditions (e.g. pastoralists in East Africa) and the way in which these movements change over longer periods, say 15-20 years, as a result of progressive Climate Change.

More generally, the question whether or not Climate Change can be considered a source of migration hotly is debated in the scientific literature.

Yes, there is a range of indicators people rely on to assess changes in the climate (even in absence of scientifically collected data), such as the timing and intensity of rains, i.e. when, over a period of several years, rains tend to come later and/or in abrupt instances of heavy rainfall. Other indicators include changes of shorelines for lakes or increased frequency of disasters. However, the assessment of all these things requires observation over longer periods of time. So, failed crops in one year are not automatically a sign of a changing climate, but if crops tend to repeatedly fail this might be an indicator.

When people migrate from one area to another, how is that migration facilitated? Do people simply leave, or are there networks (informal/ formal) who can help? E.G. organisations etc.

I can only respond with regard to pastoralists in the Sahel and East Africa, but yes, networks (both formal and informal) are crucial. Pastoralist communities rely on a set of informal treaties and grazing/ water use agreements with other communities to prepare herd movements. In cases, where a community wants to permanently alter its patterns of seasonal migration, perhaps in response to gradual Climate Change, it is usually very much concerned about its relations with the host communities and local officials.

Have a glimpse at Future Agricultures to get a better idea.

Herds are split and smaller herds sent as scouts to bargain terms for the arrival of the main herd. Such interactions can be repeated during several years before conditions are favourable for the arrival of the main herd and individual herders engage in a multitude of personal and business relationships over that time, which eventually facilitate a permanent relocation.

But, pastoralists also need to have a say in local politics through pastoral associations and ties to representatives in local councils and national parliaments to navigate different and sometimes conflicting layers of jurisdiction.

There are different regional organisations that advocate pastoralist mobility as a way to adapt to Climate Change. This is however a sensitive issue as pastoral mobility often stands in opposition to large scale development projects (commercial ranches, irrigated agriculture etc.), transgresses international borders and involves communities, which are often marginalized.


Climate Refugees - The film

There is a new phenomenon in the global arena called “Climate Refugees”. A climate refugee is a person displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters. Such disasters result from incremental and rapid ecological change, resulting in increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, fires, mass flooding and tornadoes. All this is causing mass global migration and border conflicts. For the first time, the Pentagon now considers climate change a national security risk and the term climate wars is being talked about in war-room like environments in Washington D.C.

Climate Refugees is a documentary by Michael Nash that was 3 years in the making and covered 48 countries. The multi-award winning Sundance film has screened around the world illuminating the human face of climatic change to global citizens, governments, churches, The US Senate and House, Pentagon, The Vatican, International governments, DAVOS, Harvard University, Oxford, MIT, Stanford and many more.

The full version can be seen or ordered here.



When you first see Kiribati on a map, it’s a little confusing. The International Date Line curves back on itself to include Kiribati’s 33 islands among the first countries to see the sun. Kiribati lies right where the International Date Line crosses the Equator, but it is also at the centre of another collision between climate change and migration.

Kiribati, with a population of just over 100,000, has been pinpointed as one of the first countries that will be submerged under water as sea levels continue to rise. Its government is already making plans for its people’s escape.

The sea level around Kiribati has risen between 1 and 4mm per year for the last 20 years. Although other island nations are experiencing higher increases in sea levels, Kiribati’s coral atolls have a harder time adjusting to these changes, and cannot keep up with the seal level rise.

All but one of Kiribati’s islands are atolls – these are ring-shaped islands formed from coral, and the tallest peak across the islands is only 3 metres. They don’t stand a chance against an 8 metre wave.

As if sea level rise isn’t threatening enough, Kiribati’s surrounding ocean is also becoming more acidic, preventing the coral its people live on from constructing its skeletons and keeping them above sea level. The increased acidity also threatens the balance of the local ecosystem, and is making it harder to grow crops and maintain livelihoods.

Children in Bairiki Square,Tarawa,Kiribati

When the tide is out, the I-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati) live in a Pacific paradise. But at high tide, those living nearest the beaches hold their breaths and prepare for the onslaught. Families have built walls higher and higher to protect against the rising tides, but maintaining them is a daily task.

Following the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the I-Kiribati heard about the ensuing tsunami and braced for the worst. Many climbed up coconut trees, not having any higher ground to escape to. Luckily the tsunami never hit.

Experts predict that Kiribati can only remain inhabitable for about another 50 years. Kiribati’s government knows its people can’t seek refuge in coconut trees forever, which is why they’ve come up with an escape plan. All they need now is the funding to make it happen.

Village on Kiribati; Photo: Erin Magee/DFAT

The Kiribati government explains in its climate change action plan that “with very little fossil fuel use and high susceptibility to climate effects, Kiribati is much more focused on adapting to rather than mitigating climate change”.

To put it frankly, they are focused on planning how to protect their people against a climate change that they largely did not cause and cannot prevent, while other countries who have a greater responsibility and suffer less choose to do very little. In 2005, for example, Kiribati’s CO2 emissions were lower than any country except one. In the same year, their emissions per capita were only seven percent of the global average. The unfairness is stark.

The climate change action plan has three parts: mitigation, adaptation and, eventually, relocation – because moving the I-Kiribati is simply inevitable.

While the government does its bit to mitigate climate change by using low-carbon technologies, this does more for the economy’s development than for climate change mitigation. The taxpayers’ money is better spent on short-term climate change adaptation and long-term relocation.

Adaptation within Kiribati can only be short-term because, as the sea levels continue to rise, there is simply nowhere within the country to retreat to when king tides roll in. Right now Kiribati is vulnerable to accelerated coastal development, shoreline erosion, and rising environmental degradation. “Initiatives include improving water supply management; coastal management protection measures such as mangrove re-plantation and protection of public infrastructure; strengthening laws to reduce coastal erosion; and population settlement planning to reduce personal risks.”

The government’s action plan acknowledges that “relocation of our people may be inevitable. It would be irresponsible to acknowledge this reality and not do anything to prepare our community for eventual migration in circumstances that permit them to migrate with dignity”.

“That said, relocation will always be viewed as an option of last resort. We will do all that we can to preserve Kiribati as a sovereign and habitable entity. At the same time, if relocation becomes necessary and nothing has been done to ready people for the move, it will not be possible to rapidly relocate over 100,000 people in a way that preserves the dignity of those being relocated and minimises the burden on the receiving countries.”

Parliament House, Kiribati

In 2011 the search for solutions began. At first President Tong presented the idea of constructing man-made islands like oil rigs for people to live on. By the following year he was negotiating to buy land in Fiji for the I-Kiribati to slowly migrate to.

But this plan hung on finding funding from the international community – particularly those driving climate change.

"We don't want 100,000 people from Kiribati coming to Fiji in one go," he said at the time. "They need to find employment, not as refugees but as immigrant people with skills to offer, people who have a place in the community, people who will not be seen as second-class citizens.

"What we need is the international community to come up with an urgent funding package to deal with that ambition, and the needs of countries like Kiribati."

For now the government is focusing on an education program that can cultivate a workforce skilled and ready for foreign labour markets. The government has set the goal of raising tertiary education standards to the same level as those in Australia and New Zealand in hopes of turning out attractive migrant workers.

If the I-Kiribati do manage to have their new land funded, maintaining a sense of culture will be crucial in their new home. There is hope that those who are already interested can begin migration soon, so expat communities can be established, ready to absorb greater numbers in the long-term.

Meanwhile, the waves continue to roll in.


Kenya's climate refugees feel the heat of changing weather

By Bob Koigi

Teresia Kimuhu sits pensively on her two acres of land, with her hand supporting her chin, in what has recently become her signature pose as she stares blankly at rows of maize crops that have been in the farm for the last three months but which have barely grown and remain stunted. She had hoped this season, things would be different and that she would get some yields. Hailing from the Central part of Kenya, considered among the most fertile in the country, it is ironical that her land is a shadow of its prosperous former self.

The trend has been similar for the last four seasons. Scorched soils, no rains and no yields. She has spent a lot of money in preparing the land but the rains have ended up disappointing her. The land has been her source of income for the last four decades, feeding and educating her three children after she lost her husband to a road accident two decades ago. His two sons, Daniel Njuguna and Eustace Ngotho, who found solace and income in the farm have fled to the city in search of better income opportunities following seasons of failed rains. They now do menial jobs in the city. As hope of any meaningful yields dwindle, Teresia has been contemplating joining his children in the city to eke out a living.

Kilometers away from Teresia’s farm, Titus Sifuna, a retired teacher and former farmer in Western Kenya has moved to Githogoro, one of the sprawling slums in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. He has found life and little income as a cobbler, which earns him at least one dollar on a good day. He tries occasional night watchman jobs to supplement his income. He has to do this to support his wife and two children back in the village. As a farmer growing maize, beans and soya in Western Kenya two years ago, he used to earn over $1000 per harvest which was enough to take care of his family. But agriculture was his mainstay and with the failed rains, he had no choice but to move to the city. Teresia and Titus represent a growing number of people who are fleeing their homes and traditional sources of livelihoods as rising seas, failed rains and persistent drought takes a toll on them. They have been christened climate refugees and are estimated to be over 10 million globally.

The situation is so dire that according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, climate change disasters have overtaken war and persecution as the biggest cause of population displacement.

Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than Africa where over 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture for income and livelihoods. The East and Horn of Africa are particularly feeling the heat of the weather changes with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report positing that the two areas are headed for even glimmer times and will be among those severely affected by prolonged drought and desertification. “Vagaries of weather have hit our country now more than ever. The sad bit is that farmers who earn a living relying on the rainfall are yet to grasp what climate change is or the magnitude of it to allow them embrace alternative means of survival, especially at a time when the effects are bound to get worse. We are doing our best to create this awareness, but it will take time,” said Dr. Francis Oduor from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries. The country has had to stare at unprecedented phenomena like tea frost which in 2012 cost tea farmers up to 60 per cent of their income. Tea is one of the country’s prime foreign exchange earners fondly referred to as the country’s green gold.

When the frost struck, it cost the country over $15million in failed exports in that year alone. It is such harrowing tales that worry policy makers who have predicted that it could get worse for other key agricultural produce grown in the country and continentally. A study by World Bank dubbed turn down the heat; Climate extremes, regional impact and the case for resilience, says that by 2040 temperatures will have increased by 2°C, which will see a dip in maize yields of up to 22 per cent, wheat by up to 17 per cent and sorghum by 17 per cent. These are some of the staple foods in majority of African countries.

So unaware why their farms can no longer yield, desperate Kenyans like Sifuna, Njuguna Ngotho and more rural farmers who have been disappointed by the weather have taken the leap of faith and headed to the city which offers perceived succor. The rapid rural to urban migration has put a strain on infrastructure and access to basic services like health with Nairobi now being home to four million residents, more than double the population in less than a decade according to World Policy data. The population has chocked the city and with the rise of informal settlements and a disenfranchised population with no jobs, the rate of crime has gone up. “Jobs are vey hard to come by, even those in the construction and informal sectors because demand is so high. My fellow youth desperate to survive in the city are turning to crimes like robbery and mugging. I have seen most of them gunned down by the police. It is a sad state of affairs. I just wish I could go back to farming, but there is nothing left there for me,” Njuguna said. Once food producers, Njuguna and his brother have been turned into food beggars in the city only affording one meal a day.

But even as Kenya battles with its internal climate related woes, it is now struggling with a problem of equal epidemic proportions. It is housing hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps who are not only fleeing their countries as a result of war, but running away from harsh climate. Dadaad camp, the largest in the world, situated in the Kenya Somalia border, which houses refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea fleeing their war torn countries, was meant to accommodate 90,000 people but is currently home to over three times more. As much as 10 per cent of those in the camp are climate refugees according to officials working in the camp. “Most of them are pastoralists and small scale farmers who predominantly earned a living from agriculture. Persistent drought in their countries coupled with scramble for limited resources like pasture land and water sparked conflict which saw them leave and came here. It is a trend that is becoming very common,” said Abdi Feisal a volunteer worker at the camp.

Rayan Mohammed is one such refugee. With over 200 herds of cattle and 500 goats, he could comfortably take care of his wife and three children in Somalia. But prolonged drought and intermittent conflict for water saw him lose all his livestock. He lost one son to the conflict, at which time it became apparent that he had to flee. “It has been painful moving from being self sufficient to sticking out begging bowl. There is some peace in the camp, at least, but the conditions are squalor and we often miss meals,” he said.

The situation that Rayan, Sifuna, Ngotho Njuguna and other climate refugees find themselves in is complicated by the fact that international humanitarian bodies like the United Nations don’t recognize them in their refugee aid programs. The argument has been that the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees doesn’t factor in climate change as a precursor for refugee status. Funding therefore is hard to come by. This complexity became evident recently when Loane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati running away from environmental risks and rising seas as a result of global warming in his home country sought to be recognized as a climate refugee in New Zealand. He would have become the world’s first legally recognized climate refugee. The courts however argued that although Teitiota’s country was under severe environmental threat, his arguments did not meet the legal definition of a refugee since he had not shown that he would suffer persecution or torture if he returned home.


Escaping in and from culture

A coherent account of culture probably cannot be given. Not here anyway. Attitudes, goods, common or isolated understandings – high and low – pop and classical – black, white – culture is all and none of these things. You might know it when you see it, hear it, taste it…you might also not. That’s culture. Everything and its opposite.

One view of culture is to treat it as a commodity – a kind of escape from the world’s troubles. Where once it might have been viewed as a set of learnings, codes, rituals and a body of knowledge that ennobled and edified, culture as commodity is both a product and constituent of industrialised society; something to be consumed, and something that is bound up with individual identity. Your choice of music isn’t a preference – it says something about you, whatever that might be. While being a product and constituent of society, culture is also a retreat from it – something that responds to society, gives you new ideas, new perspectives. Time away from society to give you some well-earned me-time.

Culture-as-commodity invited you to escape from care, retreating from the truths of the world. “Gritty urban dramas” are rarely true to life, neither are novels or the lifestyles depicted in pop music. Whether they should be at all implies a certain conception of culture and its overall purpose. When people die according to their prominence to the plotline and not their proximity to bullets, you know you’re not watching something realistic – but entertaining nevertheless.

But there do seem to be parallels with society – whether consciously or not – parallels within culture that point towards real-life concerns. When humungous humanoids zap and buzz around the screen, taking the place of humans in warfare, is it really to outrageous to suggest such films articulate considerations, anxieties and desires for machines to replace human warfare?

And personally, I’m almost certain that when the army moves in to take down the great big monster early on in the movie, the ineffectiveness of their bullets and missiles reveal feeling of futility regarding the war against Islamism and terrorism; the feeling of impotence against Godzilla’s thick scales probably say more about the West’s recognition that reactionary religion cannot be killed by bullets.

These are non-trivial concerns, since cultural depictions both reflect and shape our preoccupations. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increasing trend in films where leaving earth is an important, if not central premise. Interstellar and Avatar are two of Hollywood’s biggest and most successful films of the past few years – Avatar, released in 2009, is the highest grossing of all time to this date. There are other, less successful ones: Pandorum and Moon , for example. Broadly, the premise of each film involves exhausting the earth’s resources in one way or another, and having to escape and colonise a new planet, or use the resources from another source.

Food shortages, warfare, overpopulation – one way or another, humanity faces devastation – and the necessity to leave our planet becomes urgent. Our home becomes inhospitable, even inimical to our existence.

The effect of these films is to popularise the notion that we’re living on a finite planet. That’s probably a good thing. The other effect is to make the idea at least present in the popular imagination, that we can simply leave the planet behind.

While Earth’s problems are recognised as being difficult across the world, people haven’t accepted that they are intractable. Climate change and food shortages, water scarcity and warfare are all things we should dedicate our energies to - but we do not despair of the situation. Nor does anyone seriously take the idea that the best thing for us to do is simply imagine we can leave our problems behind, which is what these films project. While the conquistadors had a right to believe their pioneering and plundering could let them shake off the past, we have to live with our problems; there is no right to simply ignore climate change.

Spectacular film-making makes up for tabula-rasa thinking, as Interstellar and Moon are fantastic films.

But this is our home, and this is where we have to make our lives.


Escaped - and now?


Seeking home

In 2001 the Irish government launched the Direct Provision system. It was designed as a temporary measure to provide for the welfare of asylum seekers and their families while they awaited decision on their asylum application.

Direct Provision provides basic housing, three meals a day and medical care. A small allowance is given to asylum seeker as they are not allowed to work. There are more than 4000 people living in Direct Provision half of whom are children, many born in Ireland.

Human rights groups who have examined these living conditions have expressed serious concern over the well being, development and safety of the children, as well as adults.

By 2015 people have reported living in the system for more than ten years.

Ireland has a history of institutional abuse of vulnerable people with its infamous Magdalene laundries and technical schools among others. Direct Provision contributes to the collective trauma of the Irish society and further abuses of victims of global violence.

Seeking Home: Tales of Asylum Seekers in Direct Provision looks at life inside the system.


Giving something back

The GSBTB refugee cooking group in Berlin -Kreuzberg

One thing people outside refugee circles and political crises can do is acknowledge that just because you’re far away from violence, doesn’t mean you’re separate from it.

Lives, ruined by violence, end up in camps or in graves. Why?

They’re different over there. They do things differently.

To have privileges you never yourself earned, to be safeguarded by laws you never yourself fought for – to feel that others must earn theirs – whereas by right of birth, you don’t – this is ultimately the story that emerges from escape.

They die because they believe in killing, we don’t. They need to escape, we don’t. And if they come here, we won’t give them anything. We don’t want them here. We don’t want anyone else here – because they’re not like us, and our lives are more meaningful than theirs.

While we’re insulated by laws, technology, the feeling that we’re different – we’re still part of this world. Our expectations are not different from others; we have to ask ourselves: do we care that others suffer? This is what escape forces us to ask.

Annamaria Olsonn, founder of Give Something Back to Berlin (GSBTB) told fairplanet:

“The project was founded in 2013 –it was absolutely organic. We just wanted to help communities living in Berlin – particularly expats – as they are called – to really get involved in Berlin life.

There was no structure or funding or anything. We just put out a Facebook post – and after a few years, it turned into a full-blown project”.

Two months after starting, Annamaria went down to Oranianplatz, where refugees from North Africa self-organised protests and a school. Rather than playing what she called “the blame game” where the media blamed society’s problems on refugees, or do what the hysterical left do – challenge all of society, rather than try to include people – she asked the refugees what they could do together. They wanted to learn English, she said. Use computers, and find jobs.

There is a tendency to live in our separate communities, says Anna Maria – for whatever reason, it’s just easier to escape from the world’s problems and think you have nothing to do with it. But you can make a difference – stand up, get involved and find projects you can get involved in.


The art project: Refugees Welcome Germany-Italy (2013-2015)

LIUBA, the Italian multi media and site-specific projects artist dedicated one of her recent works refugees - to their stories and to their rights. She dedicated this work to all the people who must leave their home country and have to rebuild their lives elsewhere.

That’s what LIUBA says about the art project: I arrived in Berlin at the end of 2013. At that time, I immediately realized that the problem of refugees, of their rights and of their documents was very debated and visible in the city. A group of refugees had erected a tent city in Oranienplatz, a square in the central berlin district of Kreuzberg at that time.

“When I was invited to present a performance art piece at the Kreuzberg Pavillon I realized that I was not interested in presenting a work of mine, nor in speaking about me. I wanted instead to give voice and space to the refugees and their problems. Also, because I was aware of that the media, at least in Italy, gave distorted information on the whole issue.

So I decided, in agreement with the organizers, to invite refugees in the Art Space and welcome them.

Furthermore, with this gesture, I wanted to state that life and problems of people are more important than art.

To achieve this goal, apparently easy, I had to work hard in contacting the refugees, hearing their stories, building relationships in order to invite them to come to the gallery.

At the beginning it was not easy for me to get their confidence, but after a while the ‘ice broke’ and important human experiences were born.

The project consists of two parts: the collective performance itself, at the gallery, and the previous, long, site specific work on meeting and knowing refugees and their problems, inviting them to come to the gallery and standing for their rights. The performance is only like the ‘iceberg point’ of a long and deep relational process.”

Have a look at LIUBA’s artwork:

"Refugees welcome", 2013-2015, Germany-Italy, colours, 16’50”

LIUBA … director, concept, editing, performance
Zachary Kirschberg … coproducer
Dominique Rosales … coproducer
Leonardo D'Antoni … camera #1
Sergi Sanchez … coediting, camera #2
Valquire Veljkovic ... camera #3
Giuseppe Tripodi ... sound postproduction
Clio Flego ... artist assistant


German projects, which prove: The integration of refugees works

Just recently, criminals tried (once again) to prevent refugees from moving into a home for asylum seekers in Germany. This time it was a butyric acid attack. Unfortunately, scenes like this are not uncommon. They happen nearly daily. In the first half year of 2015 there were 202 attacks on refugee shelters in Germany. But there are also signs of hope. Like these five German projects that proof - integration of refugees works.

1. Workeer

The landing page of Workeer is deliberately in German language.

Workeer is the first German training and job market, which is specifically aimed at refugees. The platform creates a suitable environment in which refugees meet to this group of jobseekers positive-minded employers. At the moment 114 employers and 99 jobseekers have registered.

The platform is a complementary work of BA Communication Design studies at the HTW Berlin in summer 2015. The project shall be continued and need supporters.

2. District mothers and fathers

Since 2011, women and men put their efforts in the project "Stadtteilmütter und Stadtteilväter in Kreuzberg" (mothers and fathers in the neighborhood of Berlin's district Kreuzberg) to gain a greater participation of parents with an immigrant background in their neighborhood. The visual "trademark" is a red scarf. By using expertise and a lot of passion their commitment is succesful. The concept is spreading throuhgout several districts of Berlin.

3. save me - hosting refugees

The campaign "save me - hosting refugees" is committed to the willingness to accept refugees at local scale. Many refugees are stranded in neighboring countries and must sometimes wait years before they can take the perilous journey to Europe. They spend their lives in makeshift camps. "save me" begins exactly there: The project has set itself the goal, to take in the refugees in Germany, before they go on their own on the risky journey.

German areas that are dedicate to take in refugees.

So far there are local save-me-campaigns in more than 50 German cities, more than 100 supporting Organisations, more than 9.000 supporters germanwide, council decisions in 49 German cities till now ... and growing acceptance.


‚Cucula’, originates from the Hausa language in western central Africa, and means ‚to do something together’, as well as ‚ to take care of each other’.

CUCULA is an association, a workshop and an educational program all in one. It is for and together with refugees in Berlin.
In contrast to the theoretical debate about the situation of refugees in Germany, the initiators strive for a pragmatic, immediate and action-oriented approach. The aim and object is to achieve something “together with” the refugees and not simply “for them”.

Launching as a pilot project, CUCULA wants to give people, for whom the doors of society are locked, access to education. CUCULA wants to establish a ‘welcoming culture’, which helps refugees to break with the notion of ‘victimhood’, and at the same time unfold their self-efficacy and to open up a perspective for a self-determined life. Arriving, building ones own future, experiencing self-efficacy, instead of being ‘administrated’ and deported – these are the project’s main motives.

5. We have arrived

Together with young refugees living in Germany UNHCR and the German Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees eV (BUMF) have produced a short film. The project aims to make refugees not only visible, but connect us all with their stories to understand. Young people from different countries of origin are in front and behind the camera. In "We have arrived" they address both their own history as well as that of other refugees living in Germany for some time.