English translation of an interview entitled "Europa verbarrikadiert sich. Ist das die L?sung?", published in the print edition of the daily newspaper Aachener Zeitung on 10 March 2018, page 8
Aachen, Germany. People in Europe have become slightly blasé and most of them are willing to accept the impression that the situation of refugees in the Mediterranean region has eased somewhat. The politicians responsible do not want to disturb this calm because it gives them a certain breathing space and nobody knows how long it will last. All those in national governments and EU authorities who have anything at all to do with the movement of refugees know that this calm is only an impression, or rather a delusion. In fact, almost every day refugees continue to die on their dangerous route to Europe and conditions in the countless camps around the Mediterranean are often catastrophic. The pressure remains unabated.
Earlier this year, Martin Br?ckelmann-Simon, Managing Director of MISEREOR, the German Catholic Bishops’ Organisation for Development Cooperation with its headquarters in Aachen, visited Morocco and the border area close to the Spanish enclave of Melilla, which is where refugees from the Middle East and migrants from West African countries are often marooned. They want to get to Europe, where they hope to find a new life in safety and dignity. Peter Pappert spoke with Dr Br?ckelmann-Simon about these hopes and the resulting challenges for Europeans and Germans.
Dr. Martin Br?ckelmann-Simon (60) has worked for MISEREOR – the German Catholic Bishops’ Organisation for Development Cooperation – since 1985 and has been the member of the Board of Directors responsible for international cooperation since 1999. He has gained first-hand experience of the situation of refugees in recent years in many of the countries they come from, including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Eritrea, Somalia and Mauretania.
How do the refugees vegetating in the camps of North Morocco get the idea that Europe is the Promised Land and are thus willing to risk everything to reach its shores?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: This is one of the results of globalisation. Internet access is becoming more and more widespread in Africa so everyone can see how good we have it in Europe. And family and friends already living in Europe send pictures and information. In my conversations with young people, they repeatedly said that they wanted to join friends in France, Scandinavia, or Russia.
What picture do these people have of their future life in Europe?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: Working, earning money – by whatever means. I was deeply impressed by the unshakeable determination of these people and their willingness to accept suffering and misery in order to realise their goal for the future. The journey through the Sahara involves deadly perils and the living conditions are wretched, absolutely unbearable. They live in makeshift tents, it’s cold, and it rains. Sanitary conditions are abysmal and again and again the migrants are beaten up or deported. Anybody who actually manages to get over the high fences surrounding the Spanish enclave runs the risk of being forcibly returned to Morocco. This contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights, but it happens again and again.
How realistic is the hope of reaching Europe from Morocco?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: Some people always manage to get through. This is what keeps people’s hopes up, not the news of those who die in the attempt.
Are the people aware of their insecure status in Europe if they should manage to get there?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: No, I don’t think so. I have spoken to people in the camps – also about how the culture of welcome has changed in Europe. They hear the news, but don’t really accept it. The migrants’ hopes for a better life are stronger. The all know about the fatalities. Since January, 28 people have already been found drowned in the waters around Melilla – that’s more than in the whole of the past year.
How many refugees and migrants are there in the north of Morocco?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: There are probably 4,000 to 5,000 in the 40 to 50 illegal camps around Melilla, mostly young men but also 20 per cent women and girls, some of whom have children with them, who are particularly endangered and at risk of sexual violence. The proportion of unaccompanied minors is increasing. There are estimated to be a total of about 40,000 illegal migrants in Morocco at present.
What countries do they come from?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: From all over West Africa, for example from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, C?te d’Ivoire, and Niger. More than ten per cent come from the Middle East.
In view of the hopeless situation, doesn’t anybody think about returning home?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: This isn’t an option for most of the migrants. It’s a matter of shame and loss of face. Many of them set off with high hopes with the support of their whole family or village. It would be an unbearable humiliation to return home without achieving anything. If you walk through the camps you see nothing but naked human existence together with an impressive inner strength. The migrants endure all these deprivations and injuries and pick themselves up again and again: this should make us in Europe rethink our migration policy. It shows that however high the walls and fences may be, however closely guarded they are by soldiers, in the long term we can’t subdue this inner strength fuelled by hope for the future.
‘All walls come tumbling down at some time or another; the Germans should know that better than anyone.’
What alternative is there to the current policy for dealing with migrants?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: We need legal routes. It is futile and wrong to stigmatise migration; it is a constant factor in human history. We can’t simply make it disappear. It has also always played a positive part in our history. Migration is a historical fact. It needs to be channelled, but it cannot be stopped. For example, we should give more consideration to temporary work permits. In the 70s, 80s, and even in the 90s, Africans had no difficulty in obtaining such visas for seasonal work in Italy or Spain. The people came and then went again.
As you say, the European Union is doing all it can to make “Fortress Europe as impregnable as possible”. Those politically responsible can safely assume that the overwhelming majority of the population approve of their actions. MISEREOR draws attention to the responsibility that Germany has and which it is successfully ignoring. Have you any idea of the percentage of adults in Germany who perceive such a responsibility?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: I can’t give you any figures. I only know that in the past few years, since the war in Syria began, our society is becoming increasingly polarised. There is a chasm between those who share my outrage and those who support this isolationist policy. I am well aware that most Germans have no doubts about this policy.
The problem of this movement of refugees from the Middle East and Africa to Europe has been of no real significance here in Germany for some time now. Those politically responsible are relying on the fact that the isolationist measures implemented since 2016 will prevent a new wave of refugees like that in 2015. How realistic is that?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: That is short-sighted. It won’t work in the long run. All walls come tumbling down at some time or another; the Germans should know that better than anyone. We won’t have any future as a member of the human family here in Europe if we believe that the walls only have to be high enough. We won’t be able to withstand for ever the determination of those in despair and the resolve of those hoping for a better future.
The present calm is therefore an illusion?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: Yes, it is. This attitude simply ignores part of the reality. However, it won’t be any less dreadful just because you don’t see it. This is not just the case in Morocco. The situation in Libya is even more horrific. Conditions on the Greek Islands are catastrophic, just like the refugee camps in Iraq and Lebanon. It is terrible, but we don’t see it.
The vast majority of people here in Germany just don’t want to know about refugees because they are aware that they would probably have to feel very uncomfortable if they took a closer look. And who wants to feel uncomfortable. That is the reality.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: That is the reality. This has been our big issue ever since MISEREOR came into being: loving those who are not our neighbours. The world doesn’t end at your garden fence – that is more than ever the case today; but it is not easy to maintain this awareness. For a long time we thought that war no longer affected us. But then the war in the Middle East did affect us because of the geographical proximity. We had already become aware of this during the war in Bosnia. You can’t just shut out the outside world simply because it’s depressing and frightening. This attitude has no future.
But it is very widespread.
And very deep-seated. Maintaining our own peace and prosperity is more important to us than the refugees’ sufferings. We don’t care much about them.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: I wouldn’t say that. I see a lot of people getting involved, welcoming refugees and looking after them without being na?ve, without ignoring the integration problems. Nobody says that it’s easy. But the alternative is even more problematic. That would involve using all the means at our disposal to protect our prosperity and lifestyle against the underprivileged. Ultimately, this would mean being prepared to shoot.
Who wants that? Nevertheless, most people here in Germany want to get the refugees off their backs. As a representative of MISEREOR you can’t afford to say that.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: My job is to say: That’s the reality. Take it on board!
But most people don’t take it on board.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: I can’t force anybody to do so, but I use all the opportunities I have to talk about what things are like on the other side. I expect that we should at least be aware of the consequences of our action. There is great suffering at the borders of Fortress Europe and it’s not simply going to go away.
But perhaps I don’t have to take such a close look if I donate € 200 a year to MISEREOR and thus absolve myself from drawing any other conclusions about the refugees’ sufferings. And I also buy myself a clear conscience.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: Believe me that doesn’t work! What we do doesn’t aim to prevent migration. The development cooperation we undertake intends to help people live their lives in dignity and freedom where they are at home. This also includes broadening their horizons through increased awareness, improved economic conditions, and better education. Those people who can improve their opportunities in this way will always include some who want to move elsewhere – but not necessarily to Europe. That is a fantasy. It is not true. What are 40,000 illegal immigrants in Morocco in comparison to the population of the EU?
The immediate answer would be: But it wouldn’t stop there. If we let them in we would encourage even more people to come to Europe.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: Another bugbear! Most immigration takes place regionally – within Africa. Most people want to stay in regions with related culture and language.
This doesn’t change anything about the migration movement towards Europe. You have described the misery and demanded that we don’t look away. But this doesn’t lead to any consequences. The basic problem remains that here in Germany you haven’t got very far with this change of mentality, which is part of MISEREOR’s raison d’être.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: The cracks in our society are becoming more visible. My impression is that the arrival of refugees has broadened our horizons. We are getting many more enquiries about the reasons for migration from schools, parishes, and groups who want to become involved. The discussion in the Church is in full swing. The Pope has formulated the ethical challenges for us Christians very clearly.
But Pope Francis has no political power.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: I don’t know about that. It’s a question of majorities.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: We’re not in the majority at the moment. But that can change.
Are you really so optimistic?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: Incorrigible. MISEREOR is institutionalised hope.
‘MISEREOR is institutionalised hope.’
But where do you get your hope from? Pope Francis was widely praised for his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, for his idea of a “poor Church for the poor”, and for his Encyclical Laudato si by all parties, from all countries. And that was it.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: I don’t know about that. Where do policies come from? It all takes time. We need staying power. I see that growing sections of the population are willing to take up these moral and ethical challenges. How do we want to live? That’s the question. This is being debated in society even if we are living in uncertain times. These difficult social issues must be openly discussed because we have tried to avoid them for too long.
A lot of people would like to have your optimism. Is it part of your job?
Br?ckelmann-Simon (laughs): It’s the way I am. It’s the way MISEREOR is. I meet so many people who never give up. People who are in really dreadful situations and who are caught up in violent conflicts, but who don’t lose heart although they are apparently in a hopeless minority. They are an example to us all. Only perseverance brings about change.
And that is your motivation?
Br?ckelmann-Simon: We must not lose the ability to be touched by others. Otherwise we become indifferent. We get used to the terrible pictures. The news that mobilised us five years ago is just a matter of course today. There is a danger that we begin to regard the pictures from Syria as quite normal. But they’re not normal. This is not acceptable; it is not right. We must not simply accept it.
‘We become indifferent. We get used to the terrible pictures.’
The further away the places are where children are being brutally killed, the less we are affected by their fate.
Br?ckelmann-Simon: People in distant countries are foreign to us; that is why we don’t identify with them as closely as with victims in our own region. But the problem is the habituation effect. The more frequently we encounter violence, the more we regard it as completely normal. We accept racism as normal the more often it is expressed. That is a danger. Racism is not acceptable, irrespective of how often or by how many people it is expressed. It is not compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or with the Gospel. Christians cannot be racists or nationalists. It’s simply not possible. We must guard against habituation!