Global Development Institute Blog

By Tanja R. Müller

Even as – at least when listening to the media – it seems that Europe faces a unique challenge with the increasing numbers of refugees (or as the British media prefers to call them, towing the government line, migrants), who flee war in Syria and destitution in other places, it is pertinent to remember that people have fled persecution and hopelessness since times memorial. But each contemporary ‘crisis’ presents itself these days as something quite extraordinary, something that has not happened before. Not so long ago, it was Israel’s turn to ‘discover’ its refugee crisis, when African refugees, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, arrived at its shore or rather across the desert from Sinai.

Immigrants from Eritrea in Tel Aviv

Photo: Stefan Boness,

This was the first time that an increasing number of non-Jewish people sought refuge in Israel. The Israeli government reaction, perhaps predictably, has been, not unlike that in the UK in relation to contemporary refugee movements, rather hostile, calling the new arrivals ‘infiltrators’ or worse and building fences – metaphorically and literally. At the same time, and in line with happenings elsewhere – one only needs to look at the outpouring of compassion in Germany last summer – a myriad of new civil society organisations has sprung up that focus on refugee issues.

In Israel, these organisations are more often than not funded by Jewish organisations from the diaspora, mainly in the US and some European countries, and this implies that many young, idealistic volunteers form those ‘donor countries’ show up on their doorsteps for an ‘internship’ of some kind, whether there is a need or not. Some of those interns thus work in meaningful positions that require a set of skills, others are simply driven by the wish to do ‘something good’ (often combined with brushing up their CVs). As according to a staff member of an Israeli refugee-NGO, ‘we do not have anything to do for them, really, but also cannot refuse them because we need the donor money’, they end up doing things like taking refugee-babies for a walk, while their mothers are encouraged to do ‘ethnic knit work’ in this freed-up time. Put shortly, often little attention is being paid by such activities to what refugees might want or need, and a lot of well-meaning engagement might in fact turn out to be rather patronising.

One example when those dynamics became apparent was in 2011 when I chatted with a group of Eritrean refugees at the bar of a Tel Aviv nightclub at the launch event for the Refugee Voice newspaper, on the face of it a joint enterprise between refugees and Israeli activists. Very few refugees attended the event, which felt more like a party for the volunteers. Those who did attend stayed among themselves, and when speaking to them told me they preferred to go out to different bars that were not only cheaper but where they could talk to each other quietly. At some point, the newspaper was being presented and the person who gave the speech was an Israeli volunteer. She started by thanking everybody for their input, as ‘I could not have done this without the help of …’ (at which point everybody who contributed an article to the newspaper, refugees and Israelis alike, were mentioned by name). Thus, the newspaper was not presented as a truly joint enterprise in which ‘we’ (Israelis and refugees alike) came together on an equal footing, but as something that was instigated by Israelis concerned with refugee rights quasi on their behalf. In a rather paradoxical way, the claim for universal rights was enacted in this patronizing fashion that indirectly upholds unequal status between refugees and those who advocate on their behalf. This perception was confirmed by some of the Eritreans who did engage with Refugee Voice as an organ to give visibility to their cause. One of its contributors remarked that ‘the newspaper is too timid, it does not really address the important issues we face, just gives some stories of suffering’ – and in doing so enforced what may be called the ‘white-saviour-complex’.

Examples like this raise important questions about the possibility of real solidarity and joint political action that ultimately poses a challenge to exclusions and the denial of fundamental rights – what one could call a politics of resistance. The example above – and a number of others I discuss in my latest publication – do not suggest that civil society engagement is per se futile and patronizing. Some Israeli civil society organisations do indeed use their professional expertise to fight in concrete ways for the rights of refugees and with them – most prominently in the legal field where some small but, given the hostility of an overbearing Israeli state, very important victories have been achieved against a government determined to negate these new refugees any rights.

But overall, a big question mark remains about patterns of engagement and the motivations behind with those who, captured brilliantly in the World Press Photo of the Year 2015 by Warren Richardson at the Hungarian-Serbian border, simply hope for a better life, a life on their terms, a life that is driven by their aspirations. Crossing a border fence is just the starting point here, and much will depend on what type of reception lies beyond it. I have explored these themes in more concrete detail in my latest article that focuses on the specific dynamics of claim-making within the Eritrean refugee community in Tel Aviv, but that holds wider lessons for arriving at new meanings of solidarity and creating a politics of resistance.

The article, Tanja R. Müller, ‘Acts of citizenship as a politics of resistance? Reflections on realizing concrete rights within the Israeli asylum regime’, Citizenship Studies (2016), 20:1, 50-66 is available here (please feel free to email me for a pdf if you cannot access it).

This post was first published on the author’s own blog.