Hostility takes many forms. From wars and persecution to increasingly militarised and regulated borders, from explicit hate speech to adverse administration procedures, from antagonistic social services to flat out racism. All of these manifestations of hostility have been documented in worrying detail by newcomers in Athens, Berlin and London alike.
JOURNEYS OF HOSTILITY
Especially for those who had to leave their war-torn home countries, hostility in its most deadly form had been a daily condition. But even if people succeeded in escaping their home countries, hostility followed after them. Showing in the form of dangerous migration journeys, of border crossings and of human trafficking, hostility as a permanent companion deeply shaped many people’s migration experiences, stirring fear, anger and desperation.
We wouldn’t have left Syria if life was still liveable there. Even though the political situation was never good, we liked our country. We had agriculture and trade, you could still have a good life. So we didn’t come here just looking for something better. The security situation had become even worse, unliveable. The fear was not about being locked up for a day or two — it was about being thrown in a prison cell for the remainder of your life.
We left the camp in Kurdistan in November 2016. I found a smuggler who took us into Turkey for 800 dollars and we stayed there for 3 months, before deciding to leave. There was a lot of exploitation there, they would pay you 10 liras (2 euros) instead of the 100 they would pay a Turkish citizen for the same day’s labour. My wife sold a pair of gold earrings her father had given her and we paid another smuggler to take us to Greece. In Izmir we waited for 15 days for an opportunity to cross. At this point we had nothing at all. I had to go to the smuggler and beg for some money back just so we could eat.
(Tareq family, Athens)
You meet so many smugglers on the journey and they are the worst humans you can meet. From Syria to Turkey, they charge around 200 dollars to guide a person walking to a border point. But I had to be driven all the way because of my wheelchair, so they charged me ten times more.
On the way, the driver stopped at an olive grove and made me get out of the car in the middle of nowhere to wait for two young men to take me the rest of the way. No one ever came and there was absolutely nothing I could do. In the end, it took three attempts to cross from Syria into Turkey, and ten attempts from Turkey into Greece. Sleeping rough, police beatings, losing your life’s savings... my wife even had to sell all of our furniture. And on the last attempt to get to Greece, the smuggler took my wheelchair from me before I got on the boat. I don’t know what drives someone to try over and over again. For me, I think it’s believing that this is the way to see my children again.
After finally making it to Europe, many newcomers were confronted by resentment, mistrust and racism. And even if people have not experienced any direct aggression personally – many expressed fears of an increasingly hostile political climate across Europe, further stirred by a primarily negative media discourse about migration.
I suppose that the law here treats everyone equally, but it’s better when people accept your culture. There is so much racism in Germany. It’s a bit better in Berlin but in other cities, like Dresden, the situation is terrible. A couple of years ago they killed a woman because she was walking down the street wearing a hijab like mine. That’s all she was doing. In Berlin, I haven’t experienced any life-threatening racism, just small things. Twice I was spat on.
You are not the first one to react like that when I say they sent me to Dessau in Sachsen-Anhalt. Every time I tell people I was there, they gasp! But honestly, it wasn’t that bad. It is true that in the playground at school, the newcomers were surrounded by everyone staring at us. This was weird. But people got used to us being there. I only had one incident: I was cycling with my friends and a driver showed me the middle finger. For some reason, I dropped my bike and ran screaming after the car. My friends just laughed because instead of using my bike, I dropped it and started running. It must have looked so surreal.
Religion is a complex thing. It’s very personal to me but it also brings an opportunity to create social networks. I’ve met a lot of really supportive people at the mosque I go to. I think the attitude in Germany towards Islam is okay. The media sometimes paint a false picture of it but I think society is changing their ideas about it the more they come into contact with Islam. I have watched many videos and read in the news about racists attacks and police violence and stuff, and that scares me, of course, but in my everyday life, I feel safe. It’s a welcoming city.
INSTITUTIONS AS HOSTILE ENVIRONMENTS
While almost every newcomer we talked to remembered at least one instance of verbal abuse, many were furthermore confronted with a more subtle and institutionalised but by no means less harmful expression of hostility, in particular amongst social service providers. Such everyday confrontations with hostility, resentment and mistrust put intense pressures on newcomers.
The advisor at the Job Centre recommended I volunteer at Poundland. I worked there for two months, then I started volunteering at the Hackney City Farm. Volunteering is good for learning conversational English. I also do an intensive English course three days a week and study IT two nights a week. I feel like I have to be the best possible representation of a refugee so that they continue to support us to come here. As a Muslim also, I feel like I need to show that I can integrate into this society, to counter Islamophobia. And I do try, very hard. But there are days when I hear some news about Syria, and for a week I feel low and helpless. I wish there was more understanding from the Job Centre, that as determined as a person can be, there are emotional issues we are dealing with, too. As much as refugees want to integrate into the culture, everything is new to us, it’s difficult to let go of everything all at once.
(Al-Halabi Family, London)
Our asylum claim has already been accepted but we’ve been waiting for our papers and our ID cards for a long time. They release papers for one family per week maybe, it’s ridiculous. With at least 70,000 refugees here, it will take decades to clear through. We can’t receive the medical treatment we need here, and we can’t move on to another place. They just have us trapped. And even at the Department for Immigration you are told, ‘if you don’t like it, why are you here?’ How do you go back to your country if it’s ravaged by war? I have no house there, not anymore. My family there is in a camp because our houses were burnt down to ash. I wouldn’t have come here if I had a choice. Why would I put my family through so much danger, crossing the sea, if there was a choice?
(Tareq family, Athens)
In the beginning, the families are just worried about income. It's challenging to explain the rules for welfare benefits and that it takes a long time to get replies. They ask me when it's coming, and I have to tell them to just wait. The Welcome to the UK book may help but the main problem is language... and understanding how the system works.
Some of the families I work for have been here for 6 months, and they feel bullied into finding a job. The Job Centre tells them they will suspend support if they don’t start working. But they don’t even speak English yet. One person who is disabled hasn’t received his disability allowance, and he has depression because of the war he fled, but they are on his case to find a job and start working. Some have been hit by bombs and have lost limbs. Even though they are here in the UK now, most feel like the war has not left them.
We also go to the Amygdaleza detention centre, which is basically like a prison for unaccompanied minors, adults and families caught without papers. Just a few meters away there is a playground but nobody was allowed to go there. It was like torture. So we asked whether we could take the children and play outside and they allowed us. Incredible that nobody at the prison had thought to do this! From all the spaces I’ve worked, this place means the most to me because it is about ‘freedom’. But it is difficult to work there. We have to inform the Ministry every three months about our planned visits, and when we go, the van is not always able to enter. And it’s hard when the children wave goodbye saying, ‘See you next week!’ because you know that until your next visit, they will have nothing else to do.