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On the Pro-refugee Stickers

Belgrade, 2015. Storage space of an aid initiative for refugees. Photo by Lucie Bacon, PhD candidate.

When I was in Berlin a couple of months ago, I noticed a peculiar sticker on quite a few places around the neighbourhood I was staying in. "I <3 RFGS", it said, and I took it to mean I love refugees.

Eventually I recognised the sticker as an instantiaton of the pro-refugee sentiment behind the slogan Refugees Welcome, which has been this summer adopted and widely popularised by various self-organised groups and civil initiatives, appeared as a guiding principle of many solidarity actions and was even appropriated by many NGOs and associations.

When I saw the I <3 RFGS sticker, I was struck by how unfortunate the wording was. To be put into a category of "refugee", something really horrible must have happened to the people in that category: usually something to do with war, persecution or fear for own's safety and bodily integrity. The legal recognition of the refugee status for most people pends on very intrusive procedures, with lots of interviews, where people need to explain what happened to them, relive the experience and are constantly checked by the disbelieving authorities for lies or inconsistencies. During the procedure of recognition, the prospect refugees (called asylum seekers) have only limited rights and are usually housed in isolating mass-scale accommodation facilities. And even once people are recognised as being in the category of a refugee, this identity is often the first and most important feature that they are associated with. Besides the fact that refugees have a host of other identities, the identity of "refugee" is often one that they cannot shake of for years. A friend of mine, a refugee in Germany, often tells me how much he hates the German word for refugees – Flüchtlinge – and is getting increasingly hopeless that he would live the day when the stigma associated with it would not follow him around anymore.

All in all, there is little to love about the refugee experience, especially from the point of view of the person who is experiencing it.

But the sticker I love refugees seems to express a sort of orientalist romantisation and an essentialisation of the figure of the refugee, which is not entirely absent from the Refugees Welcome movement. Being a refugee is a category – and a really unpleasant one to be in, at that – and besides all being the same category, the "refugees" do not have anything in common. As the Persian saying has it: "five fingers are not the same" – there is simply not a single feature (lovable or dislikable) that you could find in all the refugees.

The Refugees Welcome movement and the reference to Willkommenskultur both come as a criticism of the xenophobic responses to the movement of people into the EU and while many wonderful and praiseworthy initiatives happened under its banners, the politics of it have more often than not gone unreflected. There have been many interesting criticisms and a need to go beyond Willkommenskultur expressed.

Most importantly, there is a danger for the Refugees Welcome movement to welcome refugees as silenced objects or as poor victims, in need of (German, white European) assistance and for it to fail to see the emancipatory potential in the struggle of the newly arrived people for freedom of movement. It also often failed to build on the self-organised struggles of refugees and migrants themselves, who often do not end their critique at a "lack of hospitality", but direct their anger at the EU migration policy and the apartheid between those with and without papers.

When the solidarity work stops at the Refugees Welcome demand, it also fails to acknowledge the post-colonial power relations, the implication of the EU countries in the conflicts from which people flee. In thinking again about the stickers, I was wondering whether perhaps, besides all the Refugees Welcome stickers that are around, there could also be an array of other feelings expressed towards refugees in stickers and slogans. Questions of collective responsibility for past and present wrongs, acknowledging privilege, looking at one's own positionality in the Refugees Welcome movement, composed of mostly white middle class citizens, can bring up a lot of different emotions. Where are anger, indignation, pain, regret? How about a "Refugees, sorry!" sticker? Sorry for European colonial expansions of the past, sorry for neo-colonial exploitation, sorry that EU governments are involved in conflicts you are fleeing from, sorry for the migration policy that kill you in thousands and sorry for the horrible treatment you receive in Europe.

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