Blurring Words – How the social position of the speakers influences the perception of migrants and borders

(c) Dahrendorf Forum

It was a complex and exciting arrangement of the panel discussion opening the Dahrendorf-Workshop on migration at the Helmut-Schmidt-Universität in Hamburg. Ruham Hawash (Syrian-Palestinian activist), Commander Achim Winkler (German Navy), Antje Möller (Hamburg politician from Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), Dr. Jana Sinram (journalist Deutschlandfunk) and Prof. Dr. Michael Köhler and Elisabeth Kotthaus (both Members of the European Commission), discussed with panel chair Prof. Dr. Hannes Schamman (Universität Hildesheim) highly relevant topics including human security, asylum in Germany, the efficiency of state-society cooperation, and media positions in public debates around Migration.

Personal Relations

Clearly, the answers to questions of security and state-society cooperation were influenced by the daily life and work of the panelists. The Syrian activist and the local politician referred mainly to their interaction with friends, colleagues and local authorities. They addressed problems of housing, the security of their friends and refugees at large, giving a valuable insight of people working with refugees in Germany. They knew what to expect from winter: traffickers selling more hope, rescue missions saving less people. Their perspectives were personal and vivid, making people visible to your inner eye. Concluding their experiences, both speakers demanded legal transportation to a safe destination regardless of national background or reasons for flight.

Abstract Planning

Both EU representatives, on the other hand, spoke merely in abstract strategies and scenarios. They mentioned border management proposals, the differentiation of migrants and refugees, border guard systems, burden sharing, relocation mechanisms, solidarity mechanisms, crisis systems. The sheer quantity of their words reflected their training and daily routine in talking about the topic, arranging their arguments, wanting to create lasting impressions. The current success of right wing parties in many European countries was linked to the current increase in refugees’ arrivals. Moreover, this increase and the lack of cooperation within the EU were blamed to endanger the solidarity between all EU member states. However, this analysis falls short of grasping the complex situation that lead to increased tensions within the EU and right wingers’ success: harsh austerity measures in the Mediterranean and poor perspectives for the young have certainly played a significant role as well.

Concrete Practical Learning

Media and army representatives shared the view that adaption is needed, that they are experiencing a learning process. The navy has to adapt to a bigger size of rescue missions, developing from “man overboard!” to “many men, women and children overboard!”, and media has to learn, again, how to deal with increasing amounts of racist articles, comments, and threats.

Borders and Limits

The different speaking positions became especially visible in the way the panelists used the notion of “Grenze”. In German, the term “Grenze” allows you to play with it in a metaphoric sense, since it can be translated as ‘frontier’, ‘border’ or even ‘limit’. Here, again, the positions shaped perceptions: the Syrian-Palestinian activist asked how people cross country borders; she addressed war, extremists, and the economic conditions for refugees in neighboring countries, which cannot be called countries of asylum since there is a limit to the protection they are offering. The German Navy commander and the Hamburg politician mainly referred to limits of capacities in Germany and the limits to the ability of saving people because of lacking knowledge and ships. The media representative addressed “Grenze” rather in the sense of limits in our minds. The European Commission representatives, in turn, cared about the borders within EU and borders between the EU and the rest of the world.

In conclusion, it became obvious, that the position from which we speak has a major impact on how the current refugee movements are perceived and which terms and concepts we use to understand and judge the situation. By offering a lively panel of diverse discussion partners, this event revealed that awareness and self-reflection on our position is crucial for productive and progressive discourse.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.