The asylum applicants are met with two contradictory demands: to be traumatised and persecuted enough to be recognised as refugees, and to be physically and emotionally fit in order to contribute to the host country’s economy.
by Daiva Repečkaitė
This is a continuation of an earlier article ‘Deserving’ vs ‘Undeserving’: Refugees vs Economic Migrants.
“Instead of savings she brought a burden of traumas,” journalist Magdalena Rojo summarised the experience of Fiory, an Ethiopian woman who migrated to Saudi Arabia to find work, and shared her story with the journalist after safely making it back to her family home. Fiory does not volunteer too many details about the abuse she suffered in the hands of the family that employed her as a domestic helper. As Fiory was talking to the journalist, at least one European right-winger must have clacked away on his or her keyboard: “Why don’t they just go to the rich countries in the Middle East?”
People like Fiory come from places where income is extremely unequally distributed, and their inhabited area is environmentally challenged. Depending on their country’s regime, they may or may not qualify for asylum in Europe or elsewhere, but trying their chances with the EU’s asylum system is just one of the pathways to escape the situation at home. When other options shrink, it looks like a less risky way to enter the labour market of a richer country. In a way the Gulf States, which do not offer refugee protection, are clearer about the fact that, in the words of Swiss writer Max Frisch, “we wanted a labour force, but human beings came,” by fully bracketing the human dimension.
Once acknowledged, a refugee is immediately expected to become, in effect, an economic migrant, to work hard and ‘contribute’.
Although the asylum system is not designed as a back door to import labour, employers welcome the opportunity. Moreover, the liberal discourse on asylum readily uses the argument that asylum migration is useful because Europe needs labour. Numerous think-tanks and pundits are busy proving that refugees do not drain the system (examples here, here, and here). It is understandable in the increasingly hostile political climate: read any migration-sceptic column about refugees receiving welfare benefits in Europe and you will see the expectation that, once acknowledged, a refugee is immediately expected to become, in effect, an economic migrant, to work hard and ‘contribute’.
Europe’s employers are eager to import cheap labour, yet few want the bother of going through the demanding process of proving to migration authorities that they have failed to find a willing and capable EU citizen. The Single Permit is too obviously designed for the middle class. Thus, seeking asylum has become the preferred way of “guest-worker” recruitment even for those who will ultimately be rejected. There is a palpable uneasiness among the general public about this fact, which translates into demands for stricter sorting between refugees and economic migrants.
Refugees tend to comply, seeing this as a way to be accepted,—and generously share their stories of resilience and hard work. While celebrating their extraordinary achievements, we must remain critical of the emerging austere system where work is becoming so closely intertwined with international protection.
Japan’s experience with managing migration could be of interest here: in the 1980s, with the economy booming and the industry craving for more hands to work its cogs and wheels, the government still would not admit willingness to import labour. Instead, it invited the offspring of Japanese migrants in Latin America to ‘search for their roots’. And since it’s quite expensive to search for their roots in booming Japan, well, they might as well work.
As Claudia Tamura wrote in her book , in the 1990s, it became apparent that the Latin American workers had little interest in connecting to their Japanese heritage—instead, Latin American shops, restaurants and clubs mushroomed, while neighbours complained that these second-generation Japanese listen to loud music and do not know how to sort and recycle their waste. According to a survey, they identified either as Japanese-Brazilians or Brazilians. The fact that the whole identity-based scheme was just a cover was apparent to everyone participating—but never admitted in official discourse.
In Europe, rich economic migrants are welcome as ‘expats’, and embassies are working hard to facilitate migration for students, entrepreneurs and other middle-class individuals, but mobility options for disadvantaged individuals are limited. Arguments against their migration are of two major kinds: one saying that newcomers did not suffer enough to enter rich countries (as refugees) and the other claiming that refugees put a strain on the economy. The asylum applicants are thus met with two contradictory demands: to be traumatised and persecuted enough to be recognised as refugees, and to be physically and emotionally fit in order to contribute to the host country’s economy.
Refugee and subsidiary protection statuses revolve around “well-founded fear of being persecuted” and “real risk of suffering serious harm” respectively. As their applications are being processed, EU directives and national legislation stipulate that these individuals have a right to seek employment. The reception standards directive requires that countries allow employment no later than nine months after an asylum seeker lodges their application, and this right must be upheld throughout the procedure and appeals. These may take a while.
It is the length of the procedure that makes it worthwhile for individuals to attempt it even when their countries are considered safe and they will most likely not receive asylum. After nine months, having their basic necessities provided, asylum seekers get a right to work, which continues throughout the process and appeals.
It is up to the countries whether they allow rejected asylum seekers to work—Malta does, which is a big boost to individuals with pending deportation orders. Due to bureaucratic reasons, some of them live in limbo for years, and working offers them some normality and recognition in their lives. In Germany, having realised how expensive and exhausting it is for everyone involved to have Balkan migrants try their chances at asylum, be housed, go through appeals and be deported, the government has developed a work visa scheme.
The pressure to work hard and to ‘integrate’ must not replicate the conditions that forced these individuals to flee in the first place.
Refugees (unlike asylum seekers, in-progress or rejected) have a right to social and economic rights available to the country’s citizens (holders of subsidiary protection have fewer rights), including unemployment and parental benefits. However, austerity and anti-migration sentiments have collided to pressure refugees to be complicit and productive, and not to be a burden in any way—budget-wise, aesthetically or psychologically. For example, think of statements being made about individuals, many of whom are refugees, present and visible in Ħamrun and Marsa, feeling disoriented within the labour market, self-medicating anxiety issues with alcohol (at times in public spaces), and expressing frustration.
In a rights-based approach, we must understand and emphasise that asylum is about protection from harm in one’s home country. Thus, the pressure to work hard and to ‘integrate’ must not replicate the conditions that forced these individuals to flee in the first place. The fact that a person who has witnessed cruelty and may suffer from flashbacks is able to get up and go to work should not be taken for granted. These efforts are not conditions for international protection.
The way it stands, the Mediterranean migration pathway demands labour from vulnerable refugees and traumatised job-seekers, conflating the very categories that populists and even liberal segments in European societies demand to separate.
 Claudia Tamura “Arbeitsmigration und gesellshaftliche Entwicklung in Japan unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Integrationsperspektiven von brasilianischen Arbeitnehmern in der Kleinstadt Mitsukaido“. Bonn: Bier’sche Verlaganstalt, 2005.