Javier Muñoz, a Luskin Center grant recipient for 2017, is a doctoral student in the UCLA Department of History. His research focuses on twentieth-century United States history, including social movements, constructions of race, racial capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, migration, and the African Diaspora. He is also a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow. His Luskin Center grant allowed him to attend the Humanity in Action Senior Fellow Forum in Berlin, Germany in November 2017, entitled “Flight and Migration: Societies in Transition,” which he describes in his report.
Seeking Refuge: European Migration Policy in Context
My colleague and I were frantically trying to download a voice translation app to understand our tour guide when he suddenly switched from Arabic to English. Samer Serawan—who managed a business in Damascus, Syria, and was now a refugee in Berlin, Germany—used this moment to teach us about the difficulties faced by newcomers seeking refuge in Europe. During this tour of Berlin’s Neighborhood Neukölln Seen Through the Eyes of Refugees, it became clear that top-down migration and refugee reception/integration policies could never be effective without incorporating the voices of refugees themselves. This was just one of the lessons learned in the Humanity in Action Senior Fellow Forum titled, “Flight and Migration: Societies in Transition,” which gathered twenty-six migration-related experts, including activists, scholars, and policy researchers, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, France, and the United States to examine the challenges and opportunities of societal pluralism in the context of European Union (EU) refugee reception and integration processes.
As a short-term Fellow at the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, I was able to attend the HIA Senior Fellow Forum, which took place in Berlin, Germany, from November 10 to 19, 2017. The forum explored German refugee reception and integration processes across various themes, such as arrival and reception conditions in Berlin, labor market access, and access to educational opportunities. Historical knowledge concerning the international refugee law regime was essential to understanding successful or failed policy outcomes. For example, the Cold War context shaped the language used during the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to make refugee status exceptional by codifying persecution as an essential criterion. Therefore, wealthy Soviet Union citizens who feared persecution due to “membership of a particular social group” could seek refuge in Western Europe. This history about the inherent numerical limits tied to refugee status helps explain the inadequate arrival and reception conditions experienced by thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who have reached Germany since 2015. A broad systemic overhaul is required to accommodate contemporary refugees, which might necessitate common European asylum policies superseding the sovereignty of each EU member state.
The absence of a unified EU migration and refugee reception/integration policy has led to human rights abuses via border security measures guided by the rationale of deterrence. My dissertation research on Black soldiers, who fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), contextualizes the struggle against fascism there within a broader European history of colonization, racialization, and empire. The resulting complex colonial legacy in Africa and the Middle East explains the contemporary structure of the global political economy enabling several EU member states, including Germany, Italy, and Spain, to outsource border security efforts to leaders in Sudan, Libya, and Morocco, who prevent migrants and refugees bearing the scars of colonial violence from reaching European shores. These individual agreements alone are unable to deter migration and lead to horrific circumstances where asylum-seekers have been sold into slavery as reported in Libya. By writing forward-looking policies at the nexus of historical knowledge and issues of contemporary relevance, I believe that we can reshape current migration and refugee policy in the European Union (EU) to become more humane in the short-term and more cognizant about the long-term historical obligation to repair relations with formerly colonized people.