Recently there has been a lot of talk in Europe about refugees, sometimes designated as ”migrants”, always pronounced with a moralising overtone in order to emphasise that the individuals we are speaking about do not deserve protection or the right to stay on European soil. The fear of migration permeates European public discourses, the media and everyday conversations of ordinary people who little time ago knew next to nothing about migration. There is a growing public consensus about a number of ideas: 1, that migration is a threat to Europe, 2, that the only way to protect Europeans from this threat is to close the borders of the Union, 3, that “good migrants” (true asylum seekers) should and can be differentiated from “bad migrants” who only want to abuse the system. Although this argument apparently takes the side of the “real” asylum seekers, the mere existence of this differentiation makes everybody suspicious at the end and turns even the “good migrants’” entitlement dubious. Some protest has risen against these ideas from European civil society, but this contesting voice is less and less audible amid the slowly generalised roar of fear and hostility. There is a fourth preconception about asylum seekers: that it is a status connected to displacement. In other words one is a refugee until he or she returns to his or her country.
Those I met in NEAS-SL proved all these ideas false. The letters stand for “Network of Ex-asylum Seekers Sierra Leone”, it is a civil society organisation that unites people who share a common “refugee” identity despite the variety of their situations. In reality not many of them used to be asylum seekers in the legal sense of the term, but this does not stop them from considering themselves as real refugees, i.e. as people with rights, and this identity is only strengthened after their return to Sierra Leone. What is common in them is less their previous status than the way they returned to Sierra Leone: they were all deported.
In most cases the reason of their deportation remains fuzzy, and it is unclear whether it is because they do not want to disclose everything, because they themselves do not have a clue, or because they indeed fell victims to some kind of procedural mistake. Many of them used to live for years in their host country (mostly Germany), at times completely legalised, they had family, job, children and property – until they were deprived of everything, including the right to claim for any right. They were returned to Sierra Leone (sometimes with force, sometimes more than once), but no matter what the method was of their deportation they all experienced it as a trauma. Arriving to Sierra Leone, starting a new life proved harder than to start a new life in a foreign country. They were at home, still they were strangers, lacking social support and community networks. Worse, they were despised, considered as failures by their family, as much as by themselves. “They had a chance and they missed it” –this was the way they were seen. They could not count on empathy.
Those that I met could be categorised in two categories: part of them wanted some kind of assistance to start a new business in Sierra Leone, part of them had only one thought: return. They were certainly not deterred by the perspective of meeting deportation one more time. I had no doubt that some would attempt to travel again, no matter its costs, its dangers and the insecurity it promised. It is difficult to get into people’s way when they really want something. However, many of them told me that they would be satisfied with a short term visa, as in fact what they wanted was more the possibility to go to visit family members, to work and do business in a place that they knew well than the right to live in a foreign country until the end of their lives. It seems that Europe would have an alternative to fences in order to manage and rationalise its migration flows: it could help returnees to reintegrate and at the same time open legal channels of migration. It is true that fences are definitely more photogene than visas and reintegration packages.
NEAS-SL is a young organisation and is still in the phase of inventing itself, but it has already a strategy that contains all these elements: fight against brutal deportation, for a better information and orientation system at the airport on the arrival side, for assistance to reintegration (both from the deporting and the destination country), it even advocates for a peer-information mechanism to warn would-be migrants of the dangers of illegal migration. It could be made a partner for European institutions looking for outreach, it could turn into an important civil society movement. The trap they have to learn to circumvent is of the same nature as the poison that consumes Sierra Leonean civil society as a whole: it is the culture of victimisation. The invention of a series of collective victim identities and prolonged assistance have socialised millions of Sierra Leoneans into dependence and have created introverted interest groups so busy to fight for temporary aid and special rights for themselves that they forget to ask the important question: what kind of social change they want. The chance NEAS-SL has is that it was formed at a time when this culture is about to transform, because of funding scarcity and because of a more tense relation between government and civil society. Maybe this more hostile environment will help them to leave behind the victim identity and start to look at themselves as potential transformers.