There is substantial, widespread ignorance regarding the meaning of certain words that are continuously used – or rather abused – by the media, by art professionals, and unfortunately even by scientists, as has recently been noticed by the UNHCR.
The terms “refugee”, “asylum-seeker”, “immigrant”, and “migrant” are used to describe people who have left their countries and have crossed borders. These terms are not interchangeable as there are legal differences between them. The definition “internally displaced people” is connected with these terms, but in itself has a different connotation.
Refugees are individuals who have fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again. They have a right to international protection. Asylum seekers are individuals who are seeking international protection, whose claims have not yet been finally decided on by the country in which they have submitted them. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every recognized refugee is initially an asylum seeker. Internally displaced people (IDPs) have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home. IDPs stay within their own country and remain under the protection of their government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement. Most Yazidis in Iraq, after the barbaric massacre by the self-proclaimed Islamic State terrorists in 2014, are today IDPs in Iraqi Kurdistan, only tens of kilometres away from Shekhan, which had the second largest population of Yazidis before the persecution, and Lalish, their holiest place. Immigrants are persons who come to live permanently in a foreign country. They weren’t necessarily forced from or pushed out of their own country; it can also be their personal choice to leave.
There are many more definitions that could be reflected upon, I would suggest reflecting upon concepts such as “countries of transit” (for example, Libya) and their safety according to the international law. Likewise, feel the hypocritical incongruity of such definitions as “economic migrants” or “environmental migrants”, and consider the characteristics of all the EU joint missions in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly in terms of respecting – or not respecting – international maritime law regarding the rescue of individuals at sea. What I want to stress is that there are fundamental human rights that are not being internationally respected today. One of the basic ones is the right to freedom of movement, comprising three elements according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: freedom of movement within the territory of a country and to choose one’s residence there, the right to leave any country, and the right to return to one’s own country.
Reflecting on the abundance of artists working with these issues of migration, I would like to highlight a decalogue by Tania Cañas, a Melbourne-based art professional and researcher, a refugee herself, published in 2015 and cited in my book, Bare Lives. Ever since I read her text, it has become my own unbreakable set of rules. It’s called “10 things you need to consider if you are an artist – not of the refugee and asylum seeker community – looking to work with our community”. Her reflections should be essential questions for every art professional who approaches the migrant community – not to mention any vulnerable community – as art can become a conduit for a real change only when cognitive and ethical values go hand in hand with its aesthetic, metaphoric and poetic uniqueness.
There are some points I would like to read from Tania’s decalogue. I’ll start at the beginning: “We are not a resource to feed into your next artistic project. You may be talented at your particular craft but do not assume that this automatically translates to an ethical, responsible and self-determining process.” “[Refugees’] struggle is not an opportunity” to build a career and it is necessary to carefully interrogate intentions and motivations behind an artwork. Artists need to realise their privilege and consider that “participation is not always progressive or empowering but … can just be limiting, tokenistic and condescending”.
I have realized how precious these guidelines are on many occasions, in particular during the nine weeks I spent in the Zaatari Camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2012. A few months after Zaatari was established, I had the “privilege” to be allowed to live in that camp without any particular restrictions. I was only requested to sleep in the nearby town for understandable security issues, both for the refugees and myself. Over the last 20 years, my human and professional attention has mainly been focused on the Middle East and on the theme of migration, exploring the relationship between privacy and civil engagement and considering the notions of border and inequality, particularly concerning issues of identity and presence. The worth of the principles Cañas enumerates in her text was somehow clear to me even before knowing about her text. Before travelling to Jordan, I had carefully done “my research” on Syrian history, habits and, traditions and, aware that “art is not neutral”, on their political claims and social demands. Refugees appreciated my efforts, accepting my being an outsider, and honoured me with their sincere friendship: this has always been much more important than any work which came out of those experiences in refugee camps. I am still in touch with many of them through social media, particularly with one of the families I became closest to during those nine weeks in Zaatari, that of an English teacher now living with his family in Germany as refugees, quite close to where I am based. I did my very best to sympathize with their frustrations, to perceive their struggles and their resilience, to share their moments of despair, joy, and nostalgia. They told me their stories, we cooked and danced together, I was invited to their weddings, in a couple of cases, very troubling news was brought to my attention about situations of domestic violence. Thanks to my “privilege” as a white, Christian, European artist, I had easier access to authorities, and I became a link for international NGOs to the camp. In this specific case, this privilege was probably also an advantage for my refugee friends, as I was able to help them solve some issues.
A 30-minute film resulted from these nine weeks: “Al Intithar” (The Waiting) is the first film of the trilogy “BAYT” (HOME). The concept of “BAYT” was inspired by Anthony Shadid’s book, House of Stone, in which he writes that “In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift … Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is finally the identity that does not fade.” “BAYT” reflects on the emergence of a new civic imagination and on issues such as female identity in the Arab world, the concept of home and uprooting, and the driving forces between innovation and conservation that have traversed and traverse the Mediterranean. The three films in the trilogy, “Al Intithar”, followed by “Kauther” in 2014, and “The Little Lantern” in 2019 – focus on three different women from Syria, Tunisia, and Lebanon as protagonists. In contrast to Western-biased narratives, women have been at the forefront of this region's uprisings and the most active organizers and leaders both on- and offline, since the early days of the so-called Arab Spring. In “Al Intithar”, home is no longer a rooted existence or a solid place for the female protagonist, Ekhlas Alhlwani, a Syrian widow who fled her country with her three children after her husband was killed by Assad’s army. The film, which presents itself as an excerpt, follows her life over seven weeks, translating the tragic macrocosm of the Syrian Civil War to the intimate microcosm of a relentless woman and her children.
The film was selected for the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, during a period when the Syrian tragedy was starting to show up in headlines all over Europe, so suddenly I started getting invited to talks and interviews on refugees’ issues on different occasions. In the beginning, I didn’t think about Cañas’s rule: “Know the difference between presentation vs. representation”. Or should I say rather that this was very clear during the postproduction of my films, but it strangely slipped my mind in everyday life. I felt the importance of bearing witness, of raising questions to the European audience, and, since many of my best friends in Berlin are Syrians, I had long conversations with them about the questions I was asked. I only started to feel uneasy during the preparation of my exhibition “Bare Lives” in Berlin. The staff of the gallery was quite efficient and there were many interviews about the works in the show, dealing with three different camps: Zaatari, Idomeni and the Yazidi IDP Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was at that moment that I felt the need to ask the media to let me address only aspects strictly connected with my artist’s work and, on a couple of occasions, I decided to bring a Syrian intellectual with me to talk in my place.
I have already mentioned my photographic series “Idomeni”: Starting in 2014, migrants from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan and Pakistan, began flocking to Idomeni in order to cross the Greek border and continue their journey towards the wealthier European countries, namely Germany and Sweden. In 2015, the Republic of North Macedonia, under pressure by the EU countries, decided to guard its borders with military forces in order to prevent the refugees from entering the country, as Serbia had also closed its borders. Thus, the transit camp at Idomeni rapidly became a longer-term residential camp, the largest in Greece, with more than 10,000 people. An unofficial camp, there was no government assistance for services in the camp, and refugees found themselves living on rail tracks for many months with only the support of local NGOs and Médecins Sans Frontières. In spring 2016, I decided to travel to Idomeni as a volunteer to help distributing meals for a Greek NGO from Thessaloniki. I spent my free time visiting people, getting to know their stories, trying to give a smile and empathize with their despair. The photographs I took show a strange no-man’s land, a space outside of time where life had been halted and the days were filled with anxious, yet hopeful, waiting. Idomeni was in a kind of stateless, lawless, homeless form of limbo, not here, not yet there, where their existence was suspended. They had evaded registration on arrival in Greece (as the EU law requires under the Dublin Regulation), even if that required burning off their fingertips. But their dreams crumbled in the face of reality and they were forced into official camps throughout Greece.
In September 2016 I was invited to be part of the jury of the Duhok International Film Festival in Iraqi Kurdistan. I asked the organizers to let me spend an additional period of three weeks in the region and to be put in contact with the Yazidi community in the nearby IDP Camp.
On August 3, 2014, Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, began its genocide against the Yazidis in Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan. This date is written on numerous tents in the camps that were created to house those members of the community who had succeeded in fleeing. It is also prominent on one of the photos of my photographic series “August 3rd”. Daesh justified the occupation, kidnapping, trading, and mass rape of women and girls of the Yazidi ethnic minority on the grounds that they didn’t believe in Allah. During my stay with Yazidis, I photographed a few women in their transitory homes. Some chose to look straight into the camera, others preferred to avert their gaze, silent witnesses of a hell the world was unable – or unwilling? – to prevent.
I staged the photos with particular care, allowing the person to emerge with dignity and discretion. Their portraits capture a truth we cannot reach with words. The faces of these brutalized bodies are not merely inscrutable, they are too blunt in their tacit condemnations to tolerate. They conceal far more than they reveal. The terror these faces have witnessed has now receded deeply into the inner sanctums of their troubled memories. Not to photograph these faces would have meant to deny them. To photograph them is to document a shame that dismantles the very idea of being human.
In her essay, “We Refugees”, Hannah Arendt put into words some of the experiences of being a refugee. She also reflected upon the effects that discrimination had on people and societies who were practicing it: “The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted”. Today, we might say that the last remains of the European community have gone to pieces, as we are allowing people to drown in European waters and perish at our borders.
In “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern”, Giorgio Agamben analyses how the refugee camp is the space and instrument for politics, the sovereign power to define bare life, the excluded: “the camp – as the pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space (insofar as it is founded solely on the state of exception) – will appear as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity, whose metamorphoses and disguises we will have to learn to recognize.” Agamben feared that the camps revealed the “nomos of the modern” and this signalled the rise of a totalitarism that operates not against democracy, but in fact through democracy.
Achille Mbembe has recently suggested that the government of human mobility might well be the most crucial problem to confront the world during the first half of the 21st century. In his essay, “Necropolitics”, he considers the ways in which political powers, appealing to exception, justify the distribution of human species into categorical groups to establish a profound human divide between the chosen and the others. This is what Foucault labels with the term “racism”.
Thousands of miles of walls and fences have gone up around the world during the 21st century. At least 65 countries – more than a third of the world’s nation states – have built barriers along their borders. But Europe is certainly not alone: The United Arab Emirates has built a fence along their borders with Oman, Kuwait, as well as Iraq. Uzbekistan has closed itself off from all of its five neighbours. And I could give many more examples. These walls tell us a great deal about international politics, but the anxieties they represent transcend the nation-state boundaries on which they sit. The primary purpose of the walls appearing throughout Europe is to stop waves of migrants, but they also say a lot about wider divisions and instability within the very structure of the European Union, and within its member nations.
I would like to conclude by quoting some phrases professor Hamid Dabashi wrote on “Al Intithar”: “Mario Rizzi has captured the historic moment when the new citizens of the new Arab republics are being born. This is a moment of suspension, a momentous pause when the history of the Arabs is being re-written ... On the site of the Zaatari camp, the liberation geography of all successive generations is being mapped out … When the dust of their desperate wars settles, these Syrians will go back to reclaim their homeland and populate it with steadfast determination – and no dictator, no fanatic, no a fortiori colonial machination will be able to rule these people with despair ever again”. This is my most sincere hope, and the main reason behind my artwork.