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Pambazuka: "Borders create misconceptions" - Interview with Riadh Ben Ammar

The lack of freedom of movement creates as many prejudices in the Global North as in the Global South. The European project of closing down the borders ensures that ever more people migrate to the North due to a lack of alternatives. The theatre director Riadh Ben Ammar is committed to the idea of freedom of movement and has created a theatre play to promote the topic. In this interview, he argues that people would not permanently stay in Europe if everyone would be able to move legally between Southern and Northern countries.

Mr. Ben Ammar, as a political activist you are committed to the idea of freedom of movement. What comes to your mind when you see that many people are trying to come to Europe?

I think that a lot of these people do not primarily move because they are looking for work. Where I come from, Europe is perceived as a place of democracy and freedom, which is very exciting for young people. In addition to this we see all of these tourists coming to our countries who enjoy sunbathing at the beach the entire day. Due to this, one starts to think that everyone living in Europe enjoys this lifestyle. This triggers curiosity. If the borders would be open, those young people who go to Europe could return.

This means that the isolation encourages people to come?

I think that the isolation causes more and more young people to come. The worst, concerning the European border system is that Europe becomes a trap as soon as people have managed to reach European soil after risking their lives or paying €6,000 for a Visa permit. It is after all of this that you cannot easily say 'No I don’t like the life in Europe, I will go back to my home country'. This is also a psychological phenomenon.

And on this side of the border? How do you perceive the highly celebrated Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) in Germany?

Germany is a rich country and is therefore able to help. I know that many people here in Germany have a good heart. But I do have a problem with the system. I do not think that the German government is acting out of humanism. Germany needs labour and what would be better than receiving a number of well qualified Syrian people? It’s a capitalist logic that is veiled under Angela Merkel’s 'We can do it' slogan: We will keep those who are needed and deport the rest into detention centres. Borders are tightly connected to the capitalist system. In my opinion everyone who manages to cross the border is a revolutionary. It is in a way a revolt that signals that this condemned system is not tolerated.  

What is the impact of borders on us as human beings?

Borders create an atmosphere of criminalisation because they force people to live in illegality. No development will emerge from the closing of borders; in contrast, young people will even be forced into radicalisation because they do not believe in life anymore. This leads to hatred, death and racism. And this is applicable for both sides of the border. During the last years, I have travelled a lot in border regions and the atmosphere is disastrous especially in Southern Italy and Greece. Borders, first and foremost, produce misconceptions.

Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean in terms of misconception?

Misconceptions exist on both sides. Take, for example, the current notion that migrants live in Europe in order to make money. Where I come from, these wrong perceptions exist as well: If a young person wants to go to Europe, many people think, 'He will live there and bring us gifts'.  This is why I am playing my theatre play Hurria in Arabic as well, in order to explain to the Tunisian society why we leave the country. When the opening of the border between Germany and Poland was announced at the beginning of the 2000s, a lot of people in Germany were scared, fearing that all Polish people would suddenly come to Germany. In most discussions the Polish citizen was the thief, the fraudster, the criminal. When the borders were opened, this racist discourse fell apart. This is the misconception: No one is a criminal by nature, it is the border that turns them into criminals.

You came from Tunisia to Germany 16 years ago. When was the first time you came in contact with politics?

Actually, I was planning to move to Norway where my uncle was staying. However, my visa permit was not applicable over there.  I then moved to Hamburg where I had to apply for asylum. Thereafter, I was sent into a ‘Lager’ compound[1] in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In 2004, a group of activists came and talked to us. But I wasn’t convinced about what they were talking about. I mainly blamed myself for the situation I found myself trapped in. It was the protests against the G8 summit in 2007 in Heiligendamm (Germany) that politicized me. Thanks to a friend of mine, I moved into a flat-sharing community in Rostock that took part in organizing the protests. At this place I had the possibility to read a lot and to reflect on the relationship between Africa and Europe.  

What forms of political commitment did you engage in since then?

After I got my legal papers in 2008, I felt free and started working. But the G8-protests stayed in my mind and for me it was obvious that there is something wrong and that some things need to be changed. Therefore, in 2010 we started the network Afrique Europe Interact. We work closely with African activists. Our first action was in the beginning of 2011. In order to protest for freedom of movement and to demand self-determined development, we organised a car caravan to the World Social Forum in Dakar.

How did you develop your theatre play from your own experiences?

It was the revolution in Tunisia that inspired me. I was there often, before and after the revolution and I experienced the changes very closely. In this context I have seen which role the borders played during this time. With Afrique Europe Interact, I mainly gave speeches. But I also wanted to find a way through which I could pass on the information at an emotional level. Therefore, I developed the theatre play Hurria! Theatrale Revolution für Bewegungsfreiheit (Theatrical revolution for the freedom of movement). The people who are attending the events should not simply listen to numbers and facts, but feel the injustice themselves through crying and laughing. Theatre is another form of publicity. I noticed that this medium is very important in order to show injustice. Each performance also offers the possibility for people to engage in discussions. For me it has always been important to listen to what people think. With the help of the play, I would like to explain why young people are coming to Europe and why freedom of movement is so important. Theatre is the expression of my political activism.

When you show your play in Germany, what do you think its impacts are?

I try to explain why those young people from Africa set out to Europe, to stop the deaths in the Mediterranean. I come from the Mediterranean coast, and sometimes, the dead bodies of many young people, of many dreams, strand at our place. I always have the feeling the continent is moving – and it is very important that those young people can also travel and have a chance to get to know the world. Europe is, for us as Africans, a mirror of our countries. We need to get to know different cultures to get to know ourselves better. The home countries of these people would develop quite well if they had the possibility to have a look at their countries from the outside. This would contribute to their return to their countries - which need them - as more confident people.  

When would you, as an activist, say you have reached your goal?

My goal is peace in the Mediterranean and the development of the neighbouring countries. Currently, the Mediterranean Sea is at war, a war that already killed more than 2000 people this year. 2000 people are so many human beings with perspectives, dreams and a strong determination. All countries need to take responsibility for what happened. I wish that our societies get more in contact with each other and come to understand that all of us are worse off with such borders. Germany always feels itself in far distance from the Mediterranean, but this is not true.

End note

1. A mass accommodation facility which is commonly used to house refugees in Germany.

* Riadh Ben Ammar is a director and active in the network Afrique Europe Interact. yougharta(at)riseup.net.This interview was conducted by Sofia Casarrubia in Berlin in January 2016. Translation by Mira Hellmich and Jana Bante.

This article was first published in German by AfricAvenir and Südlink on March 7, 2016. It was written as part of the project “Why we are here – African perspectives on flight and migration” conducted by AfricAvenir in 2015/16.

With the friendly support of the Landesstelle für Entwicklungszusammenarbeit and Engagement Global. 

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