HUMAN RIGHTS DAY EXPERT COMMENT: ‘The Infiltrator’ versus ‘The Refugee’


Human Rights Day is an international event held on 10 December each year to commemorate the day that the United Nations' General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Violations of human rights are a major cause of mass exoduses, and rule out the option of voluntary repatriation for as long as they persist. As part of work to address global inequalities, Dr Tanja Müller of the Global Development Institute has written this piece on the relationship between refugees and human rights.

My entry point to the contemporary refugee crisis in Europe goes back to 2010, when many of the dynamics that could be observed in Europe later were played out in Israel: Israel then experienced its first unprecedented movement of non-Jewish refugees – mainly from Eritrea and Sudan.

At the time, the arrival of a comparatively large number of African refugees, with legitimate claims for asylum in Israel, put into sharp focus one of the central problems of the 21st century: the lack of solid footing of universal human rights in actual political space.

The refugees had previously resided predominately in Egypt and Libya, but wider political circumstances had made both countries unsafe. Israel was perceived by those who now came to it as ‘the Europe we can walk to’ – and Israeli authorities were in many ways as unprepared as most European countries were in the course of 2015, when movements of refugees and migrants, perceived as unprecedented, arrived at their shores.

A question of rights?

Perhaps most famously Hannah Arendt has commented in relation to refugee populations in the 1930s that the very right to have rights is connected to being a citizen of a particular state. This raises the question if through concrete acts of solidarity at different levels, quasi-citizenship rights can be secured for those who lack such rights formally.

The official response of the Israeli state to the arrival of African refugees was, on the face of it, based on hostility. In official discourse and much of the media, these recent arrivals were not recognised as potential refugees but described as infiltrators – a term that originally referred to armed Palestinian resistance groups who illegally entered Israel from Arab countries. 
Dr Tanja Müller

At the same time, many refugees themselves spoke positively about the hospitality they received from the Israeli soldiers who processed their illegal entry to the country, not only providing them with water, food and blankets but often showing real compassion to their plight.

In addition, within a short time a refugee sector established itself, partly made up of long-term NGOs that extended their mandate, but also a number of new civil society organisations and an influx of volunteers, many young Jewish people from abroad in a sort of gap year. This was complemented by daily interactions with refugees in neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Transcending ‘us’ and ‘them’

But to what extend did these different types of engagement transcend boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’? One example of a joint project between refugees and Israeli civil society volunteers that aimed to challenge public discourse away from the infiltrator narrative was the newspaper Refugee Voice – a publication which, on paper, was jointly created by refugees and volunteers.

It was introduced to the wider public by the left leaning newspaper Haaretz on 15 April 2011 in an editorial in its weekend magazine under the title ‘let my people stay’ - a word play on ‘let my people go’, referring to biblical history when Moses led the Israeli people back from enslavement in Egypt.


At the launch event for the Refugee Voice newspaper at a popular nightclub in Tel Aviv, some interesting dynamics could be observed. Firstly, very few refugees attended the event, which felt more like a party for the Israeli volunteers. Those who did attend stayed among themselves and told me they preferred to go out to different bars that were not only cheaper but where they could talk to each other quietly.

At some point the newspaper was being presented and the person who gave the speech was an Israeli female volunteer. She started by thanking everybody for their input, as ‘I could not have done this without the help of …’ (at which point everybody who contributed an article to the newspaper, refugees and Israelis alike, were mentioned by name). Thus, the newspaper was not presented as a truly joint enterprise in which ‘we’ (Israelis and refugees alike) came together on an equal footing, but as something that was instigated by Israelis concerned with refugee rights quasi on their behalf.

In a rather paradoxical way, the claim for universal rights was enacted in this patronizing fashion that indirectly upholds unequal status between refugees and those who advocate on their behalf. This perception was confirmed by some of the refugees who did engage with Refugee Voice as an organ to give visibility to their cause. ‘Berhe’ for example remarked that ‘the newspaper is too timid, it does not really address the important issues we face, just gives some stories of suffering’.

But, looking at Refugee Voice from the perspective of the majority of refugees (who in fact had no desire to be overtly politically engaged, but were concerned with social entitlements and an opportunity to work, even if ‘illegally’), its humanitarian angle addressed their main concerns.

Even taking into account the unequal relationship between the different parties involved in its creation, the newspaper was a magnanimous act of citizenship inspired by conceptions of solidarity – however flawed those may have been.
Dr Tanja Müller

So, on Human Rights Day - when the UN asks us to step forward and defend the rights of one person - consider the rights of a refugee or migrant. Their right to live, right to health, education, freedom of speech and thoughts, and equal rights. And in defending those rights – let’s ensure that we do not patronise.Instead, through recognising equal rights for all we can truly work together and co-produce better futures on an equal footing.

For further analysis of the issues discussed above, see Tanja’s article in Citizenship Studies.

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