The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Mohammed Badran is a Palestinian anthropologist, advocate, and community mobiliser. He is a founding member of a number of self- led networks such as Syrian Volunteers in the Netherlands (SYVNL), the G100 initiative, the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN), and the Diaspora Networks Alliance (DNA). His consultancy MB Capacity Development supports organisations, companies, and government institutions to better understand the different dimensions of migration and the refugee experience.
A refugee since birth, Mohammed Badran has little time for charitable hand-outs, however well intentioned, because they reinforce the degrading concept of victimhood and undermine individual agency. His work focusses on empowering and connecting refugees, placing them at the forefront of collaborative solution formulation, not just locally, but also at the global level. Cities are the natural loci for these efforts.
You’ve been a refugee twice in your life, is that correct? In Syria, as well as now in the Netherlands?
I’ve lived all my life as a refugee. I was born with the label of being a refugee and I grew up with being a refugee. I’ve never experienced being other than a refugee.
Why do most refugees and migrants end up in cities?
When you arrive as a refugee, the main focus for your future is to rebuild your life, and that perspective matches very much with the different opportunities that you can get within bigger cities. If you are located, let’s say in a village, you have less opportunities to integrate and learn the language, interact and participate in the society, so that sense of participation and being part of the society and contributing to it, it has a bigger chance in bigger cities.
To what extent is the motivation to go to cities due to the diaspora or national communities already there?
That is one of the factors that will determine which European country you’re going to move to. Before the whole refugee crisis in Europe started in 2015, a lot of people, they were saying “But how do these refugees know where to go or which country is better for them?” That depended a lot on the social networks that each of these refugees had, and their families and their neighbours and their friends who made the journey to Europe, to a certain country, and then they know the different policies and then they advise them to which city or which country they should go to.
You talk a lot about breaking the vicious cycles of fear-driven policies. Can you elaborate what you mean by this?
The vicious cycles start from the perception of how we see refugees, and that has been either as threats, burdens, or as victims. If we keep this perception and don’t see refugees for who they really are—human beings with a lot of capacities—then we will keep creating short-sighted policies that don’t help either refugees, the host communities, or anyone. This perception is also connected to an old mentality of how we would like to help refugees, and some of this of course is coming from the goodwill of policymakers or NGOs, European NGOs. It’s coming from an old philanthropy mentality where we want to help refugees. But that doesn’t help them and rather puts refugees in an unequal structural position in society: that they are helpless, they are victims without agency, and then they need help from the help-givers. That’s what creates the vicious cycle; instead of helping refugees, these polices do the opposite. Instead of becoming self-reliant, refugees become dependent when you keep looking at them as victims and you are not taking their agency into account when you develop policies or solutions.
In your experience, was this phenomenon as prevalent when you were a refugee in Damascus as it is now Amsterdam?
Actually, no: there are differences. Palestinian refugees [in Syria] have their own places or camps where they live, and yet they had some access to be integrated into Syrian society. I remember working in the biggest local NGO in Syria. They all knew that I was Palestinian, but I never actually thought that I was different from them.
We had access to whatever we wanted. I mean, you could become a teacher, for example, and you could take a higher position, although of course there’s certain positions that you cannot reach. Palestinian refugees had a lot and they were more integrated than when we compare them to Europe. What’s different here in Amsterdam or in other European cities is that there are many policies that hinder you from succeeding. As a refugee you have the will, and there’s a lot of people who are passionate just to start rebuilding their life as soon as possible, but then they find that there’s a lot of obstacles that are so unnecessary put up against these people.
Can you summarise briefly the kind of work you do?
I’m actually an anthropologist, and I’m interested in city space and politics. I established Syrian Volunteers in the Netherlands, which is a refugee-led network of refugee volunteers and Dutch volunteers, and they participate in doing different social activities and contribute to Dutch society through voluntary work. I’m also part of the G-100 initiative, which is a series of conferences by and for refugees and migrant newcomers in cities like Amsterdam, Brussels, and Berlin. And then last year, we co-organised the only session with the Mayors Migration Council on cities during the Global Refugee Forum (GRF). What the G-100 does is, in each city, we try to bring around 60 or 80 refugees, experts and policymakers, together to map the different challenges and then try to come up with concrete policy recommendations or solutions that could be taken. These recommendations are then discussed in a more practical way, how they could be implemented in each of these cities.
I’ve also been involved with the whole Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration since its beginning, the New York Declaration in 2016. When I was invited, I was the only refugee that was allowed to speak and address the UN General Assembly in 2016. When I was in that room, I saw that I was the only refugee there and that it was a lot of responsibility on me, to bring out all the diverse voices in just three, four minutes. My objective, since that moment, has been focussed on how can we create more spaces for refugees and refugee leaders and advocates to bring their voices into these different spaces? Less than two percent of GRF participants are actually refugees so it’s quite an improvement on zero, but still a long way to go!
What do you think you’ll be working on in five, or ten years’ time? Do you have a target?
My interest is to focus more on cities, but with a different approach, a different way of thinking. How can we connect the different migrant communities or local communities across cities? How can we connect city to city? Not necessarily just with policymakers, what the different city networks already do, but how can you connect horizontally the different migrant communities between cities and across borders? And how can that kind of space transform knowledge and best practices and best fits? We know that a lot of solutions that are being tried now are found at the local level or by local civil society or by migrant communities themselves, developing their own solutions. Also, concerning advocating for refugee participation, participation is not only low at the international level, but refugees are also excluded at the city level. There’s a lot of potential where refugee-led organisations and local movements could participate to work together with the cities and then have those kind of alliances at the international level… and that’s what I would like to do in the coming years.
Do you see a clear difference between city-level responses to and policies about refugees and migrants compared to national or economic-bloc level?
Yes, one hundred percent. There are a lot of policy tensions between national and local. Cities have a lot of flexibility in taking quicker responses, quicker actions and finding practical solutions. While it’s important to have the laws that protect refugee rights and migrant rights at the national level, what you need to do is also to focus at the different local actions that local authorities are making, mobilising the different cities in a country and then coming with a stronger voice to the national policy.
In some European cities, almost half the population is foreign- born, something you don’t see in cities in the global South. In any city or country where the proportion of migrants and refugees is seen to be rising, isn’t it natural to find some resistance?
Yes, but when you look at, for example structural racism, that’s an issue that you would find in most northern countries rather than in the global South. As migrants and outsiders, you have to deal with that kind of white supremacy discourse or white nationalism. Let’s look right now with the Covid-19 crisis, you see that most of the essential workers and healthcare workers are from migrant backgrounds, but you still find that “hostile environment”, especially politically, towards migrants, and that is problematic. Even here in the Netherlands, right now, we are starting a campaign to advocate for the rights of refugee doctors who arrived here and still cannot work, [to help them] contribute to the national health system because it’s not inclusive towards migrants and people with a non-Western diploma.
Should the world expect to have to distribute and share a lot more refugees than in the past? At the moment, we’re seeing the trend going the other way, countries are taking fewer and fewer refugees.
Yes, absolutely. Everyone has been talking about sharing responsibility, having that kind of a sharing responsibility mechanism. If you look at Europe, in comparison to Turkey or in the same region Lebanon or Jordan where you have millions of Syrian refugees, you see a significant difference. Definitely, there should be a kind of sharing mechanism so that if all countries share a little bit, it wouldn’t be that huge of a pressure on any one country.
Migration numbers will definitely increase and the problem of migration will stay a hot topic with big challenges in this century and the coming years and mainly because when you consider city development strategies, most cities actually do not take migration as a new challenge that they should face for the future. Migration is something that they respond to as if it is an emergency, as if it’s unexpected, even though you have all these scientists and researchers that are saying migration is going to continue to be a major phenomenon and that countries and cities need to take it into account.
When we talk about city vision and city development in the future… Amsterdam has its own vision, Berlin has its own vision and so forth, each city has a five -year or a ten-year vision, but when you when you look at each of these visions, you don’t see the migrants’ voices in these visions. That’s also another aspect I would like to do in the future: to create inclusive spaces for migrants to participate in developing the vision of the city, of their own city and how they see the future of their own city.
The narrative around cities and migrants and refugees concentrates often on the two words, “integration” and “inclusivity”. In your views, are these the most important aspects for the migrant and refugee perspective?
Yes, well, “integration”… What is integration? Integration could be anything, couldn’t it? We try to say that integration must also include inclusion, and that also makes it more complex. The most important issue, instead of getting tied up with these terms that can be interpreted differently, is how can refugees and migrants meaningfully participate in the city itself, in all its development, thinking, planning and all of its institutions and overall, how can they succeed in society and be treated equally, similarly to any other urban communities living in that city. Meaningful participation is key because at the end, you want to reach self-reliance, and you cannot achieve it without meaningful participation.
Are there city-level failures that might be conducive to the emergence of criminality or even terrorism among refugee and migrant populations?
When people go in that direction because of discrimination and the exclusion from all the discussions that leaves people unable to express themselves and find their purpose in life in that city, people then start looking for a different purpose, whatever that might be. When you don’t find yourself belonging to the community where you are based in, then you start looking for other communities where you can feel you belong, and it doesn’t matter whether these people are Muslims or from whatever religion, they could be anyone. So the objective for the city should be how it can make sure that all of its inhabitants feel they belong to that city and invest in belonging to the city.
Do you have a sense how Covid-19 may have affected things for refugees and migrants? Do you think things have been set back by the pandemic, or has it created some opportunities?
Both: definitely Covid allowed us to see a lot of the issues that we were aware of before but were not ready to be confronted with. For example, here in the Netherlands we set up the Corona Health Desk, which provides information for refugees and migrants in their own language, in Arabic, and Tigrinya for Eritreans, etc. It has exposed how disconnected the city and the government are from its inhabitants, especially the refugees and the migrants, that they couldn’t communicate with them even. Refugees and migrants cannot access information about prevention because it’s all shared in a language that many are not well-equipped with. You have a big number of people who recently arrived in the Netherlands and they don’t speak Dutch at that level.
Every crisis brings also an opportunity, or you can turn it into an opportunity. For example, we were talking about how refugee doctors were excluded. There are certain skills and a huge amount of resources that could be invested in these doctors who arrived in a new country but are just waiting for, say, five years, six years and they cannot find a job, and then at the end, they are pushed to do a very lowly job that’s far away from their background. And this showed the opportunity that everyone knows right now how important it is for these people to work as soon as possible, and that when you start looking for the different opportunities that could come up, it could turn this crisis into an opportunity, and you can build on that.
How would you characterise life for most refugees and migrants in European cities?
You have that vision, especially people in the global South, when they think of Europe and of European cities, or global North cities, they think that they are going be treated as an equal human being, they are not going to be discriminated against, they’re not [still] going be running from war or conflict or all these kind of difficulties that they have been through. But then they are faced here with all of this again, with discrimination, racism, structural racism, and it’s very disappointing.
So all those positive things refugees and migrants might gain are outweighed by the discrimination and the negative aspects?
I would say that you are going to find both. You are going to find welcoming people. I have come across a lot of welcoming people and people with a very good heart, but this is the reality, you have both. When you are a refugee and you live in these cities, you try so hard to avoid having an experience of structural racism or discrimination. And I don’t think I’m going to bring a picture to an outsider saying it’s just like utopia, where you’re going to get everything that you have ever dreamed of. It’s not like that, and things need to be addressed the way they are, because a lot of people are disappointed when they arrive.