"We can no longer call them refugees"
Photo: UOC
04/04/2017
ngeles Doate
Irene Savio and Leticia lvarez, journalists and authors of My name is refugee

 

A meeting on a Ukrainian-Soviet train. A common profession, correspondent. A shared concern with a Europe in tension, its borders, and all the people that reach them searching for a future they are denied where they were born. The Italian Irene Savio, brought up in Argentina, and the Valencian Leticia lvarez have travelled all over our continent covering an unprecedented human crisis. Thousands, millions, of people are fleeing war, hunger, fear... their expressions call to us and their hopes are placed in us. For years, the two journalists had told us the story on television, radio and in the press. But one day this was no longer enough: they wanted to give a voice to the true protagonists so that they could tell us their story, to reflect all the details always left out of the reports because of lack of time or space. This is how Mi nombre es refugiado (My Name is Refugee, Editorial UOC) was born, a book full of life with its light and shadow that cannot leave those who call themselves people indifferent.

How and when did you make contact with the refugees?

Irene: I began covering migration stories 10 years ago in Italy, contributing to the supplement of a specialized newspaper. I have continued to do so ever since because it is still one of the burning issues on the international agenda. And not only for this reason: I wanted to get involved in these issues because I firmly believe that one of the tasks of journalism is to give a voice to those who do not have the chance to be heard. To this end, it is also important to put ourselves in their shoes. On one occasion, I even pretended to be a migrant to see if regular migrants living in Europe are discriminated against when they are looking for a decent place to live.

Leticia: I arrived in Greece as an economic affairs correspondent three or four years ago. Refugees were already there but they were not the problem they are now. When the alarm sounded two years ago, I began working constantly on this story. I have followed the route four times, although not posing as a migrant because it was impossible: I travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Germany. I spent time in the forests, slept with them in Idomeni, and even wore a veil! I took buses and crossed borders on foot when they let me. When we could not go with them, for instance on a boat journey, they continued to send us text messages. That route had existed for many years. Men went first and, when it was safe, families travelled. There was a time when it was almost an organized trip: there were networks, recommendations...

You began covering these issues as journalists. You worked for television, radio, the press... Why did you move from reporting to the book? What did this new path offer?

Irene: The book gave us the possibility to explain this migration crisis more profoundly, completely and accurately. And also to pay more lasting witness to one of the worst migration crises of this century. I was, am and always will be convinced that they deserved it.

Leticia: News provides information but it is clinical. The day-to-day, what people experience and feel, is left unwritten. We also wanted people to know about all of this. We wanted to tell their real story in detail and depth. And we wanted them to tell it, to explain what they are going through, to bring them closer to us. They are normal people with families, who fall in love, suffer, are educated, have lost their jobs... They are like us, but living a very harsh reality. We wanted to make them real and explain how such a thing could happen and when it began.

How did you go about writing it?

Irene: We always worked as a team but each focused on an area. I focused on the Balkans and Leticia on Greece. We spent hours connected via Skype and revising the texts. It was not easy as one of us got married and the other travelled to Mexico with a scholarship, but even so we stayed connected. We have discussed every comma in the book!

How did you feel being part of the lives of these people, albeit for an instant?

Leticia: I felt sad about what I was seeing, ashamed of being Spanish, of seeing how we were treating these people, and angry when I saw the beatings or mistreatment. And I felt impotent when they asked me if I could help them. No, I can't. I keep in touch with them and for most of them their situation has improved. This is why, when I speak to them, I feel happy. Happy for this contact, for having known them... although I still feel ashamed when I see that our country has accommodated so few.

People imagine the day-to-day routine of a correspondent as hectic, with no time to establish these links...

Leticia: The good thing about being a freelancer, like me, is that I have time to spare. The best way of understanding something is to experience it, to dedicate hours to it, days... If I get close to the people going through it, I feel more comfortable. It is essential to get involved to get real sense of it. If I had not slept or cried with them, if I had not spent an afternoon... I would not have learnt.

You are professionals. Your role is to explain what is happening. Is this involvement dangerous?

Irene: Covering a humanitarian crisis has its rules of the game. It is impossible not to feel empathy for these people but, from my point of view, it is very important for journalists not to be activists and for these two activities to remain separate. In other words, it is impossible to be indifferent when you see so much pain close up, but it is important to keep your own feelings and tears to yourself.

Leticia: There is always a line you must not cross. When I get involved, if it concerns me physically or emotionally, I become an activist rather than a journalist. If I feel this, I stop, disconnect and return later. Otherwise, if I do not maintain a distance, I get angry and my reporting becomes subjective.

However, for you, refugees are no longer a mass. They have names, faces...

Leticia: I do not like using the word refugee. I prefer to call them normal people who are living through a dramatic situation. They are fighters, welcoming, survivors... They thank God despite everything; they bring out the best in themselves. They are at an impasse, waiting. And this takes a toll on them. Some of them return, throw in the towel. The uncertainty they live with forces them to return to Turkey or Iraq. It crushes them. They come from a conflict and find themselves in difficult situations. They need psychological support. For instance, Nur got caught in Moria, waiting for a solution. He could not cope. He is going back to Syria. Can you imagine his despair?

Irene: I agree with Leticia. It would never cross my mind to call one those people we met in this experience a "refugee". This is what happens when you see things directly, without filters. This is also what happens to people living in Lampedusa and in Lesbos. They see the drama every day, they see women, children and elderly people arriving exhausted on the coasts, after terrible journeys by sea... This changes your perspective. It might be said that it makes you more "human" because it does not allow you to think about the events as a set of figures, data or statements by technocrats.

In this crisis, there are many actors. Civil society, governments, the European Union... What role do you think the media and journalists are playing?

Irene: I think that we are often alarmist and lack historical perspective to consider these global phenomena, which does not mean that we must minimize the seriousness of humanitarian situations. Let's consider the case of the so-called migration crisis of the Balkans route. In 2015 and 2016, the crisis was on the front pages of newspapers every day. Today, it has disappeared from the media agenda and yet in Greece there are refugee camps ‐ such as in Lesbos ‐ that look like concentration camps. Moreover, our historical ignorance prevents us from identifying the real causes behind these migrations, to pose the right questions. Why do many migrants from Eritrea arrive in Italy? What is happening in Eritrea? What are the consequences of colonialism in Africa? Why today are there refugees stranded between Serbia, Hungary and Croatia, on the former moving borders of the Ottoman (Muslim) Empire and the Austro-Hungarian (Christian) Empire?

And our society?

Leticia: Civil society is doing what it should. Demonstrating is useful. Volunteering for a week is useful. You are there, you understand what they are doing and you explain it when you return.

Do the images of these demonstrations, such as in Barcelona, reach the camps?

Leticia: Everything that citizens from other countries do reaches them. They see the volunteers. They are thankful. They are not against them. They are not resentful. Those who have arrived in Spain, Italy... speak of sensitivity, help. Citizens are one thing but governments are another. They find it hard to accept charity but appreciate the help, a demonstration, the willingness to integrate them and treat them as equals.

And what do they think about the response of the governments? Was it what they were expecting? Is this the Europe they dreamt of?

Leticia: They did not believe the politicians. Like they did not believe those in Syria. They do not believe that any government will do anything for them. And Europe does not have that much power. It is easy to blame. Decisions are made based on voting. Europe is adrift. Elections in France, the Netherlands, Brexit... it has to find itself. There are 27 individual countries. Let's not talk about Europe. Let's talk about our government, which also has not accommodated them. We are no longer the champions of human rights. Hungary is raising borders and you don't throw it out? Greece is behaving very well. They do not manage their resources well, which they also lack, but they are doing very well. Serbia and Macedonia had their own refugees not long before. It is noticeable. One day I saw the police hitting some refugees with truncheons. Then I saw one of those police officers crying. One thing is governments, rules, orders... At street level, they have a social spirit. We have already forgotten what fleeing or searching for shelter means... they haven't.

Irene: Many of those who have made it and are in Europe, even in Spain, are thankful for having had the opportunity to start over. This is the first thing they tell you. However, for them, it is not an easy process. By way of example, among those who have reached Europe there are many professionals, architects, lawyers, doctors, who will not be able to work for a time because they will need to have their degrees recognized. This paperwork is frustrating. Moreover, in many places there are also logistical problems, transport does not work well and in some cases moving around, especially with children, is not at all easy. In short, integration is not easy. This is why it is necessary, in all the host countries, for things to be done well, planned with professionals with experience in these matters.

Will this crisis reawaken the old phantoms of the Balkans? Were these very unstable countries ready for such a drama?

Irene: The phantoms are always there lying in wait. What matters for the whole region is how, when and to what extent they will become members of the European Union. Slovenia and Croatia are members. Serbia cannot become a member until the Kosovar conflict is resolved. And this also applies to Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia. They must resolve their domestic and regional problems. When this is done, it will be possible to create a union of Balkan countries, which can later join the EU. Were they ready? No, they weren't. The migration crisis caused new tensions among the Balkan countries and increased the political instability in this already fragile region. If in Europe there is still a place that harbours the memory of conflicts, this place is the Balkans.

A solution seems difficult... impossible!

Leticia: It is difficult but things can be done. For instance, why does Spain not provide safe passage? If the embassies in Lebanon or Turkey granted humanitarian visas it would stop the mafias from filling up boats. There is now a legal vacuum and traffickers are exploiting it. Everybody is taking to the sea. Stop arresting them on the pretext of terrorism! Terrorists do not travel on fragile boats. And the pull effect? It is not created by those who jump into the sea. We cannot leave them helpless.

Irene: What Leticia says is true. However, there are initiatives that are absolutely valid and are not well known. One of them is the Catholic association Community of Sant’Egidio, which works with the support of the Italian Government and the Vatican, and recently France. They have already legally and safely brought 700 refugees to Italy from the Middle East in one year through the so-called humanitarian corridors. This is more than what has been done by 15 European countries combined.