With this post I have decided to focus almost exclusively on interviewing Southern policy-makers, practitioners and citizens, at least for the next few months. There really isn’t any need to filter what they think of humanitarian aid, development or climate change. The people I meet through my work often only need to have their voices amplified – and that’s what this blog is all about.
In the lead up to World Refugee Day on 20 June, it seems fitting to inaugurate a series of interviews I like to call “Refugees for Refugees”: conversations with refugees who have become passionate advocates on behalf of other refugees. I start with Anila Noor, originally from Pakistan, now living in the Netherlands and working as Policy Advisor for the City of Amsterdam. Anila is also a member of the Steering Committee of the European Migrant Advisory Board and the Global Refugee-Led Network, and the Founder of the platform New Women Connectors.
Anila, you are a former refugee. Tell us your story.
Actually, I am still a status holder, a newcomer. I am from the city of Lahore in Pakistan, where I used to advocate for women’s empowerment and female emancipation. Due to some unfavorable circumstances, I had to seek refuge abroad. During my stay in different asylum centers in the Netherlands, I came to learn that people coming from conflict areas get priority in the asylum request processing system. I had to wait for one year but still feel lucky. Other people that flee their country for religious or other reasons have a harder time getting refugee status.
Integrating in our new community was and is still hard. As a newcomer, I registered under a small city in the Netherlands. One of the first things you are supposed to do is to learn the local language, the rationale being that if you learn the language fast, it will be easier to get a job. If you don’t learn the language, you have to pay back your student fees. I remember trying so hard to learn Dutch back in 2017. But newly arrived refugees should be motivated differently. You can’t use the stick and carrot approach with people who are just coming out of a traumatic experience. Refugees usually arrive with a lot of baggage, they are just getting out of a black hole into a world where no-one knows you. And you’re expected to learn as quickly as possible to continue to access social assistance. Even if we are given exactly the same things, we should be treated more humanely.
I ended up refusing to go to school. They put us in a factory as manual workers, doing very low-skill labour. I managed to quit after one month. I felt I’d rather die in Pakistan than be here. Then I saw this job opportunity as Policy Advisor on Refugee Integration with the City of Amsterdam, I applied and got the job. Now I work in the city during the week and commute at weekends. It’s a two-hour train trip.
Now that I work with the City of Amsterdam, I see they are really trying hard to use their resources to improve refugee policies. Amsterdam is one of the best European cities in this regard. But the barriers are still there, just like the language example I gave you.
Why did you decide to become a refugee representative?
I already worked as a human rights activist in Pakistan. I felt there is lack of self-representation of refugee and migrants in the whole debate on migration. When I saw an opportunity with the Open City Fellowship from Open Society Foundation, I applied and got the fellowship. Now I am working as Policy Advisor and Member of European Migrant Advisory Board.
In recent years there have been efforts to include refugee voices in global policy discussions. What do you make of these initiatives? What still needs to happen?
People still do not recognize how policies can embed discrimination and divisiveness. The whole system needs to work more as a collective. For example, migrants tend to believe refugees have more opportunities than them. We shouldn’t fight each other but work together. Resources for migrants and refugees are already very limited.
You sit on the European Migrant Advisory Board. What do you reply to those who argue that refugee-led organisations do not or cannot represent all refugees and therefore have a legitimacy issue?
Even with the European Commission we come across the issue of legitimacy. They invite [refugees and migrants] to share their stories, their food or their music but the Commission does not talk WITH them. They talk ABOUT them. I could raise the same legitimacy issues with European Commission or United Nations staff – who gave them this power? Who are the people working for these institutions? Who sits in the decision rooms? I would argue they represent the elite. I find similar discriminatory patterns across countries, North and South. Integration policies need to overcome the same barriers. In Southern countries [like in North Africa] you also have discrimination but the situation there is hidden. These countries are getting money to keep refugees in detention centres, they have more problems than European countries because there is no infrastructure. Also, if discrimination happens in Africa, it is seen as normal.
The international community has recently approved two historic agreements: the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration. Where do you see the greatest potential in each of these agreements? Where do you see the biggest risk?
I have followed the development of both Compacts in New York and Geneva. My take is that we have been tokenized a lot. UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] has its own set of refugees. The Advisory Board for the Migration Compact tends to prefer migrants from Latin America – it needs to be more inclusive. Now the UN is waiting for Member States to make pledges. There is not much else they can do, they depend on the international system. It’s a good show but in the end what impact will it have? We are now waiting to see what pledges come up at the national level. All the key people involved are at national level.
The Refugee Compact still adopts a patriarchal approach in that education, access to the labour market, complementary pathways [for refugee admission to third countries] are presented as a privilege but they are actually a human right. We see European elections campaigns that are more and more focused on blaming refugees and migrants for Europe’s problems instead of proposing solutions. In fact, housing and employment were already a problem [before we arrived] and yet this blaming approach seems to be successful. Europe is not in this situation because of refugees and migrants. Its problems are due to the unequal allocation of resources.
Is there anything else you would like to say to policy-makers working on refugee situations?
Refugees are fully capable of engaging in technical discussions. Also, the migrant/refugee woman is the most marginalised category facing severe neglect and exclusion in both social and policy practices. Working at Amsterdam’s municipality, in a project aimed to enhance women’s participation, I am often asked: what is in it for the city to invest in migrant/refugee women? Why invest in women who eventually end up serving their husbands at home? And so on, so forth. The only thing these policy makers are interested in when they talk about inclusion is to produce statistics showing people getting out of social assistance to work, regardless of the suitability and the kind of job they end up in. Policy makers assume migrant/refugee women do not want to work given their traditional mindset juxtaposing Western standards and end up removing the element of choice for these women, [who often have] lots of children. Migrant/refugee women are too often invisible. Despite some hue and cry by a small number of institutions, there is not much emphasis on programmes that lead to tangible outcomes for them.
After inconsistent results with their integration policies, a few international and national actors have started including migrants/refugees in different initiatives. However, most of these efforts have remained symbolic due to the lack of emphasis on meaningful participation and qualitative outcomes. While Brussels seeks to break the stalemate on migrant/refugee issues, we need to systematically incorporate the expertise of displaced persons to get to real solutions that they can own.
Photo credit: Anila Noor