The Wrong Question

“Refugees. Who needs them?”, is the title of a 75 minute documentary by Miles Roston, which was presented at the University of Groningen. Roston follows five refugees during their first year in the Netherlands. He manages to document sensitively the struggles Fathi, a Lybian oppositional politician who fled the Gaddafi regime; Fasil, an Ethiopian journalist sentenced to life for reporting about rigged elections; Li Zhun, a Falun Gong Buddhist fighting against oppressions of the CPC as well as Jigme and Renuka who spent most of their life in a Buthan refugee camp, face after their arrival.

The difficulties of a language, consisting of different dialects changing every twenty kilometres, the worries about the families left behind, the continuing fight against the governments from which one fled and the experience of intolerance and the rejection. Recordings of Geert Wilders advocating a migration stop, Angela Merkel declaring failure of the “multikulti” (multi cultural) project and EU politicians protesting against “economic migrants” illustrate in a sober way the political atmosphere refugees are confronted with.

Even though the movie portraits the difficulties the five individuals were experiencing in the Netherlands, the audience gets the impression that beside a complicated language and scathing comments by politicians, the situation of refugees in the Netherlands is more or less decent. Fathi is the only one who spends the first months in an asylum facility, in which the only problem seems to be that the second pillow he ordered never made it to his room. Renuka and Jigme failed the test for their Dutch language certificate, but they start their studies in English. Fasil and Li Zhun manage to bring their families to the Netherlands.

Roston depicted the journey of five refugees who reached the Netherlands due to a so called resettlement project. These are cooperational projects between governments and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in which governments invite refugees, offer them a residence permit and support them regarding housing and language courses. 500 of these places are provided by the Dutch government per year. These are important and praiseworthy projects but Roston marginalizes the fact that his five refugees resemble the exception.

A far more problematic point is Roston’s serious attempt to answer the question posed by his title. This attempt by itself implies, that some refugees are needed and others are not. Roston emphasizes the role migration played in Dutch history. At several points he highlights the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands and the importance of the “Dutch East India Company”. Migration is presented as a driving force for economic growth. The rise of the Netherlands and its “Golden Age” was not based on mutual beneficial trade and an equal cultural exchange but on colonialism and racism. These facts are being completely ignored. Highlighting the important economic role Jigme and Renuka, as young educated migrants, will play in a society which deals with demographic change, supports this pragmatic approach.

Roston created a touching documentary about five people who fled persecution, torture, death threats and inhuman conditions. He portraits in a sober but personal way the fears, hopes, disappointments and challenges anti-refugee sentiments throughout Europe.

I have the biggest respect for these five people, who arrived in a foreign country, learned a language with which I struggle, graduated, continued their fight against oppression and established a new life for them and their families. Unfortunately, their situation is not comparable to the ones in which the majority of refugees find themselves. Roston failed to expose the inhuman apparatus behind Dutch and European asylum policy. The link he creates between refugees and their economic instability for a nation ignores the needs of refugees completely.

During Refugee crises, like the ongoing one at the European borders, the question should not be “Who needs them?” but “What do they need?”.

– Phil