Transforming Rhetoric Around Migrants Can Help Prevent Genocides
Discrimination, Education / 28 Jan 2022

Transforming Rhetoric Around Migrants Can Help Prevent Genocides

By Hannah Shewan Stevens, Freelance Journalist
Credit: Migrants Organise

“We have to be mindful of the early stages of genocide – classification, discrimination and dehumanisation of people is dangerous in any society,” said Zrinka Bralo, Chief Executive of Migrants Organise, a charity that gives refugees and migrants a platform to organise for justice, dignity and welcome. “We need to insist on people’s humanity getting recognised. We need to understand that being an immigrant is not an identity: ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ are just bureaucratic labels. It is a status and an experience, but it’s not an identity.”

Bralo, who is a refugee of the Bosnian genocide, came to the UK in the 1990s and since 2001 has been the CEO of Migrants Organise. Now, Bralo uses her personal experience of dealing with the adversarial immigration system to protect the rights of migrants and refugees seeking a safe home in the UK.

“When I came to this country and had a very difficult experience of being rejected, I found that the experience of not being believed was equally terrible and difficult to cope with as the war experience,” said Bralo. “There was something so dehumanising within that experience of somebody in a dark, grey bureaucratic room deciding that my application for protection is made up or not genuine, as they like to say.”

Credit: Migrants Organise

The Bosnian genocide was committed during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. After the government of the Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serb forces – who were backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army – perpetrated devastating crimes against Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians. An estimated 100,000 people were killed, with 80% of them being Bosniak, by 1995. 

There was a clear campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) during the war, which culminated in the Srebrenica massacre. That event saw 8,372 Bosniak men and boys killed by the VRS and the accompanying forcible transfer and abuse of between 25,000 and 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly people meant it was ruled a genocide

Despite the unanimous ruling in the case of Prosecutor vs Krstić in the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, located in The Hague, Serbian rulers, whilst they have apologised for the crimes committed in Srebrenica, continue to refuse to acknowledge it as a genocide.  

I feel this promise of ‘never again’ tends to be betrayed when it comes to refugees

Credit: Eric Masur / Unsplash

I feel this promise of ‘never again’ tends to be betrayed when it comes to refugees

Improving public perception of migration and refugee schemes plays a crucial role in preventing future genocides and protecting the basic rights of migrants and refugees. Bralo’s work is often motivated by her personal experience of being treated like an outsider in her own country and, later, in her place of refuge. 

“I think migrants and refugees are unfairly targeted as the most vulnerable group of people who have no voice or representation,” explained Bralo. “Fighting for justice comes from a very deep personal moral framework that I have from my upbringing and my personal experience as a refugee, fleeing Bosnia in the 1990s. I used to be a journalist, so speaking out about injustice was a bit easier for me.”

To help transform the experiences of migrants and refugees coming to the UK, Migrants Organise runs a number of campaigns, such as their Patients Not Passports (PNP) campaign that followed healthcare worker-led direct action by Docs Not Cops to oppose charging migrants for using NHS services. Another key campaign is The Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) Charter, which is being championed by a host of charities and campaigning groups. The Charter is the result of conversations with people currently at the “sharp end” of government policies on immigration and refugee resettlement. 

Overall, the charity’s efforts are focused on preventing injustices from being perpetrated against vulnerable groups. However, acknowledging the historical mistreatment of refugees and migrants is an important aspect of taking responsibility for their protection in the future. 

Credit: Ahmed Akacha / Pexels

“I feel this promise of ‘never again’ tends to be betrayed when it comes to refugees,” said Bralo. “Many governments and countries around the world will talk about the past in a positive light and somehow refugees are okay if they’re in history. But the exact same thing happened to refugees, Jewish refugees from all over Europe: they were turned away. And that’s why they died – that’s why six million people died.”

Current rhetoric associated with migration and refugee schemes in the UK demonstrates an ongoing threat to the rights of these vulnerable groups. It was an influential topic throughout the Brexit campaign and in subsequent general elections and remains a barrier to fair treatment of migrants and refugees. 

“It’s not a unique phenomenon of our time, but what is unique and dangerous about this moment in time is how the whole issue is weaponised and used by politicians to stoke fear and hatred,” said Bralo. “The whole government approach is dehumanising to people who have committed no crime, who are trying to protect one of their fundamental human rights, which is the right to life. It is so twisted in the minds of politicians that they’re thinking about sending boats to make waves to drown refugees in the channel.”

The government’s ongoing overhaul of the immigration system has dominated headlines for some time.

Credit: Markus Spiske / Pexels

“The Windrush Scandal is the perfect example of people losing their citizenship overnight,” explained Bralo. “Going back to past genocides, for example, Anne Frank escaped from Hitler’s Germany to the Netherlands but could not escape from there because she was stateless. Hitler passed so-called Nuremberg Laws that deprived all Jews of their citizenship. At this moment, we have the Nationality and Borders Bill going through the Houses of Parliament. A lot of people have suddenly woken up to the fact that their citizenship can be taken away without the government telling us about it.”

Repeating the mistakes of the past is in danger of becoming a reality with the Nationality and Borders Bill’s recent addition: Clause 9. If it is deemed to be in the public interest, the clause would empower the government to strip people of their citizenship without being required to notify the concerned party.

The first thing that needs to happen is healing

Bralo continued: “This whole business of arbitrarily taking citizenship away from people is wrong because citizenship should not be some kind of privilege. There are six million people living in this country, who were born in this country, that suddenly need to be careful with what they’re saying because some random government official can remove your citizenship with the justification of public interest.”

In order to prevent future atrocities, a mass reckoning with the portrayal of migrants and refugees by the media and the government is necessary to protect their rights. 

“The first thing that needs to happen is healing,” explained Bralo. “We almost need a restorative justice program for the whole country, in our local communities, to reckon with some of these issues of fear and danger that we see in the ‘other’.”

She continued: “What gives me hope is that suddenly, because of the pandemic, migrants became essential workers. It’s easy to shift the narrative when there is a political will. But we must not reduce people to their contribution, we must move towards a more morally grounded framework of dignity and justice.”

Credit: Migrants Organise

To create lasting change, Migrants Organise is continuing its work at a grassroots level, to make a change in the day-to-day lives of people most affected by the hostile policies targeting refugees and migrants. But the public must engage too.“We all have a role to play, not just venting on Twitter, but doing the hard work in our community,” said Bralo. “I think one of the important things to remember is that we all admire people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but these are not heroes who spontaneously combusted into the act of heroism. These are people who spent their entire lives organising for justice. We all need to start thinking about what are the things we can do in our own immediate communities on a daily basis.”

For dedicated genocide prevention to be maintained, everyone has to fight for justice everywhere and not just for the issues directly affecting them. 

“We need to make sure that we can bulletproof our society by introducing a framework of dignity, justice and welcome,” said Bralo. “We all want our freedom and my freedom is conditioned by your freedom. They’re interlinked, I cannot be free unless you’re free too. If my freedom is based on the exploitation and incarceration of other people, it is not really freedom.”

For a week of content in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day about the ways the world is affected by genocides, EachOther interviewed Bralo about the need to transform the misconceptions harming migrants and refugees’ rights, as well as the role education plays in preventing future atrocities.

I found that the experience of not being believed was equally terrible and difficult to cope with as the war experience

Credi: Migrants Organise

I found that the experience of not being believed was equally terrible and difficult to cope with as the war experience

What makes you personally so passionate about the work that Migrants Organise does and its impact?

The passion partly comes from my understanding of justice and injustice. I think migrants and refugees are unfairly targeted as the most vulnerable group of people who have no voice or representation. That comes from a very deep personal moral framework that I have from my upbringing and my personal experience as a refugee, fleeing Bosnia in the 1990s and what I’ve experienced. I used to be a journalist, so shouting about things comes naturally to me. 

What was your experience as a refugee in the UK like?

When I came to this country and had a very difficult experience of being rejected, I found that the experience of not being believed was equally terrible and difficult to cope with as the war experience. There was something so dehumanising within that experience of somebody in a dark grey bureaucratic room deciding that my application for protection is made up or not genuine, as they like to say. Or that I would leave my life, my country, my family behind just so that I can claim welfare benefits in the United Kingdom. 

How have these experiences informed your approach to your work?

I think this is important to me because of what people have survived. I have respect for that survival and resilience and I think it’s important and I would like the rest of the world to share that respect for survivors’ opinions. 

It’s also important for me personally, not only because of my experience but because of my family’s experience. My grandfather survived a German concentration camp. In fact, on the 26th of January, it will be exactly 80 years since he was interned in 1942. He survived, so he came back to his country and he lived his entire life building something which was then destroyed by the war in the 90’s. And then his grandchildren ended up being refugees all over the world.

Credit: Migrants Organise

What do you think of the world’s rhetoric on refugees and migrants now?

I feel this promise of ‘never again’ tends to be betrayed when it comes to refugees. Many governments and countries around the world will talk about the past in a very positive light and somehow refugees are okay if they’re in history. But the exact same thing happened to Jewish refugees from all over Europe in the 1930s and 40s, they were turned away. And that’s why they died – that’s why 6 million people died. Let’s face it, immigrants and refugees were never welcome anywhere. 

It’s not a unique phenomenon of our time, but what is very unique and dangerous about this moment in time is how the whole issue is weaponised and used by politicians to stoke fear and hatred. The whole government approach is dehumanising people who have committed no crime, who are trying to protect one of their basic fundamental human rights, which is the right to life. It is so twisted in the minds of politicians that they’re thinking about sending boats to make waves to drown refugees in the channel. 

What needs to be done to improve public perception of migrants and refugees?

The first thing that needs to happen is healing. We almost need a restorative justice program for the whole country, in our local communities, to reckon with some of these issues of fear and danger that we see in the ‘other’. There’s been a lot of ‘othering’ happening through the process of Brexit and a number of elections that have divided communities. 

What gives me hope is that suddenly, because of the pandemic, migrants became essential workers. It’s very easy to shift the narrative when there is a political will and when there is pressure from the public, because we suddenly all recognised that so many people in our NHS are migrants, so many people in the care sector are migrants. But we must not reduce people to their contribution, we must move towards a more morally grounded framework of dignity and justice.

Credit: Jeff Djevdet / Flickr

What needs to be done to provide justice for migrants and refugees? 

The structural racism that exists in society needs to be acknowledged when it comes to immigration. We saw the display of that structural, systemic racism in the Windrush Scandal. It showed us how these policies are manmade and how easily they can be remade. There needs to be societal, structural and systemic change so that we think of reparations in the form of justice, rather than just in the form of financial compensations. 

The Windrush Scandal was the perfect example of people who were citizens losing their citizenship overnight. Going back to past genocides, for example, Anne Frank escaped from Hitler’s Germany to the Netherlands because Hitler decided to take their citizenship away. All Jews lost their citizenship. At this very moment, we have the Nationality and Borders Bill going through the Houses of Parliament. A lot of people have suddenly woken up to the fact that their citizenship can be taken away without the government telling us about it. 

It’s not enough for us just to resist ‘Clause 9’ in this bill. Arbitrarily taking citizenship away from people is wrong because citizenship should not be some kind of privilege. We should take this more seriously. There are six million people living in this country, who were born in this country that suddenly need to be careful with what they’re saying because some random government official can remove your citizenship with the justification of public interest.

What do we need to do to change the experiences of migrants and refugees in the UK? 

A protest signs reads "human rights for future" on black card

Credit: Christian Lue / Unsplash

We need to listen to the experiences of migrants and refugees. We need to ask questions. What is it that we’re doing to contribute to this hostile and negative experience? And what is it that we can do to change? Why can’t we treat people with dignity and legitimate justice? Where are all these fears are coming from? 

We also need leadership because when there is good leadership, things can turn around very quickly. For example, Canada’s rates of recognition are not much better than British, but the leadership in the country and the way immigrants are ingrained as adding value, that’s completely different to the UK. At the moment, we have leadership that is emphasising hostility because their polls are telling them that’s what the British people want to hear. There is no alternative voice, so we really need an alternative vision, which we’re also not getting from opposition parties because, again, they’re too scared. Nobody wants to look soft on immigration right now. 

The entire structure and system are not failing, it's set up to be hostile

Credit: Alisdare Hickson / Flickr

The entire structure and system are not failing, it's set up to be hostile

What is Migrant’s Organise doing to change the experiences of refugees and migrants?

We’ve created a Fair Immigration Charter at the Manchester People’s Museum during the Chartists exhibition. FIRM Charter is based on what migrants, refugees and grassroots organisers have told us that they want to see in a new immigration system. One of the important first steps is having a Welcome Commission. Why don’t we organise hearings in town halls where people can come and hear from migrants and refugees about what’s been like for them and how they have been welcomed, but also to hear from anyone else who is afraid of their arrival? Why don’t we organise places and events where we can be human to each other? A lot of the research shows that the places where people have the highest fear of immigrants are the places with no immigrants. Exposure would work well in healing this. 

What has been the impact of ‘hostile environment’ policies and rhetoric?

Britain is a difficult country for disadvantaged people who were born here. For people who don’t speak the language or are traumatised or have left their entire lives and families to live in complete isolation from society, it’s even harder. We need to abandon this idea of a pull factor and accept the idea of a push factor, which is that people are running for their life. They’re risking their lives because what they’re leaving behind is much more dangerous than what they face ahead of them. 

The entire structure and system are not failing, it’s set up to be hostile. It’s a mistake to say, ‘this is a system failure’. No, it’s not. The system is set up to be hostile. I think that’s important to recognise because that means we need to reform the system. You cannot turn the hostile system into one of welcome overnight. That’s why we’re failing in bringing and saving refugees from Afghanistan.

Credit: R4vi / Flickr

What role do acknowledgment and admission play in healing from genocide and preventing it from happening again?

There is no moving forward without acceptance. Denazification of Germany did not happen easily and they still have Neo-Nazis but they know how to deal with them. They have laws and measures to deal with it. Whereas in Bosnia, you have parts of the political establishment whose main role in political and public life is to deny genocide and glorify convicted war criminals. You cannot enter into a dialogue with that position – it’s a stalemate. The whole country’s held hostage. There are survivors who still have not buried their loved ones because they don’t know where they are. They haven’t seen even the beginning of the process of grieving and they have to live with this in spaces where the politicians are glorifying convicted war criminals. 

Traditional judicial system approach can deliver a bit of justice, which is very important. Then there are long-term processes that need to happen: education, political leadership and a criminal justice framework to combat genocide denial. First of all, you need to acknowledge that you have a problem, then you need to understand where the problem is coming from and then you need to find ways of making it up to people who suffered as a result by addressing it as a structural issue. Then it doesn’t happen again. 

How can ordinary people help?

We all need to organise. We all have a role to play, not just venting on Twitter, but doing the hard work in our community. I think one of the important things to remember is that we all admire people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but these are not heroes who spontaneously combusted into the act of heroism. These are people who spent their entire lives organising for justice, taking risks for justice, being called radicals, being arrested and being beaten up. We all need to start thinking about what are the things we can do in our own immediate communities. If you’re a professor at a university, why are you complying with hostile environment policies? If you’re a nurse or a doctor in a hospital? Why are you not asking questions?

I’m optimistic because of the work that I do. I meet heroes in synagogues, mosques, churches, schools and at local charities. I meet those brilliant people all the time. My challenge is that those people do the good work quietly. We don’t get to hear about the great examples of the day-to-day acts of heroism. 

Credit: Matt Brown / Flickr

What can we do to improve awareness of lesser-known genocides to show people that it is not a remote concept?

It’s all part of education. I have done talks for many years. Before the pandemic, every year, I would go to a Holocaust Memorial Day event somewhere and there’d survivors from the Jewish community, as well as the Rwandan community and I would be there as Bosnian. But we’re facing a challenge because there are not many survivors of the Holocaust anymore. They’re no longer with us, so we rely on other methods of storytelling. Finding ways of telling those stories, listening to the stories and liberating the space and time to listen to the stories we have. If we don’t, as a society, prioritise telling those stories, then we’re likely to repeat the same mistakes.

What do we need to be aware of to prevent future genocides?

We have to be mindful of the early stages of genocide – classification and discrimination and dehumanisation – because that’s a slippery slope. It’s why I hate this labelling and stigmatisation of people. We need to insist on people’s humanity getting recognised. We need to understand that these are just bureaucratic labels, being an immigrant is not an identity. It is a status and an experience, but it’s not an identity.

We need to make sure that we can bulletproof our society by introducing a framework of dignity, justice and welcome. If we stick to those three basic things, then we no longer need to classify people or discriminate against people or dehumanise people. We all want our freedom and my freedom is conditioned by your freedom. They’re interlinked, I cannot be free unless you’re free too. If my freedom is based on the exploitation and incarceration of other people, it is not really freedom. It’s conditioned by other people’s lack of freedom. 

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Stories of Genocide: Lessons for Today – EachOther’s documentary for Holocaust Memorial Day

For Holocaust Memorial Day, EachOther released ‘Stories of Genocide: Lessons for Today’, a documentary that tells the powerful stories of genocide survivors, and explores some of the ways their messages are being preserved and passed on to future generations.

About The Author

Hannah Shewan Stevens Freelance Journalist

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. She acted as EachOther's Interim Editor from Summer 2021 to January 2022. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. She acted as EachOther's Interim Editor from Summer 2021 to January 2022. Her areas of interest are broad-ranging but the topics she is most passionate about are disability, social justice, sex and relationships and human rights. Hannah believes in using her own voice and elevating others to create meaningful change in the world. She is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.