The New Internationalists, by Sue Clayton

Catherine Rottenberg applauds a bold attempt to forge a politics of solidarity in response to humanitarian crisis

March 4, 2021
Lifeguard rescuing a man from a boat
Source: Getty

On 21 January 2021, news headlines reported on the death of 43 migrants, drowned at sea as they attempted the treacherous journey from Libya to Europe. This was the first known shipwreck in the new year, although it most certainly will not be the last. There were, after all, hundreds of such preventable fatalities in just 2020 alone. Since the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015-16, thousands upon thousands of migrants have died trying to reach European shores. The Mediterranean has become the largest migrant cemetery.

Over the past year, however, the refugee crisis has faded from the international spotlight as Covid-19 has facilitated yet another global catastrophe. With unprecedented national lockdowns and terrible infection and death rates across the UK and Europe, populations have turned ever more inward, fearful for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Yet these crises are not unrelated. Europe’s response to desperate people fleeing their homelands because of war, environmental destruction and/or economic precarity and its response to the pandemic have both seen hardening borders and a notable lack of concern for the “other”. Both crises, in other words, lay bare how a politics of profound carelessness has reigned.

This has been particularly striking in the UK, where years of austerity and privatisation of public services have meant that the country has struggled to deal with Covid-19 even within its own borders. Simultaneously, Brexit has fortified borders, rendering Britain even less hospitable to refugees and migrants than it was before.

This reigning state carelessness is the backdrop for the story told in Sue Clayton’s The New Internationalists. The book focuses not on the voices of the refugees themselves but rather on the testimonies of European citizens who organised help and humanitarian aid for the massive influx of people, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, between 2015 and 2019. Alongside the horrific stories of state carelessness and outright hostility, Clayton chronicles another powerful story, one that rejects governmental neglect and different forms of state crime while embracing a politics of welcome and solidarity. Indeed, against the brutal responses of European countries (and neighbouring countries such as Serbia), the testimonies given by these volunteers – the civilians Clayton calls “activist volunteers” – are full of humanity and even hope.

The book is organised around the different geographical locations where refugees have congregated, from the Greek islands through Italy, Malta and the Balkan states to France and Brussels. As an introduction to each regional section, Clayton provides a historical overview of the political context for the massive influx of peoples. She then presents a series of testimonies from volunteers who were active in specific locations within each region – referred to as flashpoints – such as Lesbos in Greece. Flashpoints are the specific places where migrants and asylum seekers have found themselves; some were initially established as reception facilities, as on the Greek islands, but these sites morphed into “holding grounds”, where people were left in limbo as they waited to apply for asylum or for their applications to be processed. Since the infamous 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey, which closed borders and incentivised Turkey to resettle newly arriving refugees and prevent their departure from Turkish shores, refugees have simply been stranded for years in many of these locations.

This is not an easy book to read. Nor is it meant to be. The testimonies are often heartbreaking, even if there are occasional moments of triumph, such as when a family from Mosul in Iraq, who embarked on the dangerous journey from the Middle East to Greece, is finally granted residence permits in Germany. The story is told by a Norwegian volunteer who provided emotional support via online chat and active intervention though her volunteer networks when the family members were separated. It is precisely through the telling of the grim and often gritty details in these flashpoint sections that a different kind of history of the refugee crisis emerges. This history is one in which hundreds of thousands of European volunteers actively challenged the inhumane policies of their governments. As Clayton puts it in her introductory chapter, just as the past six years witnessed the largest movement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War, they also witnessed “the largest civic mobilization in response”.

There are moments when reading testimony after testimony feels a bit like a sensory and information overload, yet the book undoubtedly succeeds in two of its overriding objectives. First, it bears witness to state carelessness from the perspective of citizens of those states, while also providing “an account of the refugee crisis from…engaged participants’ point of view”. The testimonies do so without being sensationalist or voyeuristic; indeed, the accounts portray the refugees as multidimensional and fully human, and never as merely passive victims. Second, by bringing to the fore the testimonies of activist volunteers from across Europe, The New Internationalists manages to “reverse the gaze that the Western world has turned on refugees, to investigate our own responsibilities in a Europe that has chosen to close its borders”.

The book also has a third objective: to document the politicisation of many of the activist volunteers and so problematise the argument that volunteerism and humanitarian aid are merely “lofty ideals”, a product of depoliticised individual moral commitments. Instead, Clayton argues that, in the context of the refugee crisis, an international mobilisation emerged, one that needs to be understood as a “galvanizing force for re-appraisal and political change”. As citizens rushed in to help and provide basic aid to people in need, a new kind of political intervention and consciousness developed. The activist volunteers not only sought to meet immediate mass-survival needs, for food, drinking water and basic shelter, but created innovative forms of grass-roots organisation, which were most often based on participatory democratic principles. The politics of welcome and solidarity that developed on the ground in the flashpoints is, the book claims, precisely the kind of new internationalism that we need going forward.

Fostering a new internationalism is undoubtedly urgent, and not only in light of the refugee crisis; it is needed to address the climate crisis, challenge the war on terror, and successfully combat Covid-19 as well as any future pandemic. Whether a politics of welcome and solidarity is enough, however, is unclear. To truly counter the current reigning politics of carelessness, we need not only a politics of reaction – responding and attempting to prevent or ameliorate state crimes – but a future-oriented politics that places care and caretaking above all else. Indeed, addressing the various catastrophes confronting us will require an entirely new political imagination, one that advances a model of “universal care”. Here care is understood as our individual and common ability to provide the political, social, material and emotional conditions that allow for the greatest possible number of people and living creatures on this planet – along with the planet itself – to thrive. Ultimately this is the only way to root out these scourges at their source.

Catherine Rottenberg is associate professor in American and Canadian studies at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (2018) and co-author of The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (2020).


The New Internationalists: Activist Volunteers in the European Refugee Crisis
By Sue Clayton
Goldsmiths Press, 432pp, £32.00
ISBN 9781912685660
Published 29 December 2020


The author

Sue Clayton, professor of film and television at Goldsmiths, University of London, was born and brought up near Newcastle. Her father was an orphan and often away for long periods as a merchant seaman, and she believes that “not knowing about one side of my family led me to want to write and create stories, and to be very aware of others who are displaced in the world”.

It was while studying English at the University of Cambridge that Clayton “first encountered feminism and became involved in radical politics and theatre”, which led her to “the burgeoning independent film scene in London”. She recently co-edited a collection with Laura Mulvey titled Other Cinemas: Politics, Culture and Experimental Film in the 1970s (2017).

A film-maker for 25 years before combining this with academia, Clayton has produced both fictional and documentary work about “displaced people – those who struggle to form an identity that can carry them forward. Working alongside Goldsmiths colleagues using first-person narrative as historical testimony, and looking at new ways of using media to represent marginalised voices, meant that when the European ‘refugee crisis’ hit in 2015, I was able to frame my film-making with young refugees within a sound evidentiary practice – strong enough that my film Calais Children was used as evidence against the UK government in the High Court”, while also exploring the subjectivities of “groups who are usually either ignored or stereotyped by law and the mainstream media”.

Asked about the fate of internationalist thinking during the pandemic, Clayton praises “countless new initiatives that care for our communities and support the NHS. What I hope to see longer term is for local grass-roots, with their savvy media reach, to coordinate more widely. [The campaign to support refugees] has generated a movement that is intensely local but also has national and transnational policy goals and strategies.”

Matthew Reisz

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Citizens step up as states step back

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