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Government, Politics & Issues

Arab Spring has brought migrant issues to the fore in Europe

This article first appeared in the St. Lous Beacon, Oct. 5, 2011 - Jack Shenker, a journalist who has been honored for his human rights reporting, took a different way of looking at the Arab Spring during a recent speech at Webster University. He spoke about the struggles of migrants, how they are received by the communities they impact, and misconceptions surrounding migrations around the globe.

Shenker, recipient of the Amnesty International Gaby Rado award for human rights journalism and foreign correspondent for the Guardian, has been living in Cairo, Egypt, for most of the past three years.

Shenker told of the dangerous cycle experienced by migrants and countries trying to protect their boarders. The cycle starts with panic and speculation followed by increases in boarder security -- which often, instead of stopping people from migrating, makes it more dangerous.

He used the story of a 22-year-old Tunisian man Mohamed Munadi to convey what many migrants from subSaharan countries go through in trying to reach Europe. After the uprising in Libya began, Munadi could no longer work, so he left to try to reach Paris. Since the North African uprisings began, approximately 50,000 migrants have left the continent, crossed the Mediterranean and landed on Lampedusa, an Italian island close to Tunisia.

Through a small documentary video made by Shenker, Munadi and journalist Mustafa Khalili, the audience was able to follow Munadi through his voyage and what happened next. Once on the island, migrants were met by police, placed in shelters, and given the very basics to live on while they wait for the possibility of getting a visa. If they got one, they would be allowed to move around the European Union freely for six months. The video illustrated the point of view of the migrant and residents' concerns, which included loitering, diseases and the island's limited resources.

Shenker said migrants and countries trying to protect their borders go through a dangerous cycle that starts with panic and speculation. It's often followed by increases in border security that can increase dangers but not stop people from migration.

He also talked about perceptions of migrants, which tend to be exaggerated or completely erroneous at times. The first common misconception he discussed was that of migrants being "destitute." Munadi, for example, was middle class and educated. The second misconception was that migration is something new. Though the Arab Spring significantly sped up the inflow of African migrants into Europe, it has been going on for decades.

Shenker discussed how migration is very helpful to the countries left, as migrants send money home. Host countries, on the other hand, do enjoy the cheap labor newcomers often provide. Shenker said 2,000 migrants are known to have died in the Mediterranean during the past year and far more are unaccounted for.

A member of the audience asked about similarities between British and American sentiments toward immigration. Shenker said that many British and Americans believe that migrants are taking advantage of welfare and that some of the media coverage is anti-migrant or "islamophobic," which are factors in anti-migrant sentiments in both countries. He said, however that the U.S. is a step behind. Referring to Arizona's immigration law, Shenker said it would be "unacceptable in Britain."

Asked about the future of Egypt, Shenker said he was very optimistic. He made it clear that he didn't have faith in any party or leader but in the people. Shenker said that the "fear barrier" that kept Egyptians quiet for so long has been torn down and it would take a lot for a regime to rebuild the barrier. As a resident of Cairo, Shenker said, "The head of the snake has been chopped off but the body is still there."

Shenker was brought to the campus as part of the Year of International Human Rights: Refugee and Migrant Rights program.

Lorena Macias is a student at Webster University and a writer for the Journal, for which she also covered the Shenker visit.

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