Stories that mobilize: understanding protests against asylum seeker centres

What makes people translate their thoughts and feelings into action? With hate crimes against asylum seekers on the rise across Europe, this question has become increasingly relevant today. C-REX affiliate scholar Iris Segers argues that we need to look more closely at protesting communities, and engage with their stories, in order to understand what drives mobilization against asylum seekers across Western Europe.

Image may contain: Aerial photography, Residential area, Suburb, Metropolitan area, Urban area.

Aerial image of de Beverwaard neighbourhood, Rotterdam: http://www.beverwaardigheden.nl/

What makes people translate their thoughts and feelings into action? This question has become increasingly relevant today, with hate crimes reaching unprecedented levels in the United Kingdom, and attacks on migrants and asylum centers becoming an everyday phenomenon in Germany. In the Netherlands too, extreme right violence has increased in recent years, and seems linked to the influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016. In order to explain and address increasing mobilization against asylum seekers in Western Europe, we need to look beyond common explanations pointing towards the popularity of radical right politicians, and growing socio-economic inequalities. Although we cannot – and should not – dismiss the problematic mainstreaming of nativist and populist discourse across European nations, the widespread immigration-sceptic views held by the majority of European citizens fail to explain the relatively limited instances of violence and protest against immigrants.

In this recent publication in the International Communication Gazette, I have attempted to answer this question by spending three months in the relatively deprived, multi-ethnic neighbourhood ‘de Beverwaard’, in the city of Rotterdam. Through volunteering in a local soup kitchen and simply ‘hanging out’ at the community center, I approached inhabitants, local officials and social workers. I listened to their stories about the protests that erupted in the neighbourhood in 2015, when the Municipality of Rotterdam announced that an asylum seeker centre (AZC) for 600 refugees would be established in the area.

‘It’s not just the economy, stupid’

Existing academic literature generally points towards broad, macro-level factors, when explaining anti-immigration mobilization, such as economic conditions, migration patterns, and national party politics. When we carefully look at these factors however, it becomes clear that they cannot explain why some communities protest against asylum seekers, when others do not. The suggested reasons for anti-immigration mobilization are widespread across European societies: many citizens experience financial insecurity, regularly come across media content that presents (predominantly male, predominantly Muslim) asylum seekers as a threat to the norms and values of Western society, and radical right politicians are gaining popularity across many countries. We could in fact reverse the question: with all these factors in place, why do most people not mobilize against asylum seekers? It seems like we need to look for an additional explanation, which is why I turned to protesters themselves, and asked them to share their stories with me.

I traveled to de Beverwaard in the autumn of 2017, and spent several days a week in the local community center, for a duration of three months. I conducted 28 interviews with different people who had somehow been involved with the establishment of the AZC in the neighbourhood, such as inhabitants, local politicians, civil servants and social workers. Although I purposively talked to people with a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds, it is worth nothing that the majority of participants in the project were ethnically white Dutch, as were the majority of anti-AZC protesters in 2015. I conducted my interviews roughly two years after the protests, and one year after the AZC had officially opened. The people I spoke with however, vividly remembered the events that occurred in 2015, and told me rich and detailed stories about their experiences. In the paper published in the Gazette, I highlight how pre-existing, local stories played an important role in translating people’s thoughts and feelings about the AZC into action. It is important to note that this does not mean that I dismiss the influence of mainstream media demonization of asylum seekers, the anti-immigration rhetoric of radical right politicians, or the relatively high levels of socio-economic deprivation present in this neighbourhood. What I do intend to point out, is that these factors are present across many locations, but that community-level stories make people realize that their fears and concerns are shared, hereby facilitating the translation of individual attitudes into collective action.

Two stories of a voiceless village

First, interviewees spoke about their neighbourhood as a tight-knit ‘village’ in a broader, sprawling and individualistic suburban environment. Compared to surrounding neighbourhoods, interviewees noted that the social fabric of de Beverwaard is quite strong, which means it has a rather unique ‘in between’ character that combines the social cohesion of a small village, with the socio-economic challenges and ethnic diversity more commonly found in urban areas. This ‘village’, people said, had suffered under heightened crime levels and a general feeling of insecurity up until recently. At the time of protest in late 2015, inhabitants felt that the recently acquired peace and quiet in their ‘village’ was threatened once more. This time around, it was due to the anticipated arrival of asylum seekers in the neighbourhood, which they perceived to be potentially deviant and predominantly male and Muslim (a perception that seemed largely inspired by media coverage, and did not correspond with reality). Overall, the pre-existing story of the neighbourhood as a village played an important role in constructing a clear ‘we’, which was juxtaposed against ‘them’, which referred to not only the anticipated asylum seekers, but also local decision-makers. Indeed, I argue that when inhabitants recognized this threat or grievance as shared, it opened up possibilities for collective action against it. In the case of de Beverwaard, their resistance was facilitated by pre-existing social ties and a ‘village identity’, through which protesters construed a clear identity of ‘us, the village’, against ‘them’, the asylum seekers, and the political elites who decided over the allocation of local space.

This brings us to our second story about voicelessness, which also played an important role in anti-AZC mobilization in de Beverwaard. Inhabitants of the neighbourhood said they had felt marginalized and not listened to by their local government for several decades, a feeling that was strengthened by the Municipality’s decision to place an AZC in de Beverwaard without prior consultation of its inhabitants. In other words, inhabitants had not been given the opportunity to play a part in the decision-making process about the location of the AZC. The combination of these limited political opportunities, and pre-existing narratives of marginalization and voicelessness, were subsequently channeled into protest. Again, this locally resonant story allowed inhabitants to recognize their feelings of voicelessness as shared with the broader community, and facilitated collective action. It also shows that anti-AZC protests may be motivated by sentiments that are not directly related to the topic of immigration: in the case of de Beverwaard, the establishment of the AZC also provided inhabitants with an opportunity to express themselves against decades of perceived neglect of the local government. As such, labelling all protests against AZCs as motivated by the exact same exclusionary and racist sentiments would obscure the variety of reasons that may underlie them.

Understanding through listening

Through these two examples, I intend to make a case for closely examining what drives people to mobilize against the establishment of AZCs, or against immigration, at a local level. Rather than – or in addition to – economic conditions and radical right party politics, I believe that people’s stories and communities are what ultimately motivates them to protest. It is important to recognize that people make sense of the world in the context of their everyday lives, in their local neighbourhoods, and through the stories they tell about themselves and the world in which they live. I also firmly believe that talking with, and more importantly, listening to people – especially those we find ourselves disagreeing with – should be part of the toolkit of every researcher or activist working with the topic of immigration and ethnic diversity. Scholars such as Arlie Russel Hochschild and Katherine J. Cramer, and filmmakers such as Deeyah Khan provide us with examples of how engaging with the stories of those we disagree with can foster mutual understanding. The social reality of immigration is one of the most contentious issues in Western European societies today, and it is now, more than ever, that we simply cannot afford to stop listening.

/University of Oslo Public Release. View in full here.