″Merely a staging-post for refugees″

Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem regards the situation of refugees in Tunisia as especially precarious. The country is barely in a position to provide for the basic needs of its own citizens, let alone those of the refugees

What does the term refugee mean to you?

Anouar Brahem: A refugee is someone who is forced to leave his or her home and country because they are in danger and fear persecution on account of their nationality, belonging to a social or religious group, or on account of their political opinions. Refugees generally are fleeing war.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

Brahem: A refugee flees an imminent danger. Refugees who flee war or persecution are usually people who decide to leave because they sense a clear and present danger that risks seriously harming their physical or spiritual wellbeing and even their lives. They have no other choice but to leave. One is tempted to think that for someone fleeing poverty there is no such concept of imminent danger. However, motives and considerations can be complex and are not necessarily evident at first sight.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

Brahem: Today there appears to be a new awareness of the links between environment and migration. Each year, problems associated with drought, flooding, coastlines threatened by rising sea levels and other phenomena force millions to flee.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

Brahem: A person stops being a refugee when he obtains a new nationality and benefits from the protection of that country, or when he voluntarily returns to his country of origin in order to make his permanent home.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

Brahem: This right exists and must be preserved because it allows millions of people to flee war and persecution.

Reception facility for refugees in Tunisia (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"Most refugees live within a parallel system, and those who consider Tunisia their final destination are rare. For refugees, Tunisia is rather a stage in which they await returning to their country of origin or leaving for another destination. According to estimates, there are already over one million Libyans living in a country of about 11 million inhabitants," writes Brahem

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

Brahem: Conditions are defined by the various regulations in each country. In democratic nations these regulations are usually based on international conventions and are generally beneficial. Yet in practice the procedures are very complicated.

People who decide to flee their country are often in an extremely precarious and fragile position. Even if the criteria for refugees do not apply according to international conventions and the laws of the host country, these people deserve to benefit from assistance and protection.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited? If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

Brahem: Welcoming refugees can cause very serious problems when it comes to health care, infrastructure and access to education. Lebanon with 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country of 4.5 million inhabitants is ranked the country with the highest refugee to inhabitant ratio in the world.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

Brahem: Following the situation in Libya there have been waves of Libyan refugees into Tunisia. However, despite being generally well received by the local population, I cannot say that they enjoy the status of special refugees, as their situation remains difficult.

Demonstration by unemployed Tunisians in Tunis (photo: DW)
Little hope of lasting social improvement: Tunisia suffers from high unemployment and weak economic development. In 2015 and 2016 the country was targeted by Islamist terrorists, which led to a collapse of one of its main industries – the tourism sector. This year the EU is set to double its financial aid for Tunisia, requiring in return the implementation of structural and administrative reforms, the protection of human rights and the continuation of efforts to combat corruption

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Brahem: Tunisia is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, yet refugees here live under difficult conditions. The right of residence does not grant them the right to work, access to medical care or education. The state is so far behind in providing for the basic needs of its own citizens, all the more so for refugees. Tunisia does not have the financial, logistical or organisational means to handle them.

The reception arrangements put in place are managed by the UNHCR and the Tunisian Red Crescent, which provide for basic needs. Most refugees live within a parallel system – those who consider Tunisia their final destination are rare. For refugees, Tunisia is just a staging-post where they await the oppotunity to return to their country of origin or leave for another destination. According to estimates, there are already over one million Libyans living in a country of about 11 million inhabitants.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

Brahem: In absolute terms, yes. However, a very large number of Tunisians are already not covered by national insurance, while social and health services remain less than adequate. To burden them with additional responsibilities would certainly be problematic. Yet I have the feeling that Tunisians are not asking those sorts of questions. Refugees dependent on the UNHCR and its operational partner in Tunisia, the Red Crescent.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?

Brahem: Learning the language of the host country and gaining access to the labour market are essential vectors for integration and socialisation. The minimum requirement from a refugee must in the first instance be strict compliance with the law and codes of behaviour of the host country.

- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

Brahem: Refugees frequently constitute an extremely precarious and fragile population. The hosts are duty bound to provide them with significant aid and assistance. However, refugees are often faced with incomprehension by the host societies regarding their situation; sometimes they experience discrimination.

Do you know any refugees personally?

Tunisia′s Jasmine Revolution in January 2011 (photo: AP/picture-alliance)
Anouar Brahim: "Everyone today is talking of Tunisia as the only country of the Arab Spring to have succeeded in the democratic transition and not to have sunk into civil war and chaos. That is completely true. Yet the country is extremely fragile. The economic and social situation is close to catastrophic"

Brahem: Yes, I have known some Palestinian refugees. Today there are over 6.5 million Palestinian refugees scattered around the world; those who want to return to their homes cannot do so. Despite several United Nations resolutions declaring their inalienable right of return to their homes and possessions, from which they have been uprooted and displaced, this has always been refused by Israel.

Do you actively support any refugees?

Brahem: I have not had the opportunity.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?

b) over the next two decades?

Brahem: The situation of the refugees in Tunisia depends a great deal on the political situation in Libya and that remains highly uncertain.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

Brahem: The phenomenon of migration is frequently linked to armed conflict and wars. Maybe we can dream of a world without war.

If yes: what would it take?

Brahem: If the phenomenon of migration is most frequently related to armed conflict, the solution would be to try to work actively for the reestablishment of peace in the world, with priority for those regions that have been plagued by war for a long time. Yet, unfortunately, that is not always the case. If we take the example of the Middle East: Palestinian refugees are considered the "forgotten" refugees, the oldest of the refugees in contemporary political history and the most numerous proportionately among all refugees in the world. They currently count 6.5 million out of a total population of 10 million and have often lived through being uprooted twice or even three times. So what is the international community really doing to help find a just solution in international law for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has lasted almost 60 years and which, beyond the question of the refugees, continues to play an extremely harmful role throughout this region?

Anouar Brahem performing during the International Carthage Festival in 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Anouar Brahem, born in 1957, is a musician and composer of international standing. Taking the unique modalities of eastern and western Arabian music traditions as his inspiration for sophisticated improvisation, Brahem has created his own vision of a music that is far removed from nostalgic orientalism. He was awarded an Echo Jazz Award in 2010

And by the way, even after the withdrawal, everyone today acknowledges the monumental error that was the invasion of Iraq and the catastrophic management of the post-war period, not to mention the disastrous situation created in Iraq and neighbouring countries; what is the international community and especially the great powers doing to correct these errors and work for peace? When we note the ever-increasing amounts of arms sales by these powers and in this region, we can legitimately question their true desire to act for peace and find solutions for conflicts that they sometimes had started or encouraged. In a recent article in the newspaper Le Monde, we learn that 2016 will be a record-breaking year for the French arms industry. We also learn that in 2015, 75% of French weapons exports were destined for countries in the Middle East – and that some sales concerned opposing warring parties.

Do you think you will ever be a refugee?

Brahem: You can never predict what the future will bring. Who would have ever thought that one day Iraq and Syria would be in such a miserable situation and that millions of Iraqis and Syrians would be obliged to abandon their homes and country? Everyone today is talking of Tunisia as the only country of the Arab Spring to have succeeded in the democratic transition and not to have sunk into civil war and chaos. That is completely true. Yet the country is extremely fragile. The economic and social situation is close to catastrophic.

The security situation is particularly difficult, especially on account of the chaotic and uncertain situation reigning in neighbouring Libya. And the government is still incapable of acting sufficiently effectively. With this state of affairs, many Tunisians feel the country has no future, will probably undergo a major social upheaval and fear a collapse. Even if I do not agree with this overly pessimistic conclusion, it does not mean that the situation is any less worrying. We all hope for a turnaround and the solution is not to prepare to leave. I hope I will never find myself in a situation where I have to leave Tunisia – today I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

© Goethe-Institut 2017

This interview was part of the project "Where to?", which surveyed writers and intellectuals from 40 countries on the themes of migration and refuge.