Behind the Scenes: Aswat Al Raseef
Activists Rex Osa and Sarah Farina discuss the harsh conditions that Nigerian asylum seekers and refugees face, and how you can help.
By Veronika Kailich
Since 2014, Rex Osa has been connecting a network of deported refugees in West Africa with the refugee movement in Europe.
By creating exchanges between refugee activists and migrants, Network Refugees4Refugees allows them to openly share their experiences with one another and provide assistance in legal and emotional hurdles. Recently, Sarah Farina joined the organisation as a volunteer, and together they have created an emergency money pool to cover costs for food, accommodation, and medication for deported individuals arriving in Lagos.
Network Refugees4Refugees is a self-organised grassroots community network of political refugee activists who support asylum seekers and deportees in Nigeria. Network R4R facilitates communication amongst refugees and migrants, informs asylum seekers about their rights in the asylum procedure, offers translations for asylum-related application documents, and accompanies migrants to visits authorities.
DERS (Deportees Emergency Reception and Support) is a project created by Network R4R in cooperation with the local Nigerian alliance NfCMC. This joint project offers emergency support for deportees on arrival in Nigeria.
Find out more information about R4R's latest and very urgent fundraising drive here.
Could you begin by introducing yourselves and your involvement with advocacy, particularly in regards to refugees?
Sarah: My name is Sarah Farina and I’m a DJ, producer, and activist. I’m based in Berlin and I’ve always been very political, trying to practice justice and peace in my everyday life and to use my platform to be part of the solution.
Rex: I’m Rex Osa, originally from Nigeria. I have a refugee background in Germany, so my motivation started from my own personal experiences. After 4 years of going through the horrible asylum hurdles in Germany, I couldn’t find myself doing anything besides organising and supporting asylum seekers in becoming politically active in their issues. Since 2006 I’ve been fighting for the rights of refugees. The distinction of what I do compared to other organisations is that I don’t wait for refugees to come to me. Instead, I meet them where they are, so my daily life is surrounded around refugees and where they live.
I try to showcase what it’s like to be a refugee in Germany and to organise empowerment by creating opportunities for exchange among refugees — to share experiences and knowledge and to mobilise ourselves to collectively fight against oppressive powers of the state. In the last year, a major concern has been deportations. I’ve been very passionate about this particular issue and decided to go beyond just monitoring the deportations here, but rather to see what it’s actually like when they arrive in Nigeria and to see what kind of support they need. This is a very essential part of the political push to show how horrible and violent the deportation processes can be. So I’m the coordination activist for the Network Refugees4Refugees and am engaged with other refugee movements Europe-wide as well. Thank you.
DERS provides on-site first-aid to Nigerians arriving in Lagos. Can you describe the current situation of Nigerians who are forcibly deported to Lagos from Germany — the details that the media fails to shed light on?
Rex: It’s important to know exactly how deportees arrive. They are picked up in the middle of the night in Germany from their rooms unexpectedly. Some are picked up from train stations coming from church. Others are arrested coming from work. They’re taken straight to the airport. There was a case of somebody who jumped from a 2-story building in a city in Rhineland-Pfalz. He had broken legs and possibly some fractures, but the ambulance still drove him straight to Frankfurt. They took him with a wheelchair through the airport, got him on board the flight, and when he arrived in Nigeria, they didn’t give him a wheelchair to come down in. Fellow deported colleagues had to carry him on their heads to bring him down from the flight. In Pforzheim, there was a case of somebody who attempted suicide by stabbing himself in deportation prison. He was taken to the hospital and was there for 5 days with bandages all over his body. But still, they took him from the hospital to the airport and deported him to Nigeria. These are the circumstances they’re dealing with every day.
Onboard the flight, you have three police officers per person, which means that if you’re deporting 50 people, you have 150 officers. There are people who resist onboard and experience lots of violence. And the children see it. The others see it. As the plane lands in Nigeria, the officers remove the handcuffs from the deportees' hands and legs. The German police don’t come down, they just give the flight manifest to the Nigerian immigration officers, who come on board, call their names and march them off the flight. They take them into a room where they are profiled and get their fingerprints taken. They then drive them to the front of the cargo airport area in Lagos and abandon them there. The Nigerian cargo airport area is a business zone with criminals (called area boys). Many of these deportees never knew Lagos besides traveling through. Most of them are usually from southern or eastern parts of Nigeria.
People sleep under the bridge for days before they can find their footings. With 0 cents. There was a lady who had mental issues who was dumped at the airport and was there for over 2 weeks. The airport authorities had to organise her evacuation from the airport premises, not because they wanted to help her but because they were ashamed of the demonstrations she was creating in front of the airport. They sent her to the local government, but they gave us no information on her. So no one knows where she is. This German bureaucracy tries to force doctors not to issue medical documents that sustain residence permits for people — people who should not be deported on the grounds of their real medical issues.
Sarah: Rex has been doing this for a long time and I’m very new. In the summer of 2020, I read an article from a German news outlet about deportations in Germany. It was a very shocking article that activated emotion but had no call to action. I knew, but I wasn’t aware that it was such a massive structure. They also had photos of the people who were being deported, so I researched the photographer and asked them who could put me in touch with the people involved in those stories. Luckily he connected me to Rex, and then Rex and I started having phone calls about the work that they were doing. I decided that I wanted to support.
At this time, activism is a brand on social media, but when I heard Rex talking, I thought “Wow, this is someone who is really doing the work.” The uncomfortable and heavy work. Especially with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, people thought that posting a black square is activism. But there’s so much more we can and should do. And so I decided to offer Rex my skillset and platform. I said, “Hey, whatever I can do to support I’m here.” We spoke about Isabel who was mentioned in the article and we brainstormed how we could support her in a sustainable way. That’s how we came up with the fundraiser.
Rex: Actually, getting in contact with Sarah was a unique turning point for me. Because I’ve been in this whole process for many years, I remember those days when I’d be on the train and have 3 phones to communicate with people at the airports, trying to stop the deportations, communicating with the deportee, and with activists all while typing emails. Sitting on the train talking about deportation, deportation, deportation like a madman. But in the last years, I thought, “How can we address issues of people AFTER they are deported?” Once they arrive in their country, their human rights finish just like that. How do they arrive? What happens after? Even with over 10 years of experience, you’d expect that nothing shocks me anymore, but there are still things that happen on a day-to-day basis that shock me. To realise the circumstances of women and children, thrown out of the airport premises, stranded and left on the street with their children.
I took to monitoring the deportations myself in 2019 at the airport after following the case of a Nigerian guy who was really sick, but the regional officer responsible for deportation was so bent on deporting him. We involved an activist lawyer who identified all the manipulations and presented them to the judge. He was destined to be deported. At first, they tried without documents and it didn’t work. Then they tried with documents. I had to travel twice to the Nigerian embassy in Berlin on this issue. Since it was very clear that the embassy would issue a deportation document for him, I decided to observe the deportation flight arrival by traveling down to Lagos a week ahead. I met with the immigration officials to inform them about such abuses but they showed no interest but to do their job of receiving the deportees. They didn’t question any abuses or confirm issues about non-Nigerians who may have been on the flight.
On the day of the deportation's arrival, we could see the frustration and trauma in their faces. They appeared really confused and aggressive because they are shocked at how their country betrayed them. The only two ladies who were on the flight were single and they immediately disappeared into thin air. There’s a stigma for Nigerian women traveling abroad, imagine the situation of those who are later deported. Having experienced the situation myself, I was challenged with mobilising volunteers including journalists and representatives of CSOs engaging in migration to observe subsequent deportation and create awareness about this in the Nigerian society.
Since then, we established the Deporteee Emergency Reception and Support Team, which is a group of volunteers and journalists who receive deportees upon arrival. The minimum you can do for them is to offer mobile phones to call their families or friends. This way, we are able to build connections with them. Afterward, we can assist those in need of transportation, emergency accommodations in Lagos, etc.
Sarah: I think just in a couple of days we reached the goal of €3,000. I think it’s interesting to point out, of course, it’s great that there are journalists who share those stories but in what way? We have to be critical. People are socialised in the west. They interview and photograph people in the most traumatising stages in their lives. And if someone like me reads the article, I’m like “Hey I want to reach out.” It made it very complicated. There are many steps, which made it really hard to just support. It took some time to find the photographers’ contact and luckily he was open to connecting me with Rex. There’s a whole other dynamic we need to talk about: the white savior complex. I wish there would be more guidelines for big magazines to be less shit and more ethical. And really help in a sustainable way. What is the issue with adding a hyperlink to a Go Fund Me on this article?
After Rex and I decided to do the fundraiser, I actually reached out to the German news outlet that had featured Isabel and told them “Hey thanks to your article, I’m now in contact with Rex and I’m ready to support with my platform and activate my community to get this money together. Do you think you could help us spread the fundraiser?” They said: “I’m afraid we can’t do this…” There wasn’t a real reason and it wasn’t really an answer. It’s just unethical to me at the end of the day.
Rex: Actually, I get calls from journalists and researchers requesting contacts to such persons to make their reports and sell their papers. For these Italian journalists, they had proven themselves with years of engagement in the refugee/migrant solidarity movement. Unlike many other journalists, they offered us the pictures for use without their logos on them. My concern wasn’t just Isabel and her kids, but I wanted to really show how it feels for a woman and her children (who were born in Europe) to be deported after several years. Even researchers are falling into this trap –– many of them are going to Nigeria to conduct interviews on deported persons with no minimum financial solidarity. I had to set up a condition for those getting in contact with deportees through our networks.
You cannot engage with these deportees as your informants with just one bottle of coke and a plate of food. That’s not what they need. 10,000 naira, which is about 15 euros, as a kind thank you package. If they don’t agree, I say no thank you. You cannot talk to somebody who has no home and hasn’t had a good meal in the past 4 days, and you with your privileged position come in. You’re being paid for this job. You have a solidarity responsibility to share your privilege and be part of the political change. Many do not want to understand this. They always see us as instruments for their projects. And that’s what our local project “Migration Information Point” is trying to address in Nigerian society. The MIP project kicked off in 2018 with the aim to develop a platform for critical migration consciousness in Nigeria.
You often reference No White Saviors, the advocacy campaign working towards disrupting the White Savior Complex in international development and aid. How is its message pertinent in the German–Nigerian context?
Sarah: I’ve been following their work for a few years now. It really helped me to start decolonising my mind. My dad is Black but I was born and socialised here, mostly in the white part of my family. And I’m not free of the white savior complex. And also I’m light-skinned, and there’s privilege when it comes to featurism, texturism and all kinds of hierarchies, and of course, I have proximity to whiteness. Of course, it’s an uncomfortable process to start, but we need to in order to decolonise our minds and decenter ourselves if we want to support people. The change starts with yourself, it’s a lot of internal work.
I’ve never done a fundraiser before, and it was very important for us not to use shocking pictures or to dehumanise anyone. There are other ways to activate people without using Black bodies in these dehumanising and stereotypically racist ways. And so we decided for the fundraiser to only take pictures of Isabel and her family from behind, to really just focus on the pattern of the story. Not to make it too much about an individual person but to show how systemic the whole issue is.
At the end of the day, there are many Isabel’s out there… It’s definitely much harder when you don’t have these individual stories that people can emotionally and directly connect to, but I hope it can help to cultivate something different. Instead of just having one person to share their whole traumatic life story and be very vulnerable in order for people to donate. The motivation to want to be a better person and support people in need should be enough. You can be in solidarity with people regardless.
I feel like it’s a conversation that’s quite new in the western BIPOC community that we can also be part of the problem to some extent. It’s important to use my platform to point these complex things out. We all have different work to do in certain contexts, it might often be uncomfortable but that’s how we can become more empathic people who really start caring for others.
Rex: Beyond the individual responsibility, it's important to point out that the institutions and systems are affected by the same issues. It’s a kind of identity politics of who is doing “more.” The problem of logos and foundations negatively impacts the political autonomy of activist networks here. As a migrant network that needs support for projects outside of Europe, you need to prove yourself extraordinarily in order to gain financial support. There’s a lot of suspicion regarding this “paternal ideology.” Internationalising funds is highly politicised and a matter of interest for the donor country, like the unsustainable re-integration projects of the German so-called “Perspektive Heimat” in refugee-sending countries. These are the actual problems with the EU white savior mentality.
Sarah: Rex connected me with Isabel, and I had uncomfortable feelings because you’re talking to someone who you don’t know at all, and you’re culturally very different. And this person is going through a trauma I can’t even imagine. People should be more willing to offer emotional support or time if they can’t donate money. I think we should normalise this as well because we can’t donate our way out of oppressive systems. For me, this is even more of a spiritual thing –– to have peace, justice, and equity. And I mean it in the least new-age holistic toxic positivity way. Moving past feeling guilty and learning how to transform your feelings into action.
Rex: Before I got in contact with Sarah, I had already visited the city where Isabel lived in Bayern. What I usually do is meet the local volunteers to exchange on the actual situation of deportees from their community. My concern is not only to mobilise support for the deportees’ families but also to connect them to their families back in Nigeria. A telephone call to deported people is a sort of therapy for them. That feeling of concern is healing to show they are not alone. You will find them opening up to you. The moment Sarah got in contact with Isabel, and the fact that she is a woman too, made her speak more openly. And that has been very productive. By creating this contact between Sarah and her, I’m no longer the only one who has to take all the trauma. We share it. This is exactly what people cannot figure out. Some just want to donate money and do not care about how things develop further. The issue is not just money but also the show of concern.
What are the primary forms of spreading your message? Do you rely heavily on your existing network or does social media help expand the scope of your audience?
Sarah: I think that’s a really important question because first of all, people follow me on social media because of music. I noticed that when I started posting the fundraisers, I’ve been losing a lot of followers. That’s quite interesting. It’s not feel-good content, or people are just generally overwhelmed with social media I guess, and are maybe just not open to this kind of content. I find it sad of course but I understand. But it also points to a bigger problem of people’s attention spans. Instagram is a marketing tool, it’s about selling a product. It’s frustrating to fight against this massive, oppressive algorithm machine as well.
Now I’m trying to think of ways to reach people through different channels, maybe a mailing list or so. Or to just say “Hey, if you buy my music the income will go towards this cause.” Of course, I’m a DJ and artist, but I don’t see a reason not to do this. Privilege and oppression are a spectrum, so in the space that I have of privilege – of having a European passport and this network/platform, speaking German – I want to use it for something good and practice community and care. Because at the end of the day when I die, in my last 5 minutes I’m probably going to think of the human connections I’ve made.
Rex: My wish will be that people are much more committed to supporting those in need. There is the need for an understanding that we are all part of the problem and as such, part of the solution because what we are privileged with is what others are suffering from. When Sarah and I first met, I was talking about the patenschaft, volunteers for deported families, especially with financing the education for deported children. This eases the trauma of the mothers as they try to get back on their feet in society. With Sarah’s passion to engage in this, there was no doubt that she would lose some of her social media fans. A lot of privileged people just want to have fun and enjoy the entertainment. I wish that people are able to grow beyond this box. It doesn’t take much to be nice or show concern for others. It’s not just about spending money –– just a telephone call to cheer people up means a lot. Even people like myself, Sarah, and many others need that as well. Collective motivation is very essential to change the system.
The new coalition agreement promises “progressive” policies, which allegedly entail easier family reunifications and naturalisation, sped up asylum procedures, and resettlement for people who are fleeing prosecution… But they also set harsher deportable offenses. What do you make of this?
Rex: A snake will always bite, there is no doubt about that. There is this human urge to maintain power. With this in mind, the current party is compelled to succumb to the conservative society. There is very little or nothing new in the coalition agreement. They could sound new to the politically unconscious society. But for us, it’s the same old story of beautified repression –– just name changes like Ankerzentrum and Gemeinschaftsunterkunft in place of Refugee Isolation Lager. Scrapping Duldung (tolerated stay) doesn’t mean abolishing Duldung. It’s just a matter of creating another term with even more restrictions.
Such deceptive regularisation policies have been increasing since 2007, in reaction to years of political protest and pressure against the German immigration policies. For example, an Altfallregelung for Ketten Duldung (tolerated persons) in Germany was introduced as the Bleiberecht (right to stay). Eligible for this amendment were families holding an uninterrupted Duldung status for 6 years but under the terrible condition of having full-time employment. Another condition was to be free from any criminal charge, whereas many asylum seekers were already criminalised by an apartheid residenzpflicht law that was imposed on asylum seekers. Just a criminal conviction affecting any family member, “even an underaged,” negatively affects the entire family’s application.
The Ausbildungsduldung or Bescahftigungs Duldung and other Bleiberecht regulations are a development from the Altfallregelung. The media will report the few that are able to make it with these new regulations, but the thousands that are deported are made invisible. All these propaganda amendments are developed every 2 years. We’ve found ourselves creating critical consciousnesses on these deceptive regulations. This trend at the moment convinces people to submit their identity documents in an effort to regularise themselves but unfortunately, they’re arrested by the police and deported. It’s a situation of placing a meal up on the shelves for the tortoise when we know the tortoise can’t reach it. We cannot allow ourselves to be deceived by this repeated beautified repression. Nevertheless, people have to always look for possible opportunities within these policies.
Germany is notorious for its complex bureaucracy that even deters expats who don’t have to worry about their legal status. These difficulties are exacerbated in refugee and asylum applications. Could you explain the legal aspect of your organisation and how you help refugees with paperwork?
Rex: I’m active in different refugee solidarity networks. Among us in the movement are engaged activist lawyers and migration experts. We are also connected with a network of lawyers volunteering to take up cases of state repression. Our major focus is to create possibilities for the exchange of experiences among asylum seekers to empower one another with information on their rights and obligations. We are also in contact with social workers who refer asylum seekers and complicated cases to us. With a long list of volunteers, we are able to organise translations when the need arises, accompanying people to official appointments, etc. It’s all about solidarity.
“We are committed to creating platforms for refugee and migrant self-organisation. We try to create opportunities for exchange that could promote refugee and migrants’ self-determination.”
A typical and most recent example was the series of violent police raids in refugee camps like the Ellwangen and Donauworth cases in 2018. The media reacted by propagating the police and state narratives that present refugee camps as a huge security risk for Germany. In such cases, we engage refugee witnesses or victims in the camp and present their personal narratives on the situation. This is not easy, because it requires lots of time and energy to convince them of the necessity of this. It entails meetings to interpret the societal discourse on the issue, informing them about their rights and obligations, and dealing with their individual fears.
Similarly, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic when the Lagos airport was shut down, Germany becoming a corona hotspot was bent on enforcing deportation to porous countries. The corona situation in the camps was questionable as asylum-seekers accused the German government of using the camp and its inhabitants as a corona test experiment.
From nearly 2 decades of political engagement here in Europe, I can see that many migrants lack a clear political awareness before and even after arriving in Germany or Europe. Everyone is born a political person, but this awareness usually fails many of us. Motivating people to become politically active requires a level of trust. This is one reason why we’re engaging in counseling and accompanying asylum-seekers to at least create a practical impact in their personal lives. From these cases and experiences, people are further motivated to engage further with us on a political level.
Sarah: In the beginning of last year, I applied for a German passport. I’m already privileged regarding my citizenship because my mom has an Italian passport. But I have never been allowed to vote, even though I was born here, live here, and pay taxes. I was so afraid of the whole process for the reasons you just mentioned. It costs a lot of money, too. I spent around €700. They want every piece of information that is out there that I didn’t even know existed. It was very dehumanising in some ways and this was only the soft version. At the end of December, I finally got my German citizenship and I had to go the citizen office.
It was such a weird experience because I had to read aloud, “Ich bekenne feierlich, dass ich das Grundgesetz und die Gesetze der Bundesrepublik Deutschland achten und alles unterlassen werde, was ihr schaden könnte,” which basically means, “I’m joyful to announce that I won’t do any harm to Germany and will respect the laws.” Nationality is such a weird concept. I thought, “Okay NOW I’m German.” The person at the citizen's office told me that if I were put in prison in, for example, Turkey for political reasons, it isn’t Germany’s responsibility to get me out. It would still be Italy’s. So basically they just want me to pay taxes and respect their laws. They also mentioned that if I were to become part of a terror group, I’d instantly lose my German citizenship. It was very clear to me that only “good” immigrants get a chance.
Rex: With the foreigner's office, it is obvious that there’s a special criterion for selecting the people who work in such places. My experiences from accompanying people to the immigration offices have been horrible. The way most of them address people. They just want to make you feel that being there is a great privilege, even when you are to be given a Duldung or any of the other residency permits.
Is there anything else you would like to add? What meaningful ways could people who are interested in helping get involved?
Sarah: One way to support is to sponsor affected people financially and also start to build friendships with them. Or just simply being there. The emotional support that people need is so underrated. Another thing is social media: Rex and I are not social media or Go Fund Me experts. Social media is so much about aesthetics, and it’s a marketing platform at the end of the day. How do we make it appeal to people? If someone is really good at designing visuals or is good with words, feel free to reach out. If you know any relevant mailing lists that we should know of let us know. Another idea: instead of asking for birthday presents this year or whenever ask people to donate. Or a lot of DJs do live streams right now, so you could just add the donation link. Be creative with it. I’m just a supporter and I’m not affected by deportation. I just want to make sure that we have more empathy and that we decolonise our minds. And make sure to check out No White Saviors, they have amazing resources on their socials and website. You can support them too, they also rely on donations in order to do their work.
Rex: We all have to understand that we are all part of the problem but can also be part of the solution. I count myself as privileged to be here because I’m not sleeping on a time bomb moment by moment. I enjoy some opportunities that many people cannot have. These privileges are made possible through the blood and sweat of others. Supporting and donating to help those in need would mean giving back just a little part of what has been exploited by them.
Sarah: I think hopefulness and commitment are really important. Another world is possible where all of us can thrive. The three of us having this conversation and you giving us the opportunity to talk about this is like writing history in a micro version. Each of us can do something, just don’t do nothing.
Rex: We are targeting having a house (Schutzwohnung) for deportees in Lagos. This space will serve as an office and transit accommodation for deportees. This will save us a lot of expenses with keeping people in hotels. People who may be interested should feel free to contact us.
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