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A European migration crisis or a European crisis? Interview with Jean-Barthélemi Debost.

The Association of European Migration Institutions (AEMI) Conference took place in Santiago de Compostela from September 28th to October 1st. AEMI, which was founded after the end of the Cold war in 1991 in Germany, is a network of organizations, such as research centers, universities, museums and so on, that focuses its attention on the history of migrations. Currently present in more than twenty countries (mainly in Europe), the AEMI Members meet together once a year at a conference, set in one of the Member States, during which projects and researches on migrations conducted by individuals are presented.

The Conference in Santiago tackled the issue of European migrant diasporas and cultural identities; the last panel was dedicated to the European migration crisis. During the last session, one of the speakers was Jean-Barthélemi Debost, the current director of the Department of Network and Partnership of the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, situated in Paris. Post-graduated in contemporary African History at the University of Paris I Sorbonne, he coordinated for 10 years (1990-2000) a youth image education system on the territories under the urban policy in the Ile-de-France carried out by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Social Affairs and then he joined the Seine-Saint-Denis county to participate in the creation of the Cultural Heritage Department. Representing the National Museum of Immigration History, he gave a presentation about the reactions of the institution by which he has been working to the migration crisis in Europe, taking as an example the temporary exhibition they organized last year, Frontières.

At the end of the second day of the conference, we found some time to have a discussion together, and that moment launched the idea of the interview. I consider a honor to have had on open debate with him about the current migration crisis, the refugees issue and the work the Museum where he works does.

R: Hello Jean. You spoke yesterday during the last panel, that was actually strictly linked to the current events, and this is the main reason why its title was “Open discussion on European migration crisis”. Yet, during your speech you contested this title, arguing it would have been better to talk of a “European crisis”. Why?

J: What is the problem? Is the problem the fact that hundreds of thousands of Syrians are leaving their country because of war? Is this the problem? Or is the problem the fact that Europe, which is supposed to be a contract among twenty-eight – very soon twenty-seven – Member States of a same organization, is not able to have a common and united policy, on how to receive these people. And what we can see is that Hungary has a point a view, Germany has a point a view, France has a point a view, the United Kingdom has a point of view. Actually this refugees question reveals that the problem is directly connected with the European Union, its institutions, and the way they have been acting. It shows that the EU has no foreign policy, that it is not able to manage properly the external borders. Indeed, the problem is a European problem.

R: I think it could be a good point to open the discussion again. But anyway: “migration” as a word is nowadays overwhelmingly present on television, on social networks, in the political debate. nevertheless, as you pointed out, it is not the case  in France. Even if your country has a long history of immigration, which are the main difficulties you have to face when dealing with migrations in France today?

J: Next year we are going to open a new temporary exhibition dedicated to a hundred years of Italian immigration in France, from 1860 to 1960. This is a story that began very badly with murders and racism, against the Italians, from at the mid-19th century until the 20th century. But it is a story that ended nicely: these Italians or their descendants in France are nearly invisible, or if they are visible, they are seen a positive way. Delicacy, elegance, shops, restaurants; the very idea of latin-lover represented by Marcello Mastroianni and other Italian actors. All these elements contributed to change our representation of Italians since the beginning of the 20th century. So, after three, four, five generations, this huge flow of Italians is completely integrated, to speak roughly. This clearly shows to what extent time can make things better. Let us talk about nowadays. The job of exploring the history of people coming from the former French empire, understanding what kind of representation colonization has made in the eyes of the white, or the so-called white, upon the people coming from Africa or Far East are some of the difficulties. If we don’t dig this history, I’m sure that we will keep the same point of view on these people that the colonial system had. However, to answer your question, the main factor, in my opinion, is the lack of employment, which creates in suburb areas, as our Prime Minister told us, a social, ethnic and geographical apartheid. It is not because they want to be over there, the system put them over there, and they have no chance to escape from there, if they have no jobs. Then, as in any other peoples, you have crazy individuals, and for me, the terrorists who organized the attacks in Paris, they mainly come from migrants families, but first of all they are crazy. That’s it.

R: Thank you. You have mentioned Ciao Italia, the temporary exhibition about Italian migration in France. It will be an itinerant exhibition: why this choice?

J: I have been working in the Museum since 2013 in the Department which tries to build partnership inside and outside the Museum. Two years ago, we thought that an itinerant exhibition could be very interesting to build partnerships; that is why we created Frontières. It is a way for us to work in close contact with the territories. We lend it for free; and we also give tools that can help the territories to make these exhibitions something of their own. For example, in “on the road” Ciao Italia there will be about 20 panels but some will be empty. Visitors will have the framework, the titles and so people in Marseille, or in Lorraine, or people around Toulouse will be able to make their own contribution to the national exhibition, documenting what is going on in their home territories. It is a way to help those territories to manage the history of migration. And that’s a good tool to fight against discrimination.

R: Going back to yesterday and talking about your presentation, you told us about the exhibition Frontières, that was focused on the issue of borders. But you also said that migration crisis in France took place in the same period of the terrorist attacks. So, in a few words, how did you manage to separate these two phenomena in that exhibition?

J: The exhibition was on borders and their history. It was about territories nearby borders and about people working there. It showed how security is planned in border zones and the kind of business it is. It was also about how it is going through borders and how to protect them. Both at national scale and at European level. So the question was not about immigrants, the question was not about terrorists, but it was: “What is a border?”, “When did it take place in the birth of the Nation?”, “Which form has nowadays the EU which originally promised us a free circulation space for people and goods?”. In fact, Europe pushed the borders to the end of the Europe, and it was the Schengen area. So it was about giving the visitors plenty of information about the landscape in which the migrant problem takes place. Of course, we had some pictures related to the issue of migrants, of course we had newspapers dealing with this matter for weeks and even more after the body of young Aylan was found on a Turkish beach, but the core of the exhibition is about how all these events are happening because of where we decided to set our borders.

Talking about the terrorist attacks: yesterday I told the audience that the European migrant crisis and the terrorist attacks were two different things and the Frontières exhibition instead did not deal with terrorist Paris attacks, nor was it about security problems and about alleged connections between immigrants and terrorists. What I was saying is that after the Paris attacks, the National Museum of Immigration History was considered as a place where people could learn how to think about secularism, about liberté, egalité, fraternité, about these territories, these suburbs where the Republic is poorly represented. In some places post offices are disappearing.

Suburbs cities are fading away from the center. People came to the museum to try to have ideas on these facts. Yet, Frontières was not a response to that; we tried to organize some talks, some workshops. We called people to help us to discuss about it (for example, we had an historian of secularism, another historian who helped us to work on the concept of racism, etc). But Frontières had nothing to do with terrorist attacks.

R: Yesterday, you also told me that with Frontières, you went to Sziget Festival last summer, in Budapest; a music festival, frequented by the young European generation, the so-called “Erasmus generation”. As an external observer, what are the general feelings you perceived there regarding migration and the European crisis, from the point of view of young people?

J: Sziget Festival was a very good experience. Especially because it was the time when the PM Orbán decided to launch the referendum campaign on the European Commission plan for the relocation of refugees coming to Greece or Italy. So first of all, it was very impressive to witness the fact that this festival asked us (Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration) to be there in August in Budapest, at the same time of the campaign. I do not want to say that in France there are no problems between citizens and the State, between citizens and the political establishment, but in Hungary, in August, the climate was rather tense: the wall was conceived and the referendum was on. So we were on a kind of an ideological front. We spent one week there, we were not in the center of the festival, but at the museums corner, quite far from the main stage; we were in a tent shared with the Museum of Ethnography of Budapest, and the tent was called “Tent without Borders”. We counted about 700 visitors: people who read about the exhibition, a bit or a lot. I personally met a dozen of visitors and discussed with them: they were very involved in what was going on, and I think the atmosphere of the festival made them think about that situation. And this fact is impressive for me. Why? Because the Sziget festival was, in my opinion, an image of what Europe could be: people living peacefully, discussing together, enjoying their time together, drinking together, listening to the music together, sleeping together, and so on. People from everywhere: you could listen to all the languages from any part of Europe. It was a bit too much white for me; but, voilà, maybe it costs a lot of money, maybe the selection of music made it that it was more white music than other music, even if I watched Rachid Taha born in Algeria and raised in France on stage. But it was a really good image to watch the young generation of Europe, the one you have called “Erasmus generation”. They were there discovering or rediscovering how we could have a discussion with French, British, Czech, Italian or Spanish boys and girls. And there that was possible and everything was friendly. People were very sad looking at the exhibition, because the main point was make us think that we could build a Europe without borders and then also consider that borders are coming up again. For instance, one guy asked me: “What can we do?”, just after Brexit. “You have to continue traveling and meeting people to show that it is possible to live with others and it’s also a pleasure”. All in all, the Sziget experience was really impressive for me.

R: Thank you for your time, Jean. I really hope to meet again, maybe in Prato, where Ciao Italia will be hosted.

Riccardo Roba