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A first-hand account of the Arab Spring
“Reimagination” and “changing horizons” are words Jack Shenker used to describe the recent north African revolutions. Webster University’s Year of International Human Rights: Refugee and Migrant Rights committee, brought Shenker to speak about the recent Arab uprisings and the migration to Europe of those affected Oct. 3.
Shenker is currently a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, among other publications and has been mainly based in Cairo, Egypt. Due to his coverage of the uprising at the beginning of the year, he received the Amnesty International Gaby Rado award for human rights journalism. The 26 year old graduated from Oxford University with a degree in history and politics and has been covering the uprisings in Egypt.
After graduating from Oxford University, Shenker worked for six months in London to finance traveling. After traveling through Turkey and the Middle East, Shenker found a second home in Cairo.
He had been interested in Egypt due to problems between regimes backed by western countries such as the U.S. and Britain. When he arrived in Egypt, he didn’t speak Arabic, and though he took two months of formal Arabic or “fusha”, he mainly learned on the go since people speak the local dialect instead.
Though he was offered a regular position as a domestic journalist with The Guardian after interning there, he decided to do freelance work abroad instead. Eventually after working as a freelance journalist, he was hired by The Guardian as a foreign correspondent in Cairo. During his presentation, Shenker spoke about the process and risks those who decide to migrate north into Europe have to go through and how they are perceived once they arrive, if they arrive.
The cycle this creates, Shenker said, is one of panic and speculation due to high levels of migration which then lead to increasing border control. Then, because these measures to control migration often don’t work, it leads to more panic and further increases in security measures.
To describe the voyage of many who migrate from Africa, mainly Subsaharan countries, Shenker presented the story of Mohamed Munadi, 22, who left his home in Tunisia aiming for Paris. Munadi, whose livelihood came from smuggled cheap Libyan oil into Tunisia, was directly impacted by the Libyan civil war. Due to internal turmoil in the country, he could no longer cross the border. Munadi, and an estimated 50,000 migrants, sailed into the Mediterranean Sea and arrived at the island of Lampedusa, Italy.
Once on the island, the migrants were received by the police, placed in shelters, and given the very basics to live on while they wait for the possibility of getting a visa, which would allow them to move around the European Union freely for six months.
Through a small camera Munadi was given by Shenker, he recorded some of the island’s residents concerns. Loitering migrants, diseases the newcomers may bring and the island’s inability to sustain everybody were among concerns.
Through Munadi’s experience, Shenker learned that perceptions of migrants are either exaggerated or simply wrong. Shenker said one perspective the island’s residents had regarding the migrants was that they were destitute. However, Munadi came from a middle-class background and wasn’t uneducated.
Another misconception presented was that migration out of north Africa is something new. African uprisings have sped up the inflow of African migrants into Europe, but has been going on for decades, especially in the post-colonialism era.
Increasing border security has only caused more deaths. Approximately 20,000 people are known to have died due to complications in the migration journey or border security brutality in the Mediterranean during the past year. People don’t stop trying to cross borders when obstacles are set in place. If there is a driving force, individuals will continue to take increasing risks.
When asked by a member of the audience about parallels between Britain’s current immigration sentiments and those in the U.S., he explained that even though there are still issues with Britain’s policies, he believes the U.S. is a step behind. There are concerns that migrants are taking advantage of welfare programs and anti-migrant or “islamophobic” coverage by the media are factors in anti-migrant sentiments in both countries. Shenker referred to laws such as Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070 as “unacceptable in Britain”.
Shenker is optimistic in regards to the Egyptian uprising, which he has been covering for the past three years. Though he is cautious in his optimism and acknowledged that those who are taking control of the nation are only slightly less repressive than Mubarak’s regime, he stays positive. He said the “fear barrier” that kept Egyptians quiet has been broken. However, Shenker said there is a lot of work to be done.
“The head of the snake has been chopped off but the body is still there,” said Shenker.
Though he is currently starting to write a book on the years prior to the revolution in Egypt, Shenker says his plans for his future are quite open ended. At the same time, nonetheless, he admits to having an attachment to Cairo and will continue to live there in the near future.