French museum takes long view of migration frontiers | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.05.2016
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French museum takes long view of migration frontiers

An exhibition in Paris is attempting to give visitors a firsthand experience of the odyssey undertaken by many refugees, both currently and historically. Elizabeth Bryant went for a look.

There's a motorboat puttering in the falling darkness, the sound of Arabic spoken above the engine. What happens next to the young men aboard is anybody's guess.

By now, the stories behind Europe's migrant influx are all too familiar, captured on YouTube and nightly news channels. Some asylum-seekers realize their dreams; others find themselves begging on European streets. Still others have been sent home, and more than 40,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2000.

Now, today's migration wave is being viewed from an historical lens at a stately museum at the edge of Paris, with an exhibit focused on the world's shifting border walls and their imperfect ability to keep people out. Linked to the exhibit is also an interactive show giving visitors a 'first-hand' experience of sneaking by truck to Britain illegally.

"We have no concrete answer to this crisis, that's not our job," says Helene Orain, who heads the National Museum of Immigration History that is hosting the "Frontiers" exhibit. "Our job is to offer an historical explanation of this current crisis."

Captured through photos, paintings, personal stories and videos such as that of the young men at sea, "Frontiers" looks not only at Europe's recent immigration history - and the physical and administrative barriers erected over the years - but also at some of the major border walls that exist in the world today, including Israel's Gaza wall, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, and the roughly 670 miles (1,115 kilometers) of fencing along the US-Mexico frontier.

"Borders can appear and disappear, and most which were considered very important - such as the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain - are now quite forgotten by the young," the political scientist and migration expert Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, who helped put together the "Frontiers" exhibit, told DW.

Many borders to cross

A lesson of history: All borders are ultimately crossed. "If we control at one point," Wihtol de Wenden said, "the migrants will arrive at another."

people in museum copyright: E. Bryant

The exhibition is an attempt to portray Europe's past and present immigration history

Rather than shrinking, border walls have grown since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than a quarter of a century ago - and since the 1983 Schengen treaty aimed to create a "border-free" travel zone within Europe.

"After the end of the Berlin Wall, Europeans thought there would never again be walls in the world," Orain told DW. "But the reality is very different. We build walls around the world every day."

Indeed, the exhibit resonates now more than ever, as new frontiers take shape. In the United States, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump calls for constructing a permanent wall to stem the immigration flow from Mexico, while Israel reportedly plans to increase the height of its border fence with Egypt to keep African migrants out.

For its part, the European Union has begun shipping back "irregular migrants" to Turkey even as national border fences sprout in countries like Macedonia and Hungary. High unemployment and fears of terrorism have further hardened European attitudes toward migrants and created new doubts about Schengen's viability.

'Fortress Europe'

"Public opinion is divided," the analyst Wihtol de Wenden says. "Some people think we need more 'fortress Europe.' But 'fortress Europe' creates a lot of dead people - and the cost of control is very high."

poster of refugees in water copyright: E. Bryant

Depicting the harsh reality

In France, the migrant influx and last year's terrorist attacks have fueled support for the far-right anti-immigrant National Front party and growing distrust of foreigners. Surveys also show most French oppose accepting new refugees and believe that too many migrants have changed the country in negative ways.

Yet "Frontiers" underscores the reality of France as a nation of immigrants. There are photos of Portuguese - who arrived to postwar France for work by the tens of thousands - hiking across the Pyrenees in the 1960s, and Bohemians being expelled from the country in 1900.

On display, too, is the yellowed paper that French authorities gave to the star Soviet dancer Rudolph Nureyev when he defected to the West in 1961. And a recording of a young Afghan asylum seeker describing of his tortuous journey to France via Turkey and Greece.

"Why are there frontiers," he asks, "when we're made of the same flesh?"

Foreign roots

Today, more than half of all French have some foreign roots, Orain says, a fact that many are only now beginning to accept.

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"But does it mean that people are aware of mixity, diversity, of multi-cultural origins?" Orain says. "I'm not so sure."

For 56-year-old Helene Renouvin, visiting the exhibit one recent afternoon, Europe's border walls have sprouted up in ways that are almost banal. "You get used to it, and don't realize it," she says, describing events like World War II which created new forms of surveillance and identity documents.

For others, the exhibit offers an occasion to reflect on their own migrant backgrounds.

"I have Belgian and also various French origins," says Pierre, a 22-year-old statistics student. "Part of the Belgian side of my family emigrated to Morocco. So I do feel cosmopolitan, but very French at the same time."

Not surprisingly, many visitors draw parallels between Europe's history and the current migrant crisis.

"When I'm in Paris and see Syrian refugees at the side of the road, I don't know what to do to help. But I don't think we can just continue on, in our comfortable world," says Anne Huault, a 56-year-old pharmacist from Normandy. "This museum is very interesting, it makes us think about it."

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