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Refugees: Cycling to last longer

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Refugreenergy is the story of young social entrepreneurs who, concerned about global warming and the situation of refugees in Europe, have decided to take action. We met with Théo, one of the founders of this controversial start-up. 

The concept? Enabling refugees to enter the labour market thanks to “pico-contracts” that not only allow them to earn 1,60 Euros a day, but also grant them the right to stay one more day on Belgian territory. To do this, refugees cycle during the day to refill batteries, providing 100% green and sustainable energy.

Cafébabel: The first energy deliveries are expected to come this year; do you think that there will be a peak in immigration to Belgium? How can you attract more refugees to develop your activity?

Refugreenergy: We based our idea on a UN report predicting that, between now and 2050, there will be 250 million climate refugees. This is the reality, and we wanted to use the potential of these future refugees to develop our project and our company. Given the depletion of fossil fuels and the cost of nuclear energy, we also think that the cost of energy will increase. So we will be more and more competitive. But we’re not going to try and impact the influx of refugees, they will come anyways. 

Cafébabel: You claim to offer clean energy while providing jobs for refugees. Is it just a win-win situation then?

Refugreenergy: Yes, of course it’s a win-win situation. The logic is quite simple: global warming exacerbates the refugee crisis, so we might as well use refugees to fight global warming and finally find a solution to these two major problems. The idea was to give these refugees a purpose and a sense of direction, to prevent them from hanging around parks, from spending the day roaming around and creating insecurities for Belgians. This is a way to integrate them in Belgian society to a certain extent, generating clean energy at the same time.

Cafébabel: You are finally finding a purpose for these people, are you thinking of other ways to encourage their participation?

Refugreenergy: Yes, so we were in the prototype phase until September 2017. The idea is to launch everything now to see how it works on the ground. After, we can consider partnering up with Deliveroo, Uber and other innovative start-ups. To generate electricity, the refugees come to our offices in the morning, take an empty battery and charge it by cycling for four hours. These batteries can charge 10 phones or four laptops. As soon as the battery is full, they deliver it. We expect them to deliver the batteries directly to our client’s homes to suit their needs. For example, imagine a hotel wants to work with us and wants to power three rooms with these batteries. Well, we could deliver those to the hotel directly.  

Unbelievable, right? Did you fall for it? This is exactly how the organisation We Are All Refugees (WAAR) tricked passers-by on the streets of Brussels in September last year. They created a shock campaign aimed at confronting individuals with their critical thinking and empathy. Maxime Demartin, one of the (real) artists who came up with the idea, explains.

Cafébabel: You revealed the fact that the campaign was a farce in October, a month later. How did you manage to keep a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account up-to-date for all that time? How did you keep your anonymity?

Maxime Demartin: Everything happened quickly. We are a group of 24 artists and creatives who applied for a residency programme at the theatre factory in Frameries, Belgium. The residency was organised by Yes Men, a group of American activists dedicated to the theme of global warming. We created the project in the span of three days, on the issue of the anthropocene (the current geological era, where human activity has a real impact on the environment and the biosphere, ed.) and what we thought was urgent and apparent: the refugee crisis. This subject is close to our hearts, especially following the recent remarks by Theo Francken (who expressed how happy he was on Twitter about the “cleaning” of the refugee camps last September, ed.) and the collaboration between the Belgian government and the Sudanese authorities. The link between global warming and refugees was made quite quickly, because climate change and the extraction of resources are major causes of conflict.

Then we found an amazing feature on Facebook that allowed us to backdate our posts up to three months prior. We also created a website and Facebook accounts of people to like the website, and did the same with Twitter. We had a great team. You should also know that the team consisted of filmmakers, comedians, directors, and playwrights. Being surrounded by this talent allowed us to create such a professional communication scheme. Basically, we simple didn’t have the time to be unmasked.

Cafébabel: Did your initiative have the desired effects? Did this force people to ‘wake up’?

Maxime Demartin: The impact came in two phases. The first phase was on September 30th last year, when we played behind the Palais de la Bourse (the Brussels stock exchange) during the Signal Festival, organised by CIFAS. We noticed a somewhat politically correct attitude that prevented people to openly criticise it. To be polite, passers-by said “yes, yes, yes” when listening to us, while putting their hands on their children’s ears. Others told us: “Yes, I don’t have enough money for that, I am a student…” There were, however, a couple of knee-jerk reactions. People said things like: “Wait, but this is modern slavery!” So there were some people opposed to this.

At the end of the three hours, a man of Senegalese descent called Emile stood up to tell us: “What you are doing is slavery. What’s more, the countries where refugees come from are those that pollute the least and suffer the most from climate change.” He understood everything that we were trying to do.

What scared us was that people thought it “was possible.” That’s also something we wanted to highlight through our campaign; using certain keywords like “opportunity”, “potential”, “green energy”, “employability”, “flexibility”… we were able to completely normalise truly horrible things.

Belgian labour and migration policies are pretty awful; the same goes for the French and European ones. But when you turn the tables around and talk about fiscal optimisation instead of fiscal evasion, everything becomes acceptable. For our part, we talked about refugees being “inserted into the labour market,” not about slavery.  

The second phase took place on social networks, and many people were offended. Some people from the alt-right were delighted: “Finally a good idea: we should regulate it and do it directly in the Congo,” they commented.

There’s a lot of work to be done with regards to people’s perceptions. It’s kind of difficult to measure the real impact, and this campaign was too short. 

Cafébabel: Did you get inspired by real initiatives to organise your campaign?

Maxime Demartin: Not really. But through doing research, we came across some things that were a little astonishing. For example, Techfugees or Human Power Plant… they are possible things. In some prisons in Brazil, they use prisoners to generate electricity. What’s crazy is that they didn’t directly inspire us, but our project, which could seem incredible, is.

We also wanted to change the way people talk about start-ups. It’s a discourse about performance, which lets people believe that market solutions can solve problems created by the market. It’s also a way to unveil the business around refugees. Today, many private companies provide security in train stations, in refugee camps… Half of Frontex is made up of private companies. For example, I’m thinking of the people who make a business of containers, or refugee camps, and who say with total peace of mind that: “Yes, of course it’s a business.” These things exist…

Cafébabel: What is the Belgian state doing for refugees, and what are you asking them to change?

Maxime Demartin: People need to know that Belgium is breaching international law, European law, the Convention of Human Rights, the Treaty on Civil and Political rights, by not allowing people to apply for asylum. We just want the state to respect these laws. But we’re not going to let ourselves get carried away by false illusions…

The most important thing is that the majority of the population takes matters into their own hands. We are all responsible. There are plenty of people who are changing things, in many different ways. We would love for the states to do their jobs, to open centres, to have real integration policies. Even the OECD, known for its economic liberalism, published an opinion piece saying that immigration creates jobs and increases revenues. It’s just a matter of mentality. We would love for the maximum amount of people to become aware of the issue.

We should also tell ourselves that we might be immigrants in the future. Let’s imagine that global warming continues to worsen, that in 50 years the North Sea rises and Brussels is under water. We won’t be so cute about it. After the fall of the Berlin wall, an anti-immigrant wall more than 585 km long was built in Europe. We would like for people to recognise these realities and take responsibility. 

Translated from Réfugiés : pédaler pour mieux durer