Roundtable in Vienna: Democracy in a migration society


After the UTE roundtable on the refugee movement held in Vienna right after the height of the “Willkommenskultur”, the UTE convened a follow-up roundtable discussing how democracy and a migration society go together.

Western Europe will continue to be a shelter for millions of newly arriving refugees in the upcoming years, given that sustainable solutions for the reasons of seeking refuge, such as political conflicts, poverty and climate change in the countries of the global south aren’t anywhere in sight. Instead of discussing the situation in the light of a crisis, we have to instead actively shape it.

How can democratic processes be strengthened and cultivated? Which rights and what kind of status are our democracies willing to grant refugees? What does democracy have to look like in a migration society?

Moderated by Corinna Milborn, these and other questions were discussed by the Pakistani journalist Meera Jamal; Ioanna Petrisi from Thessaloniki of the NGO ARISIS — Association for the Social Support of Youth; film, text and theatre worker Tina Leisch (Die schweigende Mehrheit); political scientist and activist Monika Mokre from Vienna; as well as the Ukrainian director of the independent Dakh theatre, Vlad Troitzkyi from Kiew.


The recent roundtable in Vienna entitled “Democracy in a migration society” brought together a wide range of people in a lively discussion that revolved around three main subjects: the situation of refugees in society; our understanding of democratic and cultural values; and the role of culture and theatre in the light of political challenge.

Ioanna Petrisi, a member of a Greek NGO that does on-the-ground work with refugee minors, expressed her feelings of provocation that were evoked by the topic of democracy when refugees are fighting to survive this trying winter all over Europe. Taking a step back from her day-to-day challenges in the trenches, though, she explained the overall situation of refugees in camps, who have no way of taking part in everyday life, or even in their legal proceedings. Due the state of emergency — which grants Greece EU funds — every decision is taken for the refugees without their knowledge, leaving them at a loss as to why or even when they are taken from one city or even country to another, without being given any explanation whatsoever.

Ms. Mokre, a political scientist based in Vienna, agreed that there is an increase in the number of people who are kept from participating in the decision making process, especially due to being segregated, which is largely due to the economic hardship of refugees and low-income workers. This separation from the rest of the population is one of the early problems that refugees are confronted with, as Meera Jamal said, a journalist who fled from Pakistan due to prosecution. These structural defaults impedes cultural integration — a word that is often deliberately mixed up with assimilation, as Ms. Mokre pointed out — and prolong the difficulty of becoming part of society. Speaking from her own experience in a refugee camp, Meera Jamal explained that integration is further inhibited due to the fact that refugees aren’t informed about their rights and the rights of others as they come to a new country.

The second prevalent subject discussed during the roundtable dealt with the understanding of democratic and cultural values, and how we define and defend them. This sensitive topic triggered different opinions that mirrored the myriad of opinions in society. While Vlad Troitsky, a Ukrainian theatre artist, paralleled Europe to a library whose rules need to be explained to and upheld by newcomers, Tina Leisch, an activist theatre artist in Vienna, vastly disagreed with this “colonial” metaphor and insisted on comparing Europe to a supermarket, in which the refugees are the producers of the food who are denied to have a bite. The debate amongst the speakers from different European nationalities demonstrated that there are vastly different perspectives within this discourse that depend on political affiliation or national experience, which are the (only) perspective upheld or ‘allowed’ in that context. For this reason, there is a fundamental need for discussions, such as this.

As opposed to the attempt of finding a common ground on ‘Europe’ and ‘the others’, the value and role of culture was overall agreed upon. Vlad Troitsky underlined how theatre cannot provide any answers, but needs to uphold its responsibility of asking uncomfortable questions that are sometimes not allowed in other parts of life, which generally resonated with the all the speakers. In this context, Ms. Leisch drew attention to a current necessity of broadening the conversation circle. Theatre needs to expand its reach by distinctly inviting the large part of the population having an immigration background, and particularly also people with right-wing views. Theatre, and art in general, may address more issues, in a more aggressive way than can be done in real life. This potential of theatre can be of good use when left-wing artists will have to try and understand right-wing views.

||| Read our Young Journalists on Performing Arts' articles by Elena Galanopolou here and by Ina Doublekova here |||


Meera Jamal started her career in 2003 in the editorial team of Dawn, one of the oldest and most widely read English language papers in Pakistan. Due to numerous threats she had to leave Pakistan, and has been living in Germany since 2008. She is the editor of the blog Journalists in Exile, which has been supported by Reporters Without Borders.

Ioanna Petrisi manages various programs at ARSIS (Association for the Social Support of Youth), an NGO which particularly supports adolescents in trouble or in danger, and fights for their rights. The NGO strives to first and foremost prevent the marginalization of the youth and to support their rights.

Tina Leisch is a film, text and theatre worker, and has been living and working in Austria since the 1990s. She has also been a long-standing activist in various political issues; ranging from supporting the “movimiento popular” in El Salvador in the 80s to co-founding the theatre activist collective “Die Schweigende Mehrheit”, which has been standing up for a more humane treatment of refugees through, amongst other means, theatre.

In 2002 the theatre production “Mein Kampf”, which she co-directed, received the Nestroy Theatre Prize.

Monika Mokre is a political scientist and works at the department for cultural and theatre studies at the Austrian academy of science; she has been chairperson of eipcp, european institute for progressive cultural policies; as well as board member of FOKUS, the research society for culture-economic and culture-political studies.

Vlad Troitzkyi is the artistic director of the independent Dakh theatre in Kiev, the only private and non-commercial theatre in the Ukraine. Known for his liberal attitude, he contributes a fair amount to cultural education in the Ukraine: he works as a professor at the University of Cinema and Theatre in Kiev Karpenko-Kariy; he is the founder and artistic director of Dakh; he created the group “DakhaBrakha”; and finally founded the audio-visual, musical, philosophical and theatrical project « ГогольFEST »(GogolFEST).

Corinna Milborn is a political scientist and journalist. Since 2013 she has been director of information at ProSiebenSat.1PULS4, and has been an anchor of the discussion show Pro und Contra. Since October 2016, she has been hosting the VolkstheaterGespräche in the Rote Bar of the Volkstheater on a regular basis.


An event organised by the the Union des Théâtres de l'Europe and the Volkstheater in Vienna. In context of the CONFLICT ZONES |ZONES DE CONFLIT network programme of the UTE. With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.