Offshore asylum screening centres: towards a cordon sanitaire

Europe’s annual migrant ‘boat season’ is getting underway, and already the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean are already showing a dramatic increase on previous years.     According to the European Border Agency Frontex, 42,000 people have tried to reach Italy this year,   compared with UNHCR figures of 3, 362 arrivals by the end of April last year.

In Morocco   hundreds of migrants have managed to breach the fearsome border fences erected around the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in the last few months.       Now the United Nations refugee agency UNCHR has announced that it is prepared to contemplate the establishment of large-scale asylum ‘screening centres’ in Africa to process migrants trying to reach Europe.

That the world’s most prominent refugee organization should be considering such a possibility is a disturbing development.     Similar centres have been established by Australian governments in the South Pacific, with grim consequences for many of the migrants interned in them.     In Europe, the establishment of screening centres was first presented to a meeting of   EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers by that prominent humanitarian Tony Blair back in March 2003, as part of Blair’s ‘new vision for refugees.’

This ‘new vision’ envisaged the creation of ‘transit centres’ along the migratory routes to   Europe, where migrants could be screened and processed,   and then returned to their countries of origin if they failed to meet the required criteria.   Blair’s proposals also mooted a concept of ‘regional protection’, whereby refused asylum seekers who could not be returned to their countries of origin could be kept in these centres – and outside Europe.

Then, as now, thousands of rejected asylum seekers were living in the UK who could not be returned, but were not considered ‘legal’ – many of whom remained in this state for years.   Under Blair’s proposals, such migrants would have been kept in these ‘regional protection’ centres instead, which would be established in countries such as Morocco, northern Somalia, Ukraine or Turkey.

All this, Blair insisted, would serve to ‘deter those who enter the EU illegally and make unfounded asylum applications.’   At the time these proposals were   widely condemned by refugee organizations as a means of outsourcing Europe’s migration enforcement to countries that had no interest in refugee protection, some of which were not even signatories to the Geneva Convention.

Yet now UNHCR’s European director Vincent Cochetel says that he would be prepared to accept such centres, providing ‘certain safeguards were in place: the right to appeal, fair process, the right to remain while appeals take place.’

What has caused this transformation?     According to the Guardian, it’s because frontline ‘border countries’ like Greece and Italy have been abandoned by Brussels in the face of a ‘collossal humanitarian crisis.’     There is no doubt that some countries, and some places, have been placed in an invidious position by Europe’s disastrous attempts to ‘manage’ migration, but ‘screening centres’ are not a solution to these problems, and UNCHR should not be supporting such proposals.

From the point of view of European governments, asylum has always constituted the weak link in their ongoing attempt to build physical and paper walls between Europe and the global South.   It has also presented Europe with a challenge: how to stop or at least drastically reduce the numbers of people seeking refugee protection in Europe without overtly rejecting the principle of refugee protection that has generally considered to be the cornerstone of the post-World War II   ‘rights-based’ international order, and which has been enshrined as a key principle of the European Union’s political identity.

European governments have attempted to resolve this problem essentially in two ways;   Firstly,   by preventing asylum seekers from reaching European territory, regardless of whether they are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded,’ through a constantly escalating series of barriers and an unacknowledged policy of deterrence that seeks to make migrant journeys as difficult as possible, and which tacitly accepts the enormous suffering and loss of life involved as a form of ‘collateral damage.’

Secondly, EU member states have attempted to quarantine and exclude asylum seekers who succeed in reaching Europe as far as the law allows, in the hope of rendering them more easily deportable.     These priorities are not concerned whether asylum seekers are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded’, but on reducing the numbers of asylum claims per se.

The case of Syria is a clear example of this.     This year, according to UNHCR, Syrians became the largest single nationality seeking asylum in industrialized countries.   Last year in the UK, Refugee Council statistics found that the number of Syrians seeking asylum rose by 69 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Just to recall, this is Syria: the country with the largest refugee crisis in the world – a crisis that was, until recently being used by a number of governments as a casus belli. According to what most European governments have said, all Syrian refugees should be considered genuine and therefore deserving of refugee protection.

But Syrians, it seems, are worthy of our bombs,   but not of a helping hand when they make it to our borders.     That is why the French police destroyed migrant camps in Calais last month, scattering a migrant population that consists increasingly of Syrians.   That is why no European government has shown any interest in proposals made by refugee organizations to establish safe routes across the Mediterranean or the Sahara. To do that would be to abandon the principle of deterrence, and neither the EU nor its members are prepared to do that.

Europe is already involved in a long-term attempt to enlist outlying neighbouring states as de facto European border guards, and the prospect of transfering the entire asylum screening process to countries outside the European Union is part of the same process.

Given these priorities UNHCR’s advocacy of ‘safeguards’ is disingenuous and meaningless.     Does UNCHR seriously imagine that appeals against refusals can be successfully mounted in fenced-in screening centres in the Ukraine, Libya or Puntland?   Or that centres like this will reduce the numbers of people trying to reach Europe by other means?   Or that poor countries with few resources will be able to process asylum seekers more effectively than the rich countries they are trying to get to?

It is difficult to imagine how any of this can be assured, and UNHCR would surely do better to stay clear of proposals that have nothing to do with humanitarianism or providing refugee protection, and everything to do with stopping Europe’s unwanted people from getting anywhere near the continent.

All Quiet on the Humanitarian Front

It’s long been one of the recurring paradoxes of ‘humanitarian war’   that Western governments are willing to project military power far beyond their borders in order to save dark-skinned bodies from the dictators and regimes that oppress them, yet remain generally antipathetic to the presence of these same bodies in their own national territory.

On the contrary, the same governments that argue that they cannot stand idly by in the face of serious human rights violations will often go to extraordinary lengths to prevent such arrivals, by raising the visa threshold to limit illegal entry, and by making it as difficult as possible for ‘illegal’ refugees to reach their shores.

This is a tendency that we have seen again and again in the various ‘interventions’ of the last decade, and the UK government has been particularly prone to it.

At the height of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq,   two million Iraqis fled the country and other two million were Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), yet the UK routinely refused entry even to Iraqis who had worked with British forces, and deported Iraqi asylum seekers even when the country remained a sectarian war zone.

From the perspective of the UK government, the Iraqi refugee crisis was not politically useful and was in fact an embarrassing and irrefutable confirmation of a military misadventure and botched occupation that had gone wrong in pretty much every respect.

During the NATO humanitarian intervention in Libya, the British government, and in fact all the European governments that participated in the NATO bombing campaign – remained resolutely indifferent to the thousands of refugees pouring out of Libya, hundreds of whom drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.

At the height of the war,   William Hague called on European governments to get ‘tough’ on the refugees fleeing the conflict, on the grounds that ‘ We can’t just accept a flow of hundreds of thousands or millions of people into southern Europe and then coming beyond that.’

The same phenomenon is now evident in regard to Syria.   On the one hand,   Syria’s disastrous refugee crisis has been one of the key components in the ‘humanitarian’ case for war.   Both Cameron and Hague have frequently cited Syria’s refugees as a justification for international intervention – a concept that until last month referred to military action.

To the UK government,   Syria’s refugees, unlike the Iraqi refugees generated by the Anglo-American occupation, were not just victims of war, but useful victims,   who are worthy of attention and photo-opportunities that have included a visit by Samantha Cameron to Syrian refugee camps, in order to mobilize support for an escalation of the war.

Even last month at the G20 Conference in Moscow, when Lord Snooty’s call for military action had just been voted down by parliament, he was pledging an additional £52 million in ‘humanitarian funds’ to help mitigate the impact of the war on Syrian civilians and send ‘ a strong message about our commitment to the Syrian people and the urgent priority to do more.’

Cameron described the Syrian refugee crisis as ‘ a moral imperative. This is the big refugee crisis of our time’ and told the Conference ‘ A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds while we sit here at this conference. That is 5,000 fleeing their homes and becoming homeless while we are at this G20 summit.’

Still groping hopefully at the possibility of missile strikes that his MPs had denied him,   His Lordship let the cat out of the bag somewhat when he also described the refugee crisis as a ‘political imperative’ that ‘will help us build international support for action by showing that our response is not just military.’

Theatrical demonstrations of concern are essential to the presentation of humanitarian warfare.   But now that the prospect of war has receded, Syria’s refugees have slipped down the list of the UK government’s priorities.     One way that Lord Snooty and his Pals might have shown their ‘commitment to the Syrian people’ would have been by granting Syrians refugee status in the UK.

17 countries have agreed to accept resettled Syrian refugees, and the Refugee Council is urging the UK to assist in their evacuation and resettlement.   So far these requests have fallen on deaf ears.     Within the last month Sweden has offered asylum to any Syrian refugee, and France has agreed to resettle 500 refugees.   The UK has accepted precisely zero.

Though the government has pledged £500 million to help Syria’s neighbors look after the refugees who have crossed their borders,   it has so far shown little interest in accepting those who want to cross ours.

According to French authorities in Calais, there are now ‘hundreds’ of Syrian refugees in Calais, who want to apply for asylum in the UK , most of whom are sleeping rough and trapped in the vicious war of attrition that the French police have been waging against migrants in the city for nearly five years.

Last week 65 Syrians blocked the entrance to the port of Calais, two of   whom climbed onto the roof of one of the terminal buildings and threatened to jump unless David Cameron or a representative of the Home Office went to meet them.   Not surprisingly, no such visit was forthcoming.

The Syrians called off their protest, after UK border officials agreed to consider the applications for asylum from Syrians with relatives in the UK on a case-by-case basis.   Given that all Syrian refugees are ‘genuine’ refugees, according to the UK government’s ‘moral imperative’, this narrowing of the bureaucratic filter might seem a little morally problematic, if not downright hypocritical.

Last week’s protesters will undoubtedly not be the last.   Syrians are coming to Europe in growing numbers, through the same dangerous and difficult routes that all asylum seekers and refugees must take, and many of them have been attracted to the UK by the same humanitarian rhetoric that has emanated from the Coalition for the last two years.

But they are unlikely to find a positive reception from the government that was once so keen to save them.     This partly because, unlike the wealthy Chinese businessmen and tourists who Osborne has been so keen to attract to the UK, Syria’s refugees are no longer useful.

But even when they were, their usefulness was dependent on their staying put or in refugee camps in neighboring countries, where they could provide television imagery that could then be used to reinforce the drive to war.

And now the bombs are no longer going to fall – at least for the time being.   But the refugees are still coming, and it seems that our moral obligation to help them doesn’t even extend across the Channel.


Migrants in Calais (Part 2)

CALAIS, France, Mar 25, 2012 (IPS) – It”s 10 am on Saturday morning and a group of migrants is clustered round the entrance to the Migrant Clothes Association in the Calais city centre, eating breakfast provided by the association. Inside, the warehouse is stacked with blankets, tents, trainers and clothes. Some of these will be distributed later by the association”s workers…

The second of my two pieces for IPS news based on my visit to Calais last week  – with another photo from my intrepid daughter.

You can read the while thing here.