Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’ : Repression with a human face

 

Many years ago Franco Solinas, the scriptwriter for Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, was asked by an interviewer why the French colonel Mathieu – a pragmatic exponent of torture –  was portrayed as ‘ too much of a gentleman in fatigues, excessively noble.  He is elegant, cultured….’  Solinas replied that ‘ There is no intention to create nobility.  Mathieu is elegant and cultured because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor stupid.’

I’ve often found myself thinking of Solinas’ s observation, while watching the way that European politicians have responded to the continent’s ‘migration crisis’ during the last weeks.  Listening to these politicians one would easily be forgiven for thinking that European governments mulling over the crisis are motivated by nothing more than the noblest humanitarian principles.

Last week I watched the French prefect Fabienne Buccio and other officials justifying the demolition of the Calais ‘jungle’ as ‘the most humane option’.  Buccio was photographed, looking earnest and concerned, as police demolished the shacks and tents that have gone up since the summer.  On Channel 4 News I watched the French ambassador to the UK similarly describing the demolitions as a humane act intended to improve the living conditions of the migrants stranded there.

Similarly humanitarian arguments have been put forward again and again by European politicians to justify actions that often have a very different purpose.  But while politicians talk of destroying smugglers’ ‘ business models’, saving lives and preventing dangerous journeys, the unstated objective of the European Union and most of its member states remains the same as it has always been: to prevent people from coming to Europe by an unacknowledged policy of deterrence and repression.

In recent weeks, this policy of repression has intensified up and down Europe’s borders, as men, women and even children have been teargassed and attacked by police, in migration ‘hot spots’ up and down the continent’s frontiers.   Consider the list of requests for border protection equiptment from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to a meeting attended by Austria and a group of nine Balkan states on 24 February to discuss how to close the ‘Western Balkan’ route for undocumented migrants.

The list was leaked by the excellent EurActiv website, and its requests give an indication of Macedonia’s priorities – and those of the states to whom the requests were sent.  In addition to engineering equipment to build a 300 kilometer security fence and a 400 person capacity camp, vehicles, and expenses to cover the ‘technical capability of an army’,  its demands for ‘equipment for crowd control’ include

  • Crowd control dispenser
  • OS spray (pepper spray)
  • “TASER” X26 – an electrical device
  • Weapon with rubber bullets
  • Special bomb (shock, with rubber balls)
  • Acoustic device to break the mob
  • Launcher (grenade with rubber balls)

According to EurActiv, the only objection from the states that received these requests was that this equipment  might be used for ‘internal repression’ in the lead-up to Macedonia’s snap elections in June.  ‘External’  repression, against migrants and refugees, it seems, is not a problem.

There is a grim logic to these developments.  For years, Europe’s policy of deterrence has been based on the belief that the worst things get for migrants, the more likely they are to stop coming.   The events of the last 12 months have made it glaringly obvious that this is not happening.  In these circumstances, Europe must either reconsider this policy and consider more humane solutions – or escalate the level of deterrence still further.

Despite the brief shift towards the former by Germany and other states last summer, Europe as a whole has remained firmly committed to deterrence, and last night’s breakthrough deal with Turkey is no exception.   Europe now proposes to send all refugees back to Turkey, and it has even sent NATO to the Aegean to make sure that this happens.

In effect, the EU has bribed Turkey – a country with a population of 75 million people – to take primary responsibility for absorbing the refugees that Europe – a continent with a population of 500 million – regards as a ‘crisis.’  Not only will Turkey accept all refugees ‘readmitted’ from Europe, but it will also take on responsibility for ‘readmitting’ them to their countries of origin.

To achieve this, the EU has empowered the gangster government of Recep Tayib Erdogan to take on the role once played by Colonel Gaddafi, and turn Turkey into a migrant holding ground and dumping ground for Europe’s unwanted refugees, even as Erdogan’s government is engaged in a reckless and headlong assault on Turkishcivil society and democracy.  No wonder Erdogan’s crony Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu can’t stop smiling – you can’t blame him really.

This sleazy deal should be shameful and disgraceful, but Europe’s leaders, it seems, no longer feel any shame when it comes to migration.  They no longer appear willing even to uphold the principles on which the European Union was founded.  The treatment of refugees in Idomeni, Calais, Dunkerque and so many other places suggests that they are no longer even concerned to uphold elementary principles of civilized behaviour.

But even as they depart from these standards in practice, European governments continue to proclaim their commitment to refugee protection in principle.  So no one should be surprised to hear Donald Tusk, Cameron and others, boasting that they have ‘solved’ the migration crisis, even as Europe’s governments squirt migrants with tear gas and ask for tasers and rubber bullets.

Because no matter how thin and threadbare Europe’s civilized mask becomes, there will always be politicians who will never stop wearing it, and who, like Colonel Mathieu, remain ‘elegant and cultured’ even as they oversee the ongoing barbarity taking place at Europe’s borders .

 

A Bunch of Migrants

No one should be surprised that our prime minister should have marked Holocaust Day to regale the nation with a contemptuous joke about how Jeremy Corbyn met with a ‘bunch of migrants in Calais’ and ‘told them that they could all come to Britain..  Contrary to Jonathan Freedland’s schoolmasterish suggestion that this jocularity was ‘beneath him’, Cameron’s remark was in fact perfectly in character  and pitched at exactly the level – somewhere in the lower levels of the political and moral gutter – that he and his government naturally inhabit.

After all, we are talking about  a politician who has long since shed the flimsy veneer of compassionate conservative/green bicycle man that the Tory PR department invented for him, back in the days when it was politically convenient to do so.  In power, Cameron has shown exactly what kind of man he is and what kind of politician he is.  He has rarely missed an opportunity to portray immigrants as parasitic and dangerous intruders and enemies of the taxpayer whether they come from Eastern Europe or from outside it.

So it is entirely natural  that he would say something like this in parliament, and that he would think that in doing so he was being funny and hilarious in a blokish Mock the Week/Jeremy Clarkson kind of way, and those who have accused him of demeaning his office or failing to pay due spirit to Holocaust Day are trying to give this hollow chancer a gravitas and integrity that he just doesn’t have.

Some of Cameron’s critics have highlighted the callousness of his ‘bunch of migrants’ remark; others have criticized him for diminishing and dehumanising the men, women and children it refers to.   Both accusations are entirely correct, but there is another dimension to Cameron’s jocular banter that goes beyond the question of character or the suggestion of bad taste.

His choice of words wasn’t just intended to get his own backbenchers rolling in the aisles, it was aimed at a wider gallery that already shares the same contempt and loathing that his formulation expressed so glibly.  The Oxford Dictionary contains the following definition of ‘migrant’:

  1. A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.
  2. An animal that migrates.

The dictionary also defines the adjective ‘migrant’ as ‘tending to migrate or having migrated: “migrant birds”.’  Merriam Webster echoes the same definition, though it also has an older and more specific variant of migrant as ‘a person who moves regularly in order to find work especially in harvesting crops.’

In both dictionaries ‘migrant’ is distinct from ‘immigrant’, which the Oxford Dictionary describes as ‘ A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. ‘ Merriam-Webster also refers to ‘a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.’

It’s worth revisiting these definitions in order to see how far we have moved from them, and how Cameron’s remark yesterday was removed from them.  In British political culture the word ‘migrant’ has become an almost entirely pejorative term.  If we applied its strict dictionary meanings, we would find that many of the people who have come to the UK are both ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ rather than one or the other.  We would also have to refer to British citizens who live abroad as migrants and immigrants or both.

But these definitions don’t even begin to encapsulate the meanings that the word ‘migrant’ has acquired through decades of relentless misuse by politicians and newspapers.  Like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’ has become a word that automatically dehumanizes and demeans the people it refers to.

Both terms have acquired various sub-meanings that are automatically understood by those who use them and those who hear them.   Today ‘migrant’ has become a code word in British tabloidspeak which is synonymous with ‘invader’, ‘intruder’, ‘alien’, ‘parasite’, ‘criminal’, ‘job thief’, ‘fraud’ and a host of other assumptions.

These imagined and assumed characteristics routinely invite and enable the British public to freely fear and despise the men and women who come this country whether to ‘find work or better living conditions’ or in order to seek sanctuary and protection from war and persecution, without every having to express their xenophobic or racist sub-texts outright.

Let’s not pretend there are any other sentiments behind headlines like ‘Migrants take over idyllic British tourist hamlet’ (Daily Express), ‘ Migrants take our jobs’ (Daily Express again), ‘Migrant rape fears spread across Europe.’ (Daily Mail)

There is a lot more where this came from, and we have been digesting it for years.  Within this more general framework of fear and loathing there is always room for specific variants, whether it’s Poles who come here to take our benefits; Bulgarian or Romanian criminals; or the shadowy hooknosed invaders in the Daily Mail’s ‘rats’ cartoon, walking into Britain with rats scuttling around their sandalled feet.

The goalposts can also shift according to necessity.  When the Daily Mail claimed three days ago that ‘David Cameron rejects calls to take 3,000 migrant children’, it ignored the fact that most of these ‘migrant children’ in Calais are too young to be seeking work and are in fact seeking asylum, so they aren’t technically migrants at all.

But the purpose of this headline was the same as so many others: to fuel the bitterness, hatred and resentment that is steadily corroding British society, and present migrants of whatever age and origin as a threat to our jobs, security, culture and way of life.

Cameron’s ‘bunch of migrants’ joke yesterday was intended to have exactly the same effect.  Last year, Cameron – or one of his ghostwriters – wrote an introduction to a report on Holocaust remembrance,which pointed out ‘…The poisonous words and passive acceptance of discrimination which marked the beginning of the Holocaust can clearly be found in the ideology of extremism or in the hatred that underpins antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and homophobia today.’

Yesterday Cameron delivered more ‘poisonous words’ with the casual insouciance that you would expect from Jeremy Clarkson.  He did so in the course of a debate about corporate tax avoidance,  in which he  variously depicted Corbyn as a defender of Argentinian claims to the Falklands, and a supporter of trade union rights – all of which supposedly defined  the Labour leader and his party as enemies of the ‘British people and the hard-working taxpayer’.

So let’s not pretend that it was a mistake or a throwaway remark.  Cameron knew exactly what he was doing and exactly which audience he wanted to reach.  It is certainly true, as so many of his critics have pointed out,  that language like this  ‘demeans his office’, but it is also extremely useful to his government that his audience should think about migrants and migration as a threat.

Cameron’s intervention was partly a cynical distraction.  But it was also a massive flashing green light to those who already see the ‘bunch of migrants’ in exactly the same way as he does, to continue what they are doing and thinking, which makes his remarks not only contemptible, but dangerous.

 

Useless Mouths

Years before moving towards explicit racial genocide, the Nazis developed the notion of ‘useless mouths’ or ‘life unworthy of life’ to justify its ‘involuntary euthanasia’ program. Theorists argued that certain categories of people were nothing but a burden on society and therefore had no ‘right’ to life.   These ideas were a variant of nineteenth century ‘Social Darwinism’ and eugenicist theories, which adapted Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest to describe relationships within society or between nations and races as a perpetual evolutionary struggle in which the supposedly weaker or defective elements were weeded out by the strongest and the ‘fittest’ by natural selection.

Of course there was nothing ‘natural’ about these ideas, or the malignant ways that the Nazis made use of them.   In Nazi ideology, the state killing of the disabled, the sick and the mentally-ill was the beginning of a conveyor belt that led to the wholesale extermination of the Jews and ‘inferior races’ Slavic races during World War II.

Nazism may have been a unique political evil, but the influence of Social Darwinism should remind us that not all of its ideas were entirely original, and that Nazi Germany was not the only country to categorize certain peoples according to strictly utilitarian notions of their perceived usefulness to society.

Consider our own government.  This week it was revealed that nearly 4,000 people died within weeks of being declared fit for work by the DWP.  This ought to be a cause of massive, sustained outrage and disgust, and should certainly be enough to bring down the minister responsible.   Instead Iain Duncan Smith – the sneering face of Tory cruelty – has announced new plans to force disabled people into work. Why?  Because he wants ‘to ensure everyone has the opportunity to transform their lives by getting into work’ – even if that transformation only applies to the few days or weeks before they die.

The fact that these deaths have caused very little outcry is a disturbing indication of how low UK society and its political class have sunk these last years.   Quietly, effortlessly, and with very little opposition, Britain has become a society in which certain categories of people are regarded in practice if not in principle, as ‘useless mouths’ whose value to society is measured solely in terms of their perceived negative impact on ‘the taxpayer’.

The government, with the feeble cooperation of a supine opposition, with the help of its tabloid allies and the shameful depravity of TV companies engaging in poverty porn, has been able to characterize people receiving state benefits as ‘scroungers’  and parasites, rather than people who need the same help from the state that current taxpayers may one day need themselves.

This ideological assault has been so successful that even providing state assistance to the sick and the disabled is regarded as an unnecessary and unfair burden on the taxpayer, and the ability to work is treated as the sole benchmark of social usefulness. Once you begin to accept these parameters, it becomes very easy to force sick people to work, even though their deaths make it clear that they were are so ill that they should not be working at all.

Now some of you ought there might still be naive or sentimental enough to fell a little revulsion at the notion that sick and terminally-ill people should be put through the stress of having to look for work, or losing their state support in the last weeks of their lives.  But you are not getting the point: in the view of this government only people who work have any social value and the state should not be obliged to support the ‘useless mouths’ who don’t work.  Come on now, it’s not rocket science.

I’m not suggesting that we are ruled by Nazis.  Our government doesn’t deliberately kill the people it regards as useless.   Most of the time it merely torments them, even if its torments make death  more likely.   But its fanatical obsession with measuring usefulness solely in terms of the perceived benefits to ‘the taxpayer’ has created a society in which suffering and death can be regarded with complete indifference and produce nothing more than a collective shrug of the shoulders and a weary shake of the head.

The same ideology also applies to the scroungers who call themselves refugees or asylum seekers, who the government regards as nothing more than ‘health tourists’ and another unjustified burden on ‘the taxpayer’.   This is a government that has just passed a law which will reduce ‘failed’ asylum seekers and their children to destitution and hunger even if they can’t return to their countries of origin.   It’s a government that has declared Eritrea a safe country on the basis of a discredited report by the Danish government.  It’s a government that has allowed less than 200 Syrian refugees into the country, compared with tiny Lebanon say, which has taken in more than a million.

If you enforce restrictions like these, there is always the possibility that people will die trying to evade them.  Our government knew that last year, when it argued against search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean on the grounds that such operations would increase the ‘pull factors’ that brought migrants here.   The unspoken corollary of this argument is an acceptance of death and suffering as a necessary consequence of border enforcement and immigration restrictions.

If you believe, as the government has again and again invited the public to believe, that the men, women and children who are coming to Europe have no other objective or motivation except to take advantage of our ‘generous’ benefits system – another burden on the taxpayer – then it becomes possible to accept any level of death, pain and injury with a sense of tragic equanimity, as though such deaths were the result of a natural disaster or force majeur.

Of course, the government doesn’t want migrants to die.   But like the European Union and so many European governments, it has helped create a situation in which death is likely and almost certain to occur.  In order to justify this,  it has relentlessly dehumanized and caricatured stateless people to the point when they are regarded as ‘surplus people’ whose lives have less value or significance than ours and who somehow threaten us.

This summer we have seen enough unnecessary death to make us sick.  In the last two months eighteen people have died in Calais trying to ‘break into Britain’.   Only this week nearly 200 people drowned in the Mediterranean, some 50 of whom may have suffocated to death in the hold of the boat they were travelling on, and another  71 men, women and children have suffocated to death in the back of a lorry.

In the face of these horrors, the German government has called on European countries to accept quotas of refugees in response to the gravest refugee crisis since World War II.   The British government has not budged, and there is very little possibility that it will budge without serious domestic pressure.

That requires a transformation in the way that migration is perceived.  But for such a transformation to occur we need to reject the neo-liberal variant of Social Darwinism practiced by this government that is turning Britain into something cruel and monstrous, and remember that our society will be defined by the way we treat those who need our help, whether they come from inside our borders or beyond them.

 

The Rohingya: a suitable case for genocide?

‘ All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,’ declares Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   Today, in the early 21st century, we live in a world in which that principle is being routinely violated in the most savage and inhuman fashion by the global response of governments to the new challenges of contemporary migration.

In Europe and the United States, democratic governments that claim to represent the noblest political principles have contrived to create a situation in which men, women and children who seek to cross their borders ‘without permission’ run the risk of rape, sexual exploitation, death and injury.  In Europe, there have been cases in which migrants have been abandoned at sea by passing ships and boats and died as a result.

Even by these grim standards, the awful tragedy of the Rohingya/ Bengali ‘boatpeople’ is a new low.  The lamentable response of the ASEAN countries to the Rohingya exodus is the first time in which national governments have overtly refused entry to people who are already starving and abandoned them at sea even though they run the risk of dying.

The governments that have done this use the same kind of language that European politicians use.  The Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar insists that ‘We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.’

Thai generals warn that the Rohingya will ‘steal Thai jobs.’ Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha says his country can’t afford to host the refugees, and warns that ‘If we take them all in, then anyone who wants to come will come freely. Where will the budget come from?’  Asked where they should go, Chan-ocha offered no suggestions, saying: ‘No one wants them.’

The Rohingya crisis is primarily a crisis that affects South East Asia, but it’s also symptomatic of the wider moral failure of the ‘international community’ in its response to 21st century migration, and a disturbing expression of political forces that are likely to render the notion of international brotherhood and the ‘international community’ effectively bankrupt unless they can be reversed.

One of the fundamental tenets of the notion of  human rights as a global ideal is the right to leave your own country and cross the borders of another in order to escape from war or persecution.   It’s a right enshrined in various treaties and conventions that were drafted in the aftermath of World War II, such  as Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that ‘ Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’.

This right was then a relatively recent innovation that emerged from  the political calamities of the first half of the twentieth century.   Faced with unprecedented refugee crises generated by World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich, European governments began to develop the notion of a refugee as a political anomaly in twentieth century politics – a stateless and therefore rightless category of humanity that still exercised some kind of moral obligation over national governments and the nascent ‘international community’ because of the circumstances that obliged to them to leave their own countries.

Whereas ‘economic’ migrants were depicted as contemptible and possibly criminal intruders who crossed state borders without permission in order to ‘steal’ jobs or gain access to national resources that did not belong to them, refugees had a moral case that at least in theory, had precedence over the generally-accepted principle of the rights of states to decide who crossed their borders.   This recognition was a significant step towards the creation of a global human rights ‘architecture’, but even when it was being developed it was always more conditional and contingent than it seemed.

Russian refugees from the Soviet Union generally found a far more hospitable welcome than Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, for example.   During the 1930s, states across the world introduced very low quotas on the numbers of Jews they were prepared to accept, on the not unfamiliar grounds that there were ‘too many’ Jewish refugees, that they would take away ‘national’ jobs or become a source of racial conflict and facilitating the growth of anti-semitism.

Governments that accepted the moral obligation of protection in principle essentially ignored it in practice, and prioritised the rights of the state to control its borders according to criteria that they decided upon themselves.  Few people have written more powerfully and compelling about this tension between universal human rights and state rights than the German-Jewish political scientist Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee.    In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that:

‘The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human.’

For Arendt,  stateless people were ‘the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics’ because,  in a world in which ‘rights’ were essentially dependent on membership of a particular state, refugees who lost their national citizenship had lost ‘even the right to have rights.’

Since 1982, when the Burmese government refused to accept that the Rohingya were Burmese citizens, the Rohingya have had no rights to lose, but only persecution to escape from.  Few people – except the rulers of Myanmar – would deny that most of the Rohingya fit the famous definition of a refugee in Article 1 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as a person who has fled his or her country ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’

According to one researcher who has spent months in the Rohingya home state of Rakhine:

‘The Rohingya are faced with two options: stay and face annihilation, or flee. If we understand genocide to be a process, that is what this is. Those who remain suffer destitution, malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood, land ownership; and the ever-present threat of violence and corruption.’

The governments that are refusing entry to the Rohingya are perfectly aware of this situation, but they have chose to uphold the ‘universal’ rights of the state to permit or deny entry over the equally ‘universal’  moral obligation to provide safe haven to persecuted people.   In doing so, they are not that different from the European governments which claim to uphold the principle of refugee protection while doing everything they can to evade its responsibilities in practice, and which until recently, regarded search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean as a ‘pull factor’ in generating migration.

But the ASEAN governments are now poised to go one step further, and become passive accomplices in a process in which the genocide of the Rohingya is becoming the most likely option.  For the Myanmar government all this works out very well.  In the 1930s the Soviet and Nazi governments stripped their unwanted peoples of citizenship and forced them to become stateless in a world in which stateless people were always more at risk than those with borders and passports.

Myanmar is behaving in a very similar fashion.  In stripping the Rohingya of their national rights and driving them into a heartless world that doesn’t want to receive them, it has transformed its unwanted ‘surplus people’ into a problem for someone else to solve, and the fact that no one seems able to solve it is likely to have dire consequences not just for the Rohingya.

For all the worthy attempts to construct a new moral order in the aftermath of World War II,  the increasingly pitiless, callous and selfish response of so many governments to the crises of the new century threatens to produce a similar outcome.   The result is a seemingly endless catalogue of horrors such as the one that is now unfolding in the Andaman Sea, in which something like genocide can be carried out in plain sight, and no governments seems willing to lift a finger to stop it.

‘The comity of European peoples went to pieces, when,  and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted,’ wrote Arendt in her 1943 essay We Refugees.

ASEAN, and the ‘international community’ face a similar moral disintegration if they allow people to die because they had the temerity to seek refuge from persecution.  It’s up to all of us who think differently to oppose this barbaric drift, and embrace and uphold the human while we still have the chance to.