Notes From the Margins…

Telling Lies About Immigration: the Far-Right and the UN Migration Pact

  • January 08, 2019
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When it comes to migration, far-right movements and populist governments are a lot clearer about what they want than many of their political opponents.

In Europe and America, liberal, conservative and left-of-centre governments have responded to the global ‘migration crisis’ with bureaucratic and physical obstacles that have exposed undocumented migrants to death and danger in a predatory and often pitiless world.

Even while tacitly accepting such barriers as a form of ‘deterrence’, most of these  governments have signed up to international treaties that – at least in theory – oblige them to take in refugees and ensure that the human rights of migrants are guaranteed.

The far-right movements and its more recent populist manifestations have no such dilemmas.  To them migrants are invaders and intruders who threaten the cultural and racial integrity of the nation-state.   Some of them see migration is a product of ‘globalism’.

Others regard migration as a deliberate conspiracy, promoted by the likes of George Soros, the United Nations and ‘cultural Marxists’, who are paving the way for ‘reverse colonisation’ and the transformation of Europe into a Muslim-dominated colony.

These principles are shared by a broad spectrum that runs from Nazis and white supremacists to mainstream conservatives.  In the era of Trump and fake news, these movements have become increasingly effective in  mobilizing their international constituencies through the Internet, and in spreading conspiracy theories and fantasies to audiences that are already predisposed to believe them.

Anyone who doubts this should consider the response to the UN’s intergovernmental conference on migration which took place on 10-11 December in Marrakech last year.  The conference was intended to sign off on the UN’s ‘Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’, whose text was agreed last July.

On the face of it, the pact’s proposals were relatively modest and uncontroversial.   On the one hand,  the text stated that ‘Refugees and migrants are entitled to the same universal human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and called for a’  comprehensive approach…to optimize the overall benefits of migration, while addressing risks and challenges for individuals and communities in countries of origin, transit and destination. ‘

At the same time the pact reaffirmed ‘the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law.’

Most of these recommendations were broad aspirations and statements of principle, rather than concrete proposals, and the agreement was  non-binding.

It was nevertheless the most wide-ranging effort so far to develop a cooperative global approach to migration that reconciles the rights of migrants and the rights of states.

Even before the conference began however, it was the object of an intense social media campaign involving far-right, anti-Muslim and ‘identitarian’ activists in Europe and America, and Canadian conservatives, which accused the pact of ‘promoting’ migration and attempting to bring about ‘the demise of the European people’.

Some activists interpreted the pact’s commitment ‘to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise their human rights through safe access to basic services’ as a license to usurp Western social security benefits.

Others presented its aspiration to ‘counter expressions, acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, violence, xenophobia and related intolerance against all migrants in conformity with international human rights law’  as an attempt to ‘ban criticism of migration.’

These assertions were as paranoid, delusional and dishonest as we have come to expect, but they were also very effective.

In Belgium the New Flemish Alliance withdrew from the government in protest against the pact.  In September, Trump declared that the US would not be participating in the Marrakech conference, on the grounds that ‘migration should be governed by an international body that is unaccountable to our own citizens.’

The pact proposed no such thing, but Trump, as usual, spoke with the same voice as the far-right trolls,  and he wasn’t the only one.  In October the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz – whose government is in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party – announced that his government would withdraw from the pact.

By the time the pact was finally voted on on 19 December, five countries voted against: the United States, Hungary, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic. Another twelve abstained, including Belgium, Australia and Austria.

In effect, the far-right used social media to undermine the first significant attempt to develop a coordinated international response to migration that takes the rights of migrants into consideration.  Its activists were able to disseminate false information through channels that now reach from the dankest corners of the Internet to the White House.

That they were able to do this without serious challenge should ring a lot of alarm bells. And one can only wish that the governments that supported this initiative had shown the same energy and commitment in promoting and defending it as the right did in trying to destroy it.

But most people outside the far-right’s orbit did not even know it was taking place.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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