The European Union, one of the strongest economies in the world and home to some of the most advanced state apparatuses in human history, is preparing to shut down its borders, one after the other, because it can’t cope with the number of refugees arriving from war in the Middle East. These same institutions were of course able to find the resources to finance an expensive military operation on the European sea borders against the same refugees.
All this emphasis on policing and military measures is based on the idea that being a refugee is a crime.
More than half a million Syrian people were registered as refugees in Europe between April 2011 and September 2015. More than 80% of these people arrived through the Greek sea borders from where they make their way north. They are rushing to go as far north as possible in Europe before the West completely shuts down its borders.
Although the majority are war refugees or political refugees, many EU member states appear to be treating the crisis as a security issue, just as they have done for years. But treating the situation as a policing matter suggests, at best, that European leaders don’t understand what is going on. At worst, they are making a criminal decision to ignore the humanitarian dimension of the phenomenon.
When more than 400 migrants drowned off the coast of Italy in April 2015, local leaders responded as though it was not a humanitarian crisis that had erupted on their shores. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi spoke of a “new slave trade” being run by human traffickers.
Standing at his side, French president François Hollande blamed “the terrorists” who put the lives of migrants at risk by packing them into boats crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. More recently, a Hungarian government spokesperson said the Croatian asylum system had been “defeated” by the human traffickers. And in the UK, the government is hoping for a UN resolution that will allow European Union and individual countries to take “enforcement action” against vessels seeking to smuggle refugees to Europe.
Who are the criminals?
This narrative about human trafficking either criminalises or victimises migrants and refugees. It focuses on the process rather than the structural conditions that generate migration: war, loss of means of production and inequality.
While the conditions experienced by many migrants and refugees en route to Europe are no doubt appalling, the people we call “human traffickers” are usually not much more than informal networks of expensive “travel agents”. For a fee, they accommodate the migrants’ movement, they don’t create it.
The horrendous conditions under which this mobility takes place are a by-product of the effort to evade national and international border policing and visa policies. Basically the policing of borders creates business for these human traffickers. They of course will never be found driving the boats, so all this patrolling of borders will not lead to their capture – it will only put the migrants at risk.
Because it has wrongly elevated human trafficking as the reason for migration, the EU has responded to this crisis by bolstering its marine border patrols rather than trying to respect the human rights of the enormous population of refugees trying to reach Europe. This move is potentially lethal. It could cause an upsurge in the casualties of migrants trying to reach Europe since migrants and their travel agents will follow more dangerous pathways for their migratory journey.
What’s more, the decision to paint refugees and traffickers as criminals legitimises the far-right voices that see a refugee’s life as worthless. It fuels groups like the band of Greek neo-Nazis who attacked four boats of refugees on the open sea on October 9, stealing the keys and leaving the passengers adrift in the sea, helpless for eight hours until the coastguard found them, thankfully alive.
Grassroots welcome package
Despite the poor and ideologically fuelled responses of EU states, citizens in different countries of Europe have welcomed the flows of their fellow people. In Germany people applauded migrants and refugees as they arrived by train. In Greece dozens of self-organised hotspots have been created by different groups and initiatives, with great success. Citizens of the debt-ridden country offer clothing, food and other items in order for them to be distributed to the refugees. In many ways they are filling the gaps created by the lack of state protection.
What we are seeing through these activities is the enactment of human solidarity and the appliance of human rights through bottom-up processes rather than their implementation by states, which seem to be viewing human rights as something to be occasionally applied and tactically used.
So while the situation remains gloomy, there is at least a positive. By reclaiming the job of helping refugees as governments continue to paint them as criminals, activists seem to be turning human rights into a form of resistance.