After the Cold War, European nations fashioned themselves as a bastion of peace, market-liberal prosperity and international cooperation. But the European Union’s grand utopian vision is cracking as its borders fray. Brussels’ brittle liberal consensus has been rocked by financial decline, explosions of right-wing nationalism, and lately, the existential crisis unleashed by Britain’s Brexit referendum. The internal political fissures stoke much deeper turmoil, however, on Europe’s perimeter, where hundreds of thousands of migrants still see the continent as a relatively safe haven from the worse chaos they’ve fled.
For all its internal tensions, the continent still unites through fear of outsiders. EU officials are pushing a migration policy that will ensure that the global injustices driving displacement will keep pushing “Fortress Europe’s” border to a breaking point.
At the June 28 meeting of the European Council, officials solidified a migration plan seeking to address “root causes of irregular migration,” “ensure full control over external borders” and undertake “fast and operational returns of irregular migrants.” A statement issued by European Commission spokesperson Tove Ernst frames the “reforms” in humanitarian rhetoric:
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The objective is saving lives and breaking the business model of smugglers, preventing illegal migration and enhance cooperation on returns and readmission of irregular migrants, as well as stepping up investments in partner countries to improve the socio-economic situation of the population.
The scheme follows the launch of a supposedly “successful” migration management plan along the Greek-Turkish border. Border authorities there are seeking a “one-to-one swap” that supposedly balances official humanitarian admissions with deportations to Turkey, aiming “to provide legal pathways … for victims of the Syrian crisis.”
So far this year, EU authorities report, “1,546 irregular migrants have been returned from Greece to Turkey.” Roughly 49,000 people languish in “relocation centers” indefinitely as legal claims are processed through a congested bureaucracy widely decried as inhumane and arbitrary. As of mid-June, roughly 8,000 people have drowned over two years trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to Amnesty International.
Officials boast that “the average daily number of irregular crossings … is down to 47” since May. But migrants are simply being pushed out of sight and shunted into camps in Turkey, possibly to face a more dangerous fate. There have been sporadic reports that once in Turkey, some refugees are being illegally expelled rather than temporarily detained.
More than 100 humanitarian organizations warned in a recent statement that the current border policy “has left thousands of people stranded in Greece in inhumane and degrading conditions … with many hundreds of unaccompanied children being held in closed detention facilities or forced to sleep in police cells.”
Europeans unmoored by identity crisis now cling to the comforting ballast of cultural “security.” But “securing” the border is a myth that stands in for addressing insecurity within European society. External border policies are an easy scapegoat for EU leaders’ domestic political failures. Their citizens are rightly angry about austerity-driven budget cuts and mass joblessness. But tightening national divides won’t alleviate civic concerns that are clearly more tied to deindustrialization and market volatility — the economic disruptions of neoliberal globalization and the single currency — than to how many Syrian families each government resettles, or how many workers traverse soft borders day to day.
The concrete consequences of these policies are felt by the families who fled war in the Middle East only to get pummeled by tear gas clouds while facing razor-wire fences in the Balkans.
While Europe fears a migrant invasion, migrants themselves face vicious stagnation, centering around the brutal lottery of applying for humanitarian relief. As of mid-June, EU authorities had relocated 2,280 migrants, about 1,500 from Greece and 780 from Italy, which officials admit “still falls far short of the Commission’s proposed target of relocating 6,000 people per month.”
The Greek government has vowed “to accelerate the identification and full processing of relocation applicants,” with about 60 percent to 65 percent of them thought to belong to one of the nationalities deemed eligible for humanitarian relief, primarily those assumed to be directly fleeing war. Of course, one can suffer persecution even if they hail from the “wrong” country by EU standards, which is why rights advocates warn this policy violates both EU and international human rights laws.
Even migrants from a “right” country face massive barriers — Europe has housed about 1.4 percent of Syrian refugees as of March. Oxfam has called for resettlement of 10 percent by year’s end, about 481,000. (While the EU claims it cannot sustain the “burden” of mass refugee admission, the vast majority of these desperate millions are being warehoused in much poorer countries like Jordan and Turkey.)
Tensions around migration in Europe stem in part from visa-free travel, including generally free movement of labor among member states’ common job markets for EU citizens. However, for “third country” migrants, movement within Europe’s external borders are limited under the so-called Schengen Zone and a related policy known as the Dublin Regulation. These dictate that the point of official entry for a non-European refugee is also where one applies for asylum. Ironically, although the media displays images of desperate throngs piling into Eastern Europe, their real destination is the richer economies to the north. So while nativists in the Balkans cry “get out,” it is the stiffening border patrols and lack of a comprehensive resettlement plan that is keeping them in.
Though the UK had opted out of Schengen prior to its vote to withdraw from the EU, the Brexit referendum (which was partially driven by Britons’ hostility toward Polish workers “competing” with natives for jobs) could complicate the asylum process for refugees who crossed into Britain through the EU; it is unclear to what extent EU asylum policies still apply once they enter UK territory. More alarmingly, the vote has further emboldened anti-immigrant hostility against all outsiders, including non-British Europeans and non-EU migrants.
Yet while the continent’s political conflicts swell from within, leaders grasp for external “security” by widening Fortress Europe’s moat. The increasingly militarized border zones along the Mediterranean and the Balkans may be enhanced by a new program of “deterrence” via imperial bribe: Ministers have proposed investing potentially over €60 billion over several years, shoving aid into an “External Investment Plan” aimed at what policymakers consider “priority countries of origin and transit,” mostly in Africa. The idea is to “incentivize” Global South governments to thicken their own border security, with “tailor-made compacts” for “development” to make staying put a less miserable prospect for would-be migrants.
This is not a humanitarian solution. Main channels for legal resettlement remain employment-based, recruiting professionals and entrepreneurs needed to fill labor market needs. Filling all those job slots would probably still barely begin to address the vast need for long-term resettlement of traumatized individuals and families — people who have already proved they would rather risk death on a hellish passage than face conflict, persecution and dire poverty at home.
“We are very concerned about making development aid conditional on other instruments and policies implemented by third countries to curb migration,” says Karen Mets, an advocacy officer with Save the Children, via email from Belgium. Her organization has joined scores of others in denouncing the migration agenda as “an unacceptable contradiction to the EU’s commitment to use development cooperation with the aim of eradicating poverty.” That is, keeping Africans out of Europe is a perverse rationale on which to base a humanitarian offering.
The political economy of migration reflects the devaluation of humanity under the neoliberal regimes running Europe.
European ministers are slashing their domestic welfare budgets but remain deeply invested in border policies based on imprisonment and violent exclusion. These policies combine not only to produce more xenophobic vitriol among Europeans but to ensure that non-Europeans keep dying in the pursuit of a mythical humanitarian promise that exists only in the crisp bureaucratic jargon of EU laws.
The postwar promise of a free, liberal Europe has turned into a bounced check. Europe could begin to redeem that dream by accepting refugees with a fair, human rights-based framework. Yet first it must recognize that migrant lives — and human rights more broadly — are not to be traded for cheap political gain, but valued above all. That universal principle, not higher walls, is the continent’s last hope for true security.