In a keynote speech in Budapest last week, the Observer columnist argued that hostility to migrants is not a fringe project – mainstream politicians have long helped promote fear of ‘the other’
by Kenan Malik
In October 2013, a ship carrying migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some 300 people drowned.
It was not the first time that migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean. In fact, at that time it was estimated that in the previous 25 years at least 20,000 people had died trying to reach the shores of Europe. The real figure was most likely much higher. But that sinking in October 2013 was the first time that such a tragedy had truly impressed itself upon the conscience of Europe.
European leaders expressed anger and outrage. The Italian government declared a national day of mourning. “I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. The disaster would be “a spur to action”, promised the UN secretary general at the time, Ban Ki-moon.
After the tragedy, I wrote that such leaders may well be “sincere in their expressions of anger and grief”. And yet, I observed, “one cannot but be cynical about all the lamentation. The horror of Lampedusa did not come out of the blue. Much of the responsibility lies with the policies pursued by European nations.”
I concluded: “The next time there is another tragedy as at Lampedusa – and there will be a next time and a next time after that – and politicians across Europe express shock and grief and anger, remember this: they could have helped prevent it and chose not to. That is the real disgrace.” And there has been a next time and a next time after that. In fact, it has happened so many times since that such tragedies barely make the news any more.
That mass drowning off Lampedusa in 2013 is an apposite place from which to start a discussion on the dehumanising of the Other. Too often when we discuss hateful portrayals of migrants or Muslims or other minorities, we focus on the far right, or on groups such as Pegida, or on countries such as Hungary and politicians such as Viktor Orbán. It is certainly important that we call out such organisations and politicians and eviscerate their arguments.
But we need also to recognise that the truth about dehumanisation is far more uncomfortable and far closer to home. The ideas and policies promoted by the far right and by populist anti-immigration figures have not come out of nowhere. They have become acceptable because the groundwork has already been laid, and continues to be maintained, by mainstream politicians and commentators.
There is a tendency among liberals to see a great divide on immigration between the mainstream and the populists and between a more liberal western Europe and a more reactionary east. That is to distort reality. For, while differences clearly exist, the divisions are not nearly as sharp as often suggested. It is the rhetoric and the policies emerging from the mainstream and from western Europe that have helped legitimise the hostility to immigration expressed by the populists and in eastern Europe.
Over the past few weeks, Britain has been racked by an immigration scandalthat led to the resignation of the home secretary. The proximate reason for the scandal is the treatment of the so-called Windrush generation. The deeper cause is the deliberate creation of what the prime minister, Theresa May, called, when she was home secretary, a “hostile environment” for migrants. It nurtured a climate of suspicion in which people were deemed guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent. Hundreds of people who had lived in Britain for decades, or had even been born in Britain, were treated as “illegal immigrants” because they could not prove otherwise.
A young Syrian refugee boy at a makeshift camp on Lesbos. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
Meanwhile, in France, President Emmanuel Macron has pursued his own “hostile environment” policies. After having forcibly shut spontaneous migration camps, in Paris and elsewhere, he has introduced new legislationto toughen immigration and asylum laws. It will double to 90 days the time in which undocumented migrants can be detained, shorten deadlines to apply for asylum and make the undocumented crossing of borders punishable by a year in jail and fines. Sonia Krimi, an MP from Macron’s party En Marche, has accused the government of “playing with people’s fears”, adding: “Not all foreigners in France are terrorists, not all foreigners cheat with social welfare.”
And wherever you look in Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, from Italy to the Netherlands, mainstream politicians are adopting a similar approach.
Politicians such as May and Macron insist that they are simply responding to popular pressures, yet the story is more complex. In Britain, the government initially ignored the growing number of cases of Windrush generation migrants being detained, denied services, losing jobs. It was public outrage that eventually forced it to act. The public, in other words, was more liberal than the authorities.
Or take Greece. Here, too, the public was, certainly initially, more sympathetic to the plight of migrants than were the authorities, whether in Athens or in Brussels. In 2016, at the height of the migration crisis, EU countries to the north closed their borders, creating a bottleneck in Greece. Suffering grievously from an economic crisis and from austerity policies imposed primarily at the behest of the EU, the people of Greece nevertheless showed an admirable moral commitment to the migrants. True, there were anti-migrant demonstrations and the far-right Golden Dawn won 7% of the vote in the 2015 general election. But mostly, Greeks, at that time, showed enormous solidarity.
The island of Lesbos, close to the Turkish coast, was at the very centre of the crisis. The number of migrants who arrived on the island in the first two months of 2016 alone was larger than Lesbos’s normal population, yet the locals continued to support migrants with food, shelter and solidarity.
Ground zero of European ignominy
Two years on, the situation is very different. Two years in which Greece has effectively been abandoned by Brussels and places such as Lesbos abandoned by Athens.
“Those wishing to visit ground zero of European ignominy,” observed the journalists Girogos Christides and Katrin Kuntz last November, “must simply drive up an olive tree-covered hill on the island of Lesbos until the high cement walls of Camp Moria come into view.
“The dreadful stench of urine and garbage greets visitors and the ground is covered with hundreds of plastic bags. It is raining and filthy water has collected ankle-deep on the road. The migrants who come out of the camp are covered with thin plastic capes and many of them are wearing only flipflops on their feet as they walk through the soup… Welcome to one of the most shameful sites in all of Europe.”
A camp that was built to handle around 2,000 refugees now houses three times as many, in the most appalling conditions.
The EU’s primary response to the deteriorating conditions in Greece was not to help either Greece or the migrants but, rather, to establish a deal with Turkey to return undocumented migrants. The deal arrangement was meant to ease the burden on Greece. In fact, it made it worse. The numbers arriving in Greece dropped, but they were now imprisoned on the islands. Travel to the mainland, let alone beyond Greece, from the islands was barred to refugees and migrants. The scheme to relocate people to other EU member states has been a disastrous failure.
The dreadful conditions in a camp such as Moria have inevitably created tensions within. Violence has become the norm. Many migrants have taken to moving out of the camp and sleeping rough, spreading violence and theft across the island and, inevitably, creating increasingly hostility among locals. The welcome that first greeted the migrants has long since gone.
These two experiences, in Britain and in Greece, reveal two aspects of public attitudes to immigration that are often ignored. The first, as seen in Britain, is that while the public may be hostile to immigration in the abstract, it is frequently supportive of people and groups who are seen as having become unfair victims of the process. Public opinion is commonly set not by ideology but by perceptions of fairness.
Refugees from Camp Moira in Lesbos on a protest march over conditions in the camp, May 2018. Photograph: Elias Marcou/Reuters
The second aspect of public attitudes, as seen in Greece, is how the understanding of unfairness is shaped by the policies enacted by mainstream institutions. At the start of migrant crisis, Greek opinion was certainly divided over the question of immigration. There was support for the far right. But there was also much greater sympathy with the plight of the migrants and a willingness to help them practically. The fact that much of that sympathy has ebbed away says little about the ingrained sentiments of the Greek people and much about the explicit failure of the EU and of both European and national politicians.
“For the last three years,” says the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, “we have been bearing an immense burden on behalf of Greece and Europe. But they have left us defenceless and alone.” The result, he observes, is “kindness has turned to anger… and where there is anger there is room for all sorts of extremism”.
Indeed there is. Earlier this year, irate locals, led by far-right anti-immigrant activists, attacked Afghans in the central square of the capital, Mytilene, as they camped out in protest against their enforced confinement on the island. Some screamed, “Burn them alive” as they set upon the migrants, including children, with burning dustbins and flares.
Galinos suggests that the chaos in the camps is deliberate policy on the part of Athens and Brussels – a message to other potential migrants. The bigger the mess in Greece, the harsher the conditions, the greater the deterrent for other refugees and migrants who see the country as a route into the EU. How deliberate the chaos is is difficult to know, but the consequences are clear. If EU politicians want to know why hostility to immigration has grown, or why many have turned to the far right, or why people who once welcomed migrants now try to burn them alive, they only have to look to the impact of their own policies.
There is no iron law that says people must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Many have become so because of the way that the issue has been framed by politicians on all sides. That framing has made immigration into a symbol of unacceptable change.
On the one hand, politicians have recognised a need for immigration. On the other, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a social problem that must be dealt with. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for those who express anxieties and fears about immigration, anxieties and fears that politicians often present as mere bigotry and racism. This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatise migrants and create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration.
The contradictory needs and desires have also resulted in an incoherent, unworkable set of policies that have, paradoxically, been exacerbated by the development of free-movement policies within the EU. Freedom of movement is good and I am an advocate of such policy. The dream of free movement within the EU has, however, also spawned paranoia about the movement of people into the EU. The quid pro quo for Schengen has been the creation of a Fortress Europe, a citadel against immigration, watched over by a hi-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones and protected by fences and warships. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegelmagazine visited the control room of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, he observed that the language used was that of “defending Europe against an enemy”.
Saving the continent from invasion
That indeed has been the tenor of EU immigration policy – a sense of saving the continent from invasion. For more than three decades, policy has consisted of a three-pronged strategy of criminalising migrants, militarising border controls and externalising controls by paying non-EU states, on the other side of the Mediterranean, huge amounts of money to act as Europe’s immigration police; in effect, relocating Europe’s borders, for the purposes of immigration policy, beyond Europe.
Fortress Europe has created not only a physical barrier around the continent, but an emotional one, too, around Europe’s sense of humanity. Migrants have come to be seen less as living, breathing human beings than as so much flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s beaches.
Cast your mind back to that shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013 with which I began. As the people on the stricken ship were dying and pleading for help, three fishing boats refused to provide aid. Why? Because, as Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, put it, there is a long history of “our country bringing fishermen who saved human lives to court, charging them with aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. In 2004, the Cap Anamur, a German ship that belonged to a charity of the same name, rescued 37 migrants who had been stranded, sick and freezing in a dinghy.
The Italian authorities banned the ship from landing because it might, in the words of the then interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, set a “dangerous precedent”. The Cap Anamur eventually entered the port of Empedocle without permission. The authorities seized the ship, arrested the crew and charged the captain, the first officer and the head of the charity with “aiding illegal immigration”. After a five-year court battle, the men were eventually acquitted.
Such inhuman actions are not restricted to the Italian authorities. In 2011, a boat carrying 72 migrants left the Libyan port of Tripoli for Lampedusa. It soon ran into trouble. The migrants contacted the Italian coastguard. Nato, which had many vessels in the area, was informed of the boat’s plight by the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre.
According to the survivors, military aeroplanes from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle buzzed the boat. A military helicopter, thought to be Italian, even dropped bottles of water on the first day of their plight. But no one deigned to rescue the stricken boat. It was allowed to drift in open waters for more than two weeks, without fuel or supplies. Sixty-one of those on board died of hunger, thirst and cold.
A subsequent eight-month-long Council of Europe investigation revealed that “the Libyan authorities failed to maintain responsibility for their search and rescue zone, the Italian and Maltese Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres failed to launch any search and rescue operation, and Nato failed to react to the distress calls, even though there were military vessels under its control in the boat’s vicinity when the call was sent.”
“We can talk as much as we want about human rights and the importance of complying with international obligations,” the report’s author, Tineke Strik, told reporters, “but if at the same time we just leave people to die – perhaps because we don’t know their identity or because they come from Africa – it exposes how meaningless those words are.”
Refugees trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, September 2015. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
This is the reality of Fortress Europe: politicians and officials so blinded by their obsession with illegal immigration that they have lost the ability to recognise their most basic of obligations to others. The fear of allowing illegal immigrants into Europe seems to weigh heavier than the guilt of allowing fellow human beings (who just happen to be African) to die. So when the far-right identitarian movement harass MSF and other NGO rescue boats or when they attack migrant camps, we ought to remember that they are not the first to do so. They are following European officialdom.
Such official inhumanity extends well beyond Europe. Because the EU’s reach stretches well beyond Europe. Over the past few years, it has stitched together a series of agreements with authorities across North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to act effectively as Europe’s immigration police.
The approach began initially with deals with Turkey, Morocco and Libya (in the days of Gaddafi’s rule). It crystallised with the EU emergency trust fund for Africa in November 2015, when European leaders offered an initial €2bn to be spread across 26 countries to help deport unwanted migrants and prevent people from leaving in the first place. Separately, the European commission has signed migration deals with Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Ethiopia. These migration “compacts” tie development aid, trade and other EU policies to the agenda of returning unwanted migrants from Europe. The EU, in other words, hands over huge sums of money for would-be or thought-to-be migrants to Europe to be apprehended and locked up before they reach the Mediterranean shores.
These are some of the most unstable regions in the world. The EU has made agreements not just with legitimate governments, however unsavoury they may be, but also with regional leaders and militias, often in conflict with each other, and with the central authorities, and, de facto, with criminal gangs, too. The impact has been to distort not just the economy but political relations across this whole region.
Europe’s policies have turned migrants into a resource to be exploited. A huge new kidnap and detention industry has been established, paid for by Brussels. In Libya alone, there are at least 20,000 migrants held in detention by the General Directorate for Combating illegal Immigration (DCIM), a division of the Ministry of the Interior. Thousands more are held captive by militias and criminal gangs. Amnesty International has detailed how all are held imprisoned in the most degrading of conditions and many subject to torture, sexual abuse and extortion. European governments, Amnesty’s European director, John Dalhuisen, has observed, “have not just been fully aware of these abuses… they are complicit in these abuses”. The EU’s policies, then, present an image of a continent under siege. And of nations willing to enact the most immoral policies to protect Europe’s borders and to push the problem so far away that they can pretend that it does not exist or that the problem is someone else’s.
Migrants are seen less as human beings than as so much flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s beaches
Is it any wonder, then, that many people see migrants as a threat or imagine that there is legitimacy to the claims of the far right? When Hungary built fences on its borders to keep out migrants, it was widely condemned, but what has the EU done but build fences – indeed walls – not round the EU, but in effect in Turkey, Libya, Niger and Eritrea? When Orbán called for refugees to be allowed to request asylum only from outside the EU, it was seen as unacceptable. But what is Emmanuel Macron’s policy now but just that? To build offshore reception centres in countries such as Niger and Chad?
“Nobody will admit it in this town,” an EU official told the Politico website last year, “but yes, Orbán’s narrative is prevailing.” Another official put it differently. “It’s not a matter of being in line with Orbán,” he observed. “It’s just that first we had to show things are under control, then we can work on better ways of managing flows.” But “to show things are under control”, mainstream politicians, whether in Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin or Rome, have come “into line with Orbán”.
Orbán himself has no doubt as to who has won the debate. As he told journalists before a European council meeting in Brussels in 2016: “The positions which were once condemned, despised, looked down upon and treated with contempt are becoming jointly held positions. And people who stand up for these positions are today being welcomed as equal partners. Our position,” he noted with satisfaction, “is slowly becoming the majority position.”
Source: The Guardian >>>