By Matthew Carr
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Battering down the fortress

This article is over 6 years, 2 months old
Author Matthew Carr speaks to Socialist Review about the political significance of the current refugee crisis on the borders of Europe.
Issue 407

There has been a lot of talk by the media saying this is the biggest reefugee crisis since the Second World War. What do you make of it?

On one level it’s true. It’s the largest numbers of refugees since just after the war. It is a major refugee crisis, although really it’s been brewing for some time and it’s a rather belated recognition of how serious it is.

It is only beginning to be considered a really serious crisis because refugees are coming to Europe, whereas for the past few years there have been millions of refugees coming out of Iraq and Syria but staying in the region. I’m often struck by how little reference there is to the Iraq war. The number of Syrian refugees now is huge but at the height of the Iraq war, Iraqis weren’t far behind.

After the Second World War European governments resolved the refugee crisis very, very quickly because it was seen as a crucial factor in stabilising Western Europe. There was an instant reaction to it in various countries to provide resources to absorb the refugees that were pouring out of the East and had been displaced during the war — very different to now.

The striking thing about this crisis is that it has exploded on Europe’s shores partly because of wars that European states and Western states bear some responsibility for, and it’s acting as a catalyst for the potential meltdown of the Fortress Europe model. All the things we’ve seen this dreadful year — the drownings, people trapped in huge numbers at so-called immigration hotspots around Europe’s external borders — have been going on for years on a small enough scale that the fortress model of border enforcement could remain in place.

So this year it’s a crisis for the refugees, but it’s also a political crisis for Europe. A kind of insurgency has taken place on Europe’s borders; large numbers of people simply walking across borders, walking across the barbed wire fences, being attacked by police, walking straight through lines of police in Hungary and in Macedonia. This is something that never happened on the same scale throughout the whole process of reconstruction of the Fortress Europe model.

Another very important phenomenon is the radical change in public mood towards the refugees — how long that is going to last no one can predict.

What were once marginal forms of solidarity with refugees and migrants have moved into the public mainstream and this presents a political challenge to those who want to conduct this kind of hard border enforcement model.

There’s an attempt to shift the blame onto the traffickers. What have you learned about them from your research?

You come across these very moralistic arguments made by governments which say that what they’re really doing is saving refugees from exploitation at the hands of smugglers. And when you see some of the things that have happened — the 71 people who died in a lorry in Austria in August; the incredible situation in which refugees are stuffed into dinghies without life jackets and have to pay different rates according to whether they’re on the outside of the dinghy or the inside — you know you are dealing in some cases with people who are pure gangsters.

But the essential hypocrisy of the moralistic argument is that no one would have to rely on traffickers if they were able to get to the places they want to go to by legitimate legal means. It is almost impossible for someone outside Europe to apply for asylum in Europe. The moment they book a flight they are likely to be identified and when they arrive at the airport the plane won’t carry them because the carrier might be fined if they do.

A few years ago there was a tabloid furore about Mugabe in Zimbabwe and how evil his regime was and how brutal it was and so on, most of which is true, but what was the UK government doing? It was making it harder for people who wanted to leave Zimbabwe to get to the UK. And that’s what always happens whenever there’s a country that seems like it’s going to produce a lot of refugees — we simply make it more difficult for these people to obtain visas.

The tighter the enforcement barriers the more people will have to go to some really dubious people for help.

This has always been the case to some extent. When Jews were fleeing Germany and other countries in the 1930s and during the war, they often had to rely on so-called traffickers who had mixed motives.

Some of them helped Jews because they believed in the right of free movement and they recognised that Jews were being oppressed; some of them wanted to make a lot of money out of the situation; and some of them did it for both reasons.

There are still even now these kind of amateur smugglers who get involved in the industry because they are opposed to the whole European border system and its consequences.

A chapter in my book looks at so-called “contraband” and all the arguments around it. European governments frequently lump migration in with other forms of contraband so that migrants are seen as something vaguely dangerous, as a potential security threat. Sometimes it’s actually stated baldly — if they’re Syrians they could be ISIS.

Governments tend to treat migration as a security issue, another form of criminality, and that shapes the response to it as law enforcement and security, when to my mind other forms of response are required.

You argue that the combination of the internal liberalisation across Europe and the external hardening has just increased trafficking and not really reduced immigration. Is that right?

Well, put it this way, if there had been no European Union and if there hadn’t been a Schengen Agreement, pretty much all the countries that are now members of the EU would have used similar forms of control of their external borders with each other.

The Schengen Agreement and the creation of free movement within the EU allowed certain countries, the richest ones in Western Europe, to push their border controls outwards. They forced the countries on the southern periphery to be responsible for managing and controlling flows of migrants and refugees who often headed into those western European countries.

The Dublin convention specifies that you can only apply for asylum in one country. In theory this was intended to prevent the phenomenon called “asylum shopping”, when if you were rejected by one country you simply went to another and applied there, but what it actually does in practice is force people to apply for asylum in the first country they come to. If they’re coming by sea then it’s going to be Greece, Italy and Spain.

So these countries are being turned into migrant traps or holding pens. Most migrants don’t want to stay in those countries; quite often the governments in those countries have little interest in making them stay, but they have to in order to carry out their Schengen responsibilities as Europe’s border guards.

So you have the disappearance of internal borders within Europe and the corollary of that has been a constant hardening of the external borders. “Fortress Europe” is a useful metaphor for the current situation, but in some ways I think the EU’s perfect border enforcement model would be like a membrane where certain types of people could automatically pass through it and others were stopped. But that is very difficult to achieve, so instead you have this rather crude form of enforcement such as the big fences that have been built by Hungary and are already in place in Greece and Slovakia.

You have written that “the crisis has also revealed possibly irreconcilable responses from European governments”. Could you expand?

There is a division between Eastern Europe and the Western European countries over quotas. Hungary, for example, is now run by a very right wing government that has moved from anti-Roma discrimination to a very hard-line response to this refugee crisis to the point where they are saying openly that they will only take Christian refugees.

Then on the other hand you have Germany. I admired it when Germany said that they were prepared to take in 800,000 refugees and that Europe should step up. But there are contradictions to it. One is that it comes from Angela Merkel and when you think of the way she has treated Greece, it’s hard to reconcile that with the more positive way she’s responding to asylum seekers. And they seem to be changing their position now.

Over the last couple of months they’ve also started to introduce some quite hard-line changes in German refugee law to stop asylum seekers getting medical treatment and accommodation.

Nevertheless, Germany has said out loud that it’s a crisis and that all of Europe must accept it. Some states, mostly in Eastern Europe, are now saying that they won’t accept quotas; they reject what they call Germany’s moral imperialism. Sooner or later there will be a confrontation in which the most powerful countries in the EU will impose quotas on the others, and those countries will have to decide whether they will accept them.

If the situation continues to get worse you could actually have countries re-establishing border controls — Germany has done so temporarily, and so has Austria, but you could get other countries doing it permanently.

So the whole Schengen system could break down, and with it the whole concept of free movement within Europe. This is not only a refugee crisis; it’s a crisis in the construction of Fortress Europe. That opens up more positive possibilities for a different kind of response and a different kind of Europe, which we’ve seen in these big demonstrations in solidarity with refugees.

It’s horrific that it takes pictures of dead toddlers to arouse those kinds of feelings, but something positive has come out of it — like the convoys going to Calais and the big demonstrations in support of refugees.

So the conflict in Europe is not just between different governments East and West but also between the Fortress Europe model that says we can’t take refugees and this more positive empathy and solidarity with their situation from people on the ground. That offers lots of positive political possibilities.

We’ve seen refugees marching down the motorway in Hungary. How important is it that we see them fighting for themselves instead of being passive victims?

What they did is a pretty major thing because they said to the Hungarian government either let us through or shoot us. Even the Croatian interior minister said that these people cannot be stopped without shooting them and he didn’t advocate the latter. As I said before it’s a kind of border insurgency which has been ongoing at a lower level for several years with demonstrations, hunger strikes in detention centres, and so on.

Migrants have very few political weapons at their disposal. Political theorist Hannah Arendt once said the stateless never do. They have no government enforcing their rights, they don’t really have any concept of rights even though their rights are constantly debated with hostile governments and hostile media constantly trying to prove that they are not really refugees, they’re not genuine, there’s something wrong and therefore we don’t have to receive them.

This year we’ve seen the most spectacular eruption of people in large numbers simply ignoring the barriers in their path and challenging governments to use the army and shoot them or let them through. We know that there are politicians in Europe who do advocate shooting them, such as the Northern League in Italy — Umberto Bossi said we should shoot the boats out of the water, blow up two of three of them and the rest will stop coming.

As of yet no European government is willing to do this and the way public opinion is changing can hopefully eradicate that whole discourse and look for an entirely more humane and creative response to the whole situation.


» April 2015: five boats carrying almost 2,000 migrants to Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea, with a combined death toll estimated at more than 1,200

» August: 71 refugees found dead in a lorry parked beside an Austrian motorway

» The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that 250,000 migrants had arrived in Europe by sea so far in 2015 — 124,000 in Greece and 98,000 in Italy

» September: picture of drowned Syrian boy off the Turkish coast kicks off worldwide surge of sympathy for the plight of refugees

» Clashes with riot police at Hungarian border as the country’s government presses on with erecting a border fence

» October: European leaders meet at emergency summit in Brussels and agree to shore up Greece’s “porous border”

» The top three nationalities Mediterranean Sea arrivals since the beginning of the year are Syrian (53%), Afghan (16%) and Eritrean (6%). Most of the refugees and migrants are adult men (65%)

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