Humanitarian wars and rejected refugees

For France, acting in a ‘humanitarian’ manner means intervening in Libya’s civil war but does not extend to freely accepting refugees from Libya or Tunisia within its borders.

Much of the public debate in Europe about the war in Libya focuses on the persistent issue of western double-standards concerning humanitarian intervention. According to Paul Rogers this debate revolves around three main criticisms of the ‘coalition of willing’: hypocritical changing attitudes towards Libya; approaches to human-rights violations driven by self-interest; and the evasion of colonial responsibilities. As a consequence, people question the moral authority of European leaders who declare a duty to ‘protect Libyan civilians from government killings’ by passing a UN Resolution denouncing Gaddafi’s actions as ‘crimes against humanity.’ The role of former colonialist countries reasserting their moral authority in this part of northern Africa appears ambiguous, at best.

Beyond the post-colonial implications of recent events, now a secondary effect creating new concern about political refugees has cropped up. Refugees from Tunisia and Libya are attempting to enter the EU through Italy, but are determined to settle in countries with richer economies in northern Europe. Many of the refugees are escaping from political unrest or because they see little hope of a quick improvement in their economic prospects. But there are also Somalis or Eritreans who risk being persecuted in their countries of origin. This is at a time when the topic of political asylum inspires conflicted and heightened emotions all across Europe. In countries like Italy and France with vocal and influential xenophobic parties, the issue becomes explosive and can hijack all political debate.

The Italian Government is feeling the pressure from its political ally, the Northern League, which wants to relieve the anxiety currently gripping public opinion. In response, Berlusconi has decided to grant ‘humanitarian’ permits to allow the refugees to leave Italy and travel around a large part of Europe (the Schengen area). But Italy’s European partners have rejected the Italian manoeuvre considering it an unacceptable form of blackmail. It is a difficult situation that starkly reveals the limits of European governments’ idea of humanitarianism: the Italians, whose island of Lampedusa represents the entry point for those fleeing the Tunisian revolution and Libyan war to enter Europe, resent the attitude of the French, who are halting Tunisians at the Franco-Italian border.

In the last few days the French government has refused to recognize the temporary visas issued by the Italian authorities to migrants arriving on its shores, and have taken a decision to continue sending those who try to enter French territory back to Italy. A declaration made by the French government, a staunch promoter of the ‘willing coalition’, makes the paradox of the situation clear: "We must defend our frontiers on a European level," said the French minister for European affairs, Laurent Wauquiez. "What we're talking about isn't a few tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who could arrive in Europe; it's a potential 200,000 to 300,000 this year." For France, acting in a ‘humanitarian’ manner means intervening in Libya’s civil war but does not extend to freely accepting refugees from Libya or Tunisia within its borders. In this context, we see an increase in the deliberate manipulation of the widespread fear of immigrants through political messages and news coverage, both of which substantially shape public opinion on the complex interface of immigration, refugees, and humanitarianism.

Will Kymlicka applies the term ‘securitization’ to the process whereby political actors or policy makers propose extraordinary measures against immigrants because public opinion perceives an existential threat to collective belonging - when there is little or no evidence of a real menace. Securitization is a useful tool that they can use to establish consensus within public opinion. Media analysis of the process by which the issue of refugees rapidly becomes one of immigration reveals how Europe’s obsession with immigration is obstructing it from responding in its own best interests to the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings that have spread across the Middle East.

Hence, the anxiety over a refugee invasion from Africa reveals the contradictions present in Europe today, where, on the one hand, the moral imperative of universal emancipation is proclaimed, but on the other, policies and practice continue the trend of refusing a safe haven to the very refugees they have helped to create.

The reluctance of European countries to step forward foreshadows the trouble brewing in negotiations over asylum policy within the EU, where many countries prefer to confine themselves to looking after what they perceive as their own interests. Here again we have to acknowledge how much the logic of humanitarian intervention is actually limited to self-interest. At this point, Italy and France are playing an obscene ping-pong match, the result of which is the wholesale rejection of new refugees. Pascale Blanchard’s concept of fracture coloniale usefully reflects not only the controversy surrounding the violence associated with the colonial era, but also postcolonial Europe’s inability to integrate its immigrants, most of whom originated in former colonies.

In an ironic comment on the situation, Charlie Hebdo, an independent French satirical newspaper, has published a cartoon featuring North-African refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The accompanying hypothetical newspaper headline reads: "Democrats are landing in Europe!"

About the author

Marco Scalvini is a LSE100 Teacher. Before joining the LSE he supported numerous efforts by the international community to promote political dialogue, national reconciliation, and democratization in Kosovo and in Palestine. In 2009, he worked as consultant for the G8 Summit.