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For an open migration policy to end the deaths and crises in the Mediterranean

Only a more open policy of migration would neither threaten migrants nor European citizens. To foster such a policy, the Mediterranean mobility conflict must be addressed.

lead 17 June 2018, Spain, Valencia: The refugee rescue ship 'Aquarius' which was rejected a week ago from Italy and Malta has arrived in port. Daniel Duart/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The current crisis surrounding migration is not one of numbers – migrants’ crossings of the sea are at their lowest since 2013 – but of policies. The drive towards closure and the politicisation of migration are so strong after years of tension that the frail bodies of a few thousand migrants arriving on European shores are triggering a major political crisis throughout the EU.

One epicentre of this crisis is in Italy, where Matteo Salvini, the country’s new far-right Interior Minister, is preventing NGOs from disembarking rescued migrants. Such was the case with the 629 people on board the Aquarius.

Another is Germany, where the governing coalition led by Angela Merkel is at risk as the hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has threatened to turn back refugees at the German borders. The European Council summit on 28 June 2018 promises to be rife with tensions. As EU member states will most probably continue to prove unable to offer a common response to migrants once they have arrived on European shores, they will reinforce the policy they have implemented since 2015: preventing migrants from crossing the sea by outsourcing border control to non-European countries.

The consensus of closure

This policy of closure has had horrendous consequences for migrants – such as the subjection to torture of those who are intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard, which has been equipped, trained and coordinated by Italy and the EU. Despite this, it has gathered growing consensus. Faced with the politicisation of migration which has fuelled the rise of far-right populist parties across Europe and threatens the EU itself with disintegration, even humanists of the centre left and right ask whether these inhumane policies are not a necessary evil.

Would it not be better for migrants to “stay home” rather then reach a Europe which has turned its back on them and which they threaten in turn? Whispering or shouting, reluctantly or aggressively, European citizens increasingly wish migrants would simply disappear. Whispering or shouting, reluctantly or aggressively, European citizens increasingly wish migrants would simply disappear.

Powerful forces driving migration, failed policies

This consensus towards closure is delusional. Policies of closure that are completely at odds with the dynamics of migration systematically fail in their aim of ending the arrivals of illegalised migrants, as the record of the last 30 years demonstrates.

Ever since the European states consolidated freedom of movement for European citizens in the 1990s all the while denying access to most non-European populations, the arrival of “undesirable” migrants has not stopped, but only been pushed underground. This is because as long as there are strong “push factors” – such as wars and economic crisis, and “pull factors” – such as work and welfare opportunities as well as respect for human rights, and that these continue to be connected by migrants’ transnational networks, state policies have little chance of succeeding in durably stemming the migration they aim to restrict.

Over the last 30 years, for every route states have succeeded in closing, it has only been a matter of time before migrants opened several new ones. Forced to use precarious means of travel – often controlled by criminal networks, migrants’ lives were put at growing risk. More than 30,000 migrants are recorded to have died at sea since the beginning of the 1990s. A sea which has connected civilisations for millennia has become a mass grave. More than 30,000 migrants are recorded to have died at sea since the beginning of the 1990s. A sea which has connected civilisations for millennia has become a mass grave.

Fear breeds more fear: the vicious cycle

These policies of closure, often implemented by centre governments allegedly in the aim of preventing the further rise of anti-immigrant sentiments, ultimately contributed to them. Despite the spectacular military means deployed by states to police borders, illegalised migration continued, giving European populations a sense that their states had “lost control” – a feeling that has only been heightened in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Migrants’ illegalisation has led to unjustifiable status inequality within European societies, allowing employers to pull salaries down in the sectors in which precaritized migrants are employed. This has lent to working classes the impression that migrants constitute an unfair competition.

Policies of closure and discrimination thus only generate more fear and rejection of migrants. The parties which have mobilised voters on the basis of this fear have left unaddressed – and in fact diverted attention from – the rising unemployment, social insecurity, and inequality amongst Europe’s “losers of globalisation”, whose resentment has served as a fertile ground for anti-immigrant sentiments.

In this way, we have become trapped in a vicious cycle that has fuelled the rise of the far-right.

Towards an open migration policy, de-escalate the mobility conflict

Over the years, the Mediterranean has become the main frontline of a mobility conflict, which has intensified in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings and European debt crisis. Since then, both the factors spurring migrants’ movement towards Europe and those leading to the drive to exclude them have been heightened.

The lack of solidarity within the EU to respond to arrivals in so-called “frontline states” in southern and eastern Europe have further fuelled it. As long as the same policies continue to be applied, there is no end in sight to the political tensions and violence surrounding migration and the worrying political trends they are nurturing.

A fundamental paradigm shift is necessary to end this vicious cycle. European citizens and policy makers alike must realise that the question is not whether migrants will exercise their freedom to cross borders, but at what human and political cost.

State policies can only create a legal frame for human movement to unfold and thereby partly organise it, they cannot block it. Only a more open policy would allow migration to unfold in a way that threatens neither migrants themselves nor European citizens. No longer policed through military means, migration could appear as a normal process that does not generate fear. States could better detect individuals that might pause a threat.

With legal access to Europe, migrants would no longer need to resort to smugglers and risk their lives crossing the sea. No longer policed through military means, migration could appear as a normal process that does not generate fear. States could better detect individuals that might pause a threat among migrants as they would not be pushed underground. Migrants’ legal status would no longer allow employers to push working conditions down.

Such a policy is however far from being on the European agenda. For its implementation to be even faintly imaginable in the medium term, the deep and entangled roots of the mobility conflict must addressed.

Beyond the EU’s incoherent and one-sided “global approach”

Today, the EU claims to address one side of the mobility conflict. Using development aid within its so-called “global approach to migration”, it claims to tackle the “root causes” that spur migration towards Europe. Researchers however have shown that development does not automatically lead to less migration. This policy will further have little effect as long as the EU’s unfair trade policies with the global south are perpetuated – for example concerning agriculture and fishing in Africa.

In effect, the EU’s policy has mostly resulted in the use of development aid to impose policies of migration control on countries of the global south. In the process, the EU is lending support to authoritarian regimes – such as Turkey, Egypt, Sudan – which migrants are fleeing. The EU is lending support to authoritarian regimes – such as Turkey, Egypt, Sudan – which migrants are fleeing.

Finally, when it has not worsened conflicts through its own military intervention as in Libya, the EU has proven unable of acting as a stabilizing force in the face of internationalised civil conflicts. These are bound to multiply in a time of intense competition for global hegemony. A true commitment to global justice and conflict resolution is necessary if Europe wishes to limit the factors forcing too many people onto the harsh paths of exile from their countries and regions, a small share of whom reach European shores.

Tackling the drivers of migrant exclusion

Beyond its lack of coherence, the EU’s so-called “global approach” suffers from one-sidedness, focused as it is on migration as “the problem”. Policies of closure have failed to end illegalised migration and only fuelled the rise of the far-right and the disintegration of Europe.

As a result, it fails to see migration as a normal social process. Furthermore, it does not address the conditions that lead to the social and political drive to exclude them. The fact that today the arrival of a few thousand migrants is enough to put the EU into crisis clearly shows the limits of this approach.

It is urgent for policy makers – at the national and local levels, but also researchers, cultural producers and social movements – to not only morally condemn racism and xenophobia, but to tackle the deep forces that shape them.

What is needed is a more inclusive and fair economic system to decrease the resentment of European populations. In addition, a positive vision for living in common in diverse societies must be affirmed, so that the tensions that arise from the encounter between different people and cultures can be overcome.

Crucially, we must emphasise the commonality of fate that binds European citizens to migrants. Greater equality and solidarity between migrants and European citizens is one of the conditions to defend all workers’ conditions. Greater equality and solidarity between migrants and European citizens is one of the conditions to defend all workers’ conditions.

All in the same boat

Addressing the entangled roots of the mobility conflict is a challenging agenda, one which emerges from the realisation that the tensions surrounding migration cannot be resolved through migration policies only – and by policy makers on their own for that matter.

It charts a path worth following collectively as it points in the direction of a more open migration policy, but also a more just society. These are necessary to bring an end to the unbearable deaths of migrants at sea and end the vicious cycle of closure, violence, and politicisation of migration.

Policies of closure have failed to end illegalised migration and only fuelled the rise of the far-right and the disintegration of Europe. If Europe is to stop sinking, it must end the policies that lead to migrants’ mass drowning in the Mediterranean. The NGOs being criminalised and prevented from disembarking migrants in Italy are not only saving migrants, but rescuing Europe against itself. Whether we like it or not, we are all in the same boat.

About the author

Charles Heller is a co-founder of the Forensic Oceanography project affiliated to Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London, and a co-founder of the WatchTheMed platform. He is currently conducting postdoctoral research supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) at the University of Bologna and the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

 


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