"To meet nothing that wants you": violence against migrants

As anti-migrant sentiment increases around the world and the law is increasingly used to protect the interests of citizens, we must provide a robust critique of the system.

Happy Kinyili
11 May 2015

you broke the ocean in

half to be here.

only to meet nothing that wants you.

 Nayyirrah Waheed, Salt. 2013

In the past month, there has been an onslaught of violence experienced by migrants around the world. The attack at Garissa University in Kenya gave an opening for the Kenyan government to demand the closure of Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, under the guise of securing the borders and interior of Kenya against ‘terror attacks’. In the Mediterranean Sea, it is estimated that over 800 migrants died on 19th April 2015 when their boat capsized as it made the precarious journey from Africa to Europe. The UNHCR has labelled this devastating event as the worst disaster to occur in the Mediterranean Sea. Xenophobic attacks in South Africa escalated as battles between South African nationals and foreign nationals took place on the streets of Johannesburg and Durban and shops owned by non-South Africans were burgled and looted.

This onslaught of violence is the most recent occurrence of events in parts of the world that have already been enacting legislation to reduce the number of migrants within their borders. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) noted that 2014 saw a record number of people, 51 million people, who were displaced by violence, conflict and human rights violations – the highest number since World War II. Coupled with the increasing numbers of people displaced from their countries of origin, is an increase in anti-migrant sentiment, particularly in nations of the global north. Responding to the increase in both migrants and anti-migrant sentiments, some countries have enacted or enforced laws that restrict the movement of migrants, particularly those seeking asylum.

In May 2014, South Africa amended its Immigration Law and enacted stricter visa regulations in a bid to stem the influx of migrants to what is one of Africa’s richest countries. South Africa is already infamous for being one of the most prolific deporters of foreign nationals in the world. In addition, South Africa is also struggling to address increasing incidents of xenophobic violence. When questioned on the need for the stricter laws, the Minister of Home Affairs stated that these visa revisions were tied to the need for increased national security.

The amendments would give new asylum seekers only five days to present themselves at the relevant office and lodge their application, a feat thought to be impossible in most instances because of the distance they would need to travel. The revisions will also require expatriate workers to return to their countries of origin to apply for an extension on their visas. This would be particularly challenging for the approximately quarter of a million Zimbabweans who fled the political and economic crisis in their country.

Lebanon has also reacted to the influx of Syrians since the beginning of the Syrian civil war and enacted visa rules. This enactment of visa rules is particularly noteworthy as there has always been free travel between the two countries since Lebanon gained independence in 1943. In October 2014, the Lebanese government declared that any Syrian seeking entrance into Lebanon will have to declare the duration of their stay and give justification for travel.

The Lebanese government has noted that the influx of Syrians in the country has put a strain on its social services. One pundit suggests the restrictions are also tied to the fact that a large influx of the refugees are Sunni Muslims, and this will disrupt the balance between the Shi’a, Sunni and Christian communities in Lebanon. There have already been some reports of sectarian violence breaking out in Lebanon.

According to the IOM, Europe has seen the largest number of reported deaths of migrants. Since the year 2000, over 22,000 people have lost their lives as they travelled to Europe, with over 3000 deaths reported in 2014. To respond to the issue of migration in the region, the European Union has implemented a policy on ‘irregular’ migration. One of the actions under this policy on irregular migration is to organise joint police operations to trace what they term as ‘irregular’ migrants – that is people who are living clandestinely and do not have official documentation permitting them to remain in the European Union. These operations have been organised quite regularly by the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union. Their goal is to detect, detain and probably deport the migrants who are declared ‘irregular’. The operations are also targeted at the organised crime groups that smuggle migrants into the European Union.

In October 2014, the European police launched a two-week operation, dubbed ‘Operation Mos Maiorum’ to hunt for ‘irregular’ migrants. What was notable about this latest operation was that it lasted two weeks – most operations in the past lasted for only five days, and that it drew in support from Frontex – the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union – who provided statistic and data analysis of migratory flows at external borders of the Union. Some Members of the European Parliament who were opposed to this action, stressed that the hunt would reinforce the existing xenophobia and fear of the ‘other’ that exists in some parts of Europe.

Another country that enacted laws to control the movement of migrants across its borders and asylum seekers within its borders is Kenya. Since 2011, there have been a series of attacks in Kenya, for which the al-Shabaab group working out of Somalia has claimed responsibility. In April 2014, following a grenade explosion that occurred in one of Nairobi’s residential areas, the Kenyan security forces launched an operation that deported 82 Somali people to Somalia and detained over 4,000 others, mostly of Somali ethnicity, who did not have identity documents .

Given the increasing attacks on Kenyan soil, most recently in the Garissa attacks that left more than 147 people dead, the Kenyan public has been calling on the government to respond to the rise in insecurity. In December 2014, the Kenyan parliament passed the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014. This law puts a cap on the number of refugees allowed in the country at any one time to 150,000. Given the on-going conflicts and political tensions in Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia, the United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there will be 662,850 refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people in Kenya in December 2015. The Kenyan High Court suspended some sections of the Act, including the cap on the number of refugees, pending a full examination of the legislation. However, other worrisome sections, such as an articulation of the grounds upon which one’s identity card, and thus citizenship status, can be revoked, have been left intact.

These nations serve as examples of the increasing use of the law create and reinforce the migrant as ‘other’. The migrants are vulnerable to the machinations of nation states that are protecting the interests of their citizens, and this places the migrants at greater risk of violence and death. In addition to experiencing ‘othering’ because of their status as migrants, women, girls and trans* people face additional challenges because of their gender. As has already been documented, migration presents greater challenges for women than men at every stage of their migration journey as they are at greater risk of physical, sexual and verbal abuse because of their precarious legal status. Transphobic social and legal norms that continue to invisibilise trans* people place an additional axis of discrimination on migrant trans* people who are doubly ‘othered’ – because of their migrant status and because of transgressing gender norms.

As anti-migrant sentiment increases around the world and the law is increasingly used to protect the interests of citizens, feminists and other anti-oppression activists need to develop and undertake more robust actions and responses to stem the tide. The International Women Space (IWS) is a Berlin-based collective of women, supported by Mama Cash, who are responding to and acting against racist laws and structures in Germany from a feminist perspective. They are refugee women, migrants and European citizens who support each other to address and overcome the challenges they face related to migration. The IWS is a space where the women meet, initiate political actions, and collectively develop strategies to address the everyday challenges of living as an asylum seeker or refugee in Germany.

The work of IWS provides an example of the leadership of migrant women in addressing their challenges. The escalating anti-migrant sentiment and violence targeting migrants demands a swift and precise response from everyone committed to liberty and autonomy for all. Thus, for those considered ‘legal’ by the state apparatus and those labelled ‘citizen’, we must be more critical of the political machinations that continue to pitch ‘citizens’ against ‘migrants’ and refuse to participate in the violence. We must examine the root causes of this increasing tide of anti-migrant sentiment and provide robust critics of this system. We must act in solidarity with migrants around the world who are working to protect their dignity and liberty.





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