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Tribunal 12: migrants’ rights abuses in Europe

45 years on, the International War Crimes Tribunal set up by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre is being used to address abuses of migrants’ rights in Europe. It is time to inject solidarity and accountability into the European migration regime, Jennifer Allsopp reports from Stockholm on Tribunal 12

Jennifer Allsopp
15 May 2012

On Saturday, Henning Mankell, Nawal El-Saadawi, Nuruddin Farah, Saskia Sassen and other renowned cultural figures from across the world joined migration experts in Stockholm and thousands gathered at public screenings from Belgrade to Paris, as Europe stood accused of “the continual violation of human rights and the systematic mistreatment of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers”. This mobilisation was inspired by Tribunal 12, a public hearing organised by Shahrazad in collaboration with Kulturhuset and the Swedish Forum for Human Rights. Proceedings followed the model of the International War Crimes Tribunal set up by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1967. As the rain poured down on observers watching proceedings on a big screen outside, inside the mock court the jury set out to locate the moral, legal and political responsibilities for failures to Europe’s immigration policies, awaken Europe’s conscience and call for a change.

Photo of participants in teh 1967 Russel Tribunal

The Russell-Sartre Tribunal, 1967

It was clear from the offset that locating and assigning responsibility for such failures is a herculean task that requires both consideration of individual cases and questions of democratic governance and accountability. Who can be held responsible for the 16,136 migrant deaths that have been recorded in Europe since 1993? And just how many different actors does it take to break a man like Alain Hatungimana, the Burundian man refused asylum in the Netherlands who committed suicide in April this year leaving two children, aged 14 and 12, behind? These questions have no easy answers and reveal a complex interplay of power relations between global power structures, individual states, international bodies, private contractors and individuals.

In sessions on ‘Border Control’ and ‘The Asylum System’, experts explained how assigning responsibility for these deaths and other human rights abuses at a state level is increasingly difficult as power comes to operate through what Leanne Weber called a “series of displacements”. One type of displacement occurs through regional agreements such as the maritime “push-back” agreement between Italy and Libya, and the recently exposed ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between France and the United Kingdom governing the return of unaccompanied minors. This displacement logic also operates at the heart of Europe through the Dublin Regulation which allows EU member states to send asylum seekers entering their country back to their point of entry into Europe, often to face inhuman and degrading treatment. One 16 year old witness at the Tribunal spoke of receiving electric shocks as punishment for refusing to give his fingerprints in Greece, whilst Bahram from Afghanistan spoke of the brutal beatings at the hands of Bulgarian police: “I didn’t want to live anymore”.

In two recent landmark cases at the European Court of Human Rights, M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece and Hirsi v. Italy, ground was certainly made in terms of holding states accountable for failures such as these. In M.S.S it was ruled that all states party to the Dublin Regulation have a duty to find out about the treatment to which the applicants would be exposed on return – electric shocks and beatings are not simply the responsibility of the receiving state. This chain of accountability to prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment was echoed in judgement on Hirsi in the context of Italian “push back” operations to Libya.

At the institutional level, the gargantuan swelling of the operations of European’s border force, Frontex, raises new questions of accountability. As Liz Fekete pointed out, the lack of transparency of this organisation into which millions are pumped each year leaves us in a situation where we effectively have an illegitimate “European army” on our border, and evidence that Frontex is failing to live up to its promise to respect migrant rights have been well-documented. Some hope was raised in the Tribunal at the prospect of the European Ombudsman investigating how Frontex implements its fundamental rights obligations, but, as Gregor Noll pointed out, European institutions deal with an “elite”; states and their citizens must also act to tackle human rights abuses befalling Europe.

At the level of individual countries, it appears that little is being done to challenge the “displacement” of power from the hands of the state to a small group of private contractors who operate within an increasingly punitive framework. As explored in the recent ‘Borders of Punishment’ conference and elaborated during the ‘Detention and Deportation’ part of the Tribunal, with the privatisation of the detention-deportation regime as well as areas like housing for asylum seekers, the replacement of welfare with policing as the governing principle becomes heuristic. Saskia Sassen described such privatisation as a “cancer when it enters the kinds of domains that have to do with the governing of people”, something which infects us all and slowly kills off all manner of accountability. Liz Fekete reported how criticisms of suffering inflicted during deportation have simply led to more perverse mechanisms being devised to control deportees, including the substitution of diapers with urine absorbent seats and deportation helmets to reduce movement of the head and neck. In the United Kingdom, G4S, the company widely held responsible for the death of refused Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga who died from suffocation due to excessive restraint, has recently been awarded the contract to run housing for some of the most vulnerable in Britain.

The case of Jimmy Mubenga also raises another question about accountability that comes back to the role of individuals. As Nicholas De Genova pointed out at the Tribunal, “we can sit with a clean conscious and accuse the powers that be, or we can act with the migrants and participate in the creation of a new Europe”. In other words, unlike passengers on the plane with Mubenga, we can choose to intervene, we can choose to act. That citizens learn from the force of migrants’ own movements is a crucial part of this struggle.

The jury’s verdict is in working progress, but at its core appears the need to both push for the eradication of “weak components” in existing practice through engaging with a wide range of alternatives and also holding those in power to account by leading through example: “these issues are too important to leave it to governments and specialists” they declared, “we need to activate that vibrant active European civil society around the kind of issues presented today”. Arne Ruth made a specific reference to the ‘secret’ Rosengrenska clinic that provides free healthcare to undocumented migrants in his native Sweden in spite of the law in his recognition that this may have to be “based on civil disobedience like the doctors are doing, by simply not accepting the conditions given here.”

Ruth’s final statement is an important one for it highlights the potential for migrants’ rights defence to become an act of civil disobedience in the context of an unjust and increasingly securitised immigration and asylum regime. There is evidence that efforts to provide even vital services like healthcare are being increasingly prohibited or even criminalised, and the Europe-wide trend of restricting access to detention centres by NGOs and visitors can certainly be read in this light.

But why is such solidarity so powerful, and why is it so subversive in its manner of holding to account the powers that be? Solidarity on the part of citizens ultimately threatens what Bridgette Anderson referred to as the “deportability” of undocumented migrants through injecting humanity into a system that relies on Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Perhaps most importantly, as Jane Freeman has suggested, such expressions of solidarity challenge the state’s position as the sole regulator of access into and out of the political community.

The imperative for embarking on this challenge is huge. At its heart is a crucial question, not just about protecting the integrity of our democratic system and the upholding of human rights, but, to cite Nuruddin Farah, how we experience our “common humanity”. In their final judgement the jury stressed the need to recognise the equal value of human life, and advocated that whilst we point the finger we need to reach out our own hand too. The alternative is dehumanising for all of us, a state of apartheid sketched by Bridget Anderson where Italian divers are mandated to dive down to “rescue” the teddy bear of a girl on the Costa Concordia while two migrant babies are left to die at sea.

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