Can Europe Make It?

Marathon Man and 'our European Way of Life'

The migration debate ignores the political question of why hundreds or thousands of underage and adult people are dying trying to reach Europe, while tens of thousands remain mired in inhumane camps.

Thomas Spijkerboer
27 October 2020
Screenshot. Laurence Olivier as Nazi doctor in Marathon Man. YouTube.

The 1967 film Marathon Man features a very young Dustin Hoffman as a Jewish New Yorker who unmasks a Nazi deathcamp doctor (named der weisse Engel after his white hair) tastefully evilly played by Laurence Olivier. Towards the end of the film, Laurence Olivier is recognised in the streets of Manhattan by a woman who was one of his victims in the camp. Screaming and pointing, she crosses the street – and is hit by a car. Sympathetic bystanders focus on and surround her. But because the attention is focused on the victim, and not on the one she recognizes, der weisse Engel again makes his escape.

There were campaigns to relieve Lesbos by transferring people to other European countries long before the Moria refugee camp was consumed by flames. At the time of the camp's destruction, Moria held about 12,500 refugees, despite having a capacity for three thousand. There was a campaign in the Netherlands aimed at taking in five hundred children. After the fire, the Dutch government was prepared to take in a meagre one hundred, on condition that they would be subtracted from the country's resettlement quota.

There is much compassion these days for the children from Moria. Nonetheless, the focus on the humanitarian side of this case ignores the political cause behind these abuses. The debate is now centred on how (un)kind we are to these children. But as long as debate is focused on this point, we are unable to talk about why these children were in that situation to begin with. Before you know it, you have accepted that it's ok for adults to be subject to such abuses.

Early migration deterrents

Right up to the 1990's, refugees in the Netherlands were housed in apartments in towns all over the country and received welfare. If many came at once, they would first be placed in asylum seeker centres. Now they are being held in leaky tents and mouldy containers on Greek, Italian and Spanish islands.

How did it get to this point?
After the decolonization of Africa and Asia it was initially possible for many people to travel back and forth between former colonies and their mother countries. From the sixties onwards, civil aviation saw serious growth, strongly stimulated by rich countries. However, these same countries were concerned that their former colonial subjects could now get to the motherland with as much ease as Europeans travelled the other way. This was not what they had intended. So from the 1960's European countries started introducing travel and residence restrictions on people from the former colonies.

These early forms of migration deterrents were challenged in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In a series of cases which culminated in the famous 1985 Abdulaziz ruling, the Court judged that states may, in principle, regulate migration however they saw fit. Although there were undeniable indications that the new migration law was aimed at keeping racialised, non-white people out of Europe, the Court found that there was no question of discrimination on the grounds of race.

Resounding success

Despite this victory for the new restrictive migration policy, people were still able to travel to Europe because the visa policies of European countries differed. People from most countries in Asia and Africa could still travel to at least one European country without a visa. European countries began to harmonize their migration policies in 1985, albeit in a somewhat muddled way, but the result was there to be seen. Ten years later, European countries had fully harmonized their visa policies.

In addition, there was a penalty system for airlines that brought in people without a visa. Africans and Asians now needed visas for all European countries. Africans and Asians now needed visas for all European countries. Visa requirements were not enforced by the police at European airports, but by stewardesses at check-in desks in Lagos, Jakarta and Istanbul. Thanks in part to the perfecting of passports and visas (which are increasingly difficult to forge), European countries have strongly succeeded in strictly regulating the access of Africans and Asians to airline connections.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that an estimated two thirds of the people found illegally in Europe initially entered the continent legally (i.e. with a visa). Additionally, migration sociologists like Hein de Haas point out that the effect of all these regulations can sometimes be 'negative' (for those who want fewer migrants), because migrants are much less likely to go back to their country of origin. But let's pass over this as an academic aside. The fact is that we're seeing a resounding success.

Of every ten thousand passengers who land at European airports from outside the EU, only three lack the required documents. Even if we assume that a few more people travel on forged papers, or on someone else's papers, this is a fantastic result from the point of view of restrictive migration policy.

It should be noted that an estimated two thirds of the people found illegally in Europe initially entered the continent legally (i.e. with a visa).

The perfect system extended

The point in history where we started seeing the crossing to Europe in smuggling coincides with the period when Europe perfected this system (of harmonized visa requirements enforced by airlines). Since the early 1990s, local newspapers in southern Europe started publishing brief reports of bodies of migrants that had washed ashore. Initially, European countries did not know what to do with the people who did arrive alive by boat.

Researchers like Paolo Cuttitta, Ana López-Sala and Dirk Godenau have shown how successively Spain, Italy and Greece improvised a response to this new development. Their answer consisted of three elements. First: don't bring people who are fished from the sea or who come ashore to the nearest shelter; but rather consolidate them into a single, miserable camp on an island.
Second: do not transfer these people to the mainland. In due time, both the island and the camp will be full and riots will break out among both the original inhabitants of the island and the migrants. This results in a third element: a crisis. Governments roll out the carpet for media to come and depict these riots, bodies washed ashore and charred shelters. And voilà, a new victory for the restrictive migration policy: the crisis thus created is used to legitimize measures that would previously have been unthinkable.

Increasing success

This formula has been applied in Southern Europe with increasing success. During the so-called Cayuco crisis in the Canary Islands in 2006, the Spanish government first succeeded in turning migrants in boats from a Spanish problem into a European issue. The newly created European border agency Frontex was able to prove its worth immediately; Spain was able to attract European funds; and Europe was inspired by the Spanish Plan Africa, which was a blueprint for the externalization of European migration policy in African countries.

The Italian government then elaborated on this formula when the number of boat crossings increased during the 2011 Arab Spring. In line with the three elements, the situation in Lampedusa got completely out of hand. In a subsequent court case, the Italian government managed to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the existence of such a 'humanitarian emergency' could be a reason to lower human rights criteria. Although it was argued that Italy itself had created this emergency, and so that it could not now use the emergency of its own making to lower human rights criteria, the Court found that the judge could not make a ruling on this.

Governments roll out the carpet for media to come and depict these riots, bodies washed ashore and charred shelters.

And so, just as in the Abdulaziz ruling, the hardening of European migration policy received the blessing of the Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile, people trying to cross the border, in Greece and in the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, were being fired upon with live ammunition. We knew very well what we thought about such border enforcement when the East Germans did that during the Cold War. Times have changed: earlier this year, President Von der Leyen complimented the Greek border guards for the heroic way in which they stood up for Europe.

Venice Biennale

Meanwhile, the crossings continued, often by Syrians who had little alternative. The Italian government successfully mediatised this. After the death of hundreds of migrants on 3 October 2013, rows of coffins, many adorned with a flower, were erected in a hall in Lampedusa. This was particularly popular with right-thinking media. The following year, a shipwreck in which many more people drowned was lifted in front of rotating cameras and an artist was allowed to exhibit it at the Venice Biennale. The makers of the documentary Fuocoammare had the opportunity to film the bodies of migrants who had died in the hold of a ship. The crisis thus became art with a capital A, and in the wake of media and art, the EU's crisis model grew in importance.

Riding on the waves of this attention, Italian policymakers, in close cooperation with the EU, devised a way to make rescuing people coincide with a tough migration policy. Instead of the Italians fishing people out of the sea and taking them to Lampedusa, they set up a Libyan coastguard. This coastguard was equipped and trained by the Italians at the expense of the EU in order to rescue as many people as possible from the sea and take them back to Libya.

In this way, rescuing people coincides neatly with closing borders. One inconvenience is that the Libyan coastguard and the Libyan people smugglers (who also organize torture camps and slave markets) are, to say the least, not always easy to tell apart. That's not the only way in which rescue and torture are interlinked. After all, there's a perverse circular economy involving a consortium: with one hand it receives money for smuggling migrants; with the other it receives EU monies for coastguard duties.

The crisis formula in 2015

The formula was used again in 2015 when the so-called refugee crisis shook Europe to its core. For the record, the crisis was that Germany, the most heavily burdened country in the EU in terms of receiving refugees, had to cope with as many refugees per inhabitant as Turkey (and ten times less than Lebanon).

But anyway, the media and art industry were once again up and running – especially when a dead toddler washed ashore on a Turkish beach. By March 2016, the Turkey deal was concluded, which meant that Turkey would take back all the people who arrived on the Greek islands in exchange for six billion euros, visa exemption and accession talks.

On the Greek side, the familiar formula: everyone had to stay on the islands, so that the situation in the camps would become heavenly. And so it happened: because repatriation is not allowed without an asylum procedure, and because asylum procedures in Greece are even more sluggish than elsewhere in Europe, the situation in the Greek camps was soon beyond description.

The Turkey deal is still seen as a blueprint for European policy. This means that the crisis formula that plays such an important role in it – and with all the victims that makes it – is not called into question.

It is now said that the Turkey deal may not be sympathetic, but it sure is effective. After all, the number of migrants has fallen sharply since March 2016. But put simply and bluntly, this is nonsense. If one looks at the figures, one will see that the number of people crossing from Turkey to Greece peaked in October 2015. After that, it fell. At the time of the March 2016 deal, it was already at its currently low level. So unless we abandon the most elementary logic, the Turkey deal simply could not have led to the decline because it itself followed that decline.

The children of Moria

Back to the children of Moria. No human being can be against the taking in of five hundred children, because the situation on the Greek islands is inhumane. Why the situation there is inhumane only for children, and not for adults, escapes me. But I suppose one has to start somewhere. As an aside, the praise for Merkel’s readiness to accept 1,500 refugees from Greece is incomprehensible. Yes, she is prepared to make a humanitarian gesture to some in the camps in Greece, but the Turkey deal which continues to cause the suffering of many more people was of her making. She sheds tears about the consequences of policies she fully supports.

Worse yet is that the debate is now a humanitarian question: are we nice enough or not to make space for a few orphans? Both right and left stand to gain from this debate – the left by being nice, the right by being blunt. But the debate ignores the political question of why hundreds or thousands of underage and adult people are dying trying to reach Europe, and tens of thousands remain mired in inhumane camps on Europe's borders. However much every life counts: polemics about a few children more or less are of relative importance. Our focus should be on the policies that allow these children's nephews and nieces to wash up tomorrow and, if still alive, to go and sleep in the cardboard boxes.

We do not need to doubt the activists' best intentions. But the attention paid to the victims means that the politicians responsible for their abuse get away with policies that continue to make more victims.

Escaping the political trap

Well, enough analysis. What, then, must we do? If we're honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that as long as inequality between countries remains as great as it is, migration policy will never be a pretty sight. But can it perhaps be a little less brutal, deadly and coarse than it is now?

Of course it can. We did it before. The idea that migration policy can only be à la Orbán, complete with fences and vigilantes beating up foreigners, is a political trap into which progressive Europe has stepped. There is no need to choose between migration policy (but with human rights violations), or being trampled underfoot by Africa (because we are so right-thinking).

There is no oven-ready comprehensive alternative. But the current abuses are themselves products of a long half-century of policy. They may have consisted of improvisations along the way, but they nonetheless had a clear direction. So there is nothing that prevents us from developing ideas that go in the opposite direction, improvising as we go along that new way. Even though we (like the politicians) don't have a definitive blueprint at hand.

The labour market is an important reason why people come to Europe, even if it means doing so illegally. By stepping up repression, European governments are trying to make the labour market unattractive to people without residence permits. At the same time, however, over the past decades we have seen the labour market subject to rising degrees of 'flexibility', as a result of which there are more and more jobs that do not offer a living wage. Anyone serious in wanting to lower illegal migration should be keen to organise the labour market in such a way that one can once again enjoy a job with a living wage. This is good for the famous hardworking European. And it offers less room for people without residence permits.

Refugees are a special case. At a European and national level, refugee policy is based on denial (because we solve it with protection in the region, or tackling so-called root causes). But refugees are older than the road to Rome. Countries such as Lebanon and Jordan are overloaded. And remarkably, while European countries do not stop talking about root causes, they never mention the major contributions: military interventions by those same European countries in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and their proxy wars such as those in Syria, Yemen, Somalia or in the Sahel.

Ending the pig's cycle

Because the policy is based on wishful thinking ('but now, really, the number of asylum seekers is going down'), there are always too few reception locations and too few civil servants to make asylum decisions. As soon as the number of asylum seekers drops, civil servants' contracts are no longer renewed and asylum centres are closed. This is what currently happens in the Netherlands: although there are not very many asylum seekers, there are very long waiting times.

At a national and European level, policy can leave this pigs’ cycle behind by maintaining an ample capacity even if asylum seeker numbers drop. Crises can be prevented if policy is based on a more realistic approach. This would require a clean break with the current European approach on the islands, where crises are actually being created.

This would require a clean break with the current European approach on the islands, where crises are actually being created.

Since last year, the European Commission has had a special Commissioner for 'the promotion of our European way of life' – I am not making this up. The man's name is Margaritis Schinas. His main portfolio is migration and asylum. The current policy is putting tens of thousands of people in inhumane situations. That is not 'our European way of life'. The EU Treaty refers to 'the cultural, religious and humanist traditions of Europe, which underpin the development of the universal values of inviolable and inalienable human rights and of freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law'. These are high ideals, and in this imperfect world they may not be achievable. They are certainly not being realised in the case of the camps at Europe's borders. But the idea that things can become slightly less terrible than they are now is not utopian.

Is the pandemic changing attitudes towards migration?

Will Canada give its undocumented essential workers their rights? And where are the immigrants in the country’s policy debates?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 26 November, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Daniel Hiebert Professor of geography at the University of British Columbia

Andrew Parkin Executive director, Environics Institute, Toronto

Usha George Professor and director, Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement, Ryerson University, Canada

Keith Banting Professor emeritus and Stauffer Dunning Fellow, Queen’s University, Canada

Chair: Anna Triandafyllidou Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University

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