Can Europe Make It?

Towards a European pact with migrants, Part Two

We call for a new Pact that addresses the reality of migrants’ movements, the systemic conditions leading people to flee their homes as well as the root causes of Europe’s racism. See Part One.

Charles Heller Bernd Kasparek
6 October 2020
Asylum seekers demonstrate against the construction of a new camp after the Moria fire. September 2020.
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Public domain.

In Part One, we analysed the EU’s new Pact against migration. Here, we call for an entirely different approach to how Europe engages with migration, one which offers a legal frame for migration to unfold, and addresses the systemic conditions leading people to flee their homes as well as the root causes of Europe’s racism.Let us imagine for a moment that the EU Commission truly wanted, and was in a position, to reorient the EU’s migration policy in a direction that might actually de-escalate and transform the enduring mobility conflict: what might its pact with migrants look like?

The EU’s pact with migrants might start from three fundamental premises. First, it would recognize that any policy that is entirely at odds with social practices is bound to generate conflict, and ultimately fail. A migration policy must start from the social reality of migration and provide a frame for it to unfold. Second, the pact would acknowledge that no conflict can be brought to an end unilaterally. Any process of conflict transformation must bring together the conflicting parties, and seek to address their needs, interests and values so that they no longer clash with each other. In particular, migrants from the global South must be included in the definition of the policies that concern them. Third, it would recognise, as Tendayi Achiume has put it, that migrants from the global South are no strangers to Europe.[1] They have long been included in the expansive webs of empire. Migration and borders are embedded in these unequal relations, and no end to the mobility conflict can be achieved without fundamentally transforming them. Based on these premises, the EU’s pact with migrants might contain the following four core measures:

Global justice and conflict prevention

Instead of claiming to tackle the “root causes” of migration by diverting and instrumentalising development aid towards border control, the EU’s pact with migrants would end all European political and economic relations that contribute to the crises leading to mass displacement. The EU would end all support to dictatorial regimes, would ban all weapon exports, terminate all destabilising military interventions. It would cancel unfair trade agreements and the debts of countries of the global South. It would end its massive carbon emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. Through these means, the EU would not claim to end migration perceived as a “problem” for Europe, but it would contribute to allowing more people to live a dignified life wherever they are and decrease forced migration, which certainly is a problem for migrants. A true commitment to global justice and conflict prevention and resolution is necessary if Europe wishes to limit the factors that lead too many people onto the harsh paths of exile in their countries and regions, a small proportion of whom reach European shores.

Tackling the “root causes” of European racism

While the EU’s so-called “global approach” to migration has in fact been one-sided, focused exclusively on migration as “the problem” rather then the processes that drive the EU’s policies of exclusion, the EU’s pact with migrants would boldly tackle the “root causes” of racism and xenophobia in Europe. Bold policies designed to address the EU’s colonial past and present and the racial imaginaries it has unleashed would be proposed, a positive vision for living in common in diverse societies affirmed, and a more inclusive and fair economic system would be established in Europe to decrease the resentment of European populations which has been skilfully channelled against migrants and racialised people.

Universal freedom of movement

By tackling the causes of large-scale displacement and of exclusionary migration policies, the EU would be able to de-escalate the mobility conflict, and could thus propose a policy granting all migrants legal pathways to access and stay in Europe. As an immediate outcome of the institution of right to international mobility, migrants would no longer resort to smugglers and risk their lives crossing the sea – and thus no longer be in need of being rescued. Using safe and legal means of travel would also, in the time of Covid-19 pandemic, allow migrants to adopt all sanitary measures that are necessary to protect migrants and those they encounter. No longer policed through military means, migration could appear as a normal process that does not generate fear. Frontex, the European border agency, would be defunded, and concentrate its limited activities on detecting actual threats to the EU rather then constructing vulnerable populations as “risks”. In a world that would be less unequal and in which people would have the possibly to lead a dignified life wherever they are, universal freedom of movement would not lead to an “invasion” of Europe. Circulatory movement rather then permanent settlement would be frequent. Migrants’ legal status would no longer allow employers to push working conditions down. A European asylum system would continue to exist, to grant protection and support to those in need. The vestiges of the EU’s hotspots and detention centres might be turned into ministries of welcome, which would register and redirect people to the place of their choice. Registration would thus be a mere certification of having taken the first step towards European citizenship, transforming the latter into a truly post-national institution, a far horizon which current EU treaties only hint at.

Democratizing borders

Considering that all European migration policies to date have been fundamentally undemocratic – in that they were imposed on a group of people – migrants – who had no say in the legislative and political process defining the laws that govern their movement – the pact would instead be the outcome of considerable consultative process with migrants and the organisations that support them, as well the states of the global South. The pact, following from Étienne Balibar’s suggestion, would in turn propose to permanently democratise borders by instituting “a multilateral, negotiated control of their working by the populations themselves (including, of course, migrant populations),” within “new representative institutions” that “are not merely ‘territorial’ and certainly not purely national.”[2] In such a pact, the original promise of Europe as a post-national project would finally be revived.

Such a policy orientation may of course appear as nothing more then a fantasy. And yet it appears evident to us that the direction we suggest is the only realistic one. 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. As a result, it is far more realistic to address the processes within which the mobility conflict is embedded, than seeking to ban human mobility. As the Black Lives Matter’s slogan “No justice no peace!” resonating in the streets of the world over recent months reminds us, without mobility justice, [3] their can be no end to mobility conflict.

The challenges ahead for migrant solidarity movements

Our policy proposals are perfectly realistic in relation to migrants’ movements and the processes shaping them, yet we are well aware that they are not on the agenda of neoliberal and nationalist Europe. If the EU Commission has squandered yet another opportunity to reorient the EU’s migration policy, it is simply that this Europe, governed by these member states and politicians, has lost the capacity to offer bold visions of democracy, freedom and justice for itself and the world. As such, we have little hope for a fundamental reorientation of the EU’s policies. The bleak prospect is of the perpetuation of the mobility conflict, and the human suffering and political crises it generates.

What are those who seek to support migrants to do in this context?

We must start by a sobering note addressed to the movement we are part of: the fire of Moria is not only a symptom and symbol of the failures of the EU’s migration policies and member states, but also of our own strategies. After all, since the hotspots were proposed in 2015 we have tirelessly denounced them, and documented the horrendous living conditions they have created. NGOs have litigated against them, but efforts have been turned down by a European Court of Human Rights that appears increasingly reluctant to position itself on migration-related issues and is thereby contributing to the perpetuation of grave violations by states.

And despite the extraordinary mobilisation of civil society in alliance with municipalities across Europe who have declared themselves ready to welcome migrants, relocations never materialised on any significant scale. After five years of tireless mobilization, the hotspots still stand, with thousands of asylum seekers trapped in them.

While the conditions leading to the fire are still being clarified, it appears that the migrants held hostage in Moria took it into their own hands to try to get rid of the camp through the desperate act of burning it to the ground. As such, while we denounce the EU’s policies, our movements are urgently in need of re-evaluating their own modes of action, and re-imagining them more effectively.

We have no lessons to give, as we share these shortcomings. But we believe that some of the directions we have suggested in our utopian Pact with migrants can guide migrant solidarity movements as well , as they may be implemented from the bottom-up in the present and help reopen our political imagination.

After five years of tireless mobilization, the hotspots still stand, with thousands of asylum seekers trapped in them.

The freedom to move is not, or not only, a distant utopia, that may be instituted by states in some distant future. It can also be seen as a right and freedom that illegalised migrants seize on a day-to-day basis as they cross borders without authorisation, and persist in living where they choose.

Freedom of movement can serve as a useful compass to direct and evaluate our practices of contestation and support. Litigation remains an important tool to counter the multiple forms of violence and violations that migrants face along their trajectories, even as we acknowledge that national and international courts are far from immune to the anti-migrant atmosphere within states. Forging infrastructures of support for migrants in the course of their mobility (such as the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone and the civilian rescue fleet) – and their stay (such as the many citizen platforms for housing )– is and will continue to be essential.

While states seek to implement what they call an “integrated border management” that seeks to manage migrants’ unruly mobilities before, at, and after borders, we can think of our own networks as forming a fragmented yet interconnected “integrated border solidarity” along the migrants’ entire trajectory. The criminalisation of our acts of solidarity by states is proof that we are effective in disrupting the violence of borders.

The criminalisation of our acts of solidarity by states is proof that we are effective in disrupting the violence of borders.

Solidarity cities have formed important nodes in these chains, as municipalities do have the capacity to enable migrants to live in dignity in urban spaces, and limit the reach of their security forces for example. Their dissonant voices of welcome have been important in demonstrating that segments of the European population, which are far from negligible, refuse to be complicit with the EU’s policies of closure and are ready to embody an open relation of solidarity with migrants and beyond. However we must also acknowledge that the prerogative of granting access to European states remains in the hands of central administrations, not in those of municipalities, and thus the readiness to welcome migrants has not allowed the latter to actually seek sanctuary.

While humanitarian and humanist calls for welcome are important, we too need to locate migration and borders in a broader political and economic context – that of the past and present of empire – so that they can be understood as questions of (in)justice. Echoing the words of the late Edouard Glissant, as activists focusing on illegalised migration we should never forget that “to have to force one’s way across borders as a result of one’s misery is as scandalous as what founds that misery”.[4] As a result of this framing, many more alliances can be forged today between migrant solidarity movements and the global justice and climate justice movements, as well as anti-racist, anti-fascist, feminist and decolonial movements. Through such alliances, we may be better equipped to support migrants throughout their entire trajectories, and transform the conditions that constrain them today.

Ultimately, to navigate its way out of its own impasses, it seems to us that migrant solidarity movements must address four major questions.

First, what migration policy do we want? The predictable limits of the EU’s pact against migration may be an opportunity to forge our own alternative agenda.

Second, how can we not only oppose the implementation of restrictive policies but shape the policy process itself so as to transform the field on which we struggle? Opposing the EU’s anti-migrant pact over the coming months may allow us to conduct new experiments.

Third, as long as policies that deny basic principles of equality, freedom, justice, and our very common humanity, are still in place, how can we lead actions that disrupt them effectively? For example, what are the forms of nongovernmental evacuations that might support migrants in accessing Europe, and moving across its internal borders?

Fourth, how can struggles around migration and borders be part of the forging of a more equal, free, just and sustainable world for all?

The next months during which the EU’s Pact against migration will be discussed in front of the European Parliament and Council will see an uphill battle for all those who still believe in the possibility of a Europe of openness and solidarity. While we have no illusions as to the policy outcome, this is an opportunity we must seize, not only to claim that another Europe and another world is possible, but to start building them from below.

Notes and references

[1] Tendayi Achiume. 2019, "The Postcolonial Case for Rethinking Borders." Dissent 66.3: pp.27-32.

[2] Etienne Balibar. 2004. We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. Princeton: University Press, p. 108 and 117.

[3] Mimi Sheller. 2018. Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. London: Verso.

[4] Edouard Glissant. 2006. “Il n’est frontière qu’on n’outrepasse”. Le Monde diplomatique, October 2006.

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