Can Europe Make It?

‘We are here to stay and we won’t shut up’: Lampedusa in Hamburg’s indomitable fight for rights

For those people who stood on that thin cusp between survival and becoming a casualty of war, the consequences of those actions were of existential proportions. For most Europeans these brushes with life, death and profiteering remain largely invisible.

Jeppe Blumensaat Rasmussen Susi Meret
21 May 2014

Protesters in Hamburg marching for the recognition of "Lampedusa refugees". Demotix/Thomas Detzner. All rights reserved.

‘…The mouths opened of their own accord; black and yellow voices talked of our humanism, but it was to blame us for our inhumanity... At first we were amazed and proud: “What? They can chat away all on their own? Look what we did to them!” There was no doubt in our minds that they accepted our ideal since they were accusing us of not respecting it ... we added, quite among ourselves, “Oh let them shout, it will get it out of their system; their bark is worse than their bite…” Then came another generation, which shifted the question... Roughly, this meant: You are making monsters out of us; your humanism wants us to be universal while your racist practices are differentiating us. We listened to them, nonchalantly enough…’

(Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to F. Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth, 1963)

The quote above, penned by French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in his 1963 preface to Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, resonates with the situation of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in Europe today.

His words echo contemporary claims by refugees from successive wars in which European countries participate and yet ‘these act as if we do not exist [and] if we show up and make visible our situation, you want to deport us’ – as the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ group recently summed it up. This painful situation, attempts to sweep these rising voices and their claim for rights under the carpet, removing responsibilities from Europe, from ‘countries that call themselves democracies’ at the same time.

For decades now immigration been dealt with as yet another emergency situation. Alarmists portray imminent and uncontrollable ‘hordes’ of African migrants ready to ‘overflow’ Europe, setting off from the African coasts, on their perilous journey across the Mediterranean. This is the way our governments have learned to manage immigration flows and asylum. In a recent statement, the Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano declared for example that ‘between 300-600,000 Africans are on their way to Italy’. Guesstimates backed up by Frontex Deputy Executive Director Gil Arias Fernandez, affirm that there is an increase by 823 percent of arrivals to Italy in the first four months of 2014, as compared with the same period last year; numbers that can hardly be compared this way, unresponsive to changing conditions and fluctuations over time.

Such widely broadcast immigration threats thrive in Europe today, albeit seldom supported by concrete numbers and facts or by a deeper understanding of the forces at work behind migration flows. These positions are paradigmatic of shortsighted and opportunist government and EU approaches to asylum policies and immigration management and compete with already well-foraged populist strategies, to foment fear by producing scenarios of  ‘illegal migrant invasions’ threatening state security, national identity, the welfare state, and social cohesion.   

On May 12 another boat capsized 100 miles off the Lampedusa coast. Seventeen people died and over a hundred migrants were reported missing. The death toll adds to over 400 people drowned in the two shipwrecks at the start of October last year and to the 20,000 who have lost their lives in the stretch of sea between Africa and Europe in the last decade. These casualties with the body count of a war, show the inconsistency of politicians’ promises to change Europe’s politics on asylum and immigration management. In reality, promises have only given us more of the same: more securitization, more surveillance, more military patrolling and externalization of border controls.

Mare Nostrum

One example is the Mare Nostrum operation, launched by the Italian government with the support of the other EU state members in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedies. Announced under the previous Letta government as an intervention with ‘humanitarian’ intent in order to ‘provide safety at sea’ and ‘to ensure the security of human beings and a better control over migration flows’, the rhetoric used to promote the project deploys a vocabulary at once familiar and in reality, deceptive: what it conceals is a war, against immigrants.

Mare Nostrum - eloquently ‘Our Sea’ in Latin - involves extensive use of the military: Italian navy ships, helicopters and submarines, military high-technological equipment, specialized military manpower. Its operations allow the identification of migrants on board, thus making refusals to comply impossible. Mare Nostrum sources report they have intercepted and rescued at least 20,000 migrants since its start in October 18, 2013. On a political level, Mare Nostrum has become the trademark for ‘humane Italian reaction’ towards this ‘immigration emergency’ for those supporting it, while for those opposing it, it is the source of the increased numbers of migrants now ‘taxied’ directly into Fortress Europe. Mainstream politics hardly ever critically or strongly questions this approach towards immigration and asylum, once bluntly defiend by Asuquo Udo of the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ group as, ‘Europe’s unspeakable policies that kill people’.

As in any war, the one against asylum seekers and immigrants also has colossal costs. The Mare Nostrum operation is estimated to cost between 6 to 10 million euros per month. These expenses are additional to the budget already devoted by the EU to finance programmes like Frontex (Europe’s border agency, with a budget of around 70-80 million euros), EUBAM (EU Border Assistance Mission, 30 million euros) and EUROSUR (European Border Surveillance System). Their co-joint aim is to strengthen maritime controls in the Mediterranean Sea and territorial borders, while providing military training of border authorities in third countries (e.g. Libya ) and to supply high-tech equipment for the location and identification of immigrants at sea and on land.

Even so, the total expense and military effort of these operations are never enough to curb immigration to the extent that the state authorities require. Thus ever-increasing costs are often among the main discursive frames for the immigration question. As remarked by Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti: ‘it is unfair to dump Italy alone with the high costs due to the increasing flow of illegal migrants. It is unjust. If it is a European problem, Italy cannot be saddled with all the expense’.  The quick reply from the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström: ‘After the 2013 emergency, costs have been higher than ever … after the October tragedies the Italian government received 30 million more euros…the Frontex operations also got 7.9 million in extra funds’.

Existing debates call attention to immigration primarily from a perspective of Europe bearing all the burden; it is only when immigrants set off on their course to Europe that it starts to be a concern. This is also why from the European perspective ‘the problem’ must be stopped at ‘source’. Out of the 2000 policies enacted under bilateral agreements with the Gaddafi government, in some cases in open violation of the right to asylum, Italy had already enacted push-back practices directly breaching international law. Libya never signed the 1951 Geneva Convention, but the goal to curb immigration made these agreements, later endorsed by the EU, acceptable.

But such agreements are impracticable in today’s post-war Libya, with a weak General National Congress that cannot hold the country together. The central government has been unable to control the militias supported by NATO during the war in 2011 to oust Muammar Gaddafi. The situation deteriorates month after month and is getting out of control. Former Prime minister Ali Zeidan fled to Europe after his failed attempt to prevent an oil sale by militias in the eastern region. His successor, Abdullah Al-Thinni lasted barely a month, resigning in April due to a reported attack on his family. A few weeks ago, the first attempt to elect a new prime minister was halted by gunmen, who stormed Libya's parliament forcing lawmakers to abandon the vote. Businessman Ahmed Maiteeq was later elected, but the militias in eastern Libya soon announced that they would not deal with him, a stance that could threaten efforts to reopen the oil terminals. US and Europe currently provide training and assistance for Libya’s military and security services. Libya simply cannot fail, given the colossal economic interests the west has in the country. 

The state of chaos and insecurity afflicting the North African country are among the effects of the 2011 seven month war, which went far beyond the initial UN Security Council expressed mandate of ‘responsibility to protect’, with constant bombing by NATO, also on civilian targets. But the big economic interests involved and the consequences of that war continue to be kept under wraps by both politicians and mainstream media when it comes to public opinion in Europe. European publics are for the most part ignorant of what is going on in post-Gaddafi Libya, which is far from achieving any kind of internal political stability, democracy and growth, and which is starkly reminiscent of similar postwar scenarios in Iraq and Afghanistan.    

None of the countries directly or indirectly involved in the NATO intervention in Libya take responsibility for what happened during and after the war. It is well known that the intervention forced more than 50,000 Africans to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy in 2011. In fact, they suffered the effects of the NATO war in several ways: they were bombed from the air; they were accused by western corporate media of being Gaddafi mercenaries; they were forced to leave for Europe; they were dealt with as another ‘immigration emergency’ and refused the rights to a safer existence in Europe. Most people in Europe still ignore what they have gone through; their stories of dispossession, experiences of war, violence, discrimination, destitution.

For those people who stood on that thin cusp between survival and becoming a casualty of war, the consequences of those actions were of existential proportions. For most Europeans these brushes with life, death and profiteering remain largely invisible.

These voices want today to break the wall of silence and people’s ignorance about their life stories and present conditions. They fight against the denial of basic civil rights, against humiliation, discrimination, oblivion. They fight against politics, institutions and a society thinking it is none of its own concern. Uprisings have emerged in the last year and developed often locally, with migrants and refugees directly giving voice and shape to their own demands. These claims are initially spontaneous and uncoordinated, but becoming more coherent, politically energized and organized, tapping into local opportunities and resources, gradually widening and intensifying the power of their voices.

The ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ group is one of these powerful voices. The group was formed in Hamburg at the end of March 2013 as a response to the end of yet another Italian migration emergency programme, ‘Emergency North Africa’, managing war refugees from Libya. Over 350 of them eventually arrived in Hamburg from Italy, after the Italian government closed the whole programme down, sending everyone packing onto the streets.

According to the Dublin Regulation, refugees first granted asylum in one country cannot stay and find work anywhere other than where they first arrived. ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ challenged this regulation, asking for the right of free movement within Europe and engaging in a fundamental struggle for the rights of refugees and migrants.

Their slogan ‘We are here to stay’ challenges head on the idea that refugees are here only to leave sometime soon. Their one-year long fight for the so-called §23 of the German residency law, which would grant them a group permit to stay and work in Germany, shows that there are no political shortcuts to achieving these goals. From the start the Hamburg Senate turned a deaf ear to their demands, despite legal experts and migration lawyers recently confirming that §23 represents a concrete and politically feasible solution. While this did not win the hearts and minds of many Hamburgers, it is in fact within civil society that ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ has received concrete solidarity, economic and material support and political encouragement.

The rest of Europe closely observes what is going on in Hamburg. What is happening here could be a crucial indicator for the Libyan war refugees’ future, but also for the demands for rights and freedoms now advanced by asylum seekers and refugees all over Europe. Will they remain trapped in the European immigration system with no right to move freely, no right to work, no right of a decent life? Or will they gain recognition as victims of a war, with the possibility of achieving a life similar to the one they once had in Libya?     

Their claims also show up for scrutiny the short-sighted and often manipulative declarations built upon the western ‘responsibility to protect’, justified by appealing to the moral high-ground of defending human rights. What ‘responsibility to protect’ in reality upholds is an inbuilt ‘mechanism to reject’; this is the essence of European asylum and immigration politics today.            

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