Europe, that stable and safe haven of the persecuted and downtrodden, is challenged by voices of despair, pushed into the uncertainty of illegal migration. The ‘openness’ inside of cosy Europe finds its end at the fences and drones guarding the castle. Europe’s familial atmosphere is contradicted by torn-apart families and the anonymity of ‘smart borders’. Christoph Trost takes us on a three-fold journey….
Stability versus Uncertainty: old, stable Europe, reachable only by a painful odyssey of turmoil
In reference to Kashmir, Tariq Ali offers a solution to South-Asia’s many conflicts: “Economic and political logic dictates the formation of a South Asian Union, a voluntary confederation of republics.” That is, after a bloody century of conflicts, genocides, and debasement, South Asia must get back together and unite. Doesn’t this ring a bell? Aren’t these the conditions from which the Coal and Steel Union – later the European Union – were born?
European political scientists cannot say often enough how unique this democratic experiment of the EU is; that its structures and institutions have no parallel and that it should serve as a model for intergovernmental cooperation and supranational, top-down policies. Indeed, the presence of this large monolith on the European continent has aided some states in their transition, namely the former communist bloc states. Even some last remaining dictators in and around Europe – with exceptions proving the rule – now make considerable efforts, in response to the EU’s neighbourhood pressure, to look like democracies. Morocco was successful, Belarus less so, but the fringes offer images that are even uglier than authoritarianism: boats, fences and coffins.
The failure of the policy of sealing off borders was exemplified in the Lampedusa tragedy in October 2013, when a boat carrying 400 refugees capsised and local fishermen chose not to help. For the locals, it is a crime; for the coast guards, it is a burden. So, in front of this small Italian island, 70 km off the Tunisian coast, over 350 migrants drowned, mainly because rescue came too late. Europe is closed.
But let us move away from the praise of a few political scientists, and take a look at what ordinary people are doing. Just like thousands of Indians following the empty promises of prosperity and security to labour in the Gulf States, 141,000 people make their way illegally to Europe as economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Some of them are, in the end, perhaps freer than Dubai’s construction workers, but not much richer. Recently, two routes for illegal migration into the Schengen Area (EU’s free movement zone) have been in the news: The central route (Tunis to Sicily and Italy) and the Eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey to Greece); behind these terms is an entire world of uncertainties, doubts and deaths.
The idea of a ‘stable’ Europe stands in stark contrast to life as refugee. Greece has made headlines by pushing back refugee boats arriving on the coasts. These ‘push backs’ are violations of the human right to seek asylum before an official asylum authority. However, the border police cuts this process short and takes the decision – an instance of unaccountability that is comparable in magnitude to practices under India’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
Italy, on the other hand, does not pass the responsibility of dealing with asylum seekers to its border security forces. The Italian civilian authority takes care of ‘the refugee problem’ itself by turning a migrant’s journey into hell by enacting the Security Set of 2009, which made unauthorised migration to Italy a crime punishable by fines up to 10,000 Euros.
NGOs such as the German Pro Asyl, or even the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), criticise the policy of making the journey to Europe a painful odyssey. It does not save lives, nor does it prevent illegal migrants from entering Europe. The failure of the policy of sealing off borders was exemplified in the Lampedusa tragedy in October 2013, when a boat carrying 400 refugees capsized and local fishermen chose not to help. For the locals, it is a crime; for the coast guards, it is a burden. So, in front of this small Italian island, 70 km off the Tunisian coast, over 350 migrants drowned, mainly because rescue came too late. Europe is closed.
Openness versus Closing up: sharing is caring, but only within the border
In order to maintain the myth of Europe as a stable, ‘safe haven’, Europeans feel the need to close themselves up. This makes the migration routes of refugees – now increasingly Syrians – more and more challenging. According to the argument of a Der Freitag editorial in January, “Right wing populism prospers on fertile soil, because the European idea ‘put in practice’ is, despite all hopes for economic expansion, based on mental closing up.”
The European Union was once seen as the symbol of openness, embracing the unknown and giving a chance, albeit with a hint of arrogance, to those inexperienced in liberal democracy from the “post-communist world.”, When the communist bloc collapsed, the European Community, expanded its already existing plans for enlargement. In 2004, with the fifth and largest enlargement, the EU could speak for most of Europe, though some argue that the EU is losing its core values the more voices it tries to represent. Sure, there is much scope for criticism at the structural reforms and the order of EU accession. For now, the process of opening up has continued, with Croatia joining. Turkey remains a debatable candidate. European commentators hope some of Erdoğan’s milder reactions to Gezi Park came from the discomfort that posed by the blue flag with the twelve yellow stars – the discomfort stemming from the dichotomy of rule of law right next to the crack downs loaded with tear gas.
The EU proved to be open, not only to new members, but also internally. With the Schengen Area, all EU citizens enjoy a certain freedom of movement, something Indo-Pak travellers can only dream of, as shown in Google’s hollow narrative of the Indo-Pak reunion party. These two processes of openness, in terms of accession and in terms of internal freedom of movement, reach far, but not quite as far as the Mediterranean shores and the hopes around them.
Again, Greece shows the other side of the coin. Athens and its migrant quarter, Agios Panteleimon, has been the scene of at least ‘281 crimes out of racist motivation’, all marked with a red dot in the Crisis Map project. The rise of the rightwing populist party, Golden Dawn, combined with a crisis-struck – some even say deteriorated – society, has given rise to xenophobia, a development that takes apart the myth of Europe’s openness. On a state level, Greece and Italy could at least claim to have saved hundreds of refugees with the start of the year 2014. Yet, these instances of hope cannot make up for the failures: a dysfunctional migration system, lacking accountability, both at the level of border forces and at the level of Frontex, the official EU agency with the aim and ability to defend its borders by any means.
The southern European countries carry this burden and have neither the financial means to cope with migrants adequately nor any immediate plans to make the effort; meanwhile the North blocks most reforms. The “Union” machine gears up and proves how much it is based on a Realpolitik devoid of values.
The EU has common policies dealing with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Under the Dublin II and Dublin III regulations, the country of first entry is responsible for investigating asylum applications and, if appropriate, granting a refugee status and providing asylum. Here, the idea of a fair collaboration of nation states crumbles: naturally, no migrant will arrive by boat in Germany and ask for asylum. The southern European countries carry this burden and have neither the financial means to cope with migrants adequately nor any immediate plans to make the effort; meanwhile the North blocks most reforms. The “Union” machine gears up and proves how much it is based on a Realpolitik devoid of values.
The Union cooperates very well when it comes to the defence of the oft-bespoken “European Castle”. The Warsaw- based agency Frontex is responsible for the coordinated surveillance and security of the external borders. Together with national armies, navies and airforces, and Frontex’s own personnel and equipment (ranging from drones to satellite tracking systems), the agency monitors all attempts to enter the EU illegally. NGOs accuse Frontex of being too harsh, disrespecting the fundamental rights of migrants and making a business out of border defence. But even if these points are hard to verify, the set-up of “European border management” does not show the EU’s openness to the large masses of anonymous faces, trying to get a share of Europe’s safety and wealth.
Euro-Dinner versus Anonymity: the European family meets the migrant’s fingerprint
While Frontex fights bravely in the Mediterranean and on the Greek-Turkish border, the ties within Europe grows tighter and tighter, removing the nation-states’ borders and barriers. With Erasmus, the fund for student exchange programmes across the EU, as well as regional partnership programmes and a lot of other cultural exchange, the European states are joining hands in many respects.
In contrast to this cosy, homey atmosphere of a European dinner table, stands the discourse around its faceless and nameless “intruders”. The pictures of 350 coffins in the hangar of Lampedusa are vivid displays of this anonymity. And Frontex’s new proposals give even more concrete examples of the policy of the faceless.
One of these proposals is EUROSUR, the initiative to monitor borders with compulsory fingerprinting, cameras, and drones, turning the “migration problem” into a massive data cloud, without stories or identities or any attention to the people behind the finger prints. Surely, the programme is also meant to rescue more people better. However, the proposals, as the ‘Borderline’ report points out, are silent on how they seek to manage this. The proposal also lacks the “procedures laid out for what should be done with the ‘rescued’”.
Decorated and sold with the euphemism ‘Intelligent border’, EUROSUR and many other such high tech proposals turn the migration policies into a grotesque mix between a witch hunt and Star Wars: medieval ignorance brushed up with extraterrestrial technology.
Stability, openness and familiarity were the essential principles in the idea of a European union of states. The Italian Prime Minister made a terribly cruel effort to get rid of these with one gesture when he openly granted the 350 victims Italian citizenship allowing them to find, at last, their safe and stable places in a cemetery in Sicily, amongst the familiarity of the dead Europeans.