Correcting the skewed and myopic vision of migration which often informs public opinion often seems a hopeless task. When the refusal to grant asylum to several hundred unaccompanied children caught up in Calais is framed as a reaffirmation of national sovereignty, it is tempting to concede defeat. When French authorities decide that a bulldozer is the most effective tool for managing migration, it optimism is difficult. When Germany and Greece agree to slow the already tortuous pace of family reunification, keeping desperate families apart for even longer, it seems futile to continue.
But, in the hope of salvaging some semblance of sensible discussion on the topic, it is necessary to push through the frustration and despair, and try to provide a coherent counter narrative that challenges the various distortions disguised as established ‘facts’. Drawing on firsthand observation from several months on the ground in Greece, what follows is an attempt to redefine the contours of the debate.
1. The refugee ‘crisis’ is not only exaggerated, but also entirely constructed.
That is, this is no ‘natural disaster’ or ‘act of god’. Migratory patterns and flows are not arbitrary. For a start, massive economic inequality can quite clearly be traced back to the colonial era. For centuries, Colonial powers enriched themselves and laid the foundations for strong, functioning states. European ‘civilization’ was built on brutal colonial exploitation. Colonies in Africa and the Middle East were systematically stripped of their wealth and denied the right to self rule. A century later, the effect is still keenly felt – poverty and war don’t simply occur one day because of bad luck. It is no coincidence that all ten of the top ten refugee producing countries are former colonies.
2. The definition of what Europe is requires the demarcation of what Europe isn’t.
Creating a union means creating a system that privileges those inside Europe while discriminating against those on the outside. This is not a controversial position: any political union must offer incentives to its members, or it would have no reason to exist. The great unspoken irony of the EU is that many of its core principles (freedom of movement, free trade) are not universal values, but deference mechanisms. The abolition of internal borders (either for goods or people) necessitates the imposition of a hard external border – thus, the border is not really abolished, but simply ‘deferred’ to another place. In practice, allowing free movement of Romanian and Bulgarian workers (to wealthier Northern European countries) necessitates the restriction of workers from outside the European Union, thus creating a kind of fortress Europe.
3. Restricting legal access (either through work or student visas) means the only way to enter Europe is illegally, before claiming asylum upon arrival.
People do not choose to enter illegally because of some misplaced spirit of adventure; they do so because it is the only route open to them. While a great deal of effort is expended in attempting to apprehend and disrupt the smugglers, very little attention is focused upon this inconvenient truth; they exist and prosper precisely because of a situation created by European migration policies. Targeting the smugglers obscures the fact this basic fact, and provides a relatively simple way for European powers to be seen to be doing something. Meanwhile, the implementation of a Europe-wide humanitarian visa scheme (that would actually target the key issue, not the consequence) remains little more than a pipe dream.
4. The process of attaining ‘refugee’ status is complex, time consuming and bureaucratic.
Interviews with UNHCR are arduous and characterised by suspicion and mistrust. It is generally assumed that the asylum applicant is not telling the truth: he must provide alibis, physical scars, a meticulous recollection of dates and journeys, and a comprehensive story that fulfils the relevant vulnerability criteria in order to validate his claim. If his memory is weak, his story incoherent, or his scars psychological, his asylum claim is likely to be rejected. The asylum process can take anywhere between a few months and (scandalously) a few years. In the meantime, the applicant is trapped in a state of limbo. In Greece, with waiting of this kind taking place on a mass scale, the camps becomes a kind of logistical necessity – the solution (if it can be called that) to a problem that can only be described as the inevitable consequence of European migration policy.
5. Two major narratives dominate mainstream migration discourse.
One presents a dangerous swarm of economic migrants, coming to take jobs and benefits and likely to engage in all kinds of criminality and terrorism whilst doing so. The second presents a huddle of poor, defenceless refugees, traumatised women and children with nowhere else to go, in desperate need of food and shelter. Neither of these narratives adequately reflects the reality of the situation. Though one is clearly far more toxic than the other, the truth is that they are both unhelpful. They serve to deflect attention away from the fact that the only thing that unites these people is that, for a multitude of reasons, they have decided to come to Europe and are currently being held in a kind of purgatory while their asylum claims are processed. They don’t fit neatly into the ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘criminal’, ‘deserving’, or ‘undeserving’ boxes that have been set out for them. And as the two narratives harden, it becomes increasingly difficult to acknowledge the inconvenient truths in the other. The debate ceases to be a dialogue, and instead becomes a confrontation between two polarised versions of reality.
6. The scale is exaggerated.
Amidst the scaremongering headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the numbers. The EU has a population of roughly 500m people. There are currently 60,000 refugees currently in Greece, most of whom are waiting to be resettled or relocated. To put that in perspective, Lebanon, a country of 6 million people, is currently hosting 1.3m refugees. Jordan, a country of 7.5m, has over 600,000 refugees. While there is a discussion to be had regarding the finer points of multiculturalism and integration, the notion of Europe being ‘overrun’ by new arrivals is patently absurd. The term ‘crisis’ is in itself politicised, and functions to exacerbate the seriousness of the situation, thereby creating the conditions in which a ‘robust’ response is demanded.
7. Official narratives are inconsistent.
Declaring Afghanistan a ‘safe’ country must surely rate among one of the strangest decisions ever made. One might think that the US deployment of the ‘Mother Of All Bombs’ and the recent suicide attack in Kabul (which killed 90 people) would perhaps lead to the opposite conclusion, but apparently, after nigh on forty years of conflict, and unbeknown to most Afghans, the country has entered into a period of relative peace and prosperity. In the same vein, declaring Turkey ‘safe’ is another travesty – human rights abuses of Turkish citizens are well documented – what possible reason is there to suspect Erdogan will treat Europe’s failed asylum seekers in a humane and dignified manner?
Migration is a complicated topic that offers far more questions than solutions. But if we are to find and enact those solutions, public perception must shift away from the ruling class’s cynical narratives in order to reflect the reality on the ground.