As Sajid Javid opens a tawdry leadership campaign pitch on the backs of Channel migrants, it’s easy to want to dismiss it all. Leftist responses have often consisted of “it’s not a real crisis, compared to homelessness/poverty/Brexit.”
This is a mistake. The presence of children in ramshackle boasts risking death off our shores is self-evidently a crisis and the deployment of British sea power is an appropriate response. The only problem is that rescue operations will end in deportation rather than the chance to make an asylum application. It’s a crisis, obviously, for those whose lives have been uprooted. And Europe’s cack-handed response to the wider crisis has deepened it into a global security risk.
Last year the Guardian published the names of the 34,361 people who have survived war, poverty and persecution only to meet their deaths in the Mediterranean since 1993. While the mandate of EU border agency Frontex’s Operation Triton ostensibly now includes saving lives, in practice it is a border patrol service. NGOs running rescue missions have been harassed and blocked at every turn, with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) finally forced to suspend operations last year. Fewer opportunities for rescue will discourage people making the journey, the argument goes – but mortality in the Mediterranean has spiked while ever-more perilous routes such as the Black Sea one are opening, extending and exporting the crisis. While MSF’s ship cannot find friendly docks, the EU have given a free pass to Libyan patrol boats whose ‘rescue’ operations include allegedly dragging a refugee at high speed along the waterline, apparently for fun. That’s when they bother at all.
For survivors of the crossing, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Europe awaits. The ugly threat of the far right does too, but their open ugliness (such as buying helicopter gunships to chase refugees) can distract from the more mundane violence of public policy. While refugees are not legally obliged to register in the first safe country they land in, they are usually forcibly fingerprinted anyway. This goes on to damage their claim elsewhere; and the general nastiness of Italian cells barely needs documenting. Meanwhile stories abound of torture camps in eastern Europe. France has seen the buildup of vast, dangerous camps like the infamous Calais Jungle or Grande-Synthe, in which policing is vicious, attempts to build stable structures are blocked, and camps are then destroyed either by police action or as a result of neglect. Many of those who have made it to the UK, desperate to come because they speak no European language other than English or have family here, have been deported back to countries they claim abused and tortured them. If they do enter the UK system, asylum seeker conditions here are not the worst on the continent, but are often squalid and degrading nonetheless. Refugees often report a mental health cliff-edge after gaining status. The Dublin Regulation, the EU instrument governing the system of refugees being ping-ponged around Europe, is in the process of being reformed – but this is likely to mean further tightening.
Worse, the tendrils of Europe’s border control strategy have extended beyond the Mediterranean frontier. The EU continues to treat Libya – where militias battle for control of Tripoli, and migrants are regularly kidnapped and sold into slavery – as a safe place to repatriate people to. Those who aren’t left to take their chances are locked up indefinitely, caged in warehouses in cramped conditions that would shame the Trump administration and routinely beaten with water pipes. While the EU continues to prevaricate on Turkish accession to the union on human rights grounds, those concerns haven’t prevented Europe from being willing to use it as a deportation ground. Turkey in return has been documented sending people back to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The expansion of the European border into the Middle East and Africa is not only harmful to refugees. In Sudan, the autocrat who prosecuted the war in Darfur is currently facing mass protests and civil unrest. The forces he relies on to defend his position – fresh from fighting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and now firing on protesters – are reportedly the indirect beneficiaries of EU funding aimed at preventing migration northward. This is far from the only example of plans to Africanise the European border having destabilising side effects.
This is a deepening and globalised crisis. The left in Britain – including the Labour leadership – have to make a bold and credible case as to how the global response can be reconfigured. But this starts at home. Leaving the EU will end our participation in poor continent-wide architecture; Dublin, Frontex, the deals in Turkey, Libya and so on. But withdrawal from the Global North’s border control strategy is only a symbolic gesture if the UK remains objectively reliant on it, allowing southern Europe to remain a battleground in order to preserve the relative absence of crisis in northern Europe.
Legitimate NGO rescue ships should be offered the UK flag. Our resettlement scheme should, it goes without saying, be increased significantly. Currently the countries least able to cope – from Lebanon to Greece – have been forced to absorb millions of refugees. The UK has the capacity for much more than 20,000; provided this argument is made in tandem with the argument for a serious integration strategy, better labour market regulation and properly-funded public services to allay any fears of competition for resources between host communities and newcomers. We should open an asylum processing centre at the British border in France, and potentially more elsewhere, to allow refugees to make applications there, and allow their cultural and indirect as well as direct familial connections to count in those applications.
We should make these arguments now, in the depths of winter and the face of a right-wing onslaught, when it is most difficult to. Firstly, because what use is the left if it cannot come to the aid of others in times of need? Secondly, because attitudes towards migration are more fluid than is generally believed and tentatively improving, so there is a real opportunity to shift public opinion permanently if done carefully. And thirdly, because it goes beyond the tangled nightmare of the Brexit debate to reach the question animating it – who are we and what kind of country do we want to be? We can be mean-spirited and narrow-minded. Or we can be compassionate, caring and treat it as our national mission to provide dignity, security and a decent life for ourselves, and for others in need too.