In the English Channel, the sea is choppy. Last week Abdulfatah Hamdallah launched into it on a makeshift dinghy. He might have been 28, or 22, or just 16 – accounts differ. He had come a long way from Sudan, and the night before he left for Britain, he told friends he may not see them again. His body washed up on French shores the next day, alone; he died far from his family, his boat failing him and nobody coming to help. Watching those waters as he drowned, British military planes and British naval vessels presumably celebrated a victory for the government’s stated ambition to make the crossing “unviable”.
Crises are often opportunities. In March, the UK seized on the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for suspending its refugee resettlement scheme. Pubs are open now, but resettlements have not resumed, nor has the government given any indication of when this might happen. For an asylum seeker attempting to reach the UK, there is currently no alternative to the sea crossing.
5,000 refugees have braved the Channel’s dangerous waters this year. This number is tiny compared to the 16,000 refugees who reached Italy last year by sea, or the 700,000 people who migrate to Britain annually. But these are people with few options and no power, and so Britain greets them with Royal Air Force planes, uniformed men and threats of sending in the navy. Some of these refugees fled British-made destruction in Iraq or Afghanistan. Britain won’t let them catch a break.
Why is this happening now? Anti-migrant politics is not new in Britain. But where previously the UK could fall back on the EU to do the dirty work of keeping out migrants, Brexit raises new problems. The UK will no longer be the beneficiary of the EU’s external border infrastructure. Nor will it enjoy the relative perks of EU asylum policies such as the Dublin Protocols, which force migrants to seek asylum in the first EU member state they reach; until now, this policy has effectively ensured that people who make it across Europe’s Mediterranean border never become Britain’s problem. Now, the UK is faced with the challenge of building its own independent apparatus for stalling migrants at the border. Pressed for time, the British government has resorted merely to replicating the EU border regime at a smaller scale – but with equally zealous cruelty.
For years, and especially since the Arab Spring, the EU has shaped its borders to reflect an interest in deflecting rather than welcoming people seeking safety in Europe. ‘Security’ at Europe’s border has long relied on violence against those seeking its protection. ‘European solidarity’ with regards to migration was much discussed in the summer of 2015, when European leaders briefly discovered the language of humanitarian compassion for refugees. In practice, this ‘solidarity’ has primarily consisted of member-states banding together into border defense forces stronger than the sum of their parts. A long way from Dover, the EU’s border fleet, Frontex, patrols the Mediterranean and the Aegean, attempting to seal ‘Fortress Europe’ from migrants. If the EU did not already exist, racists would have to invent it.
Recently, European border policy has also come to rely on neocolonial deals with neighbouring states bankrolled to act as Europe’s border guards. In the Aegean, the 2016 EU-Turkey statement ensured that refugees braving the passage to Greece were intercepted and returned to Turkey by Turkish border forces. In the Central Mediterranean, the 2017 Italy-Libya deal used EU funding to transform Libyan militias into ‘coast guards’: intercepting migrants trying to reach Italy and returning them to detention centres where they face torture, rape, extortion and often death at the hands of their jailors.
EU border policy treats illegality with a shrug. In the Central Mediterranean, migrants in unseaworthy vessels are not rescued but ignored or intimidated, sometimes drowned. This marks the routine violation of international maritime law, with its duty to assist boats in distress. Meanwhile, the increasing militarisation of migration policy – the treatment of refugees with a right to protection under international law as an enemy threat to be punished for seeking safety and pushed back – violates the most basic tenet of the Refugee Convention: the clause of non-refoulement or non-return. Refugee protection rests on that clause and now, in the Aegean as in the English Channel, it is broken. The UK’s threatened pushback of migrants and harassment of people in distress at sea, then, are part of a European phenomenon with dubious legality, all while European leaders mouth pieties to the rest of the world about human rights and the ‘rule of law’.
EU membership long permitted a kind of division of labour whereby the British state policed and barracked refugees on arrival in Britain while the EU kept most of them at bay. Most of the architecture of anti-migrant violence designed by successive British governments concentrated on deliberately driving refugees into destitution in Britain by denying them the right to work, as Tony Blair’s government did with wanton racist cruelty, while detaining many asylum seekers without trial in overcrowded prisons. Britain did not have to push migrants back from its shores with its military might. For that, the state must now lean on examples from a pre-EU age. On the BBC Today Programme recently, an admiral celebrated one especially shameful episode in which Jewish Holocaust refugees were kept at sea and then imprisoned in Cyprus. This, he thought, provided a model for UK policy now – such are the officials who run the armed structures of the British state.
If the UK’s current attempts to mimic Fortress Europe seem imperfect, and the result dystopian, it is for two reasons. First, while the EU manages to secure its external borders by transforming neighbouring states into its ideal mercenaries when they are compliant, and ideal villains when they are not, the face-off between Britain and France over the Channel has brought two European (‘civilised’, ‘democratic’) nations into dispute. This is an altogether less comfortable reality. Second, while the substance of the UK’s new border policies reflect the EU’s protocols, Britain still lacks the EU’s expertise in spinning its brutal and illegal practices into some sort of humanitarian cause: saving hapless refugees from predatory traffickers, for instance. Paradoxically, the UK now offers us a more perfect picture of the stuff of EU migration policy, with the rhetorical filters removed.
What kind of anti-racism?
Though it is sometimes venerated as a progressive bastion, the EU represents the united force of old colonial powers, a weapon peculiarly inimical to reform and wielded against the poor of the European periphery, African farmers and migrants from Europe’s former dominions and current imperial ventures. Anti-racists should have no truck with it. The need is greater than ever for a politics of principled internationalism, refusing the continental chauvinism of the EU in the name of free movement for all rather than nationalist myths. Just as tough, we need an anti-racist movement beyond the liberal humanitarianism that talks of refugee plight (helpless and deserving refugees, that is: never crafty and undeserving ‘economic migrants’) without ever connecting their struggles to the battles of native Europeans for more liveable lives.
Boris Johnson’s government now stokes fears about rickety boats in the Channel, hoping to convince the British public that the threat to their safety stems from a few hundred refugees driven to risk it all for the promise of security, rather than from his government’s sacrifice of its own citizens to the raging pandemic and the upcoming economic fallout. There are a thousand differences between the worlds of migrants and Europeans, and a thousand reasons why solidarity is often far from intuitive. But there are thin threads of shared vulnerability too. In care homes and in workplaces today, a passport is no cast-iron guarantee against having politicians treat one’s life as disposable. Life – and a decent one – is something for which we all grasp, and which can seem suddenly and terrifyingly elusive.
Chloe Haralambous is a member of Sea-Watch, participating in multiple migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and co-founder of Mosaik Support Center for Refugees and Locals on the Greek island of Lesvos. She is also a PhD student at Columbia University.
Barnaby Raine is a PhD student at Columbia University.