The ‘Migrant Crisis’
I have just come back from a few days in the 8th district of Budapest. Though I was not there specifically to check out or get in involved with the migrant situation, there were things that I saw and people that I met, and those scenes were incredible. The major train stations in Hungary’s capital have become transit zones and in these and in parks, people have set up camp. The state has, belatedly, provided some running water and toilets – finally deciding to open a toilet that was there but long closed at Keleti station only after raging about the dirty habits of the people who have arrived. Volunteers abound, providing food, clothes and legal advice: some seemingly to mitigate the state’s lack of welcome by directing migrants to the internment camps or informing them that they are not allowed to travel on the trains; some trying to challenge state policy, recording stories of abuse, directing migrants to accommodation. Occasional far-right visitors come down to scream hysterically about the rape and murder that the refugees will bring. The UK, despite talk of swarms and floods, has made sure that numbers of arrivals are limited and refugees kept out of sight in detention centres and camps off the border such as those in Calais. In Budapest, the new arrivals are extremely visible.
Greece, it seems, opened its border with Macedonia, according to The Guardian “chartering boats to take migrants from inundated Greek islands to the mainland, after a record 50,000 people arrived by boat from Turkey in July alone.” And Macedonia, despite some attempt to close the border, has given up trying to stop the flow of people. Most are coming to Europe via the Eastern Mediterranean from Syria, Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. I met a young man whose parents had been killed in Swat, North West Pakistan. With younger sisters and brothers to look after, he walked thirty seven days through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, travelling dangerous roads, passing dead bodies dumped by the roadside. He was determined to reach Germany to continue his medical studies and qualify as a heart surgeon, to help people with his work and to send money back to his family.
Germany publically declared it would suspend the Dublin Regulation and accept all Syrian refugees regardless of where they first entered the EU. It is now according to UNHCR the “the world’s largest recipient of new individual [asylum] applications”. However getting to Germany is not that straightforward. Hungary in the last few months has become the first point of entry into the EU for many people who cross the border from Serbia. Almost no one is intending to stay there. The difficulty is leaving. Police are keeping people off the trains. Just before I arrived they had stalled an international train at Keleti, taken off all migrants who then, without possibility of reimbursement for the cost of their valid but now worthless tickets, staged a sit-down protest at the station. Volunteers persuaded them to abandon their sit-in. Now, the train station itself is closed to all those without papers and German police have arrived to make sure the Syrians they do not wish to welcome cannot leave Hungary. Denied legitimate routes out of the country, migrants turn to traffickers leading to tragedies such as the death of seventy people in a lorry in Austria.
Quoted on the BBC, Austria’s Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner piously declared that “We are seeing that the smuggler gangs are acting in ever more brutal and ruthless ways and we must counter them with stronger and harder measures.” Not perhaps recognising that it is “stronger and harder measures” of the EU states are directly leading to the “brutal and ruthless” measures of smugglers.
How to explain Europe’s policy on migration? The ‘thousand internecine wars sponsored and financed by the arms industry of the West” inevitably mean that millions of people have fled their country (nearly 20 million in 2014) and a few hundred thousand are going to make it to Europe. So what do the powerbrokers of the continent decide to do about this? It might look something like this: deter, inter or kill (let die) as many as possible before they get to the EU (or at least to the richest states within it) so as to avoid the ‘immigrant problem’. This might serve as a handy simplification, but I suspect it is more complicated.
As the EU expanded, Western and Northern Europe began ‘outsourcing’ the reception of refugees, to the states of the South and East of the Schengen Zone but, under the “European neighbourhood policy action plan”, also to those outside – Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, Cypress, Georgia, Ukraine etc. Alain Morice and Claire Rodier analysed this policy of ‘Fortress Europe’ for Le Monde Diplomatique in 2010:
“Called the “external dimension of immigration and asylum” policy by the 2004 Hague programme (2), outsourcing has many ideological excuses. In reality, its purpose is to transfer border controls to non-European states within a partnership that is as opaque as it is unfair … Outsourcing means expatriating controls and subcontracting the fight against illegal immigration. What is lost is the right to asylum and the right to leave ‘any country including one’s own’, found in several international treaties.”
Countries at the edge of the EU were tasked with – and paid for – holding refugees.
“The advanced status that Morocco was granted by the EU in 2008 rewards a country that did not stint in its efforts in migration management. In autumn 2005 some 20 sub-Saharan migrants trying to cross the Spanish-Moroccan border fence at Ceuta and Melilla died from falls, suffocation or bullets fired by the Moroccan army (4). … The tragedy off al-Hoceima in northeast Morocco on 28 April 2008 had less press coverage: some 30 people, including four children, drowned after their rubber craft was – according to witness statements – deliberately pierced by the police. No independent enquiry has been able to shed light on this.”
However, since that article was written in 2010, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and Ukraine have been to lesser and greater extents destabilised. Greece – long a holding point of refugees inside the Schengen Zone – opening its border serves almost as revenge on the EU for the punishment inflicted upon them for their attempts at democracy. The number of refugees has increased as the war in Syria has spiralled, but the ‘crisis’ was always there. A major change is that the outposts of Fortress Europe have crumbled and the EU is now having to deal with many more of the arrivals themselves. The Hungarian government has built a fence along its Serbian borders. More are sprouting across the EU.
H, a Pashtun man I met in Budapest, told me of his time serving in the Afghan army. An American commander came to brief his regiment and asked for questions. H’s question, more politely phrased and intelligently worded was essentially: ‘why are we here?’. This commander should surely have expected this, but he could give no answer. Thirteen years on since the invasion of Afghanistan do we really know what the US-led wars in the Middle East were about? Like the rest of us, H was bewildered as to why his country had been the target after some Saudi militants had hijacked four aeroplanes on internal flights in the USA.
For what it’s worth, my reading of it goes something like this: After the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre, America wanted to do something to counter the perceived challenges to their global dominance. States that funded terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were also allies. Iran, once a key figure on the ‘Axis of Evil’ may have been a target for a while but the fact that they actually might have weapons of mass destruction meant it was not considered feasible for invasion, if it ever was at all. (Now, of course, not having been invaded, Iran is seen as a stable powerbroker in a chaotic region and have been made an ally again.) To create a puppet state in the Middle East would break up the OPEC sphere of influence. Afghanistan and Iraq were weakened by years of war and sanctions. Afghanistan harboured terrorist groups, Iraq is a major oil producer. They were ripe for overthrow. But of course, things are not so simple. The Mujahedeen funded to overthrow the socialists in Afghanistan were now declaring war on the West. Saddam, funded in the war against Iran, had invaded Kuwait.
So the US invaded. The puppet governments that were set up after the invasions could not hold. The attempt to exploit ethnic divisions in the management of the territories (e.g. setting up a Shia government in Sunni Iraq) only fuelled further conflict and millions have fled their homes.
And now they come to Europe. The policy in place – deter, inter and kill/let die – even aside from the moral issue, makes no economic sense. It is surely costlier to manage things this way. Thousands of mainly middle class, educated people forced to abandon their families and their homeland, arrive in Europe determined to work and make money. On the way they are further traumatised, bullied and humiliated. They arrive in countries ‘flooded’ not by immigrants but by poisonous racist rhetoric. They can be teargassed, beaten, locked up without trial, tagged, denied food, housing, right to work and trapped in deliberately tortuous and mentally torturing bureaucracy. Doctors and teachers become cleaners and fast food workers. They provide the precarious, cheap, often illegal, labour of the post-industrial economies of the West and are made to feel grateful for the little scraps of welcome. They are made into a category of dangerous outsider, criminal by their very existence, and allow the state to roll out tactics of authoritarianism which they cannot yet use on their citizens. They are the lab rats of the state’s super-Orwellian dreams, to capture labour in grinding right-less poverty and to control its citizens with impunity. And all this while the passport-holding citizens of the West cheer on every step along the way to totalitarianism, demanding each time for bigger sticks and harsher laws. The protests inside the British detention centres, at the Hungarian transit zones and everywhere else that migrants push back against their treatment must be supported at all costs.