This essay was was first published in the Swedish newspaper Expressen, 2 July 2019.
The photos of Óscar and Valeria Ramírez, migrants from El Salvador, drowned in the Rio Grande as they tried to cross into the USA, are haunting and distressing, and have sparked outrage and anger in America. Four years ago, images of the Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach similarly shocked and horrified Europe.
These deaths are neither accidents nor isolated cases. They are the consequences of immigration policy, on both sides of the Atlantic, that aims at ‘deterring’ migrants. A little boy lying dead on a beach, a father and daughter face down in a river – that is what deterrence looks like.
At least 175 people, including 13 children, have died on the US-Mexican border this year alone. More than 2000 have died over the past 5 years. The European figures are more startling still. Almost 600 people have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year. Since 1993, some 35,000 have died. Thousands more, perhaps tens of thousands more, will have perished in silence, their deaths never recorded. Alan Kurdi and Óscar and Valeria Ramírez are merely the cases in which the imagery was shocking enough to have caught public attention.
Immigration controls today mean not simply a border guard asking you for your papers. They constitute a violent, coercive, militarised system of control. When a journalist from Der Speigel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, he observed that the language used was that of ‘defending Europe against an enemy’.
Fortress Europe is a citadel against immigration, shielded by laws that cut off most legal points of entry, protected by walls and warships, and watched-over by satellites and drones. It’s a fortress that extends far beyond Europe. Over the past decade, the EU has stitched together a series of agreements with various authorities across North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East – with Turkey, Morocco and Libya, Niger, Mali and Senegal, Ethiopia and Eritrea – to act as Europe’s immigration police. The EU hands over huge sums of money for would-be or thought-to-be migrants to Europe to be apprehended and locked up before they reach the Mediterranean shores.
In Libya alone there are at least 20,000 migrants held in detention by the government. Thousands more are held captive by militias and criminal gangs. All are imprisoned in the most degrading of conditions, many subject to torture, sexual abuse, and extortion, practices in which European governments have been complicit.
What Brussels has funded is a huge new kidnap and detention industry. Europe’s policies have turned migrants into a resource to be exploited. It’s one of the great scandals of our age. And there is almost complete silence about it.
To ensure that Fortress Europe is even more impregnable, European governments have set out to criminalise any act of rescue or solidarity. Captains of rescue boats such as Carola Rackete and Pia Klemp have been arrested in Italy and face charges of ‘assisting in illegal immigration’ that could see them spend 20 years in prison. For what? For saving human lives. Had Rackete or Klemp rescued Europeans, they would have been hailed as heroes. Their crime was to help the wrong kind of human beings.
It’s not just rescuing migrants from drowning that has become a criminal offence. An investigation by the website openDemocracy suggests that over the past five years at least 250 people in 14 European countries have been arrested or charged for providing food or other support to migrants without legal papers.
America, too, is adopting a similar approach, from militarised border patrols, to squalid mass detention centres, to the outlawing of any support for undocumented migrants. What is being criminalised is, as the lawyer Frances Webber has put it, ‘decency itself’.
That’s why outrage at a particular death is not enough. After the anger over the death of Alan Kurdi, what happened? Nothing. Fortress Europe policies were, rather, strengthened and extended. And everyone shrugged. Much the same is likely to be true in America, too.
Those who enact and support the policies of Fortress Europe and Fortress America are in effect accepting that the deaths of Alan Kurdi and of Óscar and Valeria Ramírez, of the thousands who have drowned in the Mediterranean and perished in the deserts along the US border, are the price of deterrence, and a price worth paying. Our moral sensibilities have become so warped by the migration panic that most times we don’t even think this a problem. Only occasionally, when a particularly shocking image makes the news, does the moral odiousness of such policies impinge upon our consciousness.
The alternative to accepting mass death, mass detention and the outlawing of decency is to rethink our whole approach to immigration controls, to Fortress Europe and to Fortress America. Otherwise all the tears shed over Alan Kurdi and Óscar and Valeria Ramirez are there only to wash away peoples’ sense of guilt, not to change anything or to stop it happening again.
The photo of Óscar and Valeria Ramírez is by Julia Le Duc/AP. The cover image of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez against the background of the US flag was created by Antonio Rodriguez.
“The alternative to accepting mass death, mass detention and the outlawing of decency is to rethink our whole approach to immigration controls, to Fortress Europe and to Fortress America.”
I’m OK with that, as long as we go into detail about all the consequences of the change this will bring about in Western countries.
This is just one aspect of the whole immigration situation (in the US) which shouldn’t be overlooked:
“ ‘Mexifornia’ Is a Tragedy in the Making”
“By 1970, Selma (California) was a rich, multiracial society bound together by a cohesive and common culture.
That dream is now slipping away. Here in Central California, we have de facto apartheid towns made up almost exclusively of Mexican immigrants. Many are illegal residents who do not speak English and cannot and do not participate in the civic life of the state — voting, community service organizations and jury duty.”
I have written many times about the broader issues (see, for instance, here and here and here and here). In almost every post, you demand that the ‘left’ be ‘honest’. It’s a good demand. But it equally applies to those who support current immigration policies, or even stricter ones. It’s time they accepted that what they are saying is that mass death and mass detention are a price worth paying. I’ve seen no one willing to be honest about this.
I cannot read the article about California to which you linked (it’s not available to readers in the EU). But it’s worth making the point, that up till the 70s there was an effective open border between the USA and America. So if you want to apportion blame for the changes you decry, you could begin with the ending of the open border. As I have argued many times, controls often create the problems they are meant to solve.
I know you’ve written loads on these issues. I’ve read much of it. Going back a long time too.
However, these are newspaper pieces and hardly anyone will have followed all your previous explanations. I understand the limiting nature of newspaper columns and that that’s what they demand.
It could be argued that it was the open nature of the US border that led to this whole situation in the first place. There was a turning a blind eye to illegal migration back and forth because of the needs of California agricultural production. That led to the growth of the semi-permanent worker population.
I’ve been in the Los Angeles bus station and seen the lines of Mexican workers all lining up to get their buses to the small towns in the interior.
It looked like something John Steinbeck could have written about.
The link was to an article by Victor Davis Hanson who grew up on a farm in the southern Central Valley and he wrote his book “Mexifornia” all about the changes he saw in his lifetime. The guy is “right wing” though. I look up his website from time to time and he does seem pretty “kooky” on issues like Iraq and support for Donald Trump.
On California and the migration across the southern border though, he at least is highly informed.
He talks about things on a county level and can see some of those central California counties getting poorer and less “first world” (to use that phrase). Outward migration of tax paying professionals and inward migration of poorer migrants and the growing of the poorer Hispanic population – which is a mixture of legal and not legal residents. Often in the same families.
As for the charge that tighter border regulation means more death and suffering ….. that’s the most difficult issue – and it needs a lot of sober analysis.
Personally I’m neither one way or the other. I’d side more to being generous of spirit and deed – but with the US anyway, it’s not my country and it’s really up to Americans.
But I don’t think the extremes of either side help at all. That includes heartless Republican types, and radicals like AOC calling them concentration camps and saying that thing about them being told to “drink out of the toilet”. If the border was really open, tens of millions would travel.
From all over the world.
I think one thing that is overlooked by Hanson is the larger economic changes and growth in income inequality/disparity more generally during the same time period which may explain some of this – especially pronounced in the US.
Somehow the luck of being born in the right location does not cut it in my mind to justifying a fortress mentality. Unfortunately, our place of birth shapes an identity based partly on geographic location blinding us to the idea of shared earthly habitation. I don’t know if the fortress response is simply an interim response to pressures accumulating as to the need for large scale change or simply a head in the sand response. I think a paradigm shift is needed – the alternative that is expressed and that we need to move past simply being reactive. And I am not sure that tens of millions would travel if where they lived was actually safe, stable and offered opportunities. A sizable chunk of those who immigrate already do return home. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/1/116/tab-figures-data In addition immigration is needed for population replacement in many of the fortress countries.
Damon, you write:
Now I don’t understand the point you’re making. You wrote in your previous comment ‘I’m OK with that, as long as we go into detail about all the consequences of the change this will bring about in Western countries’. I pointed out that I have engaged with these issues (and others such as Reece Jones and Jonathan Portes have engaged much more deeply than I have). So, I am not sure what your objecting to now.
In any case, my starting point is that migration detention centres (especially European-funded ones in Africa) are morally unconscionable. My starting point, in other words, is that such detention, and such policies, should not exist. Beyond that, if you agree, I am happy to listen to yours or anyone else’s views on what policies there should be. If you don’t agree that such policies and such forms of detention are unconscionable, then you have to be honest (your favourite word) and acknowledge that you are willing to accept mass detention and mass deaths as the price of immigration controls.
It’s the imposition of controls that make ‘illegals’ illegal. I don’t accept that there is a ‘problem’ with the Hispanic population now, but the point is, it’s controls that often create the ‘problems’ they are meant to solve.
I know you’ve written a lot about this issue Kenan, but my point is, that I’m my opinion there’s a problem with what you say each time. There’s something that doesn’t add up.
It’s to do with what Lindsey Graham just described in that latest press conference I linked to on your most recent article on this site.
The reason he says that “we can’t just let them go” is because of what he says would be the consequence of doing that.
It used to be just Mexicans doing this and now it’s people from Central America, India and Africa. If you just look at the immediate issue in front of you today, and relent and let everyone in, then that will just trigger new waves.
I was just looking at some articles and YouTubes of successful owner/operator truck drivers in the western USA who came from Punjab. Sikh men. They are making up almost half of the truckers in California I read.
Then half way through one video, the Sikh guy, now with a great life and business, says that he arrived in America as an asylum seeker at the Mexican border.
No wonder so many more have followed his way. It’s not right or fair on America to have to deal with things that way.
As for what the EU is doing funding detention centres in Africa – yes they do sound pretty terrible and it is wrong if we just pretend that it’s not happening. But there is no easy way out of this situation. The gulf between different points of view is so great that it seems that people on the different sides really can’t engage with each other. But to be honest, Lindsey Graham seems to make more sense than the people I hear criticising the camps most strongly.
And what the left will never do, is engage with the right wing when it comes down to demographics and multiculturalism. The argument goes that it makes no difference, or should make no difference, how many new people from different cultures come into a particular society.
I was in Istanbul last week and it was interesting to see the African minority that’s developed there. I had presumed that they were all just wanting to pass through and get to Western Europe, but from what I read, it seems that many of them want to stay there.
I did notice that they all seemed to keep their heads down a bit and there was no London style hoodie and street culture. And I put that down to the nature of Turkish male culture. It wouldn’t tolerate it. I really like the Turkish people – they seem so laid back and easy going. No agro whatsoever. But you stay on the right side of respectful at all times. Otherwise you would have problems.
I think that the left tradition you come from Kenan, only sees the ideological point of view and doesn’t value arguments that contradict that. But most of the world from what I can see, is very parochial and particular about their culture and their community.
I just walked past a mosque this morning and there were about 30 Turkish women sitting on chairs under a tree in the mosque grounds, while all the men were inside.
Here it looks totally normal and hardly caused me to break my stride. It’s their culture.
In England it would look terrible. Or some people would see it as terrible. All the women covered up with hijabs and robes not allowed inside the mosque. The same when you see all the men sitting together drinking tea. These cultural differences are strong. Here they feel totally relaxed and normal, while in Germany it feels awkward. (To me it does).
I think it’s to do with Turkish men feeling far more relaxed and off guard here than they do in Germany where they are a minority.
These are some of the cultural issues that I find that people on the left don’t want to get into.
I just heard another pointless discussion on LBC radio about knife crime in England (why am I even listening?) Its just a “Groundhog Day debate” that goes nowhere because we in England are publicly incapable of describing the problem in the first place. About what’s wrong with so many of the black boys. I still remember a statistic from 2007, when that year, a third of the 27 teenagers killed by knives in London had parents from Congo.
I remember Dotun Adebayo talking to one of the mothers. 9 out of 27. But it was a statistic that was quickly lost and forgotten.
Even though it’s got a terrible writing style, Ben Judah’s book “This is London” highlights much of the capital’s hidden parallel societies. Most of the negative and poverty issues are because of large scale immigration into a somewhat racist and hard nosed capitalist society.
You don’t have to agree with me, but your original claim was not that you disagree but that I don’t address these issues. Which is false. And, as I wrote above, ‘If you don’t agree that such policies and such forms of detention are unconscionable, then you have to be honest (your favourite word) and acknowledge that you are willing to accept mass detention and mass deaths as the price of immigration controls.’ So far you have refused to do that. You want everyone (especially the ‘left’) to be ‘honest’, but don’t seem willing to be honest yourself.
Your argument is equally ‘ideological’. You just like to pretend that you’re simply talking common sense and everyone who disagrees with you is ‘ideological’.
As you’re in Istanbul you should know that it’s far more complicated than this. Istanbul has just overwhelmingly elected as mayor (on a rerun vote after Erdoğan annulled the results of original election) Ekrem İmamoğlu, a member of the Kemalist CHP, a secularist and a democrat. Turkey is divided between secularists and religious supporters. The tradition to which Turkey İmamoğlu belongs was in power for most of the twentieth century. The hijab was banned in public spaces in Turkey until 2008 (a policy I have always disagreed with – which just goes to show that the issues are more complicated than you seem to imagine). Why should their culture – the culture of the tradition to which İmamoğlu belongs – not be as Turkish as that of religious believers? What you are imposing on Turkey is your view of what ‘their culture’ should be like.
What you call ‘their culture’ is far more complex than you give credit for, as is ‘our culture’. Part of the problem is the romanticisation of ‘their culture’ and a refusal to look at the complexities.
You’re very fond of repeating ‘the left is not honest’ or ‘the left won’t engage’. I can’t speak for the left, I can only speak for myself. But I’ve continually engaged with the arguments of critics on Pandaemonium (and most of the responses to my articles are from critics). And as I pointed out above, it’s you who is refusing to be honest, or deal with the complexities of cultural issues.
Firstly on Turkey – I was talking about the non-politicised everyday culture of the street.
The culture of the cafes, town centres and the neighbourhoods. Of course politics has shaped Turkish culture. There are great banners of Ataturk and Erdogan in most of the towns and cities I’ve been in. And nationalism is pushed very hard. The flag is everywhere. It’s been like this since the beginning of the state.
And it’s not all conservative of course. There’s many or more women who do not wear hijabs and young women can do the complete western style without any issues it seems.
However, the Islamic culture is just there. In a nice way I find. Conservative, but not oppressively so. When the mosques all pipe up at prayer times, it creates a great din ….. but that’s OK. Even at five o’clock in the morning. Because it’s their country and they either like it or don’t mind it.
All of this adds up to the Turkish culture I’m talking about.
Both in more liberal Istanbul and everywhere else too.
That’s what Turkey is. And I like how at ease with itself it seems. I think I much prefer Turkish people to the English – just as people.
One point I have made many times now is that this ease you find in countries like Turkey, and in Eastern Europe too, is something to do with their homogeneity. Or where there are different minorities, they’re minorities which have always lived in the region and are culturally similar.
I was in the Kurdish region a couple of years ago, and saw the near military occupation situation that is present in some places, but the Kurds and the Turks inside Turkey are still very similar. In big cities like Istanbul and Ankara (where lots of Kurds live) I couldn’t tell one from the other. It’s not like that in Western Europe, where things can be a lot more problematic.
The gang culture and knife crime issue being just one problem. Something that I fail to see any sign of in Turkey. Or – what I saw happened in France yesterday when French youths of Algerian decent caused a lot of trouble after Algeria won a football match. There was looting and a woman was killed by a speeding car. That’s a complicated cultural situation France has to deal with. I know you used to say that it was due to a “Silent Race War” going on in France.
I don’t agree with that. It’s a problem to do with the psychology of being an ethnic minority in a western country I think. Some people don’t handle it so well.
So was I. But Turkish culture, just like culture in Britain or in France, is contested. And far more, as it happens, in Turkey than in Britain or France.
It’s extraordinary that you should so easily pass over the war that Turkey is waging on its Kurdish population and imagine that what is really significant is that ‘Kurds and the Turks inside Turkey are still very similar… I couldn’t tell one from the other’. The violence against Kurds in Turkey is far greater than anything to be found in Britain or France. But that’s OK because Turks and Kurds look similar. The fact that they look similar hasn’t saved Kurds from the most brutal forms of repression. And not just Kurds. Over the past three years, almost 100,000 have been arrested (including, as it happens, many of my friends), 150,000 people, including 6000 academics and 4000 members of the judicial systems dismissed, almost 200 media outlets shut down, and over 300 journalists arrested. But this, to you, is a country at ease with itself. Jeez. You’re so obsessed with questions of immigration and racial difference that you can’t see violence and repression when it stares you in the face, and imagine that a country literally at war with sections of its population and where people are terrified of making the slightest criticisms of government policy is a nation at ‘ease with itself’
No,in Turkey there’s just shootings and beatings and the mass detention and torture of critics.
Ever been to a Galatasaray-Fenerbahce match? Or one between Fenerbahce and Besiktas ? Perhaps you should sometime. Last year the Fenerbahce-Besiktas game was abandoned mid-match because of the degree of crowd violence. Earlier this year, the coach carrying Fenerbahce players was ambushed in a gun attack. But, of course, such violence doesn’t count because they’re not immigrants, and Turkish football supporters look like each other.
Tells it like is. One of the best pieces I’ve read on the subject. Thanks Kenan; keep it up. Embarrass and shame us.
Thanks, Judith! I don’t want to shame people, but I do want people to think about the consequences of their arguments, and what should be done about those consequences.