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.