This essay, on EU border control policy, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on free speech at universities.) It was published on 8 March 2020, under the headline ‘Detention, torture and killing … how the EU outsourced migration policy’.
‘But what else can we do?’ So asked many people after a video emerged of Greek border guards attempting to capsize a small rubber dinghy full of migrants, and firing shots towards it. The incident occurred after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened the borders in a cynical attempt to blackmail the European Union into supporting the Turkish military offensive in Syria.
Many were shocked by the actions of the border guards. But many also insisted that it was a necessary response. EU leaders expressed their ‘solidarity’ with Greece, describing it as Europe’s ‘shield’.
However shocking the video, there is nothing unusual in such treatment of migrants. There is a long history of Libyan coastguards, paid and trained by the EU, shooting at migrants.
A leaked EU internal memorandum acknowledged last year that capturing migrants was now ‘a profitable business model’ in Libya. Many militias and people smugglers call themselves coastguards to claim EU money by ‘arbitrarily detaining migrants’. According to Amnesty International, about 20,000 migrants are held captive by the government, militias and criminal gangs, many subject to torture and abuse, practices in which European governments ‘are complicit’.
It’s not just in Libya. The EU has created a huge kidnap-and-detention industry throughout north Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. It has made deals with the likes of Omar al-Bashir, the former leader of Sudan indicted by the international criminal court for war crimes. The Janjaweed, a militia that pursued almost genocidal violence in Darfur, now calls itself the Rapid Support Forces and hunts down migrants for the EU rather than rebels for Bashir.
Nobody knows how many migrants have been killed by EU-funded forces. Of those who have escaped their clutches, at least 20,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean in the past six years alone.
In asking, ‘But what else can we do?’, we are really asking, ‘But what else can we do except mass detention, torture and killing?’ How about making our starting point a refusal to detain, torture and kill? That might seem an obvious stance from which no decent human being could abstain. But simply to do that is to undermine the very foundations of the Fortress Europe strategy. That’s how morally warped EU policy is.
Then, we need to think about how to win the argument for more liberal immigration policies. There can be no liberalisation without popular support. The central dilemma today is that no moral immigration policy is likely to win a democratic mandate, and any policy that has popular support is likely to be immoral. It’s not that European populations are drawn to immoral policies; it’s rather that the way immigration has been framed by politicians and commentators, presenting migrants as invaders, and the policies they have pursued, inevitably generates hostility. Take Greece. In 2015, there was much sympathy for arriving migrants. Residents of Lesbos, the island closest to Turkey, and which now hosts the Moria detention camp, provided arrivals with much help, including food and clothing. The failures of EU policy have transformed attitudes.
Greece might be an EU state but it has been treated by Brussels as Libya or Niger have been treated, as part of Europe’s borderlands, a giant prison camp in which to leave migrants to rot so they don’t become a problem for the ‘core’ EU nations. The EU, says Spyros Galinos, until last year the mayor of Lesbos, has ‘left us defenceless and alone’. The result is that ‘kindness has turned to anger’.
On an island like Lesbos, the numbers of migrants held in detention in the most appalling conditions are huge, and rightly creates rage among both detainees and residents. But if Europe were to take collective responsibility, the numbers are relatively small.
With the exception of 2015 and 2016, which were unusual years driven by events in Syria, the number of undocumented migrants to Europe every year has usually been less than that of documented migrants coming just to Britain. The real problem is not the numbers but policies that create huge bottlenecks, appalling conditions for both locals and migrants, and project an image of a continent under siege.
More liberal policies will mean higher migrant numbers. That’s why many dismiss liberalisation as utopian, and insist that what Europe needs are tighter controls. Those who take such a view need to be honest about their argument. Instead of hiding behind euphemisms such as ‘border controls’ or ‘shield’, they should openly say: ‘I’m happy to accept mass detention, torture and killing as a price worth paying for keeping undocumented migrants out.’ For that is the essence of Fortress Europe.
The image is ‘Repression’ by Max Perone, from the Etobicoke School of the Arts, Ontario, Canada, shortlisted for the 2016 Saatchi Gallery/Deutsche Bank Art prize for Schools
“How about making our starting point a refusal to detain, torture and kill?”
Good – I’ll agree with you. No more obstacles for the refugees and migrants.
“Then, we need to think about how to win the argument for more liberal immigration policies.”
This is where it gets more tricky. I will listen to anyone’s proposals, however apart from some very genuine and decent people on the left, I don’t find many of the others very reputable and honest in their arguments.
Just to give an example of the kind of people I mean, this was about a piece Lionel Shriver wrote in The Spectator.
Sunny Hundal Retweeted
“My left-wing friends have stopped talking to me just because I’m an insufferable a***hole constantly” is still my absolute favourite genre of Spectator article.
Those people are a problem and I don’t think they’re going to be winning many new people over with their pro-refugee and liberal immigration suggestions.
“It’s not that European populations are drawn to immoral policies; it’s rather that the way immigration has been framed by politicians and commentators ….”
But it’s not just that. It can be lived experience too. I was only recently in Malta, which has a similar population to Liverpool or Manchester. There is a bit of a “refugee crisis” there because it’s all been too much too soon (I would say). The people were not really ready for dealing with such an influx in one short period of time.
“Roughly 3,400 migrants and refugees arrived in Malta by boat in 2019. Activists and aid workers say the Maltese government is putting asylum seekers in detention centres because they’re overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals.”
But aren’t those the kind of numbers that will be needed in cities of that size if we’re to free up the blockages and make the clandestine migrant routes unnecessary?
I’ve been seeing quite a few of the migrants trying to make their way over the borders into the EU from Serbia and Bosnia. I was also reading about their situation too. This is the scene in Sarajevo.
“Bosnian Capital’s Businesses Cash in on Stranded Migrants”
They’re spending their days hanging out in cafes.
There’s loads more in the city trying to sell packets of tissues and begging at traffic lights.
I was thinking about how they would get on if they were all brought to Brighton.
My main problem with Kenan’s article is the idea that the numbers aren’t great.
This is about Bosnia:
“At any given time, there are around 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants in the country, according to estimates by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, which has registered more than 45,000 people – mostly Afghans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis – transiting through the country since January 2018.”
If there are that many willing to go through that amount of hardship, how many times that number would there be if they could all have just flown directly from their country to where they wanted to go?
We are told that “connectivity” is the key to transport infrastructure problems and how that can free up movement.
So if it was easy for Pakistanis to just go to Europe whenever they wanted, the numbers would be several times what they are now.
“According to estimates by the Pakistani authorities, some 30,000 to 40,000 people from Pakistan attempt illegal passage to Europe via Iran and Turkey every year. InfoMigrants spoke to an expert to find out which factors lead to this trend.”
” Those who take such a view need to be honest about their argument. Instead of hiding behind euphemisms such as ‘border controls’ or ‘shield’, they should openly say: ‘I’m happy to accept mass detention, torture and killing as a price worth paying for keeping undocumented migrants out.’”
Yes, that is a fair point and a fair request. Equally, those arguing that “mass detention, torture and killing” are unacceptable should openly state: “And I therefore think the EU should accept and absorb 10 million migrants a year, and deal with the societal changes and consequences”.
I’d be interested to see the evidence for the figure of ’10 million migrants per year’. But let us suppose that the figure is true. Would you then suggest that ‘mass detention, torture and killing is a price worth paying for keeping undocumented migrants out’? If so at what point between 0 and 10 million would you say ‘I’m happy to employ mass detention, torture and killing to deal with this’? And if not, then the responsibility is equally on you to suggest alternatives to such a policy.
Every migrant who reaches Europe and is not sent beck encourrages others to try the same. That simple. There are much more than 10 millions waiting to get to Europe.
When I asked for evidence about figures, I did not mean just plucking numbers out of the sky. You could have talked of zero or 1 million or 100 million ‘waiting to get to Europe’ and each would be equally meaningless because they are simply invented figures. In any case, as I have already pointed out, inventing figures does not expunge the moral issue. ‘Every migrant who reaches Europe and is not sent back encourages others to try the same’ is another euphemism for ‘Every migrant who reaches Europe and is not subject to mass detention, torture and killing encourages others to try the same’ – which is effectively current policy. Presumably you think that ‘mass detention, torture and killing’ is morally acceptable as a way of not ‘encouraging others’.