The refugee crisis in Europe began with the shipwrecks off the coast of Libya in April 2015 and ended seven months later with the terrorist attacks in Paris. The long journeys, deaths, detentions and expulsions faced by the many thousands of uninvited migrants who try to reach Europe by sea or by land did not begin or end there. But the ‘refugee crisis’ is best understood as the brief period in which European leaders were forced to confront the disaster of their border policies; when the strength of public feeling at the damage caused by these policies was enough to force many politicians into making grand statements about Europe’s obligation to save lives, and even to consider opening borders or increase resettlement numbers. The Paris attacks supplied an excuse to start closing borders again, since it appeared that one or more of the perpetrators had slipped into Europe along the refugee trail from Turkey. The Balkan migration route, from Greece to Hungary and beyond, was the first to be sealed off. In the days immediately following the Paris attacks, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia began to stop undocumented migrants from crossing: first, anyone who wasn’t Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan; later, everyone. Since then, while the rhetoric may vary, the actions taken have been broadly consistent: a shoring up of the old border regime, the toughening of conditions inside Europe to deter migrants, and the further outsourcing of European border control to governments in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
The immediate effect of closing the Balkan route was to trap refugees, mostly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, in Greece. By the end of 2016, about sixty thousand were living in fifty or more camps scattered around the country (with an undetermined number at large), trying to lodge asylum claims or waiting for an opportunity to take a smuggling route into Western Europe. Conditions in the camps are often dire: overcrowded and with poor sanitary conditions. Despite unprecedented funding, mainly from the EU (an investigation for the website News Deeply found that the $803 million spent so far is, per head, ‘the most expensive humanitarian response in history’), many camps weren’t ready for winter – thousands had to live in tents in freezing conditions. The EU, the Greek government and UNHCR blame one another for the failure, but the truth is that the outcome suits Europe by deterring would-be migrants. ‘It sends the message that Greece is a mess so don’t come this way,’ one human rights advocate told News Deeply.
Italy, too, has become a holding pen. At least fifty thousand people, most of whom took the deadly smugglers’ boat route from Libya, are living in reception centres around the country waiting for their asylum claims to be handled. The process can take years; in the meantime claimants live on meagre handouts from the state and are prey to exploitation and trafficking.A plan to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, agreed in September 2015, never really got off the ground: in April this year, the EU revised the target for resettlement down from 160,000 to 33,000 after fewer than 15,000 refugees were actually relocated under the scheme. (Those who have money and contacts will have relocated themselves, paying smugglers or using clandestine routes.) This is because other EU members, even the ones that made relatively generous offers two years ago, are keen to avoid accommodating more refugees. Poland, whose far-right government sees Muslim migrants as an existential threat, has taken a hard line since the beginning of the crisis and refused to resettle all but a token number. Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orbán, casts himself as a defender of ‘Christian Europe’, has built fences at the country’s borders and recently passed a law to place all asylum seekers on its territory in detention camps. Greece and Bulgaria have put up similar fences in the last few years. The UK – a pioneer of immigration detention whose former home secretary, now prime minister, made it her stated intention to create a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants – recently went back on a commitment to resettle unaccompanied children from Calais. Denmark has slashed asylum support payments and passed a law allowing officials to seize refugees’ cash and jewellery when they enter the country. Germany, which opened its doors to Syrians in the summer of 2015, has invested both money and political capital in accommodating and integrating the new arrivals, but is at the same time trying to deport large numbers of Afghan asylum seekers. To discourage European citizens from showing solidarity with the migrants, various governments have become more rigorous in applying an EU directive that criminalises the ‘facilitation’ of unauthorised migration. Among those arrested or charged with people-trafficking have been a group of Spanish volunteer lifeguards on Lesvos, a French farmer near the Italian border who let migrants sleep in caravans in his fields, and a Danish campaigner for children’s rights who gave a Syrian family a lift in her car.
Europe is trying to exert control beyond its borders too. Its deal with Turkey, which came into force in March 2016, has all but halted the passage of boats across the Aegean. Turkey agreed to stop the boats in return for €6 billion in aid, visa-free travel in Europe for its citizens and new talks on EU membership. The deal represents ‘a disturbing disregard for international law covering the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants’, Human Rights Watch said in a report published in March. Last year the EU also made available €62 billion in investment and aid to countries in the Middle East and Africa in return for help in reducing the number of migrants entering Europe. It is also using coercion: in September, Afghanistan was told its EU aid would be cut unless it accepted eighty thousand Afghan deportees. There has been talk of similar deals with Sudan and Eritrea, despite their widely documented human rights abuses. And if the EU isn’t able to deport migrants to their countries of origin, it proposes to send them to another one further down the migration route: Niger, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Libya. Last July, it was revealed that the European Commission planned to divert some of its budget for development and ‘peace building’ to military equipment and training for armed forces in Africa and the Middle East. In March, an independent commission warned that the £10 million in aid given by the UK government to Libya each year was propping up a system of ‘indiscriminate and indefinite detention’; local officials were involved in ‘people smuggling and trafficking, and in extortion of migrants’. Border defence, not the protection of life, remains the priority at Europe’s frontiers. There were more deaths than ever in the Mediterranean in 2016, with nearly five thousand people – most of them from sub-Saharan Africa – reported drowned or missing. In February, the head of the EU’s border agency, Frontex, said that when NGOs rescued migrants from the sea off the coast of Libya, they were effectively helping people smugglers.
Border policies, whether made by the EU or by individual states, are usually justified on the grounds of safety and security. They protect the public from terrorism, or from threats to identity and culture. They protect migrants from unscrupulous smugglers and risky journeys. Or they protect Europe from itself by keeping far-right political movements, which have been trying to exploit the chaos, out of power. But rather than protecting people from violence, Reece Jones argues in Violent Borders, such policies are in fact a cause of it. The central problem, as he sees it, is that in an age when barriers – to the movement of goods, capital, communication etc – have been coming down, the physical defences between states have been going up. According to his own research, in 1990 just 15 states had walls or fences at their borders; by 2016, nearly seventy did. In the past such defences were set up principally because of conflict between neighbouring states (North and South Korea, for instance, or India and Pakistan), but today’s border defences are primarily focused on civilians, aimed at stopping unwanted or ‘irregular’ migration. It isn’t just in the West: barriers proliferate in Asia and Africa too. These defences, supported by a military infrastructure of patrols and surveillance, come at a price. According to the International Organisation for Migration, forty thousand people died attempting to cross a border between 2005 and 2014.
Many of these deaths – the Central American migrant left by smugglers to die of thirst in the Arizona desert, or the Rohingya refugee from Myanmar whose boat sank in the Andaman Sea – do not occur at the hands of any state agent, or as the result of contact with any defensive technology. So in what sense is ‘the border’ the problem? Jones, following a well established sociological tradition, makes a distinction between ‘direct’ violence, which can be traced to specific people or groups, and ‘structural’ violence, which, as Johan Galtung, who proposed the idea in 1969, put it, ‘shows up as unequal power and consequently unequal life chances’.
Jones divides border violence into five categories. First, the physical harm caused by border guards and security infrastructure. At the US-Mexico border, patrols shot and killed 33 people between 2010 and 2015, many of them in questionable circumstances. (In 2014, the head of internal affairs at the US Border Patrol Agency was fired because, he says, he wanted to investigate the killings.) At the border between India and Bangladesh, which was heavily reinforced after 9/11 and has disrupted the lives of poor Bengalis who have work and family connections on both sides, more than a thousand Bangladeshis have been killed by India’s Border Security Force since 2001.
The second of Jones’s categories is the more general use of state power that increases the likelihood of injury or death by closing off safer and easier migration routes. This is the chief dynamic in Europe, where irregular migrants have over the last few decades been forced into increasingly dangerous bottlenecks by visa restrictions, hefty fines for transport companies and the closing of land borders. The smugglers’ boat routes from Libya and across the Aegean exist partly because other, safer migration routes – through Morocco into Spain’s North African enclaves, for instance, or across the Greek or Bulgarian land borders with Turkey – have been blocked.
Third is the threat of violence imposed to limit access to resources. This can be a territorial issue: Jones points out that Israel, which has ‘the most complete border fencing and security network in the world’, uses its defences not only for military objectives but to bar Palestinians from access to such resources as olive groves, or land on which to build houses in parts of the West Bank. Australia prevents asylum seekers who arrive by boat from staying on the mainland: it outsources their detention to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they are held in prison camps in which reports of abuse are common. But the threat can also be deployed in a more abstract way: the EU’s Dublin regulation aims to prevent many refugees from gaining access to the better-equipped asylum systems in northwest Europe by forcing them to lodge their claims in the country they first set foot in.
The fourth and fifth categories relate to the harm that borders do on the largest scale. By stopping people from poorer countries moving to richer ones, Jones argues, borders perpetuate global inequality, and by turning natural resources into private property divided between nation-states, they prevent meaningful collective action to tackle climate change. In Jones’s view, the hardening of borders we see today is just the latest response to a problem that has existed ever since humans began to settle in cities five thousand years ago: once you have collected resources in a particular place, how do you determine who has access to them and who doesn’t? States have always tried to constrain the movement of people: walls were built by early Chinese states to keep out raiders, and by Europe’s medieval cities as a means to police access. In 1648 the treaties of Westphalia, which brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War in central Europe, established the principle that a state has sovereignty over a particular territory, drawn on a map, thus paving the way for the modern nation-state. Above all, states have sought to control the movement of the poor, though until the 19th-century restrictions on movement were largely exercised within a state’s territory – through serfdom, slavery or poor laws – rather than between states. In the 20th century, as a response to global migration of the poor, international borders were strengthened through a system of passports and visas. Today, while the right to move within a state is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the movement of people between states is tightly controlled. In the 19th century, it was possible for the poor of Europe to migrate to settler colonies in America and elsewhere, but for today’s poor the options are more limited. They can either move to cities within their own countries – hence the growth of slums – or take clandestine migration routes out of them. Today, the biggest inequalities in wealth exist between states. And where national borders have been softened within a particular region – for example the EU’s Schengen zone, or the Nafta countries, Canada, Mexico and the US – it has been to privilege a particular group, not to open the region up to the world at large.
Jones’s analysis conveys a sense of inevitability: there has always been a conflict between rich and poor; states always try to limit movement; borders will proliferate. It isn’t to doubt any of these things to say that they aren’t the end of the story. Migration, for a start, is not just a matter of citizens of poor countries trying to reach rich ones. The largest migration in human history is taking place right now, within the borders of China. Thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa try to reach Europe each year, but that is nothing compared to the scale of migration between countries within Africa. Jones gives short shrift to scholars such as Wendy Brown, who argued in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010) that today’s border walls are a sign not of strength but that state sovereignty is being eroded by globalisation: they fulfil a psychological role, by providing a reassuring image of security to a population whose jobs may be migrating elsewhere or whose public services have been removed from democratic ownership. I think there’s more to that argument than Jones allows. The attempts of a leader like Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the US, or to build a wall on the border with Mexico, are more about racism and identity than they are about economics or security. And by focusing on the geographical border, Jones neglects the way in which immigration controls reach into everyday life, excluding the undocumented and causing them misery long after they have crossed the frontier.
What’s more, although the subtitle of his book is ‘Refugees and the Right to Move’, Jones doesn’t really consider why refugees in particular so often find themselves at the sharp end of border control. In part, it’s out of necessity: people who are forced to move will take whatever route is available to them, and all but a wealthy few have no better option. But it’s also a political problem, in that rights are guaranteed by citizenship, and citizenship is allocated by nation-states. In general, refugees head for the nearest safe country – according to the UNHCR, developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees – but if they aren’t allowed to participate fully in the economic and social life of that country then many will want to leave. Not being able to return home, they will head for a second, or third, or fourth country, crossing many more borders in the process. This has been the story of Europe’s refugee crisis: an Afghan family whose children weren’t allowed to go to school in Iran; a Syrian in Turkey who didn’t want to spend years living in a camp; an Eritrean who was refused a work permit in Ethiopia.
These are problems that the international system of refugee protection is supposed to address, but as Alexander Betts and Paul Collier argue in Refuge, the system isn’t working. The 1951 Refugee Convention, the founding document of today’s system, ‘sets out the morally incontrovertible idea that people who face serious harm in their country of origin should not be forced to go back until it is safe to do so’. But the convention doesn’t answer the questions of who to protect, or where, or how. Drawn up at the beginning of the Cold War, and at first covering only Europe, it was designed with a particular type of refugee in mind: political dissidents from the Eastern Bloc who would never be able to return home. Today’s refugees are mainly people who flee the insecurity of a war zone, and who want eventually to go back. The standard humanitarian response to a refugee crisis is to pile emergency aid money into camps, as if the situation will only be temporary; yet the average duration of exile is ten years. As a result most refugees leave the camps, where they have few rights, and make their way to cities. In 2015, Betts and Collier point out, fewer than two per cent of the world’s refugees had the benefit of one of the three ‘durable solutions’: repatriation once their home countries had become safe again, local integration into the host country, or resettlement elsewhere.
In a ‘multipolar world of populist nationalism’ the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, lacks influence, and Europe’s refugee crisis has only made matters worse. A series of panic-driven decisions by European governments – doing nothing, then mounting rescue missions or opening borders with very little long-term planning, then slamming the door shut again – has diverted aid money away from refugees living elsewhere and stoked xenophobia in the West. (Betts and Collier suggest that images of the chaos at Europe’s borders played a decisive role in the Brexit vote.)
This situation could have been avoided, they argue, if more attention had been paid to the realities of displacement, and to the needs of refugees themselves. Once people have been rescued, what they want most is autonomy: the freedom to earn a living and rebuild their lives. That isn’t impossible, but it would require that the world stop treating refugees merely as mouths to feed and instead take the opportunity to provide them with education and jobs, to the benefit of both the refugees and the communities they have joined. This has worked before: in the 1990s, for example, when Mexico invested in agricultural projects, schools and hospitals in areas where Guatemalan refugees were living; and in Uganda, whose half a million refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere have been allowed freedom of movement, access to the labour market and in some cases have been given plots of land to cultivate.
The problem is that many governments don’t want to do what Mexico and Uganda did. Instead, like Kenya or Turkey, they leave refugees living in vast camps with restricted rights and use the situation to squeeze money out of international donors. Betts and Collier propose to ‘harness the remarkable opportunities of globalisation’ by creating Special Economic Zones – areas where business and trade laws are relaxed in order to attract outside investment – in countries close to war zones, where refugees can work in the supply chain that sustains multinational corporations. This way, it is suggested, everyone wins. The refugees don’t need to make long journeys to Europe, and they can learn skills that will help them rebuild their homeland once it is safe to return. The host countries avoid the political difficulty of granting refugees full citizenship rights but benefit from the growth of their manufacturing industries. And the international community is given a more productive way to spend its aid money, and reduces the likelihood of future migration crises. After Betts and Collier first aired their idea in the pages of Foreign Affairs and the Spectator in 2015, a version of the scheme has been set up in Jordan, which hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, with the support of the British government and the supermarket Asda.
Betts and Collier are surely right to look for ways to improve the system and spend money more effectively. But their proposal raises two difficult questions. First, what kind of rights will the refugees be offered, and who will guarantee them? Special Economic Zones – there are more than three thousand of them in the world today, in which an estimated 66 million people are employed – are frequently sites of low pay and exploitation. In some cases, governments have made explicit agreements to relax labour laws or ban strikes, while in others, when workers organise for better pay and conditions, the corporations simply up sticks and move elsewhere.
This can happen in the economy at large, of course, but at least workers in the economy at large have the opportunity to look for new jobs elsewhere. What happens when a group of refugees, locked into working for a particular employer in a particular zone, decide they want to form a trade union? What if there’s another global recession and the employer decides to cut wages? Betts and Collier say that this can be avoided by regulation, and that the general model can be adapted ‘to ensure respect for human rights and consistency with a set of ethical practices’ (their account is light on the specifics). Global corporations will be encouraged to invest in the refugee zones by ‘lobbying’ from such world leaders as Barack Obama. This points to an additional problem. Their proposal rests on bypassing an international system of refugee protection – which, for all its faults, at least sets universal standards – in favour of ad hoc arrangements based on the goodwill of individual governments and corporations. The authors are keen to let us know that their proposal was backed by David Cameron and presented to business leaders at Davos. But leaders change, and you wonder what a Special Economic Zone backed by Donald Trump or Theresa May might look like. Either Betts and Collier have found a brilliant way to harness the dynamism and creativity of global capitalism, or they’ve just globalised the workhouse.
The second question is ethical: to what extent can refuge be separated from the wider issue of migration? Betts and Collier claim that while there is an incontrovertible moral duty – based on ‘our common humanity’ – to rescue people in danger, there is no universal right to migrate. Yes, they argue, borders are arbitrary and haven’t always existed, but the same is true for a lot of other things (e.g. private property) that make the world work. No, governments don’t have a right to prevent people leaving a country, but it doesn’t follow that people have the right to enter any country they wish. Those in rich countries shouldn’t feel guilty about making money while others fail; allowing too many poor people to migrate is disruptive and destroys the social solidarity necessary to sustain national welfare systems. Decisions based on the greatest good for the greatest number without regard to national boundaries are extreme to the point of implausibility. Anyone who clings to the principle of the right to migrate in the face of these arguments is, Betts and Collier insist, ‘morally lazy’.
Yet all of the pressures that result from international migration are also generated by migration within a country’s borders. Linguistic and cultural differences, scarce public resources, unequal distribution of wealth: all of these exist within as well as between nation-states. So why limit controls to international borders? Why not prevent people from Solihull moving to London and putting pressure on the rental market? Should we build a wall around North Wales to prevent further dilution of the Welsh language? This is more than an abstract concern: the British state, for example, now places de facto restrictions on the internal movement of certain citizens by insisting that poor families relocate to a different part of the country if they want to continue receiving housing benefit.
There is, beyond this, a more fundamental point. Humans do migrate; they have done so throughout history, they continue to do so today, and an increasing amount of violence is being deployed to stop them doing so. The more pervasive and extreme the militarisation of borders becomes, the more harm will be done to people who are compelled to try and cross them. The easier migration is for everybody, and the easier it is to obtain political rights, the better it will be for refugees.
In October 2016, with the following month’s US presidential election in mind, WikiLeaks released excerpts of a speech given by Hillary Clinton three years earlier to a group of Latin American bankers. Her dream, she said, was that the Western hemisphere would share ‘a common market, with open trade and open borders … powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere’. When the powerful talk about a world without borders, this is the way they talk about it. But their vision has taken a battering in recent years. On the left, it is pointed out that no matter how large a borderless zone may be, its existence entails the violent exclusion of people who live outside it; and that even within such regions, the priority is given to the free movement of capital, not the equal distribution of workers’ rights or wealth. For the populist right in Europe and the US, the neoliberal conception of open borders poses a threat to national identity, or to white dominance: greater security is promised through the shoring up of borders. The argument has worked well for them in recent years.
Europe’s refugee crisis has certainly been followed by a nationalist backlash, but it was also the spark for a great outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from members of the public. The people who stepped in along the way to help migrants were, to varying degrees, refusing the controls on movement their governments had set up. In No Borders, Natasha King writes about the more radical end of migrant solidarity, which includes ‘anti-deportation campaigns, detention visitor projects, language clubs, No Borders camps and detention prison blockades’. King herself got involved in such initiatives in Calais and Athens, having become frustrated working for a conventional refugee rights charity in the UK. Repeatedly asking the government to improve conditions in immigration detention began to feel like a way of propping up the system rather than challenging it. Why were refugees regarded as legitimate travellers when other migrants weren’t? Borders, she came to understand, produce ‘illegality’: by declaring some categories of migrant illegitimate, they ‘create groups of people who carry a label of non-status’.
This analysis is shared by the No Borders movement, a loose network of groups and individuals with a broadly anarchist outlook. While the movement’s rhetoric conjures a world without capitalism or state power, its activities are often focused on immediate practical concerns. In Athens, one group formed a network to support undocumented North African migrants in their campaign for work permits, while another organised to defend migrants from attack by neo-Nazi street gangs. In Calais, No Borders activists occupied empty buildings to provide shelter for migrants trying to cross the Channel, and set up a space where women, queer and trans people could sleep safely. King contrasts this sort of work with the ‘humanitarian’ activities of other grassroots aid groups: rather than seeking to mitigate the effects of state policies, the No Borders approach is to take action ‘in ways that effectively turn away from the state and seek to live a life as if it wasn’t there’. In this, they have something in common with those who, in other contexts, set up ‘autonomous social centres, communal gardens and collective kitchens; conscious squats, free parties and action camps’.
Visiting a ‘squalid’ abandoned factory on the outskirts of Calais where migrants had been forced to live after police had evicted them from the squats, King describes how, ‘with extremely limited resources, people cooked and ate together, worshipped together, sang songs and made music together, helped each other to get into trucks to try to cross.’ The inhabitants had set up a barber’s shop, a tobacconist, cafés, a shisha lounge, several mosques and a church. King is a sensitive guide to this world. If people are able to care for one another in such straitened circumstances, her account prompts us to ask, then why are nation-states, with all their power, failing to do the same? But political groups tend to project their ideals onto people who don’t share them, and although King is aware of this, there are times when she does it herself. Refugees and other irregular migrants are often in desperate circumstances; they will turn to anybody offering them help. Far from turning away from the state, many are looking to regain the protection that citizenship affords. ‘I can talk about no borders, rights for all and stuff. But I also remember what it was like when I didn’t have these rights,’ Nasim, an Athens-based activist originally from Afghanistan, tells King.
There is also a tendency among No Borders activists to overstate the differences between their work and that of established humanitarian organisations. King sees her activism as prefiguring a new world that will come about through the coalescence of lots of little initiatives – or, as she puts it, ‘a multitude of micro-refusals that are connected to each other rhizomatically and in their connections render the state more and more redundant’. Personally, I don’t think that’s what is happening. I think that whenever solidarity is expressed, whether it’s in the form of a No Borders squat, a legal charity suing the government to make them take in refugee children, a large NGO mounting rescue operations in the Mediterranean or, crucially, the networks people on the move set up themselves in order to survive, a different kind of refusal is being made: a refusal to let our behaviour towards others be governed by categories imposed from above. This is less about a particular end – ‘no borders’ – than an approach to the world as it is, to act ‘without borders’. For most, this is a necessary defence against a system they have little say in, but there is nothing in principle to stop political parties and leaders embracing a new way of thinking, or even changing the system itself. ‘Are humans defined primarily by our attachments to place or by movement?’ Reece Jones asks at the end of Violent Borders. I’m not sure a choice has to be made. People develop attachments to places, they move, they develop attachments to new places, and to new people. If you think people have a right to do that, then the question is how to support it. If you don’t, then you need to ask yourself: what level of violence are you prepared to tolerate to keep people in their place?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.