The EU ‘migrant deal’ will ruin tens of thousands of lives

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The world has been appalled at Trump’s treatment of migrants over the last two weeks. We’re haunted by pictures of traumatised kids, forcibly separated from their parents and kept in holding cages.That this policy is spearheaded by a superrich egomaniac in the world’s richest country only reinforces our disgust.

But if we’re angry with Trump, we must show equal anger towards our own governments here in Europe. The ‘migrant deal’ with the EU will ruin tens of thousands of lives in just the way Trump is doing. And as in the US, it represents something bigger: a tearing up of post-world war rules designed to ensure we never repeat the horrors of the 1930s and 40s.

The EU deal is carefully worded and vague, but with clear themes. The main one is the drive to outsource the migration ‘problem’ to places poorer than Europe. Hence we return to the infamous EU-Turkey deal under which Turkey was handed billions of euros to keep and process migrants for the EU. This deal, done with Erdogan, a dictator who grows more brutal by the day, shows no regard for migrant welfare and renders it near impossible for the EU to properly respond to Erdogan’s crackdown on democratic institutions and war on his Kurdish population. Now, the EU urges full implementation of that shoddy deal.

In North Africa, things look worse still. Libya, a country sent into political collapse by the 2011 British-French military expedition, is a major transit route for migrants seeking entry to Europe. Detention centres in that country have been plagued by the most horrifying reports of starvation, beatings, rape and slavery.

If a stable and prosperous Europe claims it is struggling to deal with migrants, it seems unlikely that a country with few governing institutions will be able to help. Yet now, the EU wants to expand these experiments, with more “regional disembarkation platforms” in African countries. Unsurprisingly, African countries don’t seem keen, and the UN high commissioner for refugees has said: “Africa has enough problems to deal with… [the EU] has all the capacities to manage this flow in a fair way, without putting the burden on [a] poorer region that already hosts many refugees”. But arm-twisting and bribery, likely through aid money, will now start in earnest to ensure they retain migrants that Europe has a duty to help.  

A second major theme in yesterday’s statement is the need for more ‘processing centres’ within Europe itself to speed up transfer and deportation. Certainly processes will be necessary to deal with new arrivals, though the horror stories from immigration centres in the UK alone should be ample warning about the need for a very serious rethink about how this is done. It is inexcusable for those fleeing horror to be met by more horror. Where migrants require resettlement they need proper resources and help, as do some of the regions of Europe receiving migrants.  

While yesterday’s discussion on migration has been forced on the European Commission by the inexcusable actions of the fascists in the Italian government – refusing their international duty to let ships of asylum seekers dock – it is also true that the EU’s rules on migration have forced Mediterranean countries to bear too great a burden. Italy and Greece, already forced into  Commission-imposed austerity, cannot possibly be expected to deal with migration on their own simply because migrants are supposed to register in the country they first enter. Greek and Italian citizens have done heroic work to help save tens of thousands of lives. They are joined by Valencia and other Spanish cities that have now pledged to take ships. They should be rewarded and supported by the EU.

This also means all European countries helping out. Britain has been a particular laggard in his respect, and indeed Britain’s blocking of a quota system at a much earlier stage, which could have prevented things getting to this place, needs to be remembered. The statement only reaffirms that migrants cannot move from the place where they first entered the EU, with only a vague reference to the need for “responsibility and solidarity”.     

Europe’s responsibility comes not only from the fact that it’s one of the wealthiest parts of the world, albeit one that has experienced a decade of unnecessary austerity which has forced Europe’s poorest to pick up the tab for the financial crimes of the richest. It is also that, to this day, Europe’s foreign and economic policies continue to fuel conflict and war, unfair trading relationships and enforced austerity on developing country after developing country. What people are fleeing, is precisely what our governments have created.

A third element of the EU’s deal does indeed point to the need to assist in the “socio-economic transformation of the African continent.” This is all very well, except Europe’s understanding of ‘transformation’ has usually been about extraction – more investment from Europe, more trade with Europe, more ways to ease out the precious resources we all depend on. Only a dramatic rethink – a transformation in European policy towards the rest of the world – can actually start closing the inequality gap and allow African countries to keep the resources they need for their own development.

The EU deal is written as if Europe is surrounded by a bit of barbed wire which needs some reinforcement. But Europe’s borders are not porous – they’re some of the most aggressively defended borders in the world. That’s why more than 3,000 people died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, over 5,000 in 2016. These are clearly very desperate people fleeing war and conflict, or utter economic hopelessness. Harder borders still will not ‘put them off’ trying to reach a life of safety and dignity. It just means more people will suffer and die. Not that that bothers the populists using this issue to gain political power.

The international rules on asylum do indeed need updating. After all, what is really the moral difference between fleeing war and fleeing starvation?  But the EU’s deal represents a backward step – an attempt to further erode the post-war rules aimed at ensuring human rights for all people. Fortunately, across Latin America and Africa, experiments with freer forms of movement are taking place – and working.

Giving in to the howls of the far right will only bring us closer to a modern fascism. To fight it, we must instead respect the rights of all peoples as part of a deep transformation of Europe which can replace fear, anger and hatred with peace, equality and solidarity.  

Nick Dearden is the Director of Global Justice Now

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