Op-Ed: Collateral damage? The high price to pay for halting mixed migration

Despite the predictions that mixed and irregular migration was unstoppable and inevitable and part of the new global reality brought on by the inequality of the world economic and political order, the last 4 years have seen dramatic reductions in flows into Europe. This has been achieved by a combination of policies and strategies that are not only questionable from an ethical, legal and practical perspective and do nothing to change the prevailing conditions that compel or tempt people to move, but, they also cause additional harm to some of the most vulnerable and victimised people on the planet. This is not to suggest there have not been fine minds with benign intentions formulating agreements and declarations that defend and support those in mixed migration flows. There have been, but the realpolitik has brought us to a strange place that only a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable.

The current situation could be analogous to the effect of aggressive bouncers outside entrances of elite clubs – those members inside enjoying the facilities may not be aware of what goes on to restrict access and, if they are aware, they prefer not to think about it for too long or examine the details. Regrettable but necessary perhaps? And whose fault is it if club membership is restricted for those uninvited? But, extending the analogy, we see that the bouncers are clearly employed by the ‘club’ and so the impact of their actions must also be the responsibility of the members.

An extraordinary 15-minute film recently released by the New York Times’s Opinion Video team and the research groups Forensic Architecture and Forensic Oceanography, reconstructs a tragedy at sea that left at least 20 migrants dead. Combining footage from more than 10 cameras, 3-D modelling and interviews with rescuers and survivors, the documentary shows Europe’s role in the migrant crisis at sea by highlighting their relationship with Libyan coast guards. The evidence is damning and forces us to re-examine the moral and legal acceptability of a policy that directly causes harm – the much documented detention and torture and even death –  to refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

The film offers striking visual evidence to support earlier reports published by different rights organisations concluding that ‘the EU is turning a blind eye to the suffering caused by its callous immigration policies that outsource border control to Libya’.

Compare the situation today with the chaotic, jubilant and even defiant flows in 2015 and 2016 when over a million people came into Europe using irregular pathways, many using smugglers to cross land and seas. A huge majority of those were asylum seekers fleeing war and oppression and more than 50 percent were offered sanctuary in European countries, but not without strong political reactions. Since then many previously welcoming countries have clamped down heavily to prevent any repeat.

Apart from the billions of Euro given to governments or government entities or spend in countries such as Sudan, Niger and Turkey with dire human rights records, deals and agreements have been made with the express intention of halting mobility often under the guise of combating the ‘crime’ of migrant smuggling. Denying ports of entry to asylum seekers rescued at sea and making it hard for NGOs to operate to save lives are all part of the deterrent policies.

Of course, efforts to disrupt and suppress migrant smuggling is only treating the symptom of the problem and does nothing to solve the more elusive and entrenched ‘root causes’ of why people feel compelled to leave and why they use smugglers. The Mixed Migration Centre is imminently releasing a study comparing the long-standing ‘war against drugs’ with the new war against smuggling and its findings will make the same point.

Europe is by no means alone. Strong, recent action taken by the United States against asylum seekers and migrants and the impact of ‘turn back’ and detention policies of Australia have been roundly condemned for their harsh outcomes. In August 2017 the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, released the report, Unlawful death of refugees and migrants. Identifying most policies as efforts to deter access, Callamard stated that, “Deterrence policies are punitive, including policies ranging from securing the more accessible border entry points — thereby purposefully funnelling the migration flows into more hazardous terrain — to the imposition of strict detention and return policies.”

The vindictive and careless treatment of migrants and refugees has been documented in recent years in a wide range of countries including Algeria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, Mexico to name a few, but this article particularly highlights the impact of the policies by OECD countries and those countries whose laws and norms are built around high respect for non-discrimination and rights. The risk to these countries, and Europe as a bloc, is that they have adopted strategies whose outcomes can be described as morally bankrupt and tarnish their image as beacons in the defence of human rights.

Something is very wrong when the results of detention on Greek Islands or return to Libya by the rough hands of EU-funded and trained coast guards, or the undocumented action against migrants and refugees in Sudan’s deserts by the so-called Rapid Support Forces (previously of Janjaweed notoriety) are severe human rights violations. By any reckoning those who have directly or indirectly encouraged, instigated and funded, or at very least ‘turned a blind eye’ to violations must bear some of the responsibility. Insofar that the electorate of these policy-making countries do not protest against or resist these policies they too must bear responsibility. As so often in this contemporary globalised world we find we are all involved and need to take care we are not choosing to be on what some call the ‘wrong side of history’.

And so, the inconvenient truth of the apparent success of reducing irregular flows by a range of policies including outsourcing and externalising border controls is that it comes at a high human and ethical price. Politicians battling with the rise of the anti-migrant and anti-asylum Right and populism in otherwise liberal societies have made choices that privilege pragmatism against principle and exemplify the ‘liberal paradox’ of so-called open and rights-based societies. Their approach may have support from their electorate but it does not exculpate responsibility.

Whether the strengthened and militarised borders, outsourced policies and strategies that allow ‘bouncers’ to keep uninvited people out of sight and out of mind are lasting or viable solutions is still uncertain. For now, they provide a short-term respite to what may still be an inevitable rise in demand for mobility – forced and voluntary – but let us be clear that the moral and legal compromises made are very real and often deadly, and undermine many values we think we espouse.