When Europe’s “refugee crisis” hit a few years ago, it triggered a wave of solidarity actions by organisations and citizens. People organised convoys to refugee reception centres and lined highways to provide food to those making the journey from Syria and elsewhere. Now those same activists are treated as criminals. A combination of tighter EU rules, the actions of national police and the menace of far right activists has created a very different environment.
A recent report from the Transnational Institute observed: “Today solidarity with migrants is a crime. Save people from drowning in cold waters and you are a human trafficker. Open a shelter for stranded people in an abandoned train station and you are a trespasser. Give food to the hungry and you are a threat to hygiene standards.” It detected “a wide pattern of systematic intimidation and repression across the European Union.”
In the last few years, the EU and the Italian government especially have poured money into the hands of militias now tasked with preventing refugees’ departures from Libya, a largely lawless country since 2011. Migrants who have spent time in Libyan camps speak of arbitrary detention, rape, enslavement and conditions that amount to torture. In November, the Guardian reported that child refugees were facing abuse and malnutrition in a network of 26 Libyan detention centres, partly funded by the UK government.
This outsourcing of European border security extends to other African countries. Its neo-colonial character was underlined by the fact that the EU is now making its allocation of development aid conditional on African governments’ cooperation in patrolling borders, reducing migration flows, and complying with the EU forced returns policy. The Italian government in particular negotiates with criminals and militias to prevent migrants escaping. Traffickers have been turned into border guards, who use their weapons to sink migrant boats. Worse, resources for this are often taken from funds intended to help poorer countries develop.
There are obvious similarities between the treatment of refugees seeking to enter Europe and those crossing Central America to the US border. The lives of both are controlled by criminal gangs and “kidnappings, sexual violence, and even murder are all common along the way.”
Humanitarian missions to help refugees have been ruthlessly targeted. In November, the Italian government seized the Aquarius, a ship jointly operated by SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières, which rescues migrants from the sea. The pretext was that the crew had left “potentially infected” rubbish at Italian ports - namely asylum seekers’ clothing. Another ship was stormed by Libyan ‘guards’ firing rubber bullets, injuring several migrants.
Rome’s ‘Baobab’ centre, an informal shelter for refugees, has been raided multiple times by police. Water cannon has been used, just as Trump used tear gas against migrants on the US border. And just as the US has reduced the number of legal crossing points, the EU has herded migrants into ‘hotspots’, such as the notorious camp on Lesbos, to ensure the systematic registration and fingerprinting of people. Migrants from countries considered ‘safe’ are issued with deportation orders, without being informed of their right to claim asylum. Amnesty International reports allegations of the use of force and beatings, as well as “the denial of basic assistance including medical care, food and water” to obtain fingerprints.
Meanwhile, French police have stepped up attempts to drive refugees out of Calais, with camp evictions running at a record 20 clearances a week, according to Calais: the police harassment of volunteers, a report compiled by several volunteer organisations. French authorities carried out 78 separate camp clearances in October and 77 in September, causing unprecedented hardship for the 1,500 refugees.
British taxpayers again foot the bill. In January 2018, the British government gave France £44.5 million to prevent the reconstruction of refugee camps in Calais. Here too, volunteers face obstruction on a daily basis, including police intimidation. The report logs 646 incidents, ranging from systematic identity checks to parking fines, threats, insults and physical violence.
This institutional degrading of migrants has fuelled a rightwing populism resulting in electoral success in Hungary, Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Equally dispiriting is the degree of unity across the political elite in demonising refugees seeking a better life. Xenophobic Italian Interior minister Matteo Salvini praised his centre-left predecessor for his “good work” on migration, just as the centrist French government colluded with Marine Le Pen to pass a repressive anti-asylum law. Hillary Clinton is just the latest moderate to tell Europe to further curb migration to head off the right wing surge. By failing to challenge the discourse of dehumanisation, such rhetoric only feeds the far right’s growth.
Eighty years ago Nicholas Winton rescued over 600 mainly Jewish children in a kinder transport from Czechoslovakia. Fifteen years ago he was knighted for services to humanity. Under today’s EU rules, he would be arrested as a people trafficker.