Children of Men: The European refugee crisis is a European crisis of conscience


Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias, Lesvos, Greece (2015). Photo by Georgios Giannopoulos, Ggia (Own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

By P.J. Marcelino, with Maria João Ferreira and Natalia Lippmann Mazzaglia

(This blog post is based on the authors’ chapter titled ‘Liminality and Migrant Decision-Making in the Aftermath of the Political and Refugee Crises in the Mediterranean, 2010-2013’, published in the book Understanding Migrant Decisions, Belachew Gebrewold and Tendayi Bloom, Eds. Routledge 2016. Special thanks to Pablo Ceriani Cernadas.)

Shocking as they are individually, tragic shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea are hardly a novelty. Yet, the sheer number of migrants traversing in increasingly unseaworthy vessels, following first the civil unrest in Libya and Tunisia, then the civil war in Syria caught segments of civil society in Europe unaware, scaring many, riling up others a state quickly taken advantage of by the egotistical political classes on the right.

By early 2010, an agreement European leaders had celebrated with Libyan dictator Muhammad Gaddafi to contain migrants on his side of the Mediterranean – by whatever means – had ended with the general’s fall from grace. A variety of highly elastic Mediterranean routes quickly mushroomed across the Sahara and in the space between Libya, Tunisia, Italy and Malta. Overnight, the depressing spectacle of ships sinking with desperate human lives aboard became an all-too-common occurrence in the 8 o’clock news. Infants trampled to death one day, 700 migrants feared drowned the following, young men thrown overboard by unscrupulous traffickers, scores of women and children whose eyes suggest severe PTSD.

In living rooms across Europe, first slowly, then like a wildfire, outrage became desensitization, this became indifference, and it became rage and defensiveness.

By the time the Syrian war had become the major hotspot in the Mediterranean, not only was the European citizenry desensitized, its leadership had also worked intensely and knowingly to dehumanize people who, by all accounts, were in sheer need of assistance. As thousands of Syrians streamed out of the country, traversing Turkey and heading to the Balkans, few questions were asked about their neighbourhoods bombed by Assads forces, about the summary executions at the hands of one of many groups of rebels, or about the rebels’ use of civilian populations as human shields; nothing was asked about the misery and desolation Syria had become. As refugees reached the borders of Eastern Europe, the concept itself was emptied of meaning. To many Europeans, refugeeno longer meant a human being in need of assistance, rather cruel irony a dangerous extremist who ought to be kept out. Border securitization and militarization quickly followed.

While some European politicians led the way and attempted to do the right thing (e.g., Angela Merkel in Germany, and Munichs mayor), their efforts and rational arguments were drowned by a choir of fearful voices from right-leaning politicians, sensationalist media, and the public at large. They caved in.

If, at first, the unbelievable destruction in Libya and Syria were difficult to comprehend, what followed took Europe back to memories of its darkest moments: across the Balkans, and beyond, police and even military forces were deployed to keep refugees out. Thousands of people were marched by foot across various countries, escorted by armed police. Extreme groups gathered to protest against these corridors of scared refugees. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used when patience gave way to despair and parents rebelled against a predicament they were forced to accept. Portable fences were raised across many borders, patrolled by men with automatic guns, walking German shepherds. Overnight, the reality in the centre of Europe changed to something between the post-World War II reality and the utterly shocking and authoritarian migratory management methods portrayed in the dystopian fiction film Children of Men.

None of this should come as a surprise. It hints of a European crisis of conscience that is compounding not one but various migration crises across the Mediterranean. Its roots can be traced to discourses being developed for a long time, somewhere between a securitarian narrative (approaching policy problems as security questions and, more specifically, as security threats) and, increasingly, an ecological narrative (highlighting how the social perception of such a question is constitutive of the policy options designed for it).


Arrival of refugees in Dobova, Slovenia. Photo by the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Slovenia (MO RS) or Slovenian Armed Forces. Wikimedia Commons.

The ecological narrative constitutes a most extreme version of the securitarian approach since it considers that migrants endanger the nature of their host states understood as political communities. Migrants are discursively constructed as othersthat can no longer be integrated in the social, economic and political tissue of their European host communities. This is the official discourse from extremist political parties from the Front National in France, to UKIP in the UK, to Lega Nord in Italy, and the media that support them. It is not only border security that is at stake it is now the very essence of the host state(s) as a political and cultural community that is perceived as being endangered.

With every new shipwreck or rescue at sea, with every new terrorist attack in Madrid, London, Paris, Brussels, now Nice and southern Germany this narrative becomes easier to explain for unscrupulous parties such as these. The doubt remaining is if they function merely as conveyor belts for the dangerous ideas they espouse, or if they are indeed mirrors that reflect ideas already present in society. The cross-pollination of political discourse, media discourse and public opinion obfuscates the true nature of these recent developments and, unnervingly, suggests that there is indeed a struggle for the good conscience of Europe, its citizens, and its institutions.

This Kafkaesque state of exception is engulfing refugees; whether or not they agree to the norms, they are the subjects of regulations drafted for them but about which they have no say. The blurring of the lines between political, media, and public opinion discourses about them creates the conditions to substantiate aggressive policies, and the acceptance by the citizenry of Europe of policies that would have been unthinkable only 20 years ago. In other words, entire vulnerable populations are being relegated to what Judith Butler noted as unimportant or precarious lives, or to what Giorgio Agamben called bare life, unilaterally subjected to and analysed as the mere receivers of normative dispositions, which severely conditions their individual, familial, and collective growth.

At its core, what we are addressing here is the erasure of the feelings of the Other as missing individuals in post-modern societies, namely in Europe. As an ideology, racism and xenophobia are less a consequence of knowledge about the other, and more a lack of knowledge about the identity of the other. As such, diffuse feelings are transformed into conviction and emboldened political action, perhaps explaining the vitriolic nature of the social subtext surrounding the refugee crisis.

This discourse is, no doubt, fuelled by misconceptions, does not seek to understand motivations and identities, and pushes migrants and refugees to stigmatized spaces of foreignness, precariousness, illegality, and criminality. This scarcity or total absence of points of contact between migrants and host societies, strengthened by a structural institutional state of unbelonging is, we argue, a functional tool of biopolitics, and a Trojan Horse helping to establish the normality of a permanent state of exception applicable only to irregular migrant populations, whose consent was never sought, and who, thus, involuntarily send home a message of discouragement. However, as it is evident by the increasing number of migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, this strategy is neither successful in subduing migrants living in a liminal state such as detention centres nor in deterring peers from joining them. Ironically, while the former group looks forward to life outside the centres, the latter willingly dreams of a life inside them, seen as a stepping stone to the liminality which, in time, may bring about the expected results: legal recognition. Such is the Kafkaesque reality of Europe in the 21st century.

Network and migrant experience theory indicate, as Robin Cohen reminds us, that once someone has migrated internationally, he or she is likely to do so again, leading to repeated movements over time. However, in the current environment along the shores of the Mediterranean, this choice is tantamount to jumping from the frying pan to the fire. With conflict and extremist violence looming all across the Middle East and in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and affecting the safety and the livelihood of millions of people, it is reasonable common sense that any human being with dreams, aspirations, with a family to protect, would consider leaving, if given the choice. Many particularly the young, on whose shoulders the well-being of an extended family often rests have been shown to consider this option in spite of the hazards along the way. Risk itself is arguably not a significant deterrent; creating the conditions for safety and fair livelihood at home are. In the greater scheme of things, many will arguably continue to take the risk because in places like Syria, the conditions for permanence are simply not there, nor will they be in the foreseeable future.

Owen Fiss argues, on integration, that at least for those already within a given polity, the point is not to subvert the administration process or otherwise open the borders, but to insist that laws regarding admission cannot be enforced or implemented in ways that would transform immigrants into pariahs. To do so would be the worst mistake in contemporary European history, both for the extreme injustice imposed on people who merit protection and compassion, and for what it would reveal about the ugly subtext of contemporary European polities an echo of dark, dark times.

Republished with cooperation and permission of the editors. 

Read other posts in this series

Read other blog posts by the editor of this series, Tendayi Bloom

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