Monthly Archives: February 2016

Macedonia’s Illegal Fictions

Just as I expected a few days ago, the government of Macedonia has caved in to Austria’s demands and closed their Greek border to Afghan refugees. In order to do this, they declared that Afghans are “economic migrants” and not refugees, thus unable to apply for asylum.  Now Afghans will effectively be trapped in Greece, or have to find another border to cross – perhaps Bulgaria, Albania, or the old route, getting themselves smuggled under trucks on ferries going to Italy.  Apparently this policy, if you can call it that, went into effect at the border but none of the Afghans knew, so they traveled all the way to the Greek-Macedonian border only to find it not letting any Afghans across.

All this, of course, is less than 25 years since refugees from the former Yugoslavia fanned out across Europe.  I guess they think some wars are wars, when it happens to them, while other wars are just economic disturbances.

A legal fiction, for those who don’t know the term, is something that is considered to be legally true, or that can be deemed true under some legal system, even if not actually, demonstrably, or empirically true.  So for example there’s the legal fiction that the main building on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and their visitors are legally in New York, even though all one needs to do is look on the map to see they are, actually, clearly well within New Jersey territorial waters.

So in order to skirt international law, the Macedonian government has just created its own legal fiction, by making its own legal determination, not only absent evidence but ignoring the evidence on the ground, that all Afghans coming to Europe are coming for economic reasons and that the country is a perfectly safe place to live with no persecution on religious, political, or ethnic grounds. In fact, a Macedonian minister interviewed on the BBC said that refugees “fleeing conflict” were being permitted to move on, so it’s not even that they claim all Afghans don’t face persecution, but they are pretending there is no armed conflict in Afghanistan. As the BBC pointed out, 90% of those arriving in Greece come from three countries with active armed conflict: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Now, to be fair, various European countries have been deporting asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan for years, especially the U.K., but also Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and others, with the claim that Afghanistan is now safe for them.  And Greece has sent Afghans back to Turkey and from there they have gone back to Afghanistan, under the same way of thinking.  They claim that in these specific cases, the migrants have not established they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution, the legal standard.  And also, to be fair, not all Afghans are fleeing individual persecution, but a combination of violence, conflict, the danger of ethnic and insurgent violence, and an infrastructure and economy that are struggling to rebuild after 35 years of invasion and war, going back to the Soviets. Then again, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees were resettled worldwide back in the 1980s after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power and there was no danger of continued genocide.  So the precedent is there, and the Afghanistan conflict remains much hotter now than Cambodia was then, and there is both Taliban and ISIS activity ongoing.

But the arbitrariness of Macedonia’s declaration, which comes both at the behest of another country, Austria, and which effectively dams up tens of thousands of migrants in Greece, is both a humanitarian and a policy disaster.  Having no legal authority to block refugees under international law, they just create what I am calling an “illegal fiction” and simply declare that Afghans are economic migrants not refugees, as if they know or are even qualified to judge.

One has to wonder where the policy logic is in any of this.  Greece is arguably the least well-equipped developed European country to handle tens of thousands of Afghan migrants over a longterm period, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and others arriving at this time.  There is high unemployment and the government can barely afford services to their own people who are still living under austerity plans they rejected, leaders of the anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi party are on trial for coordinated violence while other members still sit in Parliament, and there is neither the space, the money, nor the political will to construct and staff massive concentration camps on the islands or the mainland, even if that were an option anyone could get behind.  The only possible logic can be that this is supposed to be some kind of deterrent that is going to keep refugees from entering Central and Western Europe.  To be more speculative and diabolical, this could also be another way of destabilizing, and hence bringing down, the ruling Greek leftist government (which has also been slow to respond to refugee needs in general).  This is not such a farfetched idea because Greece is being excluded from Austrian-led meetings of ten Eastern/Balkan/Central European countries to develop an immigration policy. There must be some reason why the country receiving the biggest frontline refugee influx would be excluded from policy talks.  And to be even more cynical, the desperate conditions in Greece will only cause more refugees to turn to crime to survive, which will further contribute to negative views people hold about them and about immigrants to Europe in general (as if they already didn’t espouse anti-immigrant sentiment), a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts which will also predictably play further into nativist hands.

In other words, instead of trying to find a response that is moral, humanitarian, and legal as well as practical, this creates a fiction that is convenient for Western European governments and their xenophobic backers, with little or no thought to the outcomes of the ensuing chaos or misery.

More broadly, we are living at a time, perhaps, and not just in Europe, where even democratically elected governments and competing political parties simply make things up when the evidence doesn’t suit their agendas.  Historically, we are used to that from dictatorships and some royalty as well, but I can’t think of a time  at least in the last 40 years, when so many parties and so many governments simply ignored empirical reality when it suited them.  (OK, maybe during justifications for colonial regimes.)  But democracies are supposed to stand for something more transparent; as they say publicly, the best defense against a bad idea is a better argument, especially one that is based on empirical reality rather than one based solely on wishful thinking.

It’s not just a question of a “fact-checking” the way we sometimes see after debates and interviews in the U.S, usually over three or four small points, because that’s all there is time for on the broadcast.  But rather it’s become a matter of bending reality to suit one’s political ambitions.  We have seen this in war reporting, for example, since at least as far back as Vietnam.  So if it’s too inconvenient, costly, or time-consuming to guarantee people can exercise their human rights and their right to speak the truth about what they went through, and if big brother countries like Austria are providing incentives for you to follow their directives, then just change the status of refugees to migrants and you don’t have to worry about any of their rights at all.

Which is to say, if you can’t round them up at sea, or block them between Turkey and Greece with the help of NATO, or you can’t make them just disappear, you do the next best thing and just declare unilaterally: You’re not refugees, you’re economic migrants. Never mind that the government of Macedonia doesn’t have the standing (or the knowledge) to make decisions like this that supersede the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or the Geneva Convenion on Refugees, or even EU regulations on asylum.  This simple declaration forces the refugees to lose a whole bunch of rights and protections that they had been afforded in the first place under international law.

What’s the most efficient way to circumvent international human rights and make it look legal?  This is.  When the truth doesn’t suit your needs, make it up.


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Filed under Afghans, Austria, Europe, Greece, Human rights, Policy


Europe is now bordering on the delusional.  Unable or unwilling to cope with the recent refugee influx, or to acknowledge the right of people to seek asylum from persecution, or the root causes of the wars driving people into Europe, various European governments have simply decided that wishing people away is the most viable solution to the problem.  If we can just prevent people from coming or staying here, the thinking goes, there won’t be a refugee crisis anymore.  Poof!  Who the hell cares what the consequences are?  Poof!

As if that weren’t bad enough though, this wishful thinking is backed up by the power and military force of the state, so that forced deportations and bulldozing of people’s homes becomes the only option to carry out these fantasies.

The latest news, as reported by The Guardian, is that the Prefect of Calais has ordered some one thousand refugees, mostly from Syria and Iraq, living in “The Jungle” trying to get to the UK, to vanish, or voluntarily be moved into heated shipping containers where they can sleep.  Their sector of the Jungle will be bulldozed on Tuesday.  This represents about one-quarter of the residents of The Jungle, which reportedly has grown into its own town, complete with restaurants, shops, and mosques.  But, you know, the Prefect, Fabienne Buccio, said, it gives Calais a bad image.  So she follows the enlightened path of the Greek government, which bulldozed a similar camp in Patras in 2008.  But – surprise – refugees don’t disappear.  Eight humanitarian aid agencies, as well as prominent signatories of a letter to David Cameron, oppose this forced relocation.

Perhaps it is ironic that the Prefect’s own grandfather was a refugee to France fleeing Fascism in Italy before the Second World War.  But he was white and Western European, which makes all the difference.  She claims Jane Austen and Colette as her favorite writers, but maybe she should have spent a little more time reading Victor Hugo or Émile Zola, I wonder.

So exactly where these thousand or so refugees, nearly 300 of whom are unaccompanied children, are going to go is still unsolved.  Shipping containers?  More crowded conditions elsewhere in The Jungle?  Britain?  Jails?  Or hit the road again?  Not our problem!  Just make them go away and our problem will be solved.

Meanwhile, on the border between Central and Eastern Europe, another example of delusional wish-fulfillment politics is unfolding.  The government of Austria, which actually had been one of the better countries in terms of welcoming refugees, and rarely deporting Afghan refugees for example, has now set a limit on asylum applications for next year, after 90,000 applications last year.  The limit on the number of people who can apply this year is about half that, and as for the rest, well, they can just disappear.  The Austrian government has told the Macedonian government – which, last time I checked has no border with Austria – to “completely stop” the flow of refugees crossing from Greece into Macedonia.  Just stop them, Macedonia!  Stop them!

And so, where are they going to go again?  Oh right, now that NATO is involved, there aren’t going to be refugees coming into Europe anymore, they’ll be blocked between Turkey and Greece.  Uh-huh.  Or maybe they won’t come at all!

Obviously, in all seriousness, these governments can’t possibly be as naive as they are coming across.  They have access to many more researchers of migration than a lonely little voice like me, but all of them are going to agree that stopping the flow of the mass migration of humans is an impossible task.  It’s never been done in human history, and example after example historically shows that you can dam up flows, and you can make migration more dangerous and lethal – which they’ve already done – but people are always going to find a way to get through.  And all this is aside from the underlying moral (and in this case legal) question that you can’t in good conscience deny people the right to flee from war and persecution, especially when you’ve, at a minimum, specifically signed and enacted laws that commit governments to providing humanitarian protection. Not to mention how unconscionable it is to block the escape of civilians, when your countries are participating in those wars, if not initiating them or even – the great unspoken – fueling and profiting from them by providing arms either directly or through private enterprise.

Too bad those refugees are just so damn inconvenient.  As I’ve said before and will say again, let’s never forget that immigrants of any kind, settled and integrated, end up being a net economic gain for their adopted countries.

But the dangerous logic that has become dominant is that if we can just stop refugee flows, we don’t have a refugee problem. That assumes on some level this is voluntary, a result of a choice. But this is pure fantasy.  If they won’t stop coming, they can be legislated away, stored in shipping containers, deported, fenced out, turned back at sea – then they will just stop coming.  The problem is that, even if that were morally justifiable, there’s no evidence it has ever happened that way.  It’s time for solutions that are based in reality, morally responsive, and actually forward-thinking in coming up with ideas that will benefit refugees as well as the residents, new and old, of their new communities and neighborhoods.

And of course the other part of the fantasy is that Europe is going to be a place of peace and prosperity for refugees, where they can finally put the traumas of the past safely behind them.

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Filed under Austria, Europe, France, Militarism, Squatter communities, Syrians

The Aegean: Military Responses Cannot Solve Humanitarian Crises

There are some times in refugee policy and crises when the world’s nations reveal their true colors.  The problem is it’s happening with such frequency these days it’s hard to keep up.  Granted, I wrote about Denmark two weeks ago and should have followed up with a post about Sweden’s new policies in the interim, but haven’t had the time.  But when it comes to hypocrisy, Greece and Turkey abhor a vacuum., and now both are taking steps to make the humanitarian refugee crisis in the eastern Aegean go from bad to worse.

According to yesterday’s New York Times, that celebrated humanitarian organization, NATO, is now getting involved to patrol for refugees fleeing to Europe via Turkey, or as the Times headline puts it, to “deter human trafficking.”  First of all, before we even get to the moral arguments, just on the facts this is all wrong.  What is happening in the Aegean is not “human trafficking”; by definition, “trafficking” is the coerced movement of people by smugglers for the purpose of labor or other exploitation.  While “smuggling” refers to all movement of people by agents across borders without proper documents or inspection, “trafficking” specifically means there is an element of coercion, and usually exploitation involved.  (And in fact, traffickers can also sometimes move people across borders legally, because people can enter a country with a work visa only to find out that the job they were promised bears no resemblance to the job in which they (usually she) find themselves caught – sex work, domestic work, indentured servitude, farm labor.)  That is not what is going on between Turkey and Greece.  The vast majority of migrants passing from Turkey to Greece are from Syria and Afghanistan and are fleeing war, and while there are also political refugees and economic migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries, the numbers of people being involuntarily or coercively “trafficked” is quite small.  Calling it “trafficking” wrongly categorizes the migration as labor exploitation when in fact, as we well know, in most cases it’s about escape from war and persecution.

So just on its face, this is not a mission that calls for a police or military solution.  That said, the mission as described is going to have three objectives.  One is to interdict the refugees at sea.  What will be done with them is as yet unspecified, but since they will not yet set foot on European soil, it’s unlikely NATO will kindly usher them to land where they acquire the legal rights they are seeking. They will probably be the big losers in this, and will, in order to avoid capture by NATO, engage in riskier crossings and maneuvers.  More refugees are going to die in the process of the crossing.

Second, the mission is to break up the smugglers’ networks and to put them out of business.  But then what?  The fantasy depiction of the situation that the major governments would have us believe is that the smugglers are taking advantage of the refugees – and they are, but only because other, legal options are simply not available.  If you are stuck in a refugee camp in Turkey, or in Jordan, Lebanon, still inside Syria, or in Iran or Pakistan in the case of Afghans, it’s not like there’s a place you can fill out an application to get to Europe.  If you need to flee, your choice is a refugee camp – for five or ten years or even longer – or trying to get somewhere better so you and your children can have a future.  Even if you have relatives already in Europe, countries are now lengthening family reunion times, even though that is directly contravened under the Geneva Convention.  Refugees turn to smugglers not because they are coerced, but because smugglers are their last, and sometimes only, resort.  Arrest them and put them out of business, and then what?  People who are desperate to survive are going to find a way, a way that will likely be even more dangerous.  NATO nations’ belief that putting smugglers out of business is going to solve the problem is fatuous.  Smugglers will become more devious, more dangerous and violent (this is what has happened in Mexico), more expensive, and the routes will become riskier and more roundabout.

This new policy then is another example of disingenuousness on the part of the major world powers, who identify the smugglers and their networks as the main problem, preying on refugees.  And to be sure, there is nothing lower than someone who knowingly makes and sells defective life-jackets to refugees or who sexually abuses migrants.  But more important is to focus on the fact that the smugglers don’t create the refugee “problem”; smugglers exist and profit because there are no legal alternatives in response to at least two of the greatest human catastrophes of the past 75 years.  That’s what no world leader (outside of the U.N., like Antonio Guterres) is going to admit: the problem is there are millions of displaced civilians trying to survive, either in their own country (Syria, where they are subject to hunger as well as bombardment and possible persecution), or in neighboring countries (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where they may live in camps but will likely face a decade or more of enforced poverty and a precarious and unproductive future).  The only “legal” channel for moving to a country where they can integrate and be economically productive is resettlement, which typically takes at least five years, and even then for a tiny percentage of refugees at most.  (Last year only 100,000 were resettled out of a worldwide population of over 18 million recognized refugees.)  Smuggling is the symptom, because there are no realistic or safe alternatives within the legal system.  Arresting a few smugglers, even a few hundred, is not going to mend the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, nor is it going to address the real issue which is providing not only safe but decent places for people to settle and get on with their lives or to return to their postwar homes.  These fictions – that the smugglers are the problem, and that, as the mayor of  Lesbos told France24 in an interview, the need is to get Turkey to stop “sending” refugees to Greece – are convenient for finger-pointing purposes but are small diversions from the central problem.  Our political leaders know this.  Millions of people have been displaced by fighting and there are no practical avenues to help them survive in dignified and safe living conditions where they can continue their productive lives in careers or as parents, or where they can provide sufficient nutrition or education for their children.

Third, then, if you read the Times article  further, is that the ultimate objective is to disrupt the flow of refugees to Europe, which is what this is really about.  Europe, which is only receiving about 15% of the refugees (85% of whom remain in the Middle East), wants to protect their wealth and their illusion of homogeneity, in short, their privilege as European nation-states, even colonizing ones.  The big fear is that the refugees dislodged by civil war and European and American invasion (even the centrist Thomas L. Friedman as much as admits this, but more on him later), are going to bring the problems they face back to Europe, on a grand scale.  Keep the refugees out and it’s not really your problem, even if you then magnanimously donate funds to their humanitarian relief in tent cities and camps.  It’s really just an act of glorified xenophobia, with the phony and transparent veneer of claiming it’s about protecting refugees from dangerous and unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers.

To paraphrase Archbishop Oscar Romero, it is as if our neighbors’ house is on fire and instead of rescuing people, we are effectively slamming the door, by sending in NATO to make it more difficult for people to escape by dismantling illegally-built fire escapes because they are not up to code.

A more appropriate and effective – even cost-effective – and dare I say humanitarian response would be to give the same funding to the U.N., UNICEF, or even NGO’s to set up refugee welcome centers where basic food, clothing, services and registration can be provided on the Greek islands, where rescue patrols can go out to sea and help refugees (many of whom are children) make the crossing safely, and then help them get on their way, even consulting with those refugees who don’t have family in Europe and encouraging them to go to countries with fewer refugees and more vacant housing and job opportunities.  That would be a response Europe could be proud of one day.  Right now, if you follow the news or any number of video reports on YouTube coming out of Lesbos, Kos, and elsewhere, there are still no decent registration centers or housing options for refugees, even after the ordeal they have gone through (escaping from our mutual enemies, I might add).  Refugees have to wait weeks, without housing, food, or clothing, just to get registered by the Greek authorities, while a massive response from an international humanitarian team could make things move much more smoothly, quickly, and with less disruption for the locals.  And after all that, they then have to go from Athens to points north and west, usually on foot, seeking safety in whatever country will accept them.  We could do this if we had the will.

It’s important to point out here yet again that this is cost-effective in the long run, because the faster that refugees are integrated into their new countries and get back to work, the quicker they will be paying taxes back into the economy, creating businesses and jobs, and contributing economically into the system (and even providing humanitarian relief for their relatives back home).  I may have cited this before, but the evidence is already showing that refugees in Europe, even in this crisis, are already a net gain to the economy by the European Commission’s own estimates.

It is deeply disappointing (though perhaps not surprising) that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as knowledgeable as she is and thus ought to no better, even in last night’s debate showed her support for NATO’s actions to break up the smugglers’ networks and stop the flow of refugees into Europe, as if the flow into Europe is a worse problem than the displacement of millions of refugees or the unsustainability of life in the refugee camps in the first place.  Then she repeats the known, and dangerous, misconception that the refugee “crisis” is an economic drain on Europe, even though she would have access to all the sociological data that show that in the long run, and with proper investments, refugees like all immigrants grow the economy.  (It’s also self-defeating, because if she then turns around and wants to accept more refugees for resettlement in the U.S., as she claims, she then has to argue against her own economic argument spewed back by opposing governors, when in fact the economic data, especially in the U.S., would support greater resettlement numbers.  She’d be better off embracing the economic data from the beginning and adopting the platform that refugees are a net gain, and not only economically but also in the ingenuity and experience they bring to their new country.)

In sum, if this really were about humanitarian protection, then NATO and a military response would be the wrong way to go.  No, this is really about national security and about appeasing nationalist, xenophobic parties, about keeping the people out of Europe they don’t want.  Otherwise, they have to explain why a military response, whether by NATO or Frontex, is preferred over a humanitarian one and why they need to make the process more dangerous as a deterrent.

Finally, a special word on Thomas L. Friedman, who makes the claim in the same article that Germany, one of the largest and wealthiest nations in Europe, cannot handle an influx of refugees.  He writes, “it was also reckless of [Angela Merkel] to think that so many immigrants, primarily Muslims, could be properly absorbed so quickly into society in Germany — a country that took two decades and billions of dollars to absorb East Germans.”  The scale is so disproportionate here that any comparison with East Germany is absurd.  In 1990, the year of German reunification, the West German population was about 63 million and the East German was about 16 million – meaning in the new, united Germany, one in five citizens had been an East German.  Currently, the German population is over 83 million and the number of new refugees to be absorbed is one million.  So even if that number were to double, we’d be talking about a ratio of one in forty, or maybe as low as one in eighty, needing to be integrated.  One in five — of course that could take two decades.  But the current “crisis” is nothing of that scale, not to mention the fact that many of these refugees are already well-educated and ready for the labor force, even as they learn German.

But we keep the misconceptions flowing in order to shirk our humanitarian responsibilities, and resort to trumped-up military responses to justify our unwillingness to share the world’s resources or embrace the common humanity we will need in order to survive.


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Filed under Afghans, Europe, Greece, Militarism, Syrians