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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