Tag Archives: Macedonia

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