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The migration fix - Ranier Fsadni

Why should our idea of legitimate distress, deserving of our solidarity, be governed by the state of the world 70 years ago?

Why should our idea of legitimate distress, deserving of our solidarity, be governed by the state of the world 70 years ago?

The MV Aquarius, the NGO ship rescuing distressed migrants at sea, has announced that it will refuse to return any migrants it saves to Libya. For the foreseeable future it will bring them to Europe, leaving it to the authorities to decide which state should receive the survivors.

When an NGO defies the appeals of various EU member states, something is clearly broken. But what?

Is it the humanitarian ethos of official Europe, making appeals which are morally illegitimate? In this case, we face a moral crisis not an immigration one.

Is it the NGO industry, unable to see that its noble motives are disrupting the functioning of reception centres? The latter have a processing system whose orderliness depends on careful coordination between rescue ships and reception.

NGO ships operate outside this system, which can be thrown out of joint by the sudden appearance of several hundred migrants to be taken care of.

In this case, we’d have a reception crisis rather than an immigration one, as such. After all, if by migration we mean human mobility across borders – that is, all travel including business and tourism – then the system is largely in excellent shape. It’s the reception of one aspect of this travel – of people claiming some form of protection – that’s in trouble.

But you might also want to blame the rules governing reception, which are clearly out of date. When people blame the rules they usually have in mind the so-called Dublin II, a treaty that obliges a signatory to take on responsibility for any undocumented migrant who turns up on its doorstep. It’s clearly a rule that was never meant to address the massive numbers arriving in southern Europe from Libya.

Arguably the rules are outdated in a different sense. The current rules of refugee status were established after World War II, when large numbers of people were dislocated. Up till today, it’s escape from conflict and persecution – that is, victims of state violence – that is seen, among most European voters, as almost the only legitimate case for humanitarian protection.

But why should our idea of legitimate distress, deserving of our solidarity, be governed by the state of the world 70 years ago?

In 2018, we should know that violence can be as deadly when states break down leaving the field open to criminal cartels and gangs turning hitherto obscure cities into candidates for the murder capital of the world.

Climate change has seen the number of natural disasters greatly exceed those seen in, say, the 1980s. Such disasters can devastate a person’s life chances.

Does it make moral sense to say migration under such conditions is not deserving of humanitarian consideration? We cannot be so naive as to call such disasters acts of God when we know climate change is man-made.

Then there is economic migration, undertaken by people who could survive in their countries but only in a kind of socio-economic dead-end. The cause? Not just a colonial hangover and corruption. There are also the unequal terms of trade with the global north.

Given the cost of being smuggled over to countries that offer better prospects (and no, most such migrants do not end up in Europe), it’s usually the skilled and better educated who can afford to embark on the trip.

Does it quite make sense to keep such workers out? Their labour helps keep pensions sustainable for Europe’s ageing societies. The money they send back home is significantly more than the money Europe gives in development aid.

Ignoring such drivers of migration doesn’t make sense. It ignores violence. It ignores our complicity in climate change and global inequality. It ignores long-term economic partnerships. But politically it’s felt necessary to ignore them. Perhaps what’s breaking down is the global north’s capacity for political vision.

Put together, the various breakdowns – humanitarian ethos; reception capacity; relevance of rules; political vision – explain the fix we’re in.

I’ve given the outline but the numbers, details and bedrock for everything I’ve said can be found in an important recent book, Can We Solve the Migration Crisis? (Polity), by an academic expert on the subject, Jacqueline Bhabha.

How can a politician appeal to solidarity with distressed migrants when solidarity with fellow Europeans and co-nationals is in crisis?

It’s important for its weakness as well as its strength. Usually, academic books are full of insights into an intractable political problem but can be lame when offering solutions. This book is the opposite. It’s sometimes deeply frustrating when outlining the problem but is excellent in indicating the kinds of policies that should be pursued.

Bhabha spends a lot of time saying why, despite what the politicians say, the migration crisis is not unprecedented. Human history is full of migrations on a massive scale, larger than the ones we face.

Alas, this is word play. When politicians say it’s unprecedented they mean within living memory. Politicians aren’t historians, let alone archaeologists. They’re practical circus performers interested in all the tricks in the book. On the migration crisis, precedent says nothing they can use.

It’s not just about the scale. As Angela Merkel found out, the   inherited language and moral appeals to justify humanitarian responses don’t work in this case.

Bhabha thinks a language of moral justification can be found in the code of hospitality found in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is, I’m afraid, the sort of suggestion that indicates you’re digging into history because you’re at a loss in the present.

I’ve been a great beneficiary of the hospitality of Libyan tribes. But hospitality is selective and contextual. It’s a blood pact that co-exists with strong identities and aggression, and I can tell you that anyone who suggests hospitality should be lavished on sub-Saharan African migrants would be considered mad.

Bhabha’s suggestion is even more airy when applied to Europe. Since when has an appeal to Christian virtue moved politics here? 

Any thinking about how to make a persuasive case for humanitarian solidarity needs to pay attention to the short-lived career of the secular value of fraternity. It was a late addition to the values of liberty and equality, and the most difficult to practise. By the end of the 19th century it had been diluted to ‘solidarity’.

Today, even solidarity’s hold is tenuous as welfare states are downsized, inequality shoots up, living standards decline and identities are fractured. 

How can a politician appeal to solidarity with distressed migrants when solidarity with fellow Europeans and co-nationals is in crisis? How can a forceful case be made, to challenge that of right-wing bigots, when mainstream politicians suffer from a crisis of credibility?

This challenge cannot be glided over. Europe’s inability to deal with the migration crisis is best seen as a symptom of a deeper crisis of solidarity and political vision, which would still be there even if the migration crisis disappeared tomorrow.

Somehow, a compelling politics needs to be devised that (as the French thinker Bruno Latour puts it) addresses climate change, migration, and right-wing populism as facets of the same problem.

Bhabha’s ensemble of policy recommendations help us see what dots such a politics would need to join.

Yes, the rules need to be changed and equitable burden sharing introduced. But we don’t need to move the limbo of detention camps from Europe to Africa – the same politics but out of sight and out of mind.

Thinking about conflicts and solidarity needs to be brought into the data and digital age. Big data can be used in the service of conflict prevention. Mobile information technology can be used to transfer quality education across borders (just as tele-medicine has to under-resourced areas).

Programmes like Erasmus can be adapted to include students from migrant-sending countries. None of these suggestions would make a difference on their own. Together, they should have an impact.

Implementation would need a broad political consensus since at least two political terms will be needed for the impact to be felt. Who knows, the political skills needed to fix the migration crisis may be the same ones Europe needs to get out of the deeper fix.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

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