It is about time to have an honest conversation about migration

In the wake of the European summit on migration, it is time to debunk myths and speak out some truths.

A spectre is haunting Europe. This time it is fear of hordes of dark skinned people swamping its shores. Often it is the Muslim within and without whose alien culture is about to threaten Christian Europe. The so called ‘populist’ movements have become a euphemism for right wing nationalist political movements who are setting the xenophobic political agenda.

In June we marked 25 years of refugee crisis with a salutary reminder that at its most conservative 34,361 migrants and refugees died trying to reach Europe. Many more have drowned and many scorched to death trying to cross the Sahara. They will remain uncounted with no memorials.

Following the two day European summit to resolve the migration crisis towards the end of June, the Evening Standard editorial addressed some of the issues on 29 of June. However the arguments put forward reinforced some of the myths that are widespread.

Firstly, to argue that migration is driven by rapidly increasing population in Africa is to succumb to a long held Malthusian myth of population as the main driver of social ills. The truth is that globalisation over the last thirty years as a means for greater prosperity has in fact increased poverty across Africa. Research carried out by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative showed that across the 24 Sub-Saharan African countries, about 200 million people were destitute in 2014. The imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on African countries enforcing economic liberalisation, free trade and privatisation to service debt increased poverty and inequality.

It is popular to argue that generous benefits are attracting migrants to Europe, more so now because of access to social media and mobile phones in Africa which show how better life is in Europe. Researchers who gathered information over 1000 interviews with migrants and refugees found that there was no evidence to support this view. Claims are often made by many politicians that most refugees are economic migrants. Another survey of migrants showed that only 20 percent leave there countries for Europe for economic reasons. The majority of migrants who reach European shores are fleeing wars, violence and persecution.

The US declaration of the generational global war on terror following September 11 was a turning point. Beginning with Afghanistan in 2001, moving to Iraq in 2003, then to Libya in 2011 and followed by Syria, the war involved direct invasions, ensuing counterinsurgencies and proxy wars. As in other modern wars, bombing and airstrikes were the major cause of internal displacement and cross-border refugees. Further afield, the civil war in Southern Sudan, the ongoing war on terrorism in Somalia, the war in Yemen, the repression in Eritrea, the war on terrorism in the Sahel including Nigeria have all contributed to producing refugees. Of the 62.5 million refugees 85 percent find shelter in their neighbourhood and 57 percent of all the refugees come from three countries, Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan.

The other myth that has been promoted has been that Europe has a liberal migration policy. Frontex, the European Border and Coastguard Agency was set up in 2005 and its mandate was reinforced in 2016 in the wake of the 2015 migration crisis. It has enormous powers to intercept, control and deport migrants without any regard for their human rights. The conditions in the existing refugee camps are inhumane, cramped, and insecure leading to trauma amongst refugees.

The political fault lines that were there much earlier widened across Europe with the 2015 migration crisis. The courage of Merkel to open German borders nearly a million fleeing Syrian refugees in 2015 should never be forgotten. Other politicians in Europe began building fences. Viktor Orban Prime Minister of Hungary led the charge proclaiming himself as the defender of Hungary and Europe against Muslim migrants. East European leaders of Austria and the Visegrad four, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia have all taken his anti-immigrant politics. Since then, she has been under attack in Germany and across Europe. The rise of the AFD in Germany poses a threat to the centre and left in Germany. The refusal by Matteo Salvini the Interior minister in the populist Italian government to allow MV Aquarius carrying over 600 African refugees to dock in an Italy port was historic and equally a portent.

The migration agreement reached by EU leaders after 12 hours of night long acerbic talks was a compromise to contain the tensions within the EU. One of key proposals is screening migrants for their eligibility to apply for asylum before they reach the EU. Countries in North Africa and the Middle East would be offered EU financial aid in exchange for agreeing to set up screening centres. This is a deeply worrying extension of the outsourcing of refugees that is currently in place in Libya and Turkey.

In Libya, thousands of refugees and migrants are currently detained in camps where they suffer torture and other ill-treatment and arbitrary detention in appalling conditions, extortion, forced labour and killings at the hands of Libyan officials, militias and smugglers. Amnesty International’s findings reveal how member states of EU – and Italy in particular – have pursued their own goal of restricting the flow of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean by outsourcing using financial incentives with the slightest concern for the vulnerable people.

In creating a hostile environment for refugees and migrants, there is a growing tendency to use laws that are directed at people traffickers and smugglers to harass humanitarian organisations and individuals who are trying to save lives and support vulnerable refugees. Hungary is again at the forefront of enacting laws whereby individuals and organisations providing advice and assistance to asylum seekers could on conviction face imprisonment of one year and a tax of 25% respectively.

Policies have consequences in determining who lives and who dies. Europe can change its policies to address the concerns of the electorates and win over a new political consensus. The populist narrative must be challenged. The public needs to be persuaded that Europe can manage migration if all government work together to develop effective asylum systems. This would include honest explanation of the benefits and challenges of migration, making legal migration a credible prospect, creating a system of proper integration, and creating a system for the safe return of rejected asylum seekers. If voters understand that most people who flee their homes are hosted in developing countries and Europeans need to do their bit, they might take pride in the reduction of human suffering.

In the longer term the root causes of migration must be dealt with. The wars and conflicts should be brought to an end with systematic conflict resolution. The economic policies of the highly developed Western countries must be changed to allow the transformation of underdeveloped African countries to meet the material needs of their people for jobs, homes, food, education and health.

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