Manufacturing Migration “Crises”

How many refugees make a crisis? 20 million? That was the number displaced in Europe after World War II. 170,000? That’s the number of Rwandans who crossed the Tanzanian border in one twenty-four hour period in 1994. 80,000? That’s the number of Kosovans who were moved from Macedonia in 1999 as part of a Humanitarian Evacuation Programme.
Or maybe just 250 – the number of Tunisians on the trains from Italy that Sarkozy stopped at the French border on 17 April.
In recent weeks, several experts on Mediterranean migration flows have argued that the numbers crossing from North Africa since the beginning of the Arab Spring aren’t much higher than normal seasonal migration patters would lead observers to expect. Even if numbers have grown, what is very clear is that from a quarter of a million who have left Libya since revolution – and counter-revolution – erupted, less than ten percent have attempted to make their way to Europe.
And yet the language of crisis is everywhere. In Italy, Berlusconi promises to empty Lampedusa. Sarkozy stops the trains, because France ‘can’t cope‘ with the consequences of such an influx. The principle of free movement in the Schengen Area is called into question. Denmark unilaterally closes its borders to prevent ‘illegal immigration’.
But look at the numbers. Now look at the numbers again. There is no migration spectre haunting Europe. This is a manufacture crisis, politicians’ smoke and mirrors. As one colleague remarked at a seminar yesterday, it is perfectly clear that Europe is busy manufacturing a migration “crisis”. What we need to understand now is why.
Manufacturing a crisis around Libya provides justification for a sharp move towards the containment and return of all migration flows across the Mediterranean. European integration over free movement is, after all, only being unravelled to the extent that it might require burden sharing: European collaboration continues apace with Operation Hermes, which aims to prevent migrants arriving at all.
This is all about domestic politics and the rise of the xenophobic far-right in Europe. No one seriously imagines Denmark’s border is closed to prevent a sudden influx of Libyans. Today’s news that visas may once again be required for citizens travelling from the Balkans to the EU — because of Belgian complaints that 544 Serbians have claimed asylum in 2011 – is another example of a migration “crisis” manufacture to legitimise policy shifts to appease the populist anti-migrant right.
There is no migration crisis. There is, however, shameful humanitarian neglect. If there really is an influx of North Africans clawing their way into Europe, it’s an influx propelled by the conflict in Libya. So those arriving may be in need of international protection – as Malta claimed in submitting an application for the EU to activate its burden-sharing Temporary Protection scheme. But at the same time, by labelling all those arriving as migrants, rather than refugees, Europe circumvents its humanitarian obligations.
Ultimately Europe seems to be engaging in a particularly nasty form of double-think. On the one hand, this is a crisis, because crises justify extreme policy-making. On the other, it has to be business as normal in Tunisia, because otherwise how could these “illegal migrants” be removed from European soil and satisfy the political goals of those who have manufactured this crisis? Meanwhile, the idea that these could be in part refugee flows from North Africa to Europe – as a result of a Libyan crisis exacerbated in part by NATO involvement – is rarely raised. If we call them illegal migrants, they become illegal migrants.
There’s no crisis here — except a humanitarian one of our own making. Our lifeboat isn’t full. The fact remains that there are ten million refugees worldwide and eighty percent of them are hosted in developing countries. Which makes you wonder just when Europe – supposedly the cradle of humanitarianism – became quite so determined not to host any of them at all.