The following piece was written for a protest meeting held outside the EU Building in Belfast on 31st August 2015: Tell the EU to stop pushing refugees into the sea. We called for: open borders, the creation of safe passages, the treatment of refugees with dignity and respect, a stop to fueling the wars that are creating refugees.
* * *
What we are witnessing is a huge crisis at the borders; the biggest refugee crisis seen in Europe since World War Two.
UNHCR said that arrivals across the Mediterranean had already exceeded 100,000 in June, and those are only the official figures of those who have managed to reach the shore. In the last week alone, we have seen Syrians drowning off the Libyan coast, 59 men, 8 women and 4 children discovered dead in a truck crossing from Hungary into Austria. And in Calais, as Calais Migrant Solidarity reports, there is no accurate count of how many people have died but they record the following appalling list for July 2015 alone:
A Sudanese man, found dead in the Channel Tunnel, 28th-29th July; a young Eritrean woman hit by a car nearby, reportedly gassed by the police prior, 24th July; a teenager found dead in the Tunnel, 23rd July; an Eritrean teenager, drowned at Eurotunnel; 19th July, a Pakistani man died of accident injuries, 16th July; a Sudanese man, 13-14th July; a Sudanese man at the entrance of the Tunnel, 7th July; Samir, an Eritrean baby died one hour after birth. The mother, twenty years old, fell from a truck triggering a premature delivery at twenty-two weeks, 4th July.
Yesterday it was announced that the German, French and British home secretaries have called an urgent EU meeting within two weeks. Based on the statements from the three leaders, there is every prospect that these leaders are pushing for refugee protection measures, already largely decimated, to be brought down to the lowest common denominator across Europe. They’re calling for what we lawyers know as the old “white lists”, lists of “safe countries” which automatically exclude protection for people from these countries, regardless of individual reasons and at the whim of the state. And it appears that Teresa May and her counterparts in Germany and France want to do a deal with Greece and Italy for detention centres there to deport refugees before they reach here.
At the same time that news images every day show us the desperate nature of the refugee crisis, the system to protect refugees has been eroded here. Refugee law, which, at best, only ever provided a small hole in the walls of immigration controls, has been worn down in a myriad of ways over the last twenty years: legal aid has been withdrawn from refugee lawyers, rights of appeal in the refugee law system taken away, those helping to rescue refugees have been criminalized through “carrier sanctions” and a whole host of “deterrence measures” have been implemented. It’s a testimony to human resilience, resourcefulness and hope that people have kept arriving regardless. Would-be refugees are already living in a parallel world amongst us, segregated by their different treatment, denied the right to work and now there are more government proposals to limit their right to housing and for more criminal measures to take any money they gain from working illegally to survive and keep some dignity.
We are at a crossroads in European history. Either we will see further ghettoization of refugees, in camps and detention centres, and further militarization of border controls. Or we will choose to take a different path which is humanitarian and based on hospitality, solidarity and compassion. Witnessing the desperate scenes in the Mediterranean, besides feeling great sadness and anger, it can be easy to feel powerless and feel that there’s no solution to stop this from continuing. However, we are not powerless and we can be part of the solution. We can call for open borders.
It’s easy to see immigration controls and borders as set in stone, a natural part of European life. But they are not; those barbed wire fences such as the 110-mile one being finished on the Hungarian/Serbian border were not always there. We can reimagine a world without borders. In years to come, we could look back on immigration controls as the racist relics of the past; as shameful and wrong as the social system before the abolition of slavery and the apartheid system now appear to us. We could look back on a system where you are only able to travel to certain countries because of where you are born, inside or outside the European Union, or the country on your passport, as absurd. Legalizing global freedom of movement, for all, would lead to collaboration, cooperation, solidarity, instead of secret deals and dangerous journeys and the inhumanity and tragedy we are witnessing. The UNHCR says that the vast majority of refugees arriving in the Greek islands today are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Calling for open borders is also an acknowledgement that people are on the move because they have to be: the reasons being (to quote immigration activist and barrister, Frances Webber,) “anti-Muslim crusades of the middle east, the resource wars of Africa, the fall-out wars born of the perverse boundaries of colonialism and the proxy wars against communism, those displaced by economic wars on the poor or by death squads”.
There are those who say, when you argue for open borders: our culture will be attacked, we won’t know our own country anymore; our way of life will be gone. But what about “our culture”, “our way of life” and “our own country”? These definitely should mean a lot more than the kind of vision set out in the “Life in the UK” citizenship tests; that to be a full citizen you need to know when the Battle of Agincourt took place and the county in which Stonehenge stands (these are two example questions from the Test). But a culture where people who come asking for sanctuary are forcibly deported and subject to “carpet karaoke” by grotesquely racist immigration officials (I’m remembering the death of Jimmy Mubenga during his deportation)? A culture where pregnant would-be refugees are locked up without proper healthcare (I’m referring to Yarls Wood detention centre in England): that’s not a culture we can want to cherish as our own. And do we actually know, now, the country that we are becoming – if it’s one part of a continent that has to be surrounded by miles and miles of barbed wire, dogs and guns to “protect” those inside from those outside?
Yesterday, the London2Calais volunteer, Mona Dohle, providing help to those stranded at the French border, reported that she was stopped by border police and told she may not be given permission to re-enter the UK. Anyone who helps to rescue refugees is now criminalized as a “human trafficker” preying on the vulnerable; Oskar Schindler who saved the lives of so many Jews would be demonized as a “human trafficker” today. Freedom of movement is criminalized and refugees portrayed either as witless victims or as a terrorist threat, so it’s a logical next step that those who act in solidarity with people on the move will be targeted. That is why we need the broadest coalition of people from all walks of life calling for open borders now before our right to do so in freedom is jeopardized.
I’d like to finish by reading a poem I wrote late the other evening, first published to the poetry group called “I am not a silent poet”. Although it is a political poem calling for a political solution, it’s first and foremost a poem in mourning.
The children of Syria
Are dead off Zuwara.
Freedom where I live
Is becoming forgotten:
Humanity driven out
And racist rhetoric in.
I looked across the oceans
And saw this little girl
In the polka dot dress
Washed up on the shore
I looked across the oceans
And saw this little boy still
In nappies so like my son:
Drowned there his body
Given up to the waves.
Europe, open the borders
The children of Syria
Are dead off Zuwara.
Europe, open the borders.
And other articles and posts at Rights NI, the Institute of Race Relations, The Guardian, Spiked, No Border Network and No One Is Illegal.
Media report of the protest: BBC Evening Extra – listen from 16 – 20 minutes in: