Refugees are being officially welcomed in some European capitals – sometimes by the same politicians who are deporting refugees en masse. Commentators are talking about “our” responsibility for the refugee situation, but they never mean “we” have contributed to creating the disaster in the first place. Its as if there’s just a lot of war in the world, people are fleeing, and Europe is close by; in this “tragedy,” the European states play the role of saviors of the world’s suffering and oppressed. Whether they take in 12,000 or 60,000 Syrian refugees, the vast majority will remain in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, so it’s just a token gesture – but one that provides plenty of propaganda for the humanitarian nature of western society.
A figure of the modern world: the refugee
After the second world war, the UN established the International Convention on the Status of Refugees because it knew in advance that the world order it was shaping was going to be a real hell for a lot of people. The right to asylum means that any nation which signs this convention says: ok, if you somehow manage to land in our country, we will feed you, give you medical care, and maybe a few other things. The principle is that someone who is fleeing war or persecution should be kept alive. Nothing more than that; a refugee is supposed to have no other desire than mere survival. All they left behind no longer counts.
Except one thing: all refugees still have a nationality attached to them. The UN Convention on Refugees doesn’t give anybody the right to change their nationality. They can’t just rip it off and say: no, I’m not a Syrian or an Afghan. They are kept alive as nationals, and the expectation is that if conditions ever get better in their country of origin, maybe they can go back. But one thing is for sure: they belong to their country. This is a modern form of serfdom: just as a serf didn’t own the land but the land owned the serf, the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon who have been living in camps for almost 60 years are tied to the nation they came from whether any nation wants them or not. Its a cruel thing to be treated as a national of a country you can’t live in.
Now there are close to 50 million refugees in the world who are being kept alive in camps run by a combination of the UN Refugee Agency and private philanthropic organizations like the Red Cross. The global scale of refugees is said to be shocking, but nobody thinks twice when a million refugees flee the Democratic Republic of Congo for Rwanda. Its when they end up in the heartland of western civilization that something is wrong.
Refugees can’t simply live in another part of the world because the world is divided into states which are all based on inclusion and exclusion. States identify people as either their own, e.g. citizens, or foreigners. Borders are not facts of nature, but made by states which exercise a monopoly on force over the land and people within their borders. Many citizens are proud to belong to “their” country, but this is not their decision; the state determines who is a citizen and who isn’t. Nor is this a benevolent gesture: a state demands that its citizens be loyal subjects who contribute to the nation’s wealth through economic – and if necessary military – service. People born outside its borders are suspect in regards to this loyalty, which is thought to belong to another state.
Asylum policies are part of the state’s claim to sovereignty within its borders. States distinguish between economically useful immigrants and political asylum-seekers. Immigrants are welcomed when it is thought that they will provide economic benefits to the nation, while the criteria for asylum ignores the economic side: it is supposedly based on purely humanitarian considerations. However, not every type of humanitarian emergency is accepted as a reason for asylum – e.g., natural disasters, famines, epidemics. “Wanting a better life” is also not a legitimate reason to migrate. Nor are all forms of political persecution recognized; to qualify for asylum, one must be fleeing an enemy state or a war waged to get rid of an enemy state, like Syria.
The asylum seeker’s situation is not what decides whether they are recognized or rejected, but the national interest of the host state. The main interest is diplomatic. The host country decides to admit an asylum seeker when he or she is useful for a declaration of dissatisfaction with political and economic conditions in the country they originate from. When a state points at another country’s human rights deficiencies, it presents itself as the guardian of these rights and seeks to score points in international negotiations. In this drama, the refugee plays the role of extra.
Europe didn’t want the refugees now streaming in, but since it can’t completely stop them, it seeks to gain some propaganda mileage for the basic goodness of the European way of life. This can easily be done. One just ignores how Europe’s imperialist activities in the world inevitably produces the miserable living conditions that lead to refugees. Or one takes it seriously that this is all about “western values” – as if NATO goes around the world trying to stabilize unstable situations.
Columnists in the American media who have been applauding European governments for their humanitarian response to the refugee crisis inadvertently show how contingent this humanitarianism is, especially when arguing with objections from the growing backlash: if the refugees don’t fit in with us, should we take them in? Michael Ignatieff in the Sept. 5 New York Times (“The Refugee Crisis Isn’t a ‘European Problem’”) seeks to rebuff this argument by remarking what great citizens Vietnamese and Hungarian refugees made 40 years ago. He looks for something positive by trying to make a parallel without a parallel situation. He assumes these people coming in won’t be like us; they’ll be different.
By granting legitimacy to such objections, he undermines his own position because its provisional on some fear of being wrong: “we” should take them because “they” will contribute to “our” nation. As soon as “usefulness” is pointed out, the moral high ground goes to hell. This isn’t noticed because the media always argues from the point of view of the nation and its needs. The only question is the quantity of refugees that Europe or the US can accept. If we take in refugees, won’t more come? Is it really a solution or a Pandora’s box? How do “we” solve this problem? In other words: its not refugees who have problems, but the state which has a problem with refugees.
The European left isn’t much different. Gregor Gysi, leader of the German party Die Linke, uses the refugee crisis to criticize the Merkel government by saying that it is doing the wrong thing; in order to save every boat person, “we” need to change something in Syria and Africa. What does it mean for Germany to solve the Syrian or African situation? This is more or less calling for the US to conquer Syria and any opposition to the west.
Europe’s security test
In addition to its diplomatic function, Europe’s asylum policy has an internal side: against the backdrop of the European Single Market, the EU is establishing a Common European Asylum System. Consequently, the EU can use its asylum policy not just as a diplomatic instrument against other countries, but – in the same way the individual member states compete against each other within the EU – as a diplomatic instrument within the EU as well.
The refugee crisis is said to be creating the next crisis of solidarity between the European states. The test for Germany is whether it can it force its version of European unity in this regard as well. For all the cutbacks it forced on the Greek government, there will be no cutting of Greece’s military expenses, which are needed for this. Among the Eastern European states which are saying no to the refugee quotas which Germany is trying to force on the whole of Europe, the focus is primarily on Hungary and its leadership which came into power as a resistance to being a vassal state of Germany with the slogan “Hungary for Hungarians” (whoever that is).
A longstanding goal of Europe is a unitary foreign policy which advances the project of European power. In this context, the refugee crisis is being treated as a test for whether Europe can forge a unified policy around the issue of refugees. All the European states have agreed on a military policy against Libya in the form of a European naval force to turn back boats in the Mediterranean. This is hardly a “welcome, refugees” point of view. Refugees are the material over which the European project is being forged at the moment. This is how Europe deals with the “shame” of thousands of refugees dying on its shores.
Germany is now closing its border with Austria because it wants an orderly process. The interior minister is worried about “security challenges.” This is not just paranoia – why wouldn’t there be enemies of Europe among the refugee masses? Germany notices that it doesn’t have an open border; not everyone who wants to come in can. Germany is not the land of milk and honey! It wants to do a triage and make distinctions between people who are escaping a horrible situation and those who “only want a better life.”
So the limit to humanitarian gestures is quickly reached. Germany can easily process 10,000 refugees a year and is now talking about 100,000 a year. It will surely be difficult to fit them in, but the legal system and the bureaucrats will carry out their official responsibilities. One thing is for sure: everyone now being treated as a refugee is not a potential future citizen of Europe. Its not as if anyone has a right to live in Germany or Austria or Sweden. Those who are accepted are being sheltered in token resettlements just like in thousands of refugee camps all over world. Now there will be tent cities in Munich instead of in Turkey. Europe’s much-praised humanitarianism is ultimately just another refugee ward.