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In the Time of Unsettled People: Europe’s Refugee Worries

We live in an age of unsettled people, displaced by natural resource deprivation, political conflict, poverty and persecution. Undocumented workers, youth and families from Eurasian republics and the greater Middle East are transiting Europe’s eastern borders, held in an expanding constellation of migrant and refugee camps. While media headlines focus on the large numbers of immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq who are crossing the Aegean, think of the longer-term flow across the Mediterranean, especially from ports in Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco.

Through European eyes, migration raises a fundamental question: is Europe a necessary force in today’s geopolitics? To the extent that they see Europe as a robust actor in Africa, EU foreign ministers view themselves in a long-term relationship with migration due to European engagement in African sending countries — especially in the Maghreb and sub-Saharan regions of Africa.

Europe — the EU in particular — in spite of its internal tension, continues to be intractably involved in the pressing challenge areas of regional conflict, deficits of democracy, and economic insecurity especially on the African continent. This engagement is making the EU a long-term destination for African migration.

We see a prime example of this engagement in the case of French forces in the Maghreb.  Back in 2012, French president François Hollande and then EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton announced Operation Serval (wild cat) to combat an Islamist insurgency in northern Mali. More recently, France has escalated its military campaign, with a forward operating base in northern Niger near the Libyan border. The expanded operation, dubbed Barkhane (sand dune), demonstrates a European — especially French — understanding that it has no choice but to commit troops on the ground in the region.

In late 2014 France deployed a new contingent of more than 1,000 soldiers to the Malian city of Gao and nearby areas, to reinforce control of the north of Mali that it had taken back from Islamist fighters in 2012-2013. In 2014 and 2015 French armed forces staged attacks in Niger, and along the Niger-Libya-Chad borders, on convoys of what are suspected to be Al-Qaida-backed fighters.

Such raids are the latest sign of the French commitment to invest significant resources and personnel to create a French military forward operating front in the Sahel.

These European supported strikes have resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of refugees from Nigeria into Cameroon, Cameroonians into Chad, and refugees from all three affected countries north towards the Mediterranean — and human trafficking to Sicily and Lampedusa. If we trace the line of this northern refugee route, we travel from France’s Chadian airbase through the southern Libyan desert to Tripoli during the current period of a continuing political and security vacuum in Libya.

Democracy in the ‘neighborhood’

The question that provokes nervous debate among European policy leaders and analysts is the cost-benefit consequence of European security and economic engagement in African regional crises? Drawing on interviews with the EU foreign minister, we see three aims of a EU foreign policy in Africa. First, Europe assumes primary responsibility for bringing and migrationintegrationsafeguarding peace in what the EU Office of the High Representative calls Europe’s ‘neighbourhood’ referring to the greater Mediterranean basin. Second, EU foreign policy promotes what is termed ‘Deep Democracy’ in its African ‘neighbourhood’, including transparent judiciary and police, and representative governing institutions that promote the wellbeing and individual emancipation of citizens, and women’s and human rights. Third, in terms of putting troops in harm’s way, in the EU, the decision to commit troops and send them into combat remains the responsibility of the individual sovereign states, and of their democratically elected representatives who are ultimately responsible to their citizens.

In terms of the European missions to enforce deep democracy in Africa, we may ask how — if at all — European foreign policy includes plans for what comes after initial military operations. The evidence of the EU support for France’s sustained intervention in Mali indicates a European view of military engagement against jihadist forces in Mali as part of a larger regional preoccupation with the Sahel Arc. The EU has invested security and logistics resources as well as civil society resources to be the primary western influence in the Arab Spring movements. France, Italy and Spain have contributed the majority of the European resources to respond to the security, political, and civil crises in each country of this region, and to regulate the flow of displaced populations across borders.

European security missions, experiments in ‘deep democracy’, and assuming responsibility for its African ‘neighbourhood,’ indicate a particularly European perspective on the flow of refugees. The EU members states that are most engaged internationally see regional insecurity and deficits of democracy as the underlying causes that are uprooting peoples: and they see North and sub-Saharan African nations as the source and transit routes for the most significant and long-term flows of migration to Europe.

From East Africa, asylum applicants follow migration and human trafficking routes through Morocco to the Mediterranean; and those who set foot on Spanish, French and Italian soil survive without permission to work while the processing of their asylum status often takes longer than the period of their residency permits. Refugees from Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Syria (by 2015 up to four million), central and Southeast Asia (Afghanistan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia), and the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions (Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Chad), are fleeing military conflict, political persecution, and devastated health, housing and education infrastructure, and are overwhelming the capacity of European Mediterranean region holding camps. The scale of the humanitarian crisis, and the politics of pushback from European countries especially with Mediterranean borders are such that the European Commission has established its policy regime for surveillance (EUROSUR) of Europe’s southern maritime borders. Spain, France, Italy and Greece, on behalf of EU member states as far north as Sweden and Denmark as well as the UK and Balkan nations, have pressed North African governments to create holding camps along the southern Mediterranean coast.

Again looking at the world of refugees through European eyes, EU national migration boards set asylum quotas that should be understood as components of Europe’s response to the global refugee communities under UN authority. European asylum courts and arbiters face the pressure of UN global figures that currently list more than 65 million people forcibly displaced. Of these, more than 33 million are internally displaced within their country’s borders — and at risk of needing to flee and hence becoming refugees.  Nearly 17 million are ‘refugees of concern’ registered in UN refugee camps and urban settlements. More than four million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes to take shelter as refugees in countries that themselves are areas of close concern for EU peace-keeping and ‘deep democracy’ programmes; and more than five million Palestinian refugees are registered in 60 UN refugee camps with EU humanitarian and security support in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. We can anticipate much to study in the way Europe’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs responds to pressure to expand its engagement in regional conflict, and especially how it responds to the growing number of these refugees who are fleeing multiple times to new camps across second and third borders.

The ties that bind

Considering Europe’s expanding security and civil society missions in the Sahel, and France’s forward operating bases, we see the urgency of the refugee crisis. Within range of the French reconnaissance drones, there are more than 341,000 refugees within and immediately outside the border of South Sudan. In the East and Horn of Africa — including Kenya and Somalia — UNHCR figures list more than six million people of concern, including more than 4.8 million internally displaced and refugees. Will these populations exert pressure on the migration protocols of the EU and its member states?

In my latest book, Migration and Integration: New Models for Mobility and Coexistence (Vienna University Press, 2016), I put forth for EU policy implementation the insights from a working group of faculty from the social sciences and humanities, law, business and medicine, which I helped put into policy discussion with NGO, US State Department and UN officials. Our goal is to seek to better respond to the refugee experience in Europe and beyond. By the UN’s own analysis, two-thirds of refugees in Europe, or who are seeking to apply for asylum in Europe, live in ‘protracted refugee status’, that is, applying for asylum for five consecutive years or more.

Seen in this light, migration into Europe from the African continent will continue to impact industrial trade, and labour and welfare policy, as well as the debates on national identities, historical consciousness and collective memory. We will also have much material for the study of the history of case law and reforms of the courts, including national courts, and the European Court of Justice. European migrant integration projects (including resettlement, education and private cultural bridge initiatives) invite profound questioning of the roots of response to displaced peoples transiting and seeking resettlement in Europe.

Roland Hsu is Director of Research in American Studies, and Research Affiliate at The Europe Center at Stanford University.  He is the author/editor of Ethnic Europe: Mobility, Identity, and Conflict in a Globalized World (Stanford University Press, 2010), author/co-editor of Migration and Integration: New Models for Mobility and Coexistence (University of Vienna Press, 2016), and author/co-editor of the forthcoming Global Diaspora: Homelands of Mind and Place.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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