Trading Refugees

NICCOLÒ MILANESE – Chair of European Alternatives

The proposed solution to the ‘refugee crisis’, discussed at the European Council with Turkey last week, and to be concluded next week, comes down to this (quoted from the official statement of the heads of state on 7th March):

– To return all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands with the costs covered by the EU;

– To resettle, for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian from Turkey to the EU Member States, within the framework of the existing commitments.

So the proposal is that for every ‘irregular’ Syrian returned to Turkey, the EU will admit another Syrian from Turkey. It is a swap, or a trade. One ‘bad’ Syrian, who has entered in an irregular way, for one ‘good’ Syrian whom the EU will resettle. It is the logic of a debt swap. It is turning Turkey into a kind of ‘bad bank’ in which the ‘bad debt’ of the EU towards migrants is transformed into ‘good debt’ which has been screened, identified and processed in a more regular way. The Greek debt crisis has dominated the imaginations of the EU leaders so much over the past year, that now apparently those refugees who find themselves on Greek islands are assimilated with assets, securities or debts. We have spoken so much of migrants in terms of flows, that now we assimilate them with financial products in a transnational market full of different capital flows. The leaders say that this proposal is a way to ‘break the business model of the smugglers’. It is not clear that the leaders are thinking of the refugees themselves in a different way than the smugglers. This is before we even talk about the bribes offered to Turkey to participate in this trade.

Moreover, the proposal seems to depend on the continued activity of the smugglers, at least if it is supposed to be an ongoing solution. Some have said that it is the opening of legal and safe channels for migration to Europe. How?

Moreover, the proposal seems to depend on the continued activity of the smugglers, at least if it is supposed to be an ongoing solution. Some have said that it is the opening of legal and safe channels for migration to Europe. How? The agreement is only that for every Syrian who has entered irregularly and is returned, the EU will admit a Syrian regularly. The only way that is the opening of a legal and safe channel for migration is if there is continued illegal smuggling, and ‘irregular’ Syrians to swap for ‘regular’ ones. If there is no deal to be made, there is no market, and the EU is not interested. The proposal is parasitical on the activity of the smugglers. One wonders who are the pirates.

Syrians are mentioned specifically in all this of course because the EU has acknowledged that Syrians have a legitimate case for protection or asylum, given there is a war in Syria. So we are quite literally talking about the trading of people who have a prima facie good claim to asylum. This is not even to speak about the non-Syrians who could well have a good claim. The plan is legally questionable for many reasons others from the UN to Amnesty have been quick to point out: it features collective expulsions to a country with highly dubious human rights standards which is arguably a belligerent in the Syrian war itself, and it appears to trample on the right of asylum. But beyond these legal considerations, as serious as they are, the proposal demonstrates the dehumanised way the political leaders are thinking of the refugees, no doubt encouraged along this route by a policy community which is much better at thinking in economic units than thinking of humans: this is the moral fault which is underlying the very possibility of proposing such a trade bargain.

The plan is legally questionable for many reasons others from the UN to Amnesty have been quick to point out. This proposal of trading refugees is dangerous above all because it cuts away at the fiber of the moral lessons which should be drawn from Europe’s history

There will be those reading who say ‘be realistic! the morals of this is all very good, but we need a solution to the problem, and at least this is perhaps the beginning of a solution which does not totally close refugee flows to Europe’. To such a realist I say I refuse to admit that Europe is incapable of organising a humane welcome to people fleeing war and providing legal and safe routes for them find protection. That is our legal, moral and political obligation, and we have massive resources that could be mobilised for it so it is in our capacities. It is the job of the leaders to explain that this is what we have to do and to propose a way of doing it. There is a not a democratic choice to be made about whether we respect other people’s lives.

The European Union itself was created during a refugee crisis of much greater size, and people found a way of working together. Europe has successfully managed refugee flows in the recent past. Europe is one the richest, most technologically and institutionally sophisticated societies in the history of humanity, and the numbers of people arriving are tiny in comparison with the European population and our resources. You know all this; we all do. This proposal of trading refugees is dangerous above all because it cuts away at the fiber of the moral lessons which should be drawn from Europe’s history. Ultimately such deals undercut our human reality itself, and reduce us all to commodities.

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