Fortress Europe & The Tide of Humanity

Aug 2015

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Artist: Madiha Hyder

Artist: Madiha Hyder

Issue 9: Enduring Imperialisms

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“you broke the ocean in half to be here. only to meet nothing that wants you. – immigrant”

― Nayyirah Waheed, salt.

As Fortress Europe spends billions strengthening and sealing its borders, as elections are won and political coalitions are formed in Europe on the basis of reducing migration and keeping people out of Europe and as the UK government looks to barter and rip up the Human Rights Act in the name of controlling its affairs and borders, it is the everyday citizens of Europe who are coming to the rescue of migrants.

Earlier this year, I met an academic in Paris, someone who has experienced being a migrant and navigated the complicated and dangerous journey to Europe and the labyrinth that is the legal system in Europe to gain the right to restart his life. As we sat in a cafe in the ‘Arab’ part of the city, he told me about a network of citizens in Paris who have come together to offer support, advice and shelter to Syrians escaping the war. At one stage earlier this year, I was told a few hundred Syrians were sleeping rough in a park in central Paris. They had arrived in France by different methods. Most had borrowed money or sold their last possessions to escape Syria.

“Most of the arrivals are children accompanied with adults, sometimes their parents, if they’re still alive, or other adults,” explained the academic, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“These children, they look terrified and are starving by the time they reach France. You hand food to them and their eyes open as if they can’t believe what they’re seeing. They can’t believe they have food in their hands.”

After arriving in Paris, migrants are met by people who put them in touch with sympathetic guest house owners who agree to house as many 10 people in one room for a night or two before they move on.

“It is an unofficial network of people, we work together, and very few words are exchanged between us. One look at these people tells you everything you need to know. These people need help. It’s that simple,” said the academic.

The network is self-sufficient. They spend their own money to assist and accommodate migrants. Money is hard to come by and dries up quickly, yet they continue with their work. Occasionally they get donations from concerned citizens and others.

“We look like ghosts”

One woman, who is part of the network, told me: “Syrians who have made it this far have no option but to keep going. They do not want to stay in France; they know this country is hostile to them and their realities. They are looking to get on the first train out to Germany and Sweden and anywhere where they can try and rebuild their lives.” I was told the ticket inspectors and transport police turn a blind eye to these passengers because as long as they leave France, they become another country’s problem.

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I met three young Syrian women who had recently arrived in the France. They were jittery and anxious at the sight of armed police patrolling around the Gare du Nord station, close to where we met. The women, students in their early 20s, told me they had fled Syria five months ago. They travelled across Europe, by car, truck and boats, aided by people smugglers. They said they fled because they had run out of options.

Yusra* is a medical student. “It is best if you say I am from Damascus, I do not wish to say where I am from, I do not want anyone to know who I am and to risk myself and them. The whole world knows what is happening to Syrians, they know everything, yet they wish to do nothing. They can see us, we look like ghosts, don’t you think?”

Amal*, also a student, told me about her attempts to seek asylum:  “You know, I am expected to recount and relive my experiences, to tell my story over and over again to people who say they don’t believe me. I have to prove that I deserve to live and I deserve a future in a country that doesn’t know me. To people who are blind to the scars my body carries. Believe me these are nothing compared to the wounds I carry inside me.”

A floating graveyard

According to an Amnesty International report, an estimated 23,000 people have lost their lives trying to reach Europe since 2000. Parts of the Mediterranean have become a floating graveyard, with coastguards from Italy, Libya and Greece documenting floating corpses at a daily rate.

Over the past few months, images of desperate people crammed into boats bobbing up and down on the Mediterranean, searching for rescue and refuge, have been beamed across the world. The people on these boats often refer to them as floating coffins because it is not known if the passengers, in their quest to make it to Europe, will perish inside these vessels or drown at sea.

“We have a choice, to ‘live as dead people’ or to risk death. There is no risk if you are already dead, is there?” a Syrian refugee told Tanqeed.

Migrants are growing in number every year as conflict and instability continue to plague Syria, Libya and parts of North Africa, with no immediate resolutions imminent.

The number of migrants who have reached Europe by boat in 2015 is already more than double the number in 2014, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). According to that organization, 63,000 migrants have reached Greece by sea so far this year, while another 62,000 arrived in Italy by the same route. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that as of June 10, migrant deaths at sea stood at 1,865. Of those, 1,816 died trying to reach Italy.

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Many of those who don’t drown are being plucked from the sea by European and other coast guard services. This, despite the UK taking the lead in backing an October 2014 European Union decision to switch from providing search and rescue services to only “coast guard” services. The EU’s decision was intended to send a message to potential migrants that if their ship capsized or was otherwise in danger, they would not necessarily be rescued.

These migrants have mostly been smuggled across borders, escaping conflict or destitution in their home countries. They are forced to hand over thousands of dollars and their worldly possessions to violent gangs, who have built a trade around their misfortune and misery.

And their journey to refuge carries no guarantee of survival. On June 6 and 7 this year, an estimated 6,000 people were rescued from the sea. This was the single biggest rescue of people to date during a 48 hour period.

It is a record that is likely to be broken soon.

Security over sanctuary

While these people are undoubtedly migrants, they are, first, human beings. This is a point often overlooked by the mass media and hysterical newspaper headlines generated to describe what is seen as a “migrant crisis” rather than a human rights and humanitarian crisis.

Now, governments across Europe are choosing to view people fleeing terrorism, conflict and violence through the lens of counter-terrorism and security, rather than humanitarianism and human rights.

This deliberate distortion views migrants as the other: extremists, Islamists, and security risks.

Throughout history, labels have been used to dehumanize persecuted people and to desensitize the general public to their realities, and our responsibilities to these realities.

In the post-9/11 decade, persecuted civilians, civilians fleeing the so-called Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other armed groups, militaries and non-state actors violating rights to life, are now themselves being labeled a security threat.

According to official UN figures, the conflict in Syria has displaced 12 million people; at least four million more have fled the country. To date, under a UN-backed government settlement scheme, the British government has granted just 187 Syrians the right to settle in that country.

The UN resettlement program wants European countries to grant 30,000 Syrian refugees the right to settle. The UK says it has prioritized the resettlement of Christian Syrians because this is a group persecuted and targeted due to their religion and identity. This type of system further criminalizes and demonizes Muslim Africans and Arabs as others and effectively says their lives are not of the same value as Christian people’s lives. Ironically, this is also what the terrorists and fanatics believe. Most Muslims, meanwhile, are not Muslim enough for the likes of the so called Islamic State, who are butchering Shia Muslims and anyone not living according to their perverse interpretation of Islam.

In May, the EU announced it will provide more aid to African nations cooperating to prevent migrants from leaving before they cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Instead, the EU wants people returned to their home countries, regardless of whether those home countries are active conflict zones. African countries through which migrants transit will also be given aid based on how many people they keep out of ‘Fortress Europe’.

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Aid, it seems, is being spent on fortifying the walls of Europe, rather than on providing support to those desperate enough to take on the dangerous journey to the fortress.

Meanwhile, European leaders continue to project themselves as occupying the moral high ground. In April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi condemned the ‘new slave trade’ in Europe and the trafficking of people. What he and his EU counterparts did not do was stipulate their involvement in overseeing the running of this trade through policies focused on keeping people locked out of countries where they can seek refuge.

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Shaista Aziz is a freelance journalist based between Islamabad, Pakistan and the UK. She tweets @shaistaAziz

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