Anywhere But Here
Europe and the UK are both looking to push migration concerns back beyond their own borders – the human cost is devastating, reports Simon Speakman Cordall
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Tamber Bundor travelled by road and desert from Sierra Leone to get to Tunis. He guesses he’s spent around £1,600 – more than half a typical year’s income – so far. Ebola had killed much of his family, leaving him with little cause to remain in his own country.
The perilous crossing of the Mediterranean into Europe, if he takes it, will cost him even more. “I’m going to go and earn a living in Europe,” he says. “Italy, Germany, France, it doesn’t really matter.”
Tamber had been working in construction, earning the money to hitch a ride on one of the many boats that departs regularly from Tunisia to Europe, before an explosion in racist violence left him homeless and, along with others, forced to sleep rough outside of the International Organisation for Migration in Tunis.
That deep-seated hostility to black migrants, which has long lurked under Tunisia’s otherwise progressive surface, now looks unarguable. However, it took a speech by the country’s President Kais Saied in mid-February, in which he claimed that illegal migration by Sub Saharan migrants was part of a wider plot by unnamed agencies to change the country’s demography, to flush it to the surface.
Overnight, undocumented black migrants, often living unofficially on the periphery of society, found themselves forced – either by fearful landlords or racist mobs – out into the street. Some of the men report being attacked with knives and machetes. Some of the women say they were raped.
Deeper into the clusters of donated tents and tarpaulins, a group of Nigerian men sit next to a woman operating an improvised barber shop. One, Stanley, describes travelling through five countries at a cost of some £4,500, only to be marooned in Tunis. “They chased me away from Nigeria because I am a gay,” his friend says, “They hit and beat me.”
No one in the makeshift camp in Tunis is here by choice. But for the relatively affluent countries of Europe, their presence outside of the continent’s borders irrespective of the conditions, does at least offer some relief.
Nevertheless, as the UK seeks to frame what it calls its migrant crisis in terms of “small boats” – rather than ‘people’ – and risks breaking international law to expel migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda, the EU has long engaged in its own strategy of externalisation: outsourcing responsibility for the bloc’s border security to those countries beyond them.
Last year, around 330,000 undocumented migrants entered Europe – the highest since 2016, providing easy ammunition to demagogues of the populist-right and testing populations already strained by spiralling costs of living. That many, already scarred by war, poverty and famine will endure potentially worse conditions, barely registers with a public more concerned with priorities closer to home.
For context, while around 45,000 people crossed the English Channel last year, a little more than 105,000 landed in Italy, pushing many of the country’s migrant reception centres to breaking point and contributing to the election of the hard-right coalition of Giorgia Meloni, whose campaign deliberately sought to vilify migrants, parking much of the responsibility for the country’s own failings at their door.
Since 2017, Rome has invested some €75 million in Tunisia’s maritime surveillance and security. Even now, as Tunisia balances on the precipice of financial and social collapse, the EU’s response was framed in terms of irregular migration rather than rights.
In Libya, without any central government to speak of, Italy exerts immense influence over the country’s coastguard, donating four massive search and rescue – in reality, return – vessels to an organisation dogged by accusations of violence and corruption.
Egypt, labouring under autocracy and with no civil rights to speak of, inked an €80 million border management programme last year to serve as doorman to the EU.
As the numbers of people seeking safety within the EU has increased, so has the bloc’s efforts to keep them out – with even states typically regarded as ‘liberal’ engaged in pushing their own border concerns back beyond the EU’s frontier to regions such as the Balkans, Niger and Senegal.
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This isn’t new,” Ahlam Chemlali, a migration researcher, says. “It’s been tried before, in Israel, for instance, and it hasn’t really worked. Typically, irregular migrants are pushed back to what are called these ‘safe third countries’ – where they can be robbed or subjected to violence, so they may leave and try again.
“Western states often claim they’re motivated by a humanitarian wish to stop people smuggling, but they’re really just setting up the conditions for the smugglers to get repeat business.”
According to Chemlali, externalising any migrant population to a third country is to deny the conclusions of years of research.
“People will just move,” she says. “This debate about externalisation started with discussing these amazing ‘cities of possibilities’, where people would be able to train and trade. Then they lost the ‘city’ tag, with people referring to them as migrant centres.”
The Danish Government referred to this in 2016, she says, as “enormous refugee cities with hospitals, schools, universities, farms and companies”. This however quickly downscaled to camps – conjuring a scenario where people would be barred from leaving: detention camps.
“We’re essentially taking the world’s most desperate and vulnerable and imprisoning them,” she adds.
Ominously, many of those third countries, such as Tunisia, have already passed laws forbidding the construction of migrant centres on their territory and have no or weak laws on asylum.
Niger, another of the countries in the EU’s sights, imposed an internet shutdown and passed a decree that the International Federation of Human Rights says “provides for total control of NGOs’ actions by the Nigerien authorities”.
None of this appears to have deterred either the EU or the UK Government from seeking to push their border concerns elsewhere, while overlooking potential alternatives. But in a world of war, poverty and climate change, in which mass media has embedded the sanitised ideal of European lifestyles into the lives of its most desperate, that they should come to claim their part should surprise no one.