Things that happen in the dark: Brexit and refugees

Things that happen in the dark: Brexit and refugees

Entrance to The Verne, a detention centre that was once a prison. Photo: CC SA 3.0.

Entrance to The Verne, a detention centre that was once a prison. Photo: CC SA 3.0.

When I arrived home yesterday, I found a leaflet on the kitchen table.  It's author: the Vote Leave campaign. The leaflet, "The European Union and Your Family: The Facts," has a map on its back cover with the title ‘Countries set to join the EU’ (shown below).  The only countries labelled within their own territorial borders on the map are the UK, Syria and Iraq.  The only other countries besides these that are not in colour are Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania.  One quickly sees the manipulative confusion in this design and the associations that are implied. The map has already been criticised as scaremongering and ‘fanning the flames of division.’  It is more than that.  It is capitalising on fear, Islamophobia, racism and a thorough misunderstanding of EU politics, in the middle of a humanitarian catastrophe for Syrian people. Turkey is not close to joining the EU at this stage, in any event; but Turkey is good enough for the EU to negotiate a hasty deal with in order to return Syrian asylum applicants to Turkey instead of processing their claims in the EU.  But that's another story... Well, actually, it's not really another story; the UK is doing very little to help resettle Syrian refugees, David Cameron having agreed to take only 4,000 people per year and refusing to take part in an EU-wide programme of resettlement.   

The fact that the EU is faded into the background of the map is revealing.  It betrays that these particular scare tactics are not about the EU at all, really.  They're not only about this referendum, and they are not new. They are looped through nativist, xenophobic and highly racialised ideas about the position of the UK in the world, including who gets to come to the UK.  They advance a logic that would sooner see the moat get bigger than smaller, see the UK as a sovereign fortress floating in the sky, out of reach.  This map is meant to indulge the nativism of the mind. 

Map from the Vote Leave campaign mail-out on the UK EU Referendum.

We are privy to the lessons of racist immigration policies, with the 1962 and 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Acts, which restricted immigration of British colonial subjects largely along colour lines. After the racial restriction on Kenyan Asian UK citizens was put into place in 1968, the European Commission on Human Rights issued a report (initiated by Kenyan Asians) that the UK law was discriminatory, which Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC notes was crucial in fighting populism and changing the law in the UK. 

If Britain respects human rights and values the humanity of vulnerable migrants, if it is serious about fighting racism and xenophobia, then why not hold itself accountable to the very basic scrutiny of European institutions on minimum standards?  This question is particularly important, since we can't always be trusted to play fair, left to our own devices.

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In recent days, a final judgment was issued by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the case of Selina Affum, a woman in possession of a false passport who was arrested by French authorities while crossing the border from Belgium into France, in a bus, en route to the UK.  The ruling states (with several caveats) that migrants who do not have proper documentation can not be arrested and put into detention solely for entering the country (in this case, France) illegally.  The EU Returns Directive outlines a procedure already in place for most EU member states that is, from a free movement perspective, only marginally less violent—one that allows for a period of voluntary return and, if that does not happen, calls for “forced removal using the least coercive measures possible.”

It is important to note that the UK has opted out of the Returns Directive.  While the UK has its own policy to allow for voluntary return, there are many exceptions to this and detention is a widely-used practice for asylum applicants and other categories of migrants.  Immigration authorities, in some cases, subcontract the deportation arrangements to private security firms whose guards have physically abused people during their removal.  We all remember the 2011 case of Jimmy Mubenga, a 46-year-old Angolan man who died in the 'care' of G4S guards during his deportation.  The guards were acquitted of all charges, despite an inquest that revealed he had been calling for help for 35 minutes, and despite the guards having been known to use racist language.

Detention has been widely acknowledged to have a significant negative impact on mental health and cause re-traumatisation in those who have experienced violence (see. e.g., the government-commissioned Shaw Report from January 2016).  Besides being inhumane in general, the effects of detention are magnified for vulnerable migrants.  Currently, were it not for the CJEU’s stance on applying the Returns Directive, more vulnerable people across Europe would be subjected to being detained.  The thin buffer of time provided by the Returns Directive for undocumented migrants in Europe undoubtedly has real effects on the lives of thousands like Selina Affum.   

So if the UK has opted out of the Returns Directive, why are UK Euro-sceptics outraged by the decision? Because it prevents French authorities from criminalising would-be immigrants to Britain. The Express, a UK paper, ran an article titled" EU Madness:  Brussels paves illegal immigrants' way to UK by ruling they can't be detained".  But this title is not an honest appraisal of the situation.  The UK is not in the Schengen Zone, it carries out passport checks at every border crossing for EU and non-EU citizens as a matter of course, and has, therefore, significantly higher levels of policing oversight over immigration than virtually any other place in Europe.  In the words of my colleague Nadine El-Enany, "Britain is the most fortified of all EU countries."  Oh, and it's an island in the north-west corner of Europe, so the points of entry are relatively few.  

I fear the worst about the intentions of some in the Brexit (British Exit - related to the referendum on whether to leave Europe) camp.  For those who use hyperbole to characterise European Union oversight, the EU is preventing member states from deciding to collapse the immigration and criminal systems into an indistinguishable set of policing interventions.  It prevents us from deciding, in Trump-like fashion (remember his idea to ban all Muslim immigration to the US until we can 'figure out whats going on'), to arrest first and ask questions later.  It prevents us from deciding, in order to deter immigration, to humiliate migrants at our discretion, impervious to external claims of racism, Islamophobia or human rights violations that have any teeth.  The campaign shares a broad base of support with the campaign to scrap the Human Rights Act, currently tied to the European Convention of Human Rights, in favour of a ‘Bill of Rights’ that is not judicially accountable to the European Court of Human Rights.  These initiatives are not the same, but they do share the same reasoning with regard to European regulation and Europe's most vulnerable people, and the common message is:  We would rather handle things in the dark.

In specific relation to the welfare of refugees coming into Europe, shirking EU accountability would mean mean advocating for the removal of certain minimum standards of care for those fleeing persecution in their home countries. It calls for the elimination of the EU’s already ineffectual provisions that, at least in some cases, insulate migrants from immediate absorption into the criminal system.  What leavers tend not to admit is that the UK already opts out of most EU immigration regulation (though, significantly, not from the EU Dublin Regulation, which actually empowers the UK to send refugees back to the first EU countries they travelled through on their journey to Britain).  We need more minimum standards in place to change the conditions that make certain groups vulnerable to violence and ill-treatment; why would anyone want fewer?

We need to be concerned with protecting the welfare of those fleeing persecution abroad if we are to have any integrity as a human-rights-respecting state.   Asylum residences are burning in Germany.  There’s a moat around our Island fortress and we are drowning in the nativism of its waters.  Hundreds are washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean or languishing in detention centres.  Europe is already an unsafe place for migrants in search of refuge.  Stripping away the small buffer of European scrutiny and insisting on handling things in the dark is an unnecessary turn towards a deeply sadistic future.

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