2010, the year of the right to migrate?

Deploring the hardening of immigration policies, particularly in European countries, at a time when new factors linked to climatic change have increased the numbers of those needing to leave their countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently underlined how difficult it was today to tell ’a climate refugee from an economic one, a forced exodus from a chosen migration.’ At the same time, Jacques Barrot, European commissioner responsible for immigration, has backed a policy which avoids ’men and women fleeing poverty or war becoming victims of smugglers or dramatically losing their lives as they desperately try to get into Europe.’ These are concerns that the latest United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report appears to echo, calling as it does for a ’lifting’ of migratory barriers. ’There is no proof that immigration has a negative effect on economies, labour markets or budgets, whereas the benefits in fields like social diversity and the capacity for innovation are evident’, the UNDP experts add.

It is high time to lift barriers. At the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, didn’t Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero talk of ’other walls in the world which must fall’ and Nicolas Sarkozy of ’knocking down [the walls] which still divide cities, lands and peoples across the world’? But these virtuous assurances of ’never again’ have an ironic counterpart: some 40,000 kilometres of closed borders, nearly 18,000 kilometres of which are ’walled’ and almost all of which were built after 1989, which prevent human movement across the planet. The majority of demarcation lines between states today are like walls, whether physical or virtual. Travel is a privilege of the rich. For those for whom passports and visas - today’s passe-partout - are out of reach, borders are a no man’s land where they risk their lives.

The best-known walls in the European Union protect Spanish enclaves on Moroccan territory, the towns of Ceuta and Melilla. But the iron curtain which hems in both ends of the Eurostar as it approaches the Channel is another symbol of the fortification of certain frontiers. Above all, there has been a process of dematerialisation, militarisation and externalisation: since 1998, the SIVE (Exterior Surveillance System) has turned the Straits of Gibraltar into a sort of high-security door to Europe. With the Frontex agency, the cordon sanitaire has been extended along the coast of West Africa, to the Strait of Sicily, between Malta and Lampedusa, the Strait of Otranto, the Aegean Sea, and to the European Union’s eastern-most land frontiers, increasing the number of deaths at borders: based on press reports, NGOs estimate the number of victims of Europe’s ’war on migrants’ over the past twenty years to be around 15,000.

This lock-down favourises criminal activities too: as the High Commissioner for Refugees recently pointed out, the European Union’s ever tougher policies on immigration have played into the hands of human traffickers. But the lock-down is more than that: at heart, it violates the fundamental right - recognised by article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - to leave one’s country.

Like France’s agreements on the ’coordinated management of migratory flows’ and Italy’s ’treaties of friendship’, Spain’s Africa Plan and the readmission agreements the European Union has signed with its neighbours have a common aim. Development aid is offered to countries of emigration and transit in return for participating in the control of their nationals planning to leave (via the criminalisation of emigration in certain countries like Morocco and Algeria) and accepting to ’take back’ citizens of theirs in an irregular situation in Europe. With controls externalised, the European Union’s borders have today been outsourced southwards (to Libya, Mauritania and Senegal) and eastwards (to Turkey and Ukraine).

These nets set up to catch migrants hoping to cross Europe’s fortified borders have also led to the development of camps for foreigners, another key mechanism of anti-migratory globalisation. The Migreurop network has counted 250 in the 27 member states of the EU, with a capacity of more than 32,000. 32 days in France, length of detention recently rose to 6 months in Italy, and can extend to several years in Cyprus. Despite numerous reports criticising the conditions in which exiles (many of whom are minors) are detained, the EU questions neither how they are run nor whether they should exist at all. On the contrary, with the ’return’ directive adopted at the end of 2008 to rationalise deportations, and with the ’Dublin II’ regulation which turns asylum seekers into ’hot potatoes’ palmed off from one country to another, camps are springing up in and around Europe.

Like the new walls of shame, the camps for foreigners are a symptom of an evil which did not disappear with the fall of the Berlin Wall: the privileging of (flawed) national interest over respect for individual rights. For decades now, the migratory policies imposed by rich countries on the rest of the world have been characterised by a sort of defensive one-upmanship, accentuating inequalities and tensions, with no demonstrable proof of economic viability.

Like UNDP, or researchers brought together by Unesco to imagine - based on solid data - what ’migration without borders’ might look like, more and more voices are calling for the dogma of closed orders to be rethought. Could 2010 be the year of the right to migrate?