Borderline Views: The global migration crisis

Until recently the major flow of migrants was from Africa into the EU, while this has now been joined by the tens of thousands fleeing the carnage and brutality of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Four-year-old Rashida from Kobani, Syria, part of a new group of more than a thousand immigrants, sleeps as they wait at border line of Macedonia and Greece to enter into Macedonia (photo credit: REUTERS)
Four-year-old Rashida from Kobani, Syria, part of a new group of more than a thousand immigrants, sleeps as they wait at border line of Macedonia and Greece to enter into Macedonia
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Seventy bodies, including those of young children, found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian highway, immediately followed by the news images of another 200 migrants drowning at sea in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Pictures of thousands of migrants scrambling through the barbed wire fence of the Hungarian border, which is ill equipped to prevent the refugees from crossing the border with Serbia, accompanies news reel from Calais showing hundreds of migrants attempting to gain access through the Eurotunnel from France to the UK.
This has now become the single largest movement of people in the world since the end of World War II and there appears to be no signs of it slowing down. Poverty and drought in Africa, instability and civil war in the Middle East, acts of violence and genocide, have brought about a forced movement of people, in desperation, seeking stability, normality and economic sustenance in Western Europe, to an extent which the governments of these countries are unable to control or limit.
Until recently the major flow of migrants was from Africa into the EU, while this has now been joined by the tens of thousands fleeing the carnage and brutality of the conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
What was, until recently, a movement of migrants from poverty stricken countries seeking employment and economic sustenance in the affluent countries of Western Europe is slowly being replaced by a refugee movement, numbering hundreds of thousands, fleeing almost certain death at the hands of Islamic State, the Assad regime and the multitude of other violent militias which are involved in the destruction of the Middle East political regimes.
Last week, the UK announced that it has now reached a record number of migrants and 2015 still has four months to run. The liberal and humane welfare policies of such countries as Germany and Sweden have turned these countries into major attractions for the fleeing refugees, bringing into question the ability of these countries to continue to absorb an endless flow of migrants and refugees, as local populations – even those who were sympathetic until now – demand more stringent controls.
It has become increasingly difficult for these countries to make any meaningful distinction between economic and political refugees – there is no clear border between the two categories, as many of the economic migrants are also seeking safer places for their families. A refugee from almost certain death at the hands of a militant or fundamentalist group is not that much different from one whose family will die from starvation due to the lack of employment opportunities, drought, or the destruction of the state system in a civil war.
It has become a field day for right-wing and racist politicians, seeking to limit, to cease altogether, the continued flow of migrants and refugees. While liberal politicians seek to legalize larger numbers of migrants and to provide opportunities for their economic and educational integration into the host societies, right-wing politicians and political parties throughout Europe, ranging from UKIP in the UK to La Penn in France, use the classic fear language of “demographic swamping” and “rivers of blood” which were made famous by Enoch Powell in the 1960s, to create an atmosphere of fear among the local populations. If, in the past, anti-migration sentiment focused almost entirely on the economic argument, that “migrants take our jobs” and that they are burden on the social services, today this is combined with strong ethnic and cultural resentment of groups seeking to live within their own religious and cultural ghettos and retaining their non-European modes of behavior – religious customs and beliefs, language and general lack of desire to adapt to Western modes of democratic and “enlightened” behavior.
It is not only in Europe. Outspoken Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for the border to be strengthened by ever-larger walls and fences to prevent the continued flow of Hispanic immigrants from Latin America who, he argues, are “taking American jobs” and are not integrating into American society as previous immigrant groups did. He has gone as far as to argue that the border construction should be funded by the Mexican government as it, in his somewhat warped global view of international relations, is responsible for not stopping the flow of migrants.
Can borders prevent migration?
It is clear that borders, however high the walls, however electrified the barbedwire fences and however sophisticated the border surveillance and management techniques are no longer able to prevent migrants from crossing. At least we live in an era where border guards no longer shoot to kill every migrant attempting to cross the border illegally, but the treatment of the migrants has become harsher, detention camps are sprouting up throughout the external regions of Europe and migration has now become the number one issue on the political agenda of the EU and other Western countries.
The Shengen border regime in the EU focuses on the external borders, separating the EU countries from non-EU countries, while at the same time the internal borders within the EU have been dissolved altogether.
Once arriving within a EU country, be it Hungary or Poland in the east or Italy and Spain in the south, the migrants are able to travel throughout western Europe with relative ease, with the single exception of the UK, where they still have to find their way over the Channel and where the government operates its own migration policy separate to that of the rest of the EU.
Borders between EU countries still determine the citizenship of the individual, but they have almost no impact whatsoever on the free and unhindered movement of people from one country to another.
This political achievement, and it is an achievement given the past political tensions and conflict, did not foresee this potential mass movement of people from beyond the EU. And as political instability and poverty in countries beyond the EU, in Africa and the Middle East, increase, so too the flow of migrants will increase. The external borders of the EU will not be able to prevent the flow (as the pictures from the Hungarian-Serbian border, or the mass accumulation of potential migrants along the coastal regions of North Africa, waiting for unsafe boats to ferry them across the Mediterranean, clearly show) and a new global regime on human migration is necessary to seek solutions to this problem.
EU legislation determines that, if arrested, an illegal migrant without the necessary documentation or visas must be returned to the country of his/her entry into the EU, pending the hearing of his case. But this is a policy which has become as nonsensical as it is impossible to implement. Most of the “port of entry” countries into the EU are the poorer countries at the periphery, where the social and economic burden of large migrant groups is even greater than in the economic cores of Germany, France and the UK. Some of those countries, such as Hungary, Poland and Romania, have themselves been the source of large groups of migrants seeking better economic conditions elsewhere in the EU, where they are now permitted to travel and work freely throughout the region without the need for additional visas or work permits. The largest single immigrant group to the UK during the past 10 years has been from Poland, not the Third World. They are to be found in many of the country’s menial jobs, and as waiters and hotel receptionists, and have been welcomed by local populations who, without even thinking about it, are more prepared to welcome those groups of migrants who are white, Christian and look more like them than do the Islamic and African refugees from distant cultures.
Within countries such as Poland and Hungary, the outflow of their own “poor” population seeking better opportunities elsewhere is being replaced by an inflow of even poorer populations, seeking to use their countries as a bridge to the more affluent countries of the West but who, as a result of EU policies, are being prevented from traveling onwards, or are being returned to these countries while their application for domicile are being heard – and as the numbers grow, so too the time it takes for each case to be dealt with.
There is no election campaign in Europe today in which the issue of migration and refugees does not figure strongly. Much of the blame is laid at the door of governments who have, in the view of some, been too relaxed in their desire to absorb refugees in the past, sending out a message of welcome which has had larger than envisaged consequences. There is little sympathy for the human plight of refugees who are ruthlessly being exploited by those who wish to profit from the growing instability, and are providing unsafe and inhumane means of travel, in rickety boats or in airless trucks. There is a renewal of anti-ethnic sentiment, the extent of which has not been felt for the better part of half a century. Politicians and political parties of the Right are cashing in on this situation, as they seek to gain power and re-impose policies which will make it even more difficult for migrants to gain entry to their countries. Economic poverty is no longer considered a sufficient reason for allowing migrants to stay, and many face deportation – even if it is clear that they will immediately start out on the long trek once again.
Migration and borders in Israel
In Israel, it is almost 40 years since prime minister Menachem Begin welcomed with open arms the relatively small group of “boat people” fleeing Vietnam. He recalled the fact that when the Jews fled Europe there was almost no country which was prepared to take them in and to save their lives. It would be incomprehensible, Begin argued, if the state which was founded on the ashes of the Holocaust was not prepared to take in refugees fleeing political persecution and oppression.
But Israel cannot be particularly proud of its recent policies with respect to (non-Jewish) migrants, the numbers of which are still not particularly large even if they have grown during the past decade. The residents of the larger cities, especially in the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, demonstrate against the influx of migrant groups who, they argue, take away their jobs (even though it is always menial jobs which the local population have long ceased to work in) and change the ethnic and cultural character of their neighborhoods.
In a burst of racist and anti-ethnic sentiment, the immigrant neighborhoods are described as places of drugs and prostitution, and if that is not enough, there is the killing argument which plays so well into the ears of the right-wing government: they “dilute the Jewishness of the state.”
It is not nice to admit but this is one of the few issues on which Moroccan and Russian Israelis are in agreement – their intense dislike for the migrant groups who have arrived in Israel in recent years, a dislike sometimes displayed in their attitudes toward the Ethiopian citizens of Israel as well. Joking aside, why is it that in this country, built upon the refugee experience and which assumes a positive attitude toward migration, we so dislike migrants when they are different from us? The recent migration experience in Israel has, in reality, been a positive experience.
They are mostly hard working, law abiding and, for those who have been fortunate enough to bring their families with them, very caring and supportive of their dependents.
And yes, they have often taken the jobs which the local population, those who so despise them, are no longer prepared to work in, because of the low pay and the fact that the cushion of social security offers them just as much to remain unemployed.
Most of these migrant workers went to great personal lengths and physical dangers to cross into Israel from places of instability such as Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, and wish for little more than to be able to work and provide for their families in a free and open environment. They are being subject to the sort of draconian measures which we would not expect from any country whose parents and grandparents went through the terrible experiences of not having a country to take them in when they were most in need.
Migrants are rounded up in night raids by the police. They are held in detention for long periods without recourse to proper legal procedure, although it must be said to its credit that the High Court has three times intervened and demanded that these policies be eased and that the period of administrative detention be reduced.
This in turn has angered the right-wing ministers in the government who wish to introduce more stringent laws which can no longer be challenged by the legal system. The fences and barriers along the Israel-Egypt border are being strengthened and fortified as much to prevent the continued entry of migrants from Africa as due to new security concerns emanating from the Sinai peninsula, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he wants to see Israel completely encircled by such barriers and borders with the construction of a similar barrier along the entire length of the Israel-Jordan border.
The fact that there are now new security threats emanating from Sinai to the south, and from Jordan and Syria to the east, makes it easier to sell a new policy of border construction which will have the dual purpose of preventing terrorism on the one hand and making it all the more difficult, if not impossible, for refugee migrants from Africa to cross into Israel to seek refuge and safety. Israel also turns a blind eye to the illegal and inhumane activities of the refugee traffickers who, having taken extortionate amounts of money from the refugees (all the money they have in the world) then leave them to fend for themselves in the desert, or at the hands of new desert marauders, many of them dying long before they even reach the impassable fence into Israel.
If and when the Israel-Egypt border is completed, and a new fence is constructed along the border with Jordan, Israel will have succeeded in creating its own bordered Ghetto State here in the Middle East, completely shut off from its region and in constant fear of enabling any movement beyond its borders and boundaries in either direction. There could be no greater contrast to the romantic notions of the early Zionist leaders and the state founders, who saw the establishment of an independent Jewish state as signifying the throwing off of the shackles of the European ghetto and the impassable walls which forcibly separated them from their surrounds. A voluntary ghetto, with physical borders enclosing the entire state, of our own making as we too are no longer able to effectively deal with the realities of the region within which we have chosen to live.
It was the security narrative which enabled Israeli governments of the past decade to sell the idea of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank to the wider Israeli public. But in keeping out the terrorists, the border has become a physical barrier for tens of thousands of Palestinian workers seeking a livelihood among the menial labor force in Israel, contributing to greater poverty within the West Bank (and Gaza) and, in turn, causing even greater political frustration and discontent among the younger generation of potential Palestinian workers. Ironically, Israel replaced the Palestinian workforce with foreign labor, many of whom have become in turn the source of the discontent among the poorer sectors of Israeli society, as they supposedly “take their jobs.” Unlike the Palestinians who could commute on a daily basis from their homes and families in the West Bank and Gaza, the foreign workers are here to stay, creating their own homes, finding ways to bring in their families, give birth to new Israeli citizens, and creating an interesting and colorful ethnic mosaic which was previously unknown to Israeli society, but which is seen by some as constituting some sort of demographic threat.
Required – a new global policy on migration
Migration has now become the number one issue facing the potential political stability of large parts of the world. While the long-term solution requires the improvement of social and economic conditions in the countries of origin – in which the West should play a major role given its wealth, much of it accruing from past colonial policies and exploitation in these regions – and the end to civil and religious wars and genocide which cause so many to uproot and flee for safety, this is not going to happen in the short term. Countries have to rethink their whole policy toward migration, in the knowledge that no amount of new fences and walls, or sophisticated surveillance technology, will succeed in keeping such large flows of people from finding ways to cross them.
Tragedies of the type seen last week in Austria and in the Mediterranean are not going to disappear any time in the near future. World powers must get their act together and convene an emergency forum of the G8 or the United Nations, aimed at alleviating the plight of refugees and migrants. The international community has a collective social and human rights responsibility to find solutions, both in countries of origin and destination, and must, if necessary, actively intervene, to ensure the safety and dignity of the migrant population. This is a growing international problem of global dimensions and cannot be left to the whims of internal politics of individual countries, some affected more and some affected less. If there is such a thing as an “international community,” now is the time to take immediate action.
In Israel too, we must become more sympathetic to the plight of those migrants who seek to find safer and better conditions.
The world has changed and we are no longer able to maintain a policy of isolationism from processes which affect the world at large, of which we are, and desire to be, a part. Security threats aside, and it is obvious that we cannot downplay some very real threats which exist beyond our borders, we must determine a serious migration policy which is not limited to the “Law of Return” affecting Jews only.
We must also play our part in alleviating the global crisis, be prepared to take in a pre-determined number of migrants who will find their future economic and physical safety among us.
If we continually seek the world’s sympathy for the security threats facing us, then we must be prepared to contribute in the same way as we expect to receive. Our border regime should be made more “user friendly” to those seeking asylum, administrative detention should crease altogether, applications for asylum should be dealt with speedily and in a humane fashion, nightly roundups of migrants without documents, akin to police-state tactics, should be banned, and the biblical values of caring for the “stranger” should be placed on the national agenda. That Jews once sought refuge and were refused should, as Menachem Begin correctly stated, become one of the keystones underlying a balanced and fair migration policy for the State of Israel, as it matures into its seventieth year.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and incumbent of the Professorial Chair in Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.