August’s WPF Employees of the Month are “borders”, or more specifically, hard, closed, national borders.
The borders between US states, marking the passage from one jurisdiction to another, are not a problem. likewise the open borders between nations within the EU’s Schengen area, like Germany and the Netherlands.
But the other sort of borders, the increasingly militarized ones that rich nations seek to defend to keep out the poor and huddled masses fleeing war, violence, oppression, and extreme poverty in the rest of the world, are mass killers. But as the world has grown smaller, virtually no measure put in place by wealthy but fearful nations has succeeded in stopping the desire of people to escape unbearable situations at home, or simply to improve their lives and offer better ones for their children. But the attempt to do so causes suffering and death on a massive scale.
In North America, it is the border between the United States and Mexico that is trying to keep out tens of thousands of people fleeing the epidemic of drug cartel violence in Mexico and Central America – an epidemic fuelled by the U.S.-led war on drugs and very often by U.S.-sourced weapons. This border has become a key focus of Trump’s political agenda: demonizing, Mexican and other LatinX immigrants, demanding a border wall, and most recently, the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance policy” announced in March 2018, the decision to imprison and prosecute all—including asylum seekers—who attempt to cross the border without documents. The most draconian outgrowth of this policy was the unnecessary and cruel separation of children from their parents, while imprisoning both.
The policy of family separation has supposedly been ended, but of the 2,500 children separated from their parents, 600 have not yet been reunited, despite a court-imposed deadline to do so. Some parents have been deported without their children. In other cases, the negligence and incompetence that has gone with this policy means parents have been lost in the system and cannot be identified or traced. In the meantime, children have been held in cages, traumatized, subjected to sexual abuse, drugged, and denied basic comforts, in concentration camps run by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). In one case, a 1-year old was made to appear at a deportation hearing, representing itself, and was asked whether it understood the proceedings. Those families that have been reunited are still in most cases being imprisoned, now together instead of apart. The Administration has been seeking, unsuccessfully so far, to revise an older court ruling limiting the time that children can be held in immigration detention to 20 days.
This, however, is only the most extreme case, and the only one that has truly reached wide national and international consciousness, of the human cost of white America’s fear of the LatinX other, and the resulting state efforts to close the border to those seeking a better life.
For those who cannot cross the border legally, doing so illegally often means entrusting themselves to the mercy of criminal gangs acting as people smugglers, who charge exorbitant fees, and who may abuse migrants, abandon them in the desert, or traffic them into sex slavery. Many seeking to cross the border die due to the extreme conditions in the desert, or in the backs of crowded, overheated trucks. Deaths in crossings have been steadily increasing since 1994, when ‘Operation Gatekeeper” began a process of intensifying scrutiny at populous points of the border, channeling undocumented crossing efforts into the most dangerous parts of the desert. US Border Patrol agents have been videoed destroying water supplies put out by volunteer groups. This all long predates Trump.
What Trump has done is expand and intensify border policies while trying to diminish all routes for accountability and abandoning any pretense of humanizing the process. Within the US, ICE operates as a paramilitary police force with little or no accountability, terrorizing immigrant communities with its raids, which the Trump Administration has greatly expanded. But even before the current regime, the ACLU documented thousands of cases of abuse and neglect of unaccompanied children in immigration detention, under the Obama and earlier administrations.
But, although it has got the most worldwide media attention recently, it is not the US where closed borders are most lethal. That shame belongs to Europe.
Borders within the Schengen countries of the EU (excluding the UK and Ireland) are generally open and uncontrolled; the same is anything but the case for the EU’s external borders, where a “Fortress Europe” mentality applies, with fearful Europeans, like their American counterparts, seeking to keep out the browner, poorer, Other. The risks posed by the American desert are multiplied in precarious Mediterranean sea crossings.
For many years this has meant immigrants fleeing war, oppression and poverty taking enormous risks across sea and desert, at the mercy of people traffickers, to reach Europe. But the situation dramatically escalated in 2015, with millions of refugees fleeing a devastating upsurge in violence in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, joining those seeking to escape festering conflicts in Sudan, or the stifling tyranny of Eritrea.
Briefly, the heart-rending image of 3-year old Alan Kurdi, face down on a beach, drowned, generated a measure of empathy and hopes for a more open and compassionate response. Some countries, like Germany, which received 890,000 asylum seekers, and Sweden, which took 163,000 (even more per capita), tried to follow an open policy. Greece allowed refugees to cross the narrow (though still potentially deadly) stretch of sea from Turkey, and progress onward to richer, more northerly climes. Thousands of volunteers participated in efforts to support and welcome refugees, at ports of arrivals such as Greece, or in their home countries. I was one of hundreds of volunteers in Stockholm who joined in a joint effort by the Stockholm Central Mosque and Katarina Church (of which I was a regular attender), neighbors on the central island of Södermalm, to provide support and accommodation to the tens of thousands of refugees passing through.
But while the efforts of volunteers have continued (the Church-Mosque collaboration continues in the form of Goda Grannar – Good Neighbors), for the most part the reserves of compassion, and certainly the political will, were quickly exhausted. As anti-immigrant sentiment rose and far-right parties gained support, borders closed, first in the central European transit countries, and then further north and west, including in the end in Sweden and Germany. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who previously told a rally in Stockholm that he did not believe in a Europe of walls, declared that Sweden needed “breathing space”. The EU did a deal with Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing to Greece, and take back any who do cross, forcing them to take the far more perilous route through lawless, conflict-ridden Libya, and the much longer crossing of the Mediterranean to Italy.
The consequences of this are as inevitable as they are horrific. Thousands more are drowning in the Mediterranean: 3,100 in 2017. People traffickers are making a killing, literally and metaphorically. The Italian government, with the support of the EU, has made arrangements with Libyan “security forces”—in reality militias or criminal gangs subject to no central civilian authority, which barely exists in the country—to try to prevent refugees from crossing, with as many as 20,000 held in concentration camps where they are subjected to torture, rape, and forced labor. In Algeria, with which the EU is also cooperating to keep people out, security forces are driving refugees out into the Sahara desert where they abandon them.
Most recently, the new Italian government, with far-right Interior Minister Mattio Salvini, has closed Italian ports to volunteer rescue ships that are trying to save people from drowning in the Mediterranean, and the EU in general is moving to discourage or even criminalize such activities, saying that civilian vessels should leave things to the Libyan “Coastguard”.
These are utterly predictable consequences of the policies that have been adopted by European leaders, which are being continued although these consequences are clearly apparent. But we cannot simply blame the politicians for these appalling policies, as they are frequently responding to the desires of their electorates; some European leaders like Salvini, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, are themselves of the far right, but others have adapted their policies to try to staunch the flow of votes to such parties. In once-open Sweden, the most recent polling averages put the far-right Sweden Democrats neck-and-neck with the ruling Social Democrats as the party likely to win most votes in the coming September election. Angela Merkel has generally tried to promote an open policy towards refugees, but has ultimately succumbed to electoral realities.
The tragic and horrifying reality is that most Europeans would rather that refugees from Africa and the Middle East drown in the Mediterranean, die of thirst in the desert, or be raped in Libyan concentration camps, than that they reach Europe. Is this too harsh? Are most Europeans aware of these consequences? Perhaps not, but I see little reason to think they would change their minds if they did. We all saw the pictures of Alan Kurdi.
Australia is perhaps the one country that has succeeded in hermetically sealing its borders from refugees. It’s easier when you’re an island a long way from where people are coming from. Their policy of naval interdiction of boats carrying refugees and other would-be immigrants, while indefinitely imprisoning people they find in Australian waters in inhuman conditions in camps such as Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, has more or less stopped the flow.
In North America, Europe, and Australia, the efforts of rich nations to preserve the sanctity of their borders, not from invading armies but from desperate civilians, causes untold suffering and death. But even within the rich world, the harm of closed borders is readily apparent, as are the benefits to be gained from opening them. Schengen, and the free movement of labor within the EU (including non-Schengen members) has brought huge economic benefits. One study has estimated that allowing the free movement of people worldwide could add trillions of dollars to the global economy.
Meanwhile, Brexit threatens to re-erect old borders, most notably on the island of Ireland. The demilitarizing and full opening of the border between Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, was a key element of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the long-run conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998. While the province remains in the UK, crossing the international border between the North and the Republic is now as easy as crossing from New York to Connecticut (only with less traffic). This has done a lot to defuse tensions, and reconcile Irish Republicans to remaining, reluctantly, part of the UK for the foreseeable future. But Brexit, if a deal is not agreed that satisfies all parties, could see the border closing again, and threaten to unravel the gains that have been made.
Borders, who crosses them and when, are also factors that play into the creation of discriminatory and exclusive national myths. Taking pride in one’s cultural and ethnic heritage is not the problem here. The trouble arises when modern borders become the absolute criteria by which governments decide who has rights as a citizen and who are beyond the pale of the national community. As true as this is in the affluent US and Europe, it is also a problem in the post-colonial world. For example, consider the recent list of citizens published by the Indian government, which effectively strips four million residents of the north-eastern state of Assam of citizenship, because they cannot prove they came to the state a day before neighboring Bangladesh declared itself an independent country in 1971, sparking a bitter war with Pakistan, in which millions fled across the border to Assam. Decades later, these four million residents, most of whom are part of a Muslim Bengali minority, now risk becoming stateless, and viewed as “illegal migrants”.
Human beings have moved from one place to another since our species began. Nation states, in the modern conception, have only been around in all but a few cases, for a few hundred years. The large-scale effort to police the borders of these nation states—from people, rather than from armies (or taxable goods) is even more recent; indeed, it was only in the 20th Century that immigration came to be systematically controlled, restricted, and sometimes criminalized. This effort to prevent the human drive to migrate, whether from desperate necessity or hope of a better future, is borne of fear, and is largely doomed to fail. But the damage it inflicts along the way is immeasurable.
Hence, borders – and the efforts to stop people from crossing them – are WPF’s Employees of the Month.
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