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Halting the Waves

David Blake Knox

Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour, by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano, Hurst, 352 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1849049535

There seems to be general agreement that Europe is in the throes of a major migrant crisis. Certainly, that is the consensus to be found in most of the mainstream European media. The media have also reported what seems like a corresponding rise in the electoral fortunes of populist and nationalist parties throughout the continent. In the UK, anti-immigrant sentiment clearly helped to deliver victory to Brexiteers in the 2016 referendum. In Italy, the leader of the Northern League, which has pledged to send five hundred thousand migrants home, is now the deputy prime minister. In Austria, the Freedom Party, which has claimed that “the protection of cultural identity and social peace requires a stop to immigration”, is a partner in the governing coalition. Last year, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which advocates an immediate end to immigration, won almost a hundred seats in the federal election and entered the Bundestag for the first time.

This surge in the appeal of nationalist parties opposed to immigration has even reached one of Europe’s heartlands of liberal values. The Sweden Democrats have advocated a complete end to immigration, as well as proposing that financial incentives be offered to migrants to persuade them to return to their countries of origin. In 2006, the party had no seats in the Riksdag: in this year’s election, it won sixty-two.

In 1997, all members of the EU – with the exceptions of Ireland and the UK – signed the Schengen Agreement. This abolished all border controls between its member states and seemed to herald a new era of freedom of movement in Europe. However, by 2016, border controls had been reintroduced in seven of the Schengen countries. That was in response to the large numbers of migrants that had arrived in Europe from the Middle East and Africa. It seems that Europe’s governments are no longer prepared to tolerate unrestricted borders – even when that involves breaking with their own liberal traditions.

In January 2016, Sweden and Denmark suspended free passage along the Øresund Bridge that links their two countries and introduced photo ID requirements for the first time in fifty years. The bridge had been a symbol of their close connections in both commerce and culture: it even appeared as the backdrop when Sweden staged the Eurovision Song Contest in 1991. The host of that event proclaimed proudly that borders were coming down all over Europe, and that a newly liberated continent was in the process of being born. Twenty-five years later, there are fences, heat sensors and armed guards to prevent unwanted refugees crossing the Øresund Bridge.

There are some obvious reasons why growing concerns about migration have confounded European governments, and led some of them to resort to drastic measures. In the last three years, more than two million immigrants – primarily young men – have entered EU states. The village of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border has an official population of 154 people. But in just two months during the winter of 2015-16, more than half a million refugees passed through it en route to other European countries. By now we have become familiar with the images of migration on our TV screens: the overloaded and unseaworthy boats, the lifejackets floating on the water and the long columns of refugees trudging towards distant borders. Perhaps the most disturbing image has been the photograph of the body of a small Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach. This photo provoked horror and outrage across the continent when it was first published. Many people rushed to Twitter to express their solidarity with Europe’s immigrants. But it seems that this compassionate response was only of limited duration.

Alan Kurdi was not the only member of his family to drown at sea: his mother and five-year-old brother also perished in the same crossing. His father, Abdullah, was the only survivor, and a year after the tragedy he spoke about the impact that the photograph of his son had made. “The politicians said after the deaths of my family: Never again!”, he told one journalist. “Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying.”

Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour is an ambitious attempt to explain what underlies the crisis of mass migration to Europe, and how we might respond. Its two authors, Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano (one a journalist, the other an analyst), work for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. This initiative was established following a series of discussions between senior law enforcement officials from both developed and developing countries. Those taking part believed that the problems of illegal migration and the illicit trafficking of people were not being well analysed or understood. The decision was taken to build a platform that would promote “an inclusive strategy against organised crime”. The Global Initiative is based in Geneva, with a core secretariat and an advisory board. This book represents its first major publication, and marks a significant attempt to reach and influence the world’s policy-makers.

Tinti and Reitano make it clear from the outset that the purpose of their book is not simply to recount the sad stories of migrants. Instead, their goal is also to explore the complex networks of smugglers, traffickers and other criminals who make it possible for so many migrants to reach Europe. They also reject the sort of narratives that have dominated the Western media’s coverage of the crisis. In these, smugglers are only portrayed as unscrupulous villains. Instead, Tinti and Reitano argue that the label of “smuggling” covers a range of diverse activities. It may be true that many smugglers are professional criminals, but it seems that others are motivated by a range of different factors, including traditional family obligations and regional loyalties. Tinti and Reitano recognise that smugglers often profit from the misery of others, but they believe that they can also “save lives, create possibilities and redress global inequalities”.

The authors recognise that smuggling has become a multi-billion international industry, and one that responds to the changing conditions of the marketplace in much the same way as its legal counterparts. The authors’ central argument is that some of the policies being followed by European governments are proving to be not only unduly oppressive, but also counter-productive. In particular, the authors believe that decisions to close the borders of European states to desperate migrants are only likely to deliver them into the hands of those criminal gangs that have the resources and experience to circumvent the obstacles placed in their way. According to Tinti and Reitano, the responses of Western governments are ineffective because they have not been able to keep pace with the speed of regional mobility and the changing nature of consumer technology. This disparity is particularly acute in countries that have only recently become democracies, such as those in the Balkans, and whose fledgling states are ill-equipped to deal with a substantial influx of immigrants.

Tinti and Reitano believe that there has been not been a time in history when so many people have attempted to cross international borders without authorisation. However, they also believe that at no time has “a collection of democratic governments committed to human rights and international law gone to such inhumane lengths to stop them”. Apart from closing down borders, many European countries (including Ireland) have set up migrant processing camps where the living conditions can be extremely harsh, and which often come to resemble detention centres.

The strategy of the EU in dealing with the arrival of so many recent migrants has also involved paying other states billions of euro to prevent migrants from leaving their countries and making their way to Europe. This is not a new strategy: for many years Italy paid the late Colonel Gaddafi to provide the same service. He is said to have boasted that it was thanks to his efforts that Europe had not “turned black”. It is doubtful, however, if this practice of using similar surrogate states will continue to prove effective. The reasons that drive large-scale migration have become too compelling, and some of the states that the EU is currently paying, such as Niger, are both endemically corrupt and without the central authority to implement any sort of meaningful crackdown on the trafficking of their citizens.

Part of the reason that the EU has adopted its current strategy is because, once migrants have arrived in a country, the possibilities of repatriating them legally become problematic. In practice, that leaves democratic governments (and the societies they represent) with just two viable options. The first is a process of deliberate integration that will lead migrants, in time, to full citizenship of the host state. The second option is to resettle them in some other country that has agreed to take them. The chances of the latter happening are slim: in 2015, only one hundred thousand migrants were relocated, and more than seventy thousand of those went to the USA. Under the current US administration, that number seems unlikely to increase in the immediate future.

In October 2016, the EU decided to massively expand its Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). It was proposed that its staff complement would increase from its current 400 to a thousand by 2020. However, in June of this year it was agreed that the current crisis necessitated an immediate expansion to a standing corps of ten thousand, with new executive powers and a stronger mandate to repatriate migrants. Tinti and Reitano believe that this agency will not prove much more successful than its equivalent, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in the USA. With more than sixty thousand agents, a fleet of 250 aircraft and an annual budget of several billion, the CBP is a larger organisation than the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, US Marshals and NYPD combined. During the Obama presidency more than four million illegal migrants were deported. Yet, as the authors point out, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are still able to cross what has become a heavily militarised zone each year. In comparison to the US frontier with Mexico, the borders of the EU are longer and much more porous. That may explain why Donald Trump is alleged to have recommended to the Spanish foreign minister that his country should build a wall in the Sahara.

Tinti and Reitano’s book is comprehensive and persuasive. Its method is to combine a rigorous analysis of the circumstances that have given rise to this current wave of mass migration with a series of “case studies” in which individual stories are briefly told. In that respect, it seems that the book draws upon the respective expertise of its two authors, and is clearly aimed at reaching both policy-makers and general readers. At times, this combination of first-hand reportage and academic investigation works extremely well, and the two approaches complement each other. At other times, their combination seems to fall between two stools. The profiles of individual migrants can be frustratingly incomplete. And, since this is a highly complex issue with many different dimensions, the cogent analysis is sometimes written in a dense and closely-argued style that can feel relentless and overloaded with empirical detail.

In the past year, there has been a noticeable fall in the numbers of migrants seeking to enter Europe. The authors of this book have little doubt that any such reduction is only temporary. They believe that most of the conditions that gave birth to the recent mass migration will continue to obtain in coming years: indeed, if anything, they seem more likely to intensify. In that context, the authors are convinced that the current strategy followed by the EU will fail.

It could be argued that the issue of migration has become a focus and a catalyst for a deeper crisis within Europe’s liberal democracies. It seems rather naive to suggest that the rise of populist parties can be explained entirely, or even principally, by the arrival of large numbers of immigrants. UKIP, after all, was formed more than a decade before the present mass migration to Europe began. As the authors of this important book accept, the European continent was already in the process of going through fundamental changes which had major cultural, economic and political effects. In that context, simple moral distinctions between deserving and undeserving migrants are of little use in formulating realistic long-term strategies. The growing impact of globalism, and its future implications for our various interdependencies, may be deeply unsettling to many Europeans. They should not be ridiculed, abused, or patronised for that response. But, as Tinti and Reitano suggest, nostalgia is not an effective or a realistic policy and some hard but pragmatic decisions will have to be faced.

1/11/2018

David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films – including Imagining Ulysses, a feature documentary about James Joyce’s novel. His latest book, The Curious History of Irish Dogs, was published this year by New Island Books.

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