By Syed Rashid Munir
September 08, 2015
Immigration is by no means a new issue for the European Union (EU). As of early last year, almost 34 million immigrants of ‘non-national’ origin called EU home, and this number grows steadily every year. But for every immigrant that makes it alive and well across European borders, there are dozens others who are not so fortunate. Horror stories regarding border crossings abound where the smugglers are actively involved in victimising the very people they are supposed to ‘facilitate’.
Resultantly, every day of every year brings with it tragedies that unfold in the waters encircling the European enclave. But most of these tragedies either occur far from the gaze of the international media, or are quickly hushed up. Every once in a while though, something happens that rocks the core of the very notion of humanity and all that it entails.
The agonising picture of the corpse of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, a child who drowned during a failed border-crossing attempt, which washed ashore onto a beach in Turkey, has sparked enormous outrage all over the world and brought to attention the unfortunate fate of those who are pushed to venture into threatening waters for the very soil of their country has become hostile to them. It is tragic that such a calamity had to happen to finally put a human face on the plight of hundreds of thousands, but that is the world we live in.
Colour me callous, but the world we inhabit perhaps requires such horrific tragedies to wake us out of our stupor. Death itself is part-and-parcel of the human experience, but the death of children — be they in Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, or Gaza — induces much shock since it breaks with the natural cycle of the old, making way for the new, and forces us to take cognizance of our collective conscience.
While the dream of a better life in the EU results in ultimate tragedies far too often, the recent wave of immigrants and refugees seeking asylum and protection in Europe has crystallised as a core contention in the European echelons of power. The Keleti train station in Budapest, which has turned into a temporary abode for the thousands fleeing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, has become a lightning rod that has landed Europe face to face with the reality it has chosen to ignore for quite some time.
The arguments against the acceptance of immigrants and refugees into Europe do not hold any water when examined critically. In almost all of the cases, the incoming masses are poorly trained in the language of the country they migrate to, and are furthermore ill-equipped to handle tasks of a professional nature that require advanced academic qualifications. Resultantly, most of them end up with menial jobs that nobody else wants to do.
Furthermore, with an aging population and a declining birth rate, Europe is in need of able-bodied workers that can tackle the grunt work of infrastructure and service delivery that forms the very lifeline of modern economies. In the light of such facts, the only remaining reason for not letting the outsiders in seems to be xenophobic translations of insecurities rooted in socio-economic or religious factors.
The introduction of transnational rights in a world very much rooted in the nation-state paradigm did not make a lot of sense even in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was nonetheless a way to move on from the evil that materialised during the Second World War. Even back then, leading thinkers like Hannah Arendt were painfully aware of the limitations of human rights concepts, but today, it is clearer than ever that we need to move away from a state-centric approach to human rights.
Broadly speaking, human rights in the contemporary world are basically just national rights, where the state is entrusted with the responsibility to respect the universal rights of its citizens. In case of gross violations of rights such as freedom of life, expression, and organisation, some safeguards are in place but due to selective implementation of such protective policies, little faith remains in international organisations that are supposed to take care of those who find themselves victims of their own state.
But while the paradoxes of a territorial state dispensing non-spatial rights remain aplenty, an added tragedy is the case of immigrants and refugees that find themselves helpless in situations of travel and mobility. Border controls and visas promise safe passage to the well trained and the well off, but what of those unfortunate souls who find themselves at the mercy of belligerent states or civil wars? Which doors can they knock on?
As it turns out, their options are limited both by circumstance as well as by the structure of the world. While both international and national laws provide protection in cases of emigration (the act of leaving one’s country), they provide little safeguards for immigration (act of entering another country). But in a world divided into fiercely guarded territories, it is obvious that the act of emigration necessarily results in an act of immigration, meaning that except for extremely rare circumstances, you can only hope to land in another country as soon as you leave your own.
So the unlucky souls who find themselves stuck in the zones of no relief during border crossings have very little to claim in lieu of protections and rights. When you add the abuse of power by the nation-state to the already existing dilemmas, the situation becomes even more sorrowful. In a world ruled by globalisation, nation-states protect their borders in the hope of retaining some semblance of control over their internal matters and resultantly introduce harsh measures to stop the inflow of immigrants. In this regard, it is noteworthy to observe how the external borders of the most prosperous countries in the world also remain some of the most heavily protected.
Providing immediate relief to refugees is one thing, their integration into the mainstream society of the recipient country quite another. Only a cursory glance at the contemporary European cities will reveal that immigrants occupy the fringes of society, where they are cut off from all kinds of formal support networks. Even in cases where second or third generation immigrants know of no other land than their host country, the ghettoisation of immigrants remains rampant.
But who are we to criticise when our own treatment of refugees remains abhorrent? After all, have we not refused to integrate the affected immigrants of our Afghan adventure into our mainstream society? And it’s not just Pakistan that is guilty of maltreatment. Virtually all Gulf states — which ironically house huge swathes of immigrant workers — have draconian policies regarding immigration and refugee settlement.
In such a scenario, bashing Europe for its lack of empathy towards the plight of the Syrians, the Iraqis and the Afghans seems the easy way out, but while it may make for riveting reads, much more complex mechanisms are at play. The problematic thing about European regimes of human rights is that the elaborately worded policies fail to materialise into meaningful resources in real cases. As highlighted earlier on, there is a need for a profound transformation of the very notion of human rights to the extent of including immigration rights in international charters, laws and treaties. Until that happens, we will continue to witness the helpless falling victim to our indifference.
The author is a freelance columnist with degrees in political science and international relations