IIt’s bad enough when states break their own rules and mistreat people – but it’s when they start changing the rules that we really have to worry. Three recent stories, from three different corners of Europe, suggest that governments are crossing a new threshold of violence in terms of controlling their borders. These developments are harmful in themselves, but they also set a worrying precedent for how countries in wealthy regions of the world might cope with future displacement of people – not only because of war and persecution, but also because of the climate crisis.
In the UK, the Home Office has quietly tried to change its draconian Nationality and Borders Bill, now at committee stage, by introducing a provision that grants border forces personnel immunity from prosecution if it fails to save lives at sea. Priti Patel, the Minister of the Interior, says this is an essentially benevolent measure: if the boats in the Channel turn around, it will eventually prevent people from attempting the dangerous journey in the first place. In fact, it violates a key principle of international maritime law which makes it a duty to rescue people in distress.
In Poland, the government has just adopted an emergency law allowing the authorities to turn back refugees who enter the country “illegally”. It is the latest development of a diplomatic standoff with Belarus, which has cynically encouraged people from Iraq, Iran and parts of Africa to enter the EU, in response to sanctions imposed on it. imposed earlier this year. Poland’s uncompromising response leaves many trapped in the no man’s land between the two countries. Aid agencies warn of looming humanitarian crisis as winter sets in; at least eight people have died this year so far, mostly from hypothermia.
In south-eastern Europe, an international team of investigative journalists has revealed that Croatia and Greece are using a “phantom army”, plainclothes clad in balaclavas linked to those countries’ regular security forces, to force people to leave their borders. In Croatia, these units were filmed beating people with clubs on the border with Bosnia. In Greece, they are accused of intercepting boats in the Aegean Sea and drifting passengers on life rafts in Turkish waters. (Croatia has vowed to investigate reports of abuse, while Greece denies the practice.) Just as shocking as the claims themselves is the fact that the disclosures were widely greeted with a shrug of the shoulders. indifference by EU officials, whose funding helps support border defenses in the two countries. Twelve member states are even demanding that the EU adjust its rules so that it can fund “new preventive measures”, including walls and fences, at its external borders.
Taken together, these stories suggest that ‘refoulement’ – the removal of migrants from a country’s territory, even if it endangers them or nullifies their right to asylum – is becoming a problem. well-established practice. Once something that would largely take place in the shadows, this is done more and more openly, with some governments trying to find ways to make this practice legal. The UK’s proposal came under heavy criticism from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, whose representative said it would “inevitably” put lives at risk.
It’s not just a problem for today: it’s a dress rehearsal of how our governments are likely to deal with the effects of the climate crisis in the years to come. Predictions on climate-related migration are notoriously vague and prone to hyperbole, but a new World Bank report predicts that 216 million people could be internally displaced by water shortages, crop failures and sea level rise by 2050. Some people may well end up moving further if they are faced with poor economic prospects or with conflict and instability in their country. In April, United States Vice President Kamala Harris said drought and “extensive storm damage due to the extreme climate” were part of the reason for the increase in migration into the country. from Central America.
Unfortunately, many of our politicians are prepared to view displacement first and foremost as a civilizational threat. This was the logic of Boris Johnson’s words before the launch of Cop26 in Glasgow, when he claimed – wrongly – that “uncontrolled immigration” was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire, and that a fate similar awaits the world today. In this story, an environmental catastrophe that affects us all turns into a question of how the rich and powerful can preserve their privileges.
The richest regions of the world have already begun to militarize their borders, a process that has accelerated in response to the refugee movements of the past decade. In this, they are supported by a thriving border security industry. A recent report from the Transnational Institute warns of what it calls “the border industrial complex,” a multibillion-dollar growing industry that ranges from security infrastructure to biometrics and artificial intelligence. The global fencing, walls and surveillance market alone is expected to be worth between $ 65 billion and $ 68 billion by 2025.
This, however, is a false type of security. Restrictive and violent border control just makes the societies that exercise it more authoritarian – and it doesn’t stop people from moving around altogether, either. What it does is force people to take more dangerous trips, becoming even bigger targets for xenophobic reactions. Countries or regions that are seen as desperate to keep people out become the target of unscrupulous neighbors who want to use the issue to exert political pressure. The end result, as we continue to see at the borders of Europe, is a callous disregard for life.
Instead, beyond action to reduce emissions, there needs to be a plan to help people adapt to changing living conditions and reduce global inequalities, as well as migration policies that recognize the reality of people’s situations. Last year, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that governments should not send people back to countries where their safety would be directly threatened by the climate emergency. At present, however, there is no appropriate legal framework to protect people displaced for environmental reasons. A major new US study commissioned by the Biden administration recommends new laws to protect climate migrants, but it’s surprisingly light in the details.
The next few years are likely to mark a turning point in the way our governments respond to displacement. Either they work together to build a system that protects people’s lives and dignity, and that can adapt to the changing realities of the 21st century, or their borders will continue to harden, at the cost of considerable human costs. If we want to avoid the latter, now is the time to question the violent logic of repression, before it becomes part of our laws.