Migration: Europe’s Achilles’ heel

Europe’s moral imagination does not go as far as ensuring the safe movement of people, writes Nanjala Nyabola.

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesbos island, Greece. Volunteers (life rescue team - with yellow-red clothes) from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms help the refugees.

When, at the end of last year, Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko lured hundreds of people into Belarus, with the unspoken promise of free passage to the European Union through Poland, it fuelled yet another refugee crisis on Europe’s border. This latest humanitarian crisis comes amid continuing loss of life in the Mediterranean, as well as in the English Channel.

The European Union’s borders continue to be a site for the punishment and weaponization of people trying to find a better life. Lukashenko’s actions appear to be a retaliation for EU sanctions on Belarus, imposed after the EU’s election monitor alleged widespread human rights abuses in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential poll. But this isn’t the first time that a national leader has used refugees as a political bargaining chip, as leverage against Europe.

In 2001, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi promised to ‘send so many refugees to Europe that they would turn Europe black’ and got significant political concessions from the bloc as a result – until he was deposed. Similarly, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohammed ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo, have been implicated in buying, selling and enslaving migrants near the border with Libya. Yet they have also received financial support from the EU to allegedly stop these practices. The RSF have been directly implicated in some of the worst human rights abuses in Sudan including the violent clampdown on protests and resistance to the October 2021 military coup.

The European Union’s borders continue to be a site for the punishment and weaponization of people trying to find a better life

Authoritarians know very well that the bodies of refugees and migrants are so evidently the EU’s Achilles’ heel. It is a weakness that is easy to manipulate because mainstream politics across the region has made room for the far right to shape narratives around migration, particularly migration from the Global South. Those fears are an easy handhold for anyone trying to get something out of the bloc.

At the same time, FRONTEX, the EU’s border force, has pivoted from humanitarian missions at sea to programmes of criminalization and enabling death. The insidious logic that Europe is being ‘invaded’ has enabled this to take root across the bloc. Member states like Hungary have militarized their borders and the number of refugees taken in by EU countries, excluding Germany, continues to plummet.

The big anxiety for countries that are dependent on European Union funding or patronage is that these violent border logics will become normalized elsewhere. Sudan’s autocratic regime was one of the EU’s key partners in refugee and border management in the Sahel. Arguably, Lukashenko was angling for a similar concession as he deepens his campaign of reprisals and violence against the opposition and resistance to his continued rule. So far, the bloc has refused to play ball, but it remains unclear how long the situation will last given that the wars continue and the refugees keep coming.

The border crisis in Europe is a moral crisis. A region which positions itself as a worldwide moral arbiter has demonstrated that its moral imagination cannot extend to the safe movement of people who come through its borders. Until this crisis is resolved it is only a matter of time before the next Lukashenko emerges.

Nanjala Nyabola is a political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is the author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How The Internet Era Is Transforming Kenya (Zed Books) and Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired By A Life Of Travel (Hurst). March-April 2022