Extracted from Race & Class (Vol. 47, no. 1, July–Septmber 2005).
The deportation machine: Europe, asylum and human rights
By Liz Fekete
We live in an age in which the rich industrialised world pronounces on human rights abuses abroad while failing to live up to its own standards at home, particularly in relation to its obligations under international law. But whereas the erosion of the international rule of law that arose from the War on Terror is recorded by a whole host of individuals, journalists and alternative tribunals, the degree of illegality that flows from the (undeclared) War on Refugees is less keenly observed. The War on Terror has undermined the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War – the War on Refugees has undermined the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Both wars have eroded international conventions outlawing torture, cruel and degrading treatment or other punishment. This pamphlet, based on twelve months’ research and bringing together over 200 case studies, explores the various ways in which the EU Deportation Programme undermines the Geneva Convention, and documents the other countless human rights abuses and illegalities that deportation policies have engendered.
At the time of writing, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is engaged in ‘Convention Plus’ – a series of ‘global consultations’ with the State signatories of the Geneva Convention (and other ‘stakeholders’) on how to update the 1951 Convention (and its 1967 Protocol) in order to ‘address all the pressing issues pertaining to refugee protection in today’s changing world’. But while (officially, at least) the UNHCR still speaks the language of refugee protection, the state signatories to the Geneva Convention start from an entirely different premise: the need to protect states from the growing international refugee burden. In the EU, the shift from protecting refugees to protecting states can be seen most clearly in the development of a common asylum policy based on set targets both to reduce the numbers of asylum claims and to increase removals of failed asylum seekers. What such targets signify is the EU’s intent not to bring the Geneva Convention up to date, but to bypass the humanitarian principle that is its guiding rationale.
But how can EU countries assess individual asylum claims objectively and protect refugees displaced by war and conflict, if they are to predetermine, by the setting of quotas, how many refugees are to absorbed into Europe, and how many rejected? That it is need, not numbers, which characterises a humanitarian approach to asylum was a fact recognised by the original drafters of the 1951 Convention, who were responding to the humanitarian crisis after the end of the second world war, when displaced people wandered around Europe or squatted in makeshift camps, with barely any legal protection or assistance. The Geneva Convention (and its 1967 Protocol) was the first systematic attempt to hold states to account; it asserted that they had duties and responsibilities towards refugees. In compiling this report, I did not originally set out to document with what frequency European states were violating their international responsibilities under the Geneva Convention and other international laws. But as the distressing stories of those targeted for removal came to light, it became manifest that, if international law was respected, most of these removals would not take place at all. This is not a question of individual immigration officials making incorrect decisions on individual cases; what is key is the creation of a conveyor-belt system of removals designed to meet government targets. The rot starts at the top, when government ministers announce, in parliaments dominated by anti-immigration sentiment, targets for removal. Across Europe, the anti-foreigner press duly blazon such targets, while anti-immigration and extreme-Right parties urge even higher targets and the removal of ever-increasing numbers. The actions of government ministers, politicians, press and the extreme-Right all constrain the civil servants, immigration officials and police officers who have to enforce these targets to act with greater zeal. In the stampede that follows, the most vulnerable are targeted, precisely because they are easiest to remove. Today, those caught up in the EU’s deportation drive include torture victims, those severely traumatised by war, psychiatric patients and the terminally ill. Even vulnerable children, including those who have sought asylum in Europe unaccompanied by any adult, are caught up in it. Some have developed symptoms of complete depressive breakdown, including severe apathy. Unable to thrive emotionally and physically due to traumatic experiences in their home countries, compounded in Europe by their fear of deportation, they have had to be hospitalised and intravenously fed.
But, then, the politicians do not tell us about the real life stories of such children, the sick or the elderly; instead they speak as if all asylum seekers are young, fit, male ‘economic migrants’ in search of western prosperity and a better standard of living. Politicians harp on about the number of asylum seekers arriving, the difficulties communities face accommodating them, and how their very presence fuels the far-Right. In the UK, for example, Tony Blair has spoken in pious terms of the government’s determination to protect us from those who ‘simply flout negative decisions and remain’ and whose continued presence sends the ‘wrong message to those who may try to come to this country without genuine cause’. Prominent among these disingenuous and self-seeking individuals, it would seem, are those attempting to flee war zones who are now being returned to some of the most dangerous regions of the world – Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Algeria (the list of countries grows with each passing day). They also include Aids victims (who will die for lack of treatment in their home countries), homosexuals fleeing persecution, Roma escaping racial violence, girls who have been trafficked into sex slavery and the female victims of genital mutilation. While some may not be Convention refugees in the strict sense, do they not have a genuine claim to protection on humanitarian or compassionate grounds, as laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights and other instruments of international law?
In the era of a globalised economy, where more and more people are displaced by war, or by economic or environmental devastation, and where the distinction between an ‘economic refugee’ and a ‘political refugee’ is razor thin, western states are anxious to rewrite conventions relating to refugee protection. The EU has already been engaged in a systematic attempt to erode Article 31 of the Geneva Convention which guarantees the individual right to cross international borders to seek asylum. It is now ready to move to stage two of its plan, the creation of a new model of refugee protection based not on individual rights but on a system of ‘warehousing’ refugees in large camps in their region of origin until a conflict has been resolved to the satisfaction of the western powers. In this way, the EU seeks to transfer its ‘refugee burden’ onto the impoverished South (already host to the vast majority of the world’s refugees) from where a chosen few will be selected for resettlement in Europe under an Australian-style quota system.
One of the first instruments to effect this change is the mind-numbingly named ‘European Council Directive on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third-country nationals and Stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection’ – the ‘Qualification Directive’ for short – passed in June 2004. Whereas the Geneva Convention gave protection to refugees from conflict until a ‘fundamental and lasting change has occurred in conditions in their country of origin and state protection has been restored’ (emphasis added), the Qualification Directive states that protection can be provided not just by the State but ‘also by parties or organisations, including international organisations... which control a region or a larger area within the territory of the State.’ (emphasis added).
In a global polity dominated by the War on Terror and where the doctrine of US security is paramount, where the source of ‘terror’ is deemed to lie in those states antithetical to US interests, the way is opened for direct western-led intervention into weaker (though theoretically sovereign) states. The danger, though, is that interventions lead to further displacement of peoples, greater refugee flight. And ‘security’ for the West is also security from refugees (humanitarianism, after all, only goes so far).Hence, the importance of the Qualification Directive in establishing that protection for refugees need not only be provided by a functioning state, but by protectorates (presumably under the auspices of the UN) which can confine refugees in camps in their regions of origin and prevent them seeking asylum further afield. And if extreme-Right parties such as the Danish People’s Party have their way, refugee camps in regions of origin will also be used as dustbins for the asylum seekers Europe has rejected, the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Somalis, the Congolese who cannot be repatriated to their homeland because war is still ongoing, there is no functioning state and it is simply not safe to return.
The idea that refugees can be ‘warehoused’ – the term is significant – until conflicts are resolved denotes the denigration and reification of asylum seekers. Already set apart from society, they can be more readily expelled; treated as commodities, they can be parcelled up, packaged and sent out of Europe. To dehumanise asylum seekers like this indicates the xeno- racism inherent in the whole deportation programme. What else but anti-foreigner racism can legitimise the use of such brutal force against asylum seekers as evidenced in case after case?
The setting of targets for removal by individual member states and the subsequent escalation in the use of chartered flights and military jets to enforce removals legitimises force and institutionalises brutality against asylum seekers. The harsh methods of control and restraint used to enforce removals have led to the deaths of eleven asylum seekers, mainly from suffocation. (People have in some cases been literally parcelled-up with adhesive tape; in others, sedated, or restrained where they sit by a special deportation helmet which locks the head onto the seat.) There have been countless injuries, ranging from those associated with prolonged periods in handcuffs to severe brain damage and loss of sight.
Yet death and serious injury do not just occur in the back of a deportation van, or on the aeroplane. A number of asylum seekers are known to have met their deaths following their return, variously, to Somalia, Turkey, Syria and Eritrea. These are countries known for the illegal detention and torture of political dissidents, as are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Egypt, also countries to which asylum seekers have been returned. Returning war refugees, political dissidents and others at risk of serious harm to countries still at war, or where torture and cruel and degrading treatment are systematic, is in violation of the Geneva Convention and other international instruments which set limits on the expulsion of asylum seekers to a country where their lives may be at risk. But as, globally, the national security of powerful states takes precedence over human rights, the War on Terror has ensured that such returns have become more commonplace. And, once again, the fact that there are no systematic attempts by member states to monitor the outcome of deportation programmes, in terms of the safety and security of deportees, indicates that asylum seekers are lower in the order of things than animals. Every cow which goes in and out of Europe is tagged, documented and monitored so that EU officials know details of its movements and its whereabouts. It is fully traceable. But the fate of asylum seekers is nobody’s concern. They have less value than live-stock.
The EU deportation machine is armour-plated against corrosion from any sense of compassion or responsibility. The refusal to yield to any basic human instinct of compassion extends to asylum-seeking children. They are increasingly being denied the protection of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which lip service is paid, which requires that the best interest of the child be paramount in executive and judicial decision making and action. Nothing speaks more clearly of xeno-racism than the fact that immigration law – including the right of states to detain and deport children – now takes precedence over the internationally-recognised rights of the child.
Yet what will happen to these children, to the sick, the elderly, campaigners ask? To which the reply is that targets must be met and the integrity of the asylum system must be preserved. In this view, children are pawns and arguments about their rights serve as a means for parents to evade deportation – in much the same way as the traumatised are seen to use their torture scars to dodge removal. A concluding section on ‘Destitution, detention and human rights’ records some of the terrible human price paid by asylum seekers in their struggle for justice. It documents countless incidents of self harm among asylum seekers, either in removal centres or destitute on the streets. But in much the same way as the US authorities at Guantãnamo Bay have reclassified detainees’ suicide attempts as ‘manipulative self-injurious behaviour’, EU governments ignore the shocking escalation in suicides and incidents of self-harm among the detained and the desperate. Instead, they denounce such individuals as ‘self-mutilators’ or ‘emotional blackmailers’ ‘testing the hospitality’ of the nation. It is a stereotype that not only ignores the very real human misery that prompts suicide, but adds a deeply offensive dimension to the growing xeno-racist discourse against asylum seekers and refugees. In effect, it turns reality on its head: states are the victims of such behaviour and asylum seekers their victimisers.
The EU deportation programme is a juggernaut. If allowed to continue unchecked, it will violate all our basic human values. It has already drawn in civil servants, immigration officials and police officers to a programme for removal based on the bullying of the vulnerable. But there is now an added danger. It is that the deportation system is aiming to create a new layer of de facto deportation officials among public servants and welfare professionals generally. Doctors who are willing to sanction the use of force against asylum seekers – against their own ethical codes – will be incorporated into that system. Teachers, whose pastoral duty is to protect all children in their care will have to allow arrests for forced deportations to be carried out on school premises if so the state dictates.
The juggernaut has rolled on ignored, unmonitored and unimpeded for too long. It is high time that an EU-wide campaign for accountability and transparency of the asylum process was launched. Throughout Europe there are conscientious doctors, committed journalists and film makers, social workers, teachers, children’s advocates, human rights campaigners and trades unionists, who are attempting to make clear the inhumane effects of a target-driven deportation policy. And asylum seekers themselves, denied every single civil, social and human right are using the only weapon at their disposal – their bodies – to highlight their predicament. Across Europe, they sew their lips together, they refuse food, they protest in any way they can. Governments that are strangers to compassion are deaf to despair. The Deportation Machine has been researched, compiled and written in the urgent hope that its readers will make them hear.
This article is based on Liz Fekete’s research report The Deportation Machine: Europe: asylum and human rights (London, Institute of Race Relations, 2005).