When the Iranian dissident poet Abas Amini recently stitched together his eyes, ears and mouth in protest against the possibility of his deportation by the British authorities(1) the desperate message was clear: As unwelcoming or hostile as the so-called place of refuge may be, the alternative of deportation can mean to some a fate worse than death. Yet the plans put forward by the Blair government open up the possibility that Amini and thousands like him could be routinely detained and returned to be 'processed' in transiting centres in third countries. The British government argues that this is a valid and managed response to the uncontrolled migration flows that exist currently. But what is the plan and what are the possibilities of it becoming a reality after Thessaloniki?
Paradise Island? - myth of liberal utopia against reality of increased repression
For a nation with a colonial heritage and a tradition of welcoming commonwealth citizens to its shores in the decades after independence, Britain's current hysteria over the number of asylum seekers appears to contradict its liberal image. Yet it is part of a broader trend: like the widely-held antipathy to the machinations of Brussels, the British aggression/defensiveness typifies a warrior-like island mentality with its policy-makers and public determined to ward off those invaders who, in their various guises, threaten its overcrowded shores and its increasingly shaky notion of a national identity. In light of this, the political response to the problem of asylum has become increasingly heavy-handed and managerial in recent years. This latest scheme comes hot on the heels of policies which have courted controversy whilst resulting in failure: from dispersing asylum seekers away from the overpopulated South East to the publication of lists of "safe countries" as well as schemes awarding asylum-seekers meal vouchers rather than money policymakers have compounded the contradictions of a failing asylum system which hesitates between laissez-faire liberalism and repressive conservatism. In short this British scheme represents the latest chapter in a woeful tale of desperation: that of asylum-seekers who are desperate to get in and a government who is equally desperate to keep them out.
A cool reception at Thessaloniki but certain to survive
The plan discussed by Member States governments at Thessaloniki is a watered-down version of an earlier proposal, that of transit processing centres in the Balkans or the Ukraine. This had been rejected out of hand by various Member States who were sensitive to the idea of internment camps with all their historical connotations. Instead, the debate last week centred on the more sanitised notion of 'regional protection zones' which would be set up by EU countries to harbour refugees near their own country. If co-ordinated at EU-level, it was hoped that this would lead to a fairer and more integral management of migration flows whilst lending a greater legality to refugee status with recognisably 'genuine' refugees in host countries. As well as citing the practical advantages of having a pre-emptive response to humanitarian crises in the region, the British government has also defended the plan on humanitarian grounds as challenging the exploitative practice of human trafficking in its various forms through on-the spot processing whilst offering the possibility of a quick return home when the crisis is over.
In the event the British proposals fell at the first hurdle, rejected at the first working group of the three day summit after coming up against opposition from Germany and Sweden. The former country cited its constitution which lays down the right to seek asylum as a core value, whilst the latter with its liberal traditions in the field of asylum and immigration - it is historically active in the regional quota system for refugees - also dismissed the British plan. Despite its cool reception at Thessaloniki, it seems unlikely that the idea of regional "protection zones" will be abandoned entirely. The plan has considerable backing from other Member States including the Netherlands and Denmark as well as muted approval from poverty-stricken and donor-dependent UNHCR. British representatives have already announced their intention to proceed bilaterally with a first zone in the Horn of Africa planned for the end of the year to handle the turmoil in Somalia.
On-the-spot processing. A short-term solution for refugees and Member States?
Through promoting regional protection zones the British government is suggesting that migration is a regional problem which depends on a regional (ie EU) response. The principle problem with this argument (used by many to support a common asylum and immigration policy) is that it fails to take into account the colonial history and the resulting transnational social networks which pull individuals towards one country rather than another. Seen in this light, the British plan can be seen as cynical attempt to bounce refugees back from their shores for 'processing' and 'redistribution' at a comfortable distance.
There are also numerous legal and practical problems associated with this notion of social engineering in third countries, not least because of the vagueness as to how the plans will be implemented. At the legal level, the plan breaks with international law embodied in the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which allows transborder asylum. This begs the question of whose law will reign in the camps, due to be sited in sovereign countries. Furthermore, how can we guarantee an adequate level of protection when we know that camps outside the EU are not subject to the European Convention on Human Rights and that conditions are highly insecure, with men, women and children living under threat of attack, rape and forced conscription? Should the protection zones/camps become large and more permanent how can we be sure that traffickers will not prey on the rich pickings on offer? There is also confusion as to the nature of the legal advice and claims procedure that could be put in place whilst the fundamental question of freedom of movement remains unanswered. Would refugees be free to come and go or whether this would mean de facto detaining of the innocent? Would people who arrive in the west be sent back or would the processing centres give priority to people claiming asylum in their home region?
Given the increasingly xenophobic climate in Europe, the fundamental flaw in the plan for regional processing centres lies not in questions over its legality, but in its claim to reduce the complications and expense related to the current system as well as act as a deterrent to further applications. In reality, the practicalities of shipping large numbers of people back and forth (often against their will) will represent a certain expense for participating EU Member States and the camps themselves will represent a long-term financial commitment. Meanwhile refugee groups are playing devil's advocate, whispering of a pull-factor as people who do not have the means to employ traffickers or undertake long journeys arrive in these protection zones/camps in the hopes of gaining a passport to what they perceive to be a better life. For those who would rather 'die a thousand deaths than return to (their) homeland' (2) the message is clear: the exodus continues.
(1) Between the ages of 13 and 33 Mr Amini spent 6 years in Iranian prison, for his political beliefs and protests, including the writing of poetry critical of the government. During this time he suffered long periods in solitary confinement as well as beatings of various kinds. (Source: Nottinghamshire refugee forum)
(2) Quote, Amini, attributed. (Independent Newspaper).