Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Slaves and terrorists? EU rhetoric on migrants under fire

  • 'If they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the flights that budget airlines operate' (Photo: Migrant Offshore Aid Station)

Prominent academics have accused EU leaders of “perversion of history” in rhetoric designed to justify use of “naval might” against migration.

They spoke out in a letter on the Open Democracy website on Wednesday (20 May).

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They cited recent remarks by Italian leader Matteo Renzi, who said “human traffickers are the slave traders of the 21st century”.

The EU’s foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, at the UN earlier this month, also said: “I don't believe that people are less slaves if they are stopped or kept somewhere during the journey or locked in [a] boat that sinks”.

The academics noted “the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ [are] being employed interchangeably” by the EU in an “elision” which makes use of force sound like “a moral necessity”.

Smuggling, sensu stricto, refers to illegal, but voluntary, journeys. Trafficking means forcing people to go against their will.

Looking back at 18th century slavery, the scholars said “enslaved Africans did not want to move”.

But today's migrants “want to move. If they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the flights that budget airlines operate between north Africa and Europe”.

“This is not the contemporary equivalent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To attempt to crush it with military force is not to take a noble stand. It is simply to continue a long tradition in which states … use violence to prevent certain groups of human beings from moving freely”.

The letter also cites a leaked EU blueprint for EUnavfor Med, the military operation which is to start work in July.

The blueprint says international law justifies action against vessels involved in the “slave trade”.

It envisages “physical destruction of smuggling enabling assets", including by “special forces” and “amphibious assets”.

It warns that "non-compliant boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life”.

The more than 300 signatories of the Open Democracy letter include names from Oxford University and LSE in the UK, France’s Sciences Po, and Yale and Harvard in the US.

“Where is the moral justification for some of the world’s richest nations employing their naval and technological might in a manner that leads to the death of men, women, and children?”, they said.

“A dangerous perversion of history is being peddled to answer this question”.

Terrorists

The “slavery” analogy comes alongside statements that migrants could be Islamic State [IS] “terrorists”.

Italy, on Wednesday, arrested a 22-year old Moroccan, Abdelmajid Touil, who arrived by boat in February and who, it says, helped plot a terrorist attack on EU tourists in Tunisia.

The arrest comes after Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg offered to help EUnavfor Med, in part, because “there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists, also trying to hide … among the migrants”.

Mogherini said she has no proof.

But she said IS is likely profiting from people-smuggling and using the money “for financing terrorist activities”.

Stoltenberg’s remark met with incredulity by counter-terrorism experts, who note IS has plenty of fighters with EU passports who don’t need to go to sea.

But it was quickly taken up by anti-immigrant populists.

Backlash

The other part of the EU migrant plan, to be fleshed out in a legal proposal next week, is to redistribute asylum seekers from Greece and Italy.

The European Commission says EU states should take in numbers of migrants based on wealth and unemployment rates.

The list of countries which already say No includes: the Czech Republic; Estonia; Finland; France, Latvia; Lithuania; Hungary; Poland; Slovakia; Spain; and the UK.

The relocation debate is also bedevilled by disingenuous language.

Opponents have spoken of EU “quotas” even though the hot-button word appears nowhere in commission texts.

They’ve confused asylum seekers with UN-registered refugees and said the commission’s temporary crisis-response idea is a permanent new system.

For his part, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK’s anti-immigrant party, Ukip, said there’s "a real genuine threat of IS using this policy to infiltrate our countries".

Italy’s Lega Nord party said IS infiltration means the EU should suspend internal passport-free travel.

In Poland, on Thursday, far-right groups held a rally against the “quota” plan.

They burned an EU flag and chanted “Brussels won’t force us to share with blacks”, the Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, reports.

“If we let them in, we’ll have another Paris or London here. They’ll burn cars and murder people in the streets”, Bartosz Jozwiak, from the far-right UPR group, told the paper, referring to terrorist attacks in France and the UK.

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