At a camp in Calais, refugees trying to reach the United Kingdom hold up placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all’, a cry that is ringing out across Europe. These migrants, together with thousands of others scattered across the continent – whether in camps in France and Italy, on the road in the mountains in Serbia, or at train stations in Hungary and Austria – have been waiting, trying, and fleeing danger since they left home. Countries like Hungary (and most recently, Germany, in a surprise, albeit temporary, exit from the Schengen Agreement) are racing against time to erect literal borders – fences up to five meters high, topped with coils of razor wire and CCTV, with the gates and exterior guarded by heavily armed police. The fence barring the port of Calais from entrance to Britain via the Channel Tunnel is a good example.
The refugee crisis in Europe, it appears, is coming to a head.
By now, most of us should be fully aware of the arrival of refugees on European shores, and by extension, Australia. The descriptors used for these movements of large masses of people across land and sea are often described in fluid terms: a surge, a flood, a wave, a flow; a rising tide that is about to break open the dams and threaten the biodiversity of our precious ecosystems. This language isn’t just tremendously invalidating and dehumanising: when scores of migrants are either locked up in detention centres or dying at sea, it helps to gloss over the fact of their mere existence before we even have a chance to ascertain their being. Up until now, enormous numbers of people have sunk beneath the waves or died in camps without anything so much as a blip on the radar; it’s only once bodies have forced themselves to enter our consciousness (murdered or washed up on beaches) do people feel the imperative to act. These bodies are nameless and faceless until we choose to recognise their humanity.
It is telling when reports on fleeing scores of migrants invoke images of disease. By constructing an ‘us vs. them’ attitude, it is easy to cast refugees as nemeses intent on robbing us of our security, wealth, and sanctity. Often, when people discuss refugees, especially those from domains like Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, the link between the arrival of refugees and the threat of increasing sexist or religious violence becomes inextricable. Slavoj Zizek poses the question in In These Times: ‘Should we tolerate [migrants] if they prevent their children going to state schools, if they arrange marriages of their children, if they brutalize gays among their ranks?’ To the ‘first-world’ citizen, it is as if the opening of our gates to these ‘others’ is rife with ideological consequences. However, domestic violence and fascism continue to be inadequately addressed by both Australian and European authorities.
There is also the accusation that asylum seekers are ‘shopping’ for countries as they traverse through difficult terrain, often over a large expanse sea or multiple countries over land, in an attempt to reach a final destination to make their new home. This is often England, Germany and Australia, and we wonder why. We ask: are these refugees coming to bludgeon our finite reserves of welfare? Or is this coming from a desperate, and human, desire to integrate because of existing family or community access? Or because as a result of English-language imperialism, these countries have a high percentage of people speaking a language they know? It is becoming apparent that there are more people in the world now speaking English as a second language than there are native English speakers.
This pool of ignorance is disturbing. The narrative about the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe and Australia argues that we are experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are the ones experiencing this crisis, and it is a crisis made out of fences and fascists and cops.
Recently, German interior minister Thomas de Maizière said that asylum seekers must understand that ‘they cannot choose the states where they are seeking protection.’ This is after Germany made its sudden exit from the Schengen Agreement, in which countries who are signatories allow freedom of movement between their respective borders. This brings us back to that placard in Calais: who is allowed freedom of movement, and who is not? In Australia, hundreds of illegal immigrants from Britain and the United States reside in the country while thousands of migrants from the global south reside in detention centres awaiting a verdict, often trapped in limbo averaging 275 days, but which can extend to five years.
We don’t realise that in this war of us vs. them, ‘they’ are takfiris in Syria, pro-government militias in Eritrea, and al-Qaeda groups in Iraq and Afghanistan; and people fleeing these countries are most definitely ‘we’.