Socialist Review spoke to Georgios Tsiakalos, an academic and social justice campaigner, on the human cost of the EU’s increasingly draconian measures against immigrants and asylum seekers.
Georgios Tsiakalos (born 1946) is a professor emeritus of Pedagogy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki where he has worked since 1985. He holds a PhD in Science from Christian Albrecht University in Kiel, and a PhD in Philosophy (Pedagogy) from the University of Bremen. His research and publications cover the fields of Population Genetics, Critique of Sociobiology, Racism, Social Exclusion and Poverty, Education of Minorities and Immigrants, Educational Reforms and more. He is an activist for the human and social rights of minorities, refugees and the socially excluded, a fighter against the far right, and the founder of the “Pedagogues of Solidarity” initiative. Here we present in full an interview with Socialist Review on the historical and political contexts shaping the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees today.
SR: What has changed in Europe to make seeking asylum harder for refugees?
The changes for the worse that we witness on a daily basis are a result of “Fortress Europe”. This undertaking of the governments of the European Union has now been inserted into all sectors, so that European politics and society exhibit all the hallmarks of fortresses in the past: a) Leaders who declare who and what constitutes a threat, b) subjects who identify with their leaders, embrace their rhetoric, and are ruled by fear, c) strengthening of existing fortifications and construction of new bulwarks, d) The pursuit of “allied” vassal states as an early obstruction to the threat. As the threat for “Fortress Europe” were presented the immigrants and refugees, uprooted from their countries by the military interventions of the USA and its European allies or by their policies that drives certain African countries into economic decay and their populations into abject poverty. Against these people are raised fences and walls, are amassed security forces and armies, are scrambled battleships and drones, and international laws are effectively abolished. The results are thousands of deaths on the way to Europe and a life under inhuman conditions of captivity for those who manage to breach the “Fortress” and request asylum and protection. And because every policy shaped on fear of a fabricated external threat requires for its internal implementation also the presence of an internal threat, for several years we have been witnessing the increasing criminalization of solidarity with refugees.
SR: How has the EU succeeded in creating ‘Fortress Europe’?
To begin with there is the Schengen Agreement and the desire for there this end it had to be determined who would cross Europe’s external borders and who would be turned back. It was decided that for citizens of certain countries their legal travel documents would be sufficient, while the citizens of other countries would additionally require a Schengen visa, issued by the EU member states. Implementing this decision, the European Union requires, since 2001, aviation and shipping companies to check and refuse embarkation to anyone without the necessary visa. This is part of the externalization of controls that normally would fall within the jurisdiction of the countries’ border police. Another move with the same intent is the agreement with neighbouring third countries to prohibit exit across their land borders towards EU member states, of persons without a required Schengen Visa.
As the Schengen visa is only granted to very few people with particular profiles, it is virtually impossible for citizens of some countries to enter the European Union, except through “irregular immigration”: either by “illegal entry” by sea or land across Europe’s southern borders or its eastern borders. These agreements usually involve concessions, promises of future visa arrangements or threats. The importance of this externalization is made readily apparent by the case of Belarus: while relations are strained and the country has been under sanctions for two decades, there is collaboration in matters of border security, with the EU bankrolling with tens of millions the infrastructure and training of security personnel.
Clearly the EU’s human rights or democratic conditionality takes a back seat to externalization. Especially interesting is the externalization in African countries. It all started systematically at the 2002 EU Summit of Heads of State in Seville, with the decision to make relations with African countries conditional on their willingness to accept the implementation of a European policy to “combat illegal immigration”. For the first time, they proposed sanctions against countries that do not cooperate, with the insistence of the then Prime Minister of Spain (José Maria Aznar) and the Chancellor of Germany (Gerhard Schröder). However most other countries were still opposed. The French Interior Minister at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, opposed the German Chancellor, saying that “it is not possible to send a message that rich countries punish the poor.”
But just a year later, Britain’s Tony Blair presented a framework for rewarding those who cooperate and punishing those who refuse. He called his initiative “A New Vision”. His proposals included setting up reception centres for asylum seekers in non-EU countries, including Albania, Croatia and Ukraine. He withdrew it shortly before the European Council meeting in Thessaloniki in 2003, but nevertheless relevant decisions were made there and the foundations for the policy were laid, resulting in the inhumane consequences we see today. That was and is the New Vision of Europe.
SR: Is it true, as politicians and media often claim, that the EU, and front line states like Greece, cannot cope with the pressure of refugees seeking asylum?
Many people arrive in Europe every year, hoping to build their life here. Some are escaping persecution or war. Others had no means of survival or dignified living. Still others wish to start a new life in Europe. Where they differ is in how they arrive. Citizens of countries that do not require a Schengen visa usually will arrive by plane and be able to enter and apply for a residency or asylum. Their application is judged in accordance with the laws of the country they entered. But this is impossible for citizens of countries requiring a Schengen visa.
Their only option is “irregular immigration”. With this in mind, let us look at some numbers to have an understanding of what “pressure” the EU is exposed to. In 2017, the number of those who crossed the Aegean and the Mediterranean was 171.000. This number was considered particularly high and led to more and stricter measures to reduce it and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in the waters of the Mediterranean. But in the same year 662,000 immigrants from Ukraine and 193.000 from China, essentially from Hong Kong, entered and received a residence permit. A simple comparison of numbers answers the question of whether Europe “can handle” more immigrants and refugees. We see that anti-refugee rhetoric is based on a blatant lie that aims to intimidate those who do not know the truth.
Let us look at another type of entry into the country. In 2019 25.731 crossed the Mediterranean to Spain and 11.472 to Italy (total 37,202), while 1814 persons drowned. Asked to comment on confirmation by Frontex, the European Board and Coast Guard agency, that the number of illegal entries at Europe’s southern borders has fallen sharply, Fabrice Leggeri, Director of Frontex stated: “Of course the numbers are lower now, but the migratory pressure on Europe remains huge.” Yet the same year 91,765 people from five Latin American countries sought asylum in Spain, where the previous year 39,715 citizens of Venezuela had sought and received asylum. They came by plane, as these countries do not require a Schengen visa.
In this case we truly have a significant increase in arrivals, but this is neither newsworthy nor an issue for Europe. I believe this information alone is enough to understand Europe is very much able to manage the arrival of immigrants and refugees. More so it desires them, as they are needed in many sectors. Europe is selective though when it comes to their countries of origin. Furthermore, it can handle their arrival of refugees on Greek islands with dignity – the inhuman conditions we witness there are the result of political will. On the one hand it sends a deterrent message to the uprooted who’d follow the same route, and on the other it strengthens the narrative that the refugee issue is not manageable.
SR: What does the EU gain from targeting refugees and migrants in this way?
Sadly, when we speak of the EU, we less and less refer to its citizens but far more often mean the undertaking of the leading forces in Europe. To them the matter of refugees is not a humanitarian crisis, it is a means to achieve their goals in regards to economics, military and foreign policy. For this reason, we see contradicting cases. The fact that Ukraine was in 2017 removed from the list of countries requiring a Schengen visa, and that as a result the EU accepted almost three million Ukrainian citizens, of course results from Poland’s need of a cheap workforce. But it also serves the policy of curtailing Russian influence over the millions of internally displaced persons of Ukraine, who are easily granted asylum in Russia should they so wish.
Similar promises by the EU of future facilitation of visas have not been realised for any other country within the framework of externalisation. A similar contradiction can be seen in the difference in treatment of Afghan and Venezuelan refugees. It is increasingly difficult for refugees from Afghanistan to receive protected status, while refugees from Venezuela are almost always accepted. This difference in treatment sends a message to European citizens — the operation in Afghanistan was a success, brought democracy and security, and its people have no reason to leave, while the opposite is true for Venezuela.
Recently a study was published by experts from Brown University with the apt title “Creating Refugees”. It shows that the military operations of the USA have, from 2001 until today, created in eight countries at least 37 million refugees, though more likely between 48 and 59 million. Only 23 million of these have returned home. None of them could enter Europe legally and request protection. Of those who managed an “irregular” entry, only Syrian citizens receive a positive verdict. What is indisputably benefiting from these developments is the European military-industrial complex, which has now fully developed its role in shaping policy.
The sums spent on research and development of new technologies and their purchase and deployment for border security are enormous and are in addition to the already significant budgets of the defence ministries. Combining under the banner of “border security” cross-border crime, smuggling, and irregular immigration, which is arbitrarily connected to hybrid threats to national security, the EU operates as if immigrants and refugees constitute the same kind of threat as narcotics, trafficking, terrorism, and hostile armies.
It is telling how, answering allegations that Frontex participates in completely illegal push backs of refugees, its director asked the EU to assess the way a country should respond to “hybrid threats”, meaning that in such cases, international law on refugees should not apply. This also justifies the participation of NATO in the response to irregular immigration, which was decided after the invitation by Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras and the joint proposal by Greece, Turkey, and Germany.
SR: What have been the consequences of putting up these barriers to refugees and immigration?
Tens of thousands dead in the Sahara and Mediterranean, but there black lives do not matter to the EU. It has meant overpopulation in the refugee camps in poor countries, unable to meet even the needs of their own people. In public discourse in Europe, mainly by governments, it is presented as self-evident that Uganda, with a population of 40 million with a GDP of $24 billion (per capita 634), can host 1.4 million refugees and that Germany, with a population of 82 million with a GDP of $3.5 trillion (per capita 42,000) considers hosting 1.1 million refugees an unbearable burden. UN figures show that impoverished countries, such as Ethiopia, Sudan or Bangladesh, have received 27 percent of refugees. Including developing countries the figure is 85 percent.
As long as these appear in public discourse as necessary in the context of Fortress Europe, then the consequences are acceptance of the law breaking by state authorities and even slipping into an exception state — habituation and disinterest in the mass death of people in need and reduction and disappearance of the insight into the necessity of solidarity structures in one’s own society; appearance and strengthening of social Darwinist ideologies and fascist and Nazi parties; brutalizing of morals. In such a political and social climate, the drastic cuts in funds for healthcare and education and their re-routing to the arms and security industry, to combat a fabricated enemy means societies suffer.
SR: What is your experience from Greece about resistance to anti-refugee policies?
I am glad you asked this question, so everything I have said will not be understood as an unavoidable and irreversible evolution into barbarity. It is not so. When I speak about the policy of the Greek governments, I show the grim reality. Greece though is not just its government, more so it is thousands of citizens acting in solidarity. These activists and anti-racists are who tackled the problems, foremost that of providing food to over a million refugees who passed through Greece in 2015 and 2016. It was an unprecedented movement that swept aside any xenophobic reaction and forced the government to stop any attempts to obstruct the refugees’ passage to other European countries. The movement was a central cause of the collapse of Golden Dawn.
Today, it is they who, even though not with the massive participation of the first couple of years, who stop the government from leaving homeless those refugees who were granted asylum, from excluding them from healthcare, and from denying their children access to equal education. It is they who, in schools, outside the refugee camps and on the street successfully counter any attempts by far right groups to cause problems for the refugees. But the big issues of push backs, militarisation, deterrence, and externalisation can only be effectively tackled through a common endeavour of all European movements in cooperation with the people of the countries who through threats and violence have been turned into bulwarks of the Fortress Europe. This is our duty and I am certain we have the opportunity to stop the advent of barbarity. And we will.