European values: Using refugees to push back other refugees

European values: Using refugees to push back other refugees
Greece’s latest use of MENA migrants to illegally pushback refugees to Turkey is sadistic, but it is perfectly in line with violent European border policies and ‘values’ that attempt to break the spirit of the oppressed, writes Chloe Haralambous.
6 min read
21 Apr, 2022
Greece has hired MENA migrants to push back other refugees in exchange for asylum. [AFP]

While European politicians celebrate the triumph of their “European values” by offering asylum to refugees fleeing Ukraine, Greece is using Middle Eastern and South Asian refugees to carry out extrajudicial deportations.

In a report published last week, asylum seekers who crossed the Greco-Turkish border said they were stripped, beaten, robbed and forced to wade through chest-high freezing water back to Turkey. In a new sadistic twist on the European border regime, the squadrons who attacked them were not made of Greek border police alone, but of recently arrived refugee men. They were conscripted on the promise of asylum in Europe.

No one should be surprised. The securitisation of Europe’s border has long depended on the violence and humiliation meted out to those seeking its protection. For years, and especially since the Arab Spring, the European Union has shaped its borders to deflect rather than welcome people seeking safety in Europe.

Notwithstanding European leaders’ occasional and highly mediatised gestures of humanitarian compassion, “European solidarity” with regards to migration has primarily consisted in member-states banding together into border defence forces stronger than the sum of their parts, such as Frontex.

''To the refugees seeking safety at its shores, Europe shows the true extent of its cruelty and says, 'if you want to be admitted, you, too, must taint yourself with our brutality.' Forcing its victims to turn perpetrators, this bargain robs them even of 'the solace of innocence,' the comfort of fellowship, the dignity of moral and political belonging among the ranks of the oppressed.''

In order for Europe to keep out refugees, someone must break the law. Traditionally, the EU has paid others to commit the human rights violations that keep Fortress Europe standing. In the Central Mediterranean, the 2017 Italy-Libya deal used EU funding to transform Libyan militias into coast guards holding back refugees trying to reach Italy. In the Aegean, the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement ensured that refugees attempting the passage to Greece were intercepted and returned to Turkey by Turkish border forces. While these agreements came at immense financial expense, they had the benefit of keeping both the EU’s territorial integrity and its “European values” intact.

Today, that balancing act seems increasingly untenable.

In 2020, Turkey’s threat to stand down as Europe’s border guard exposed the continent’s dangerous gamble in vesting its faith, political reputation and financial resources in a third-party state as the custodian of its borders. Reliance breeds vulnerability; Turkey’s periodic belligerence has dispelled Europe’s colonial illusion that it can count on the continued obedience of its neighbouring countries, and today it falls increasingly on the EU’s own member-states to do the dirty work necessary for vouchsafing Fortress Europe.

In Greece, the right-wing government has answered Ursula Von der Leyen’s call to act as “the shield of Europe;” it accuses journalists and NGOs of spreading “fake news” when they reveal the human cost of its success in halting refugee arrivals. While on the Evros land border, refugees are tortured and sent back across the river, in the Aegean sea crossing, the Coast Guard systematically pushes back refugees by shooting at them and puncturing their boats, or confiscating their engines and leaving them to drift into Turkish waters. Those who do make it to the Greek islands are forced onto life rafts and towed back towards Turkey. No official record exists of the (likely) thousands of people who made it to Europe and were illegally sent back.

The sickening practice of forcing groups of refugees to push back other refugees first appears as yet another attempt to impose onto brown people the most unsavoury tasks of border control, shifting the burden of liability involved in them. But individual refugees are neither plausible nor efficient proxies the way third-party states are.

The invention of these squads speaks to far more sadistic interests. It aims to break the very spirit of those whom the border regime systematically abuses, forcing them into what Primo Levi called “the grey zone:” a tortuous zone of ambiguity that corrupts the purity of the opposition between good and evil, oppressed and oppressor that makes solidarity and resistance possible.

There is an abject perversion in the fact that these refugee commandos were promised not money but asylum: a right typically granted in recognition of vulnerability and need of protection. Now, this right is proffered as a reward for services rendered to Europe in the form of wanton brutality against others in need of protection.

To the refugees seeking safety at its shores, Europe shows the true extent of its cruelty and says, “if you want to be admitted, you, too, must taint yourself with our brutality.” Forcing its victims to turn perpetrators, this bargain robs them even of “the solace of innocence,” the comfort of fellowship, the dignity of moral and political belonging among the ranks of the oppressed. In the process, Europe creates the “bad immigrant” it will later call upon to justify the violence of the border regime. In the peculiarly clarifying dynamics of the border, that “bad immigrant” is nothing more than product of the European who despises him. 

Each season of migration brings forth fresh horrors at the border. And each time, NGOs, activists and refugees turn to national and European tribunals to condemn the actions of the border police and demand that the European Commission impose sanctions on the governments of border countries. Implicitly, we keep faith that the EU’s “fundamental values,” must, in the end, prevail. In the absence of an alternative recourse, to relinquish that faith seems too horrifying a prospect. But it should be clear that any feeble gesture of admonition it might now issue against Greece will be nothing more than cosmetic.

The violence committed on the Greek border is no exception to European border policy, but an integral part of its design. It, too, is a reflection of “European values.” It is no wonder that, with rare exception, no European leader has dared to condemn it.

The past weeks have exposed the EU’s hypocrisy as member states have swiftly established safe and legal pathways to asylum for people escaping the horrors in Ukraine even as they continue to imprison, denigrate and assault those fleeing its former colonies. Now, the EU is at a new impasse: it can take the opportunity to truly make good on those “fundamental values” of freedom, equality and respect for human dignity by expanding that reception system to include all those seeking asylum at its borders. Alternately, it can dig deeper into the contradictions in which it is currently ensconced, resorting to more brutal, inhumane and humiliating measures of externalisation and deterrence to keep out black and brown refugees.

It is a cycle of violence that is as old as it is limitless. Whatever its “fundamental values” claim, the European Union has proved a device for violently walling in the rich world against the poor; in that sense, the new Europe carries on the racism and classism of the old. For those who now find themselves under bullet fire at Greece’s borders, the conflict may look different, but the violence of Europe will feel all too familiar.

Chloe Haralambous is a member of Sea-Watch, coordinating maritime rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean migration corridor, and co-founder of the Mosaik Support Center for Refugees and Locals on the Greek island of Lesvos. She is also a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.