Barbarians at the Gates

A week after the Paris attacks of November 13th, border controls have been tightened not only in France and Belgium, but in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. The Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free passage through twenty-six nations, may soon be considered a luxury Europe cannot afford.

An irresponsible speculation

A Syrian refugee in Turkey. Image by UNFPA/Nezih Talvas, via flickr.

A week after the Paris attacks of November 13, border controls have been tightened not only in France and Belgium but in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. The Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free passage through twenty-six nations, may soon be considered a luxury Europe cannot afford. What will choking off of the Balkan route mean for the refugees who are still trying to escape from the Syrian nightmare—from the Paris killers as well as from Assad—and who had been Europe’s biggest story before the horrors of Friday the 13th?

For one thing, all of Greece will turn into Lesbos. An island of eighty-six thousand people lying just off the coast of Turkey, it has received between six hundred thousand and seven hundred thousand refugees this year, most of them from Syria. That would average out to around two thousand per day. But since the summer it has been more. In managing these impossible numbers, the citizens of Lesbos have acquitted themselves nobly. With minimal aid from a weak, struggling state and often with very little to live on themselves, locals aided by international volunteers and, belatedly, by the UN and the EU have been performing almost unimaginable feats. They have been sharing their meager food and clothing with the boatloads of families staggering up the beaches and helping them on their way to the capital, forty kilometers away. Still, the influx has been constant. On the shore the mountains of gaily-colored life jackets grow higher. At last count there were fifty bodies in the local morgue, many of them fished out from the sea; the cemetery has run out of room.

What is to be done? EU policy-makers want to push the blockage back toward the source—if not to Syria itself, then to Turkey. In terms of getting at the underlying causes of the mass migration, that’s not stupid. There is much to say for example on behalf of the proposal of David Graeber (not a policy-maker, alas) that Western powers induce Turkey’s president Erdogan to stop bombarding and blockading the Kurds, the most effective opponents of ISIS on the ground. Closing off borders, whether in Turkey or in Greece, will not stop the refugees from trying to find somewhere else to go. They wouldn’t be trying to get to Lesbos today if the idea of staying in Syria didn’t seem like a torment impossible to endure for another minute.


Not all the refugees are fleeing the violence in Syria. Many have come from Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous other less newsworthy places. And not all are escaping violence. Many refugees have been quoted as saying that they left home because there is no life where they live or no chance to make a life. Is there really a defensible line between refugees, who are victims of violence, and migrants, who are victims of impoverishment?  This may be the moment to dust off the unfashionable materialist doctrine that most conflicts in fact have material roots. Wars destroy economies; economics causes wars. Where do we see violence without also seeing, not far in the background, scarcity?

Under EU policy, refugees have a claim to entry. Economic migrants do not. This is because the EU has no immigration policy. No European nation except Albania has ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which came into force in March 2003—the month that the US invaded Iraq, setting so much migration in motion. Last week, Macedonia began barring entry to people carrying Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Moroccan passports on the grounds that they are not fleeing military conflict. Anyone moving for economic reasons already has to lie. Those perceived to be lying are more likely to be perceived as criminals. To be perceived as a criminal is one step from being perceived as a terrorist, even if one is not, like the Syrians, already presumptively associated with the terror one is running away from.

On Thursday November 12, the day before the attacks, European leaders were meeting in Malta with their African counterparts to discuss measures to reduce the flow of economic migrants. In the 735 words of his opening address, European Council President Donald Tusk used the word “responsibility” five times. His message was clear: Responsibility for dealing with the migrants does not rest on Europe alone. The so-called “sending countries” must share that responsibility. His premise seemed to be that African leaders were responsible not merely for corruption and human rights violations but also for poverty. Poverty? Anyone inclined to query this premise and push the linked questions of poverty and responsibility further would have had her attention distracted by the events of the following day.

It may seem irresponsible to keep playing the regress game, tracing the causes further and further back toward a primal scene of, say, primitive accumulation. Why tarnish the sacredness of the word refugee, which for the moment at least seems capable of holding off some of the anti-immigrant backlash? The only excuse for doing so, even very hesitantly, is to try to focus on the bigger picture. After all, the Malta conference was not just about Syria. The recent state of emergency, with its corpses in parked trucks and its photo of the drowned 4-year-old Aylan Kurdi, is part of a longer-term emergency in which thousands of others, mostly unphotographed, have drowned elsewhere in the Mediterranean. A responsible policy is needed. But the times may also warrant some irresponsible speculation.


What if all these movements of people could be imagined as a social movement?

For the imagination of the political right, this is no challenge at all. Images of the have-nots of the Global South on the move fall straight into the old narrative of the barbarians at the gates. It’s World War III. Half a century of European peace is at risk, if not civilization itself. If they can’t have what we have, no one should have it. In the right’s eyes, the violence in the Bataclan and the huddling of migrants in squares and camps are one.

The left responds, correctly, that the actual violence that has struck the heartland of Europe does not come from the actual refugees. They are not violent or aggressive at all. On the contrary, they are risking everything merely to get their loved ones a piece of Europe’s prosperity and security. Apocalyptic scenarios, we insist defensively, are not helpful.

But this rhetorical tack has its disadvantages. To frame the crisis in terms of humanitarian solidarity means presenting ourselves as generous, not as forced by the democratic weight of numbers to take some baby steps toward global redistribution. It means refusing even to imagine what a movement for global economic justice might look like. If we were to see one, would we even recognize it? There is literally nothing we currrently think of as politics that would register. As Nancy Fraser puts it in her book Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World, the present system channels the claims of the global poor “into the domestic arenas of relatively powerless, if not wholly failed states.” Thus “the system denies them the means to confront the offshore architects of their dispossession.” The November 12 meeting in Malta, organized by the offshore architects, was the poorest of substitutes for such a confrontation.

Realistically, we have reason to expect the worst. Youth unemployment in Greece and elsewhere in the south of Europe, on the front lines of migration, is over 50 percent. In France unemployment is worst among the children of immigrants. All over Europe, it is the most vulnerable, those with the least education and the fewest marketable skills, who will be most tempted to fear for their jobs and culture and to react accordingly. Technocratic solutions to the refugee crisis won’t fly, of course, if they seem to come only from EU bureaucrats or from German industrialists eager to pay Syrian labor less than the minimum wage.

But it is at least possible to imagine, in the longer term, something less technocratic, something with more input from below. The sense of generalized disempowerment could result in something other than an anti-immigrant backlash. Why not, say, an anti-austerity program shared between migrants and non-migrants? In Greece, and not just on Lesbos, that does not seem at all inconceivable. Maybe this is a chance for the already unemployed and underemployed to say to the offshore architects of dispossession, “Help them by all means, but raise the level for everyone.”

It is a bad time, a very bad time, to ask people to make extra room in their homes and neighborhoods, let alone to make the case for a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources. It’s always a bad time. It’s always been like this. And it’s never been like this.

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