Ahlam Chemlali: On migration issues, the EU still relies on deportations, detentions and agreements with unsafe third countries [VIDEO]

Ahlam Chemlali, migration researcher in Danish Institute for International Studies, joins Cross-Border Talks to discuss the EU’s migration policy, which, in her view, is fundamentally wrong and has already started to backfire. Forging ‘partnerships’ on migration control with authoritarian leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives these non-democratic leaders to blackmail the EU: give more, or we send all migrants to your border. Agreements with states in deep crisis, like Tunisia, are counterproductive as well: they do not help such states to overcome internal difficulties, give a green light to detaining people who have committed no crime, and encourage desperate migration rather than contribute to keeping people in their state of origin. The EU has an example of succesful migration and integration policy, and this was the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees by the member states after 24 February 2022. However, the expert says, the EU prefers to stick to discriminatory and isolation policies towards other migrants, generating social tensions instead of preparing ground for succesful integration.

The full transcription of the recording is available below the video.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another episode of Cross Border Talks, where we will head towards Denmark and we’ll speak to one of the leading experts on migration from Denmark. Our guest is Ahlam Chemlali, who is at the Danish Institute for International Relations. She also publishes in some of the most prestigious international media. We’ll be talking about European migration policy and the related problems, including ethical and social. Welcome to the program, Ahlam, I pass the microphone to my colleague Malgorzata, who will put forward the first question.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: And before I put the first question, I just remind everybody who is listening or watching us that we are available on YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify. We are in social media and as Cross- Border Talks is a project almost entirely supported by us, the cross border team, we also kindly ask you to support our project if you like what we are doing.

Ahlam, I am happy to have you in the program, especially now when the migration issue becomes relevant even more than it was. It is now a heatedly discussed topic in a number of European countries, and some of the heated discussions are connected to the new European Union migration pact on which the Member States reached a preliminary agreement in June. This is an agreement present as a milestone by Ursula von der Leyen. But on the other hand, the number of human rights defenders claim that the agreement is actually a big violation of human rights. As Human Rights Watch put it, the interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg endorsed policies that will entrench rights violations, increase use of detention and unsafe returns. One could ask: what is the European Union heading to? Is the European Union going to legalize human rights violations at the expense of the migrants coming to Europe?

Ahlam Chemlali: First of all, thank you for inviting me to your podcast and for discussing these issues that are very timely at the moment. I think the EU migration pact is a very interesting case right now. Just recently there happened the tragedy outside of Pylos, where – we know now – Greek authorities have been involved. There is the common practice of pushbacks as far as the Western Mediterranean, the eastern Mediterranean and also inside borders, European borders, along the Balkan migrant route.

Although it’s positive that they are focusing on more solidarity mechanisms within the EU and among the EU member states, the problem is the EU is very much still relying on outsourcing and externalization. For instance, they are now trying to create this list which has been ongoing for years: a ‘safe third country’ list with countries such as Tunisia. What happens now in Tunisia proves that the country is not a safe third country for migrants or asylum seekers. It is very problematic that the EU is still pushing for quicker deportations, increased detentions and repatriations to countries that are not safe. In a nutshell, the new agrement is very much like previous policies that will backfire. Basically, it is just a continuation of many of these failed policies.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: The tragedy in the Mediterranean reminded us all that there are still thousands, perhaps millions of people trying to reach European shores, even at the risk of their lives. Issue of migrants coming this way was one of the key topics in electoral campaigns in Italy and Greece, who both elected far right or right wing, close to far right governments. My question is, is the situation in the Mediterranean deteriorating with Giorgia Meloni as the prime minister of Italy and Kyriakos Mitsotakis as the head of the Greek government? Or have the anti-humanitarian policiesbeen going on no matter who is at the head of the government in these key countries?

I think that the situation has worsened. We can also see it in the statistics: the numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean and disappearances have increased over the years since just this year. It’s an unfortunate, tragic record breaking year in terms of the deaths at sea. So things are going in the wrong direction. Several reports show that it has become more riskier, more dangerous to cross than it has ever been before. This is related to the increase in migration control in the Mediterranean.

The EU and especially the Italian member state, are focusing more on partnering with, for instance, the Libyan Coast guards, basically making them become their coast guards, to intercept and push back people back to Libyan shores, where we know human rights abuses are taking place. We have known just recently that the Libyan coast guard is infiltrated with criminal networks and militias. It is very well documented that it’s a dangerous group, endangering lives. Nevertheless, the EU is still openly cooperating and funding these Coast guards. This is very worrying.

Since Meloni came into power, her agenda has been to stop migration at any cost. With her policies, she has continued Salvini’s policies, and his intention was to stop rescue operations at sea. Italian government has also criminalized NGO operations. There have been cases where rescue workers or even just civilians or volunteers were accused of being traffickers, while they were saving lives. This has become worse and in some cases normalized. We are also now seeing the increase, as I mentioned, deaths linked to these policies. They have closed off the safe ports. Rescue boats or just boats trying to arrive at a port have been directed for longer routes. They have to sail for a longer time, which is only increasing the viability of shipwrecks or other issues. We witnessed it with the recent case outside of Pylos in Greece, where the boat carrying up to 700 people was told to hold still. The rescue operations or the Greek officials and Coast Guard responded very, very late. Now the ongoing investigation is showing that unfortunately, they have been directly involved in this tragedy as well.

To sum up, I think the policies are a continuation of what we’ve seen in recent years. But I do think it has been exacerbated now by, for instance, Meloni’s policies, which are very anti-immigration. That is what will keep her in power in Italy. The same we are seeing now in the case of Greece as well.

You are very well aware of what is going on in Tunisia, where a number of issues have appeared. And you even wrote an article a few days ago or a week ago on the problems in Tunisia with migration policy and the EU. Could you somehow sum up what is the core problem of Tunisia with regards to migration?

Tunisia is also a very interesting case because it was, of course, the lighting example in the region. It is in Tunisia where the Arab Spring started. It was the cradle of the revolution, but what we’ve seen now in the last decade is that the country has descended into a deep political crisis and economic crisis. As a consequence, there has been an increase – some have even called it an exodus – of migration from there. Not just migrants from other countries, from West Africa, Central Africa, but also Tunisians themselves who no longer see a future in Tunisia. They are disillusioned with Tunisia. There is no employment, no job opportunities, because of the pandemic as well, several industries were closed down.

Today, as we speak, there has been a food crisis across the region. Not just Tunisia, but many North African countries have been very dependent for years on importing cereal, corn and other products from Ukraine and Russia. Since the war started there, the food crisis has impacted North Africa substantially. There was a bread crisis in Tunisia when I was there during the fall for field work. The supermarket shelves were empty. You could not get rice, grain, pasta. Basic goods were not accessible. Even middle class people can no longer sustain themselves and their families. In addition, there has been nopolitical will to change these policies or to reform economics.

Therefore, you have seen an increase in migration from Tunisia. It is no longer what we were observing historically, when Tunisians leaving the country were usually poor young men. Now we are seeing middle class. We are seeing families leaving on boats. We are seeing highly educated young people leaving irregularly on boats. So there has been a demographic shift.

At the same time, we see that because of regional dynamics, Libya becoming more unstable and Algeria becoming more repressive, migrants from third countries in West Africa, West in Central Africa, are coming to Tunisia because of the insecurity in the aforementioned Algeria and Libya. This has created a dual migration pattern in Tunisia: Tunisians are leaving, but you also have sub-Saharan Africans leaving, which has placed Tunisia in the heart of European migration policy. The number of crossings have been so high, especially this year, that Tunis has surpassed Libya as the country where most people are leaving to cross to Europe. This is also why we have seen several visits from Italian MPs and Giorgia Meloni coming to Tunis to discuss migration. Recently, German politicians arrived in Tunis as well. Tunis is going to be the most important frontline in terms of EU migration and border control.

You have been arguing for a long time against this externalization policy, a migration policy of the EU which comprises security cooperation with countries in Africa. As I understand, it leads to human rights abuses. Why is the EU adopting this approach in the first place? Why not another type of migration approach?

I think that’s a good question because we’ve seen a lot of research, but also just examples over the years that this policy does not work. We have observed it globally. It’s not just Europe that is using this externalization approach. It’s happening in Australia where they also are offshoring and outsourcing migration to small islands in the surrounding seas. You can also see it now in the US with externalization to Latin America and to Mexico, which, as we already know, does not stop migration. It’s only making it more dangerous and increasing profits for smugglers. Not to mention that such policies are creating preventable deaths – either in the desert or in the Mediterranean Sea.

Research has proven that this kind of policy is not efficient. It’s actually, on the contrary, very costly, very expensive, and also proven to backfire. It’s costly not just in terms of human rights and moral kind of arguments. It’s also a political problem for Europe and for the EU, because they increasingly often become blackmailed by many of the supposed ‘ migration partners’, as they call them. For example, the ‘migration partner’ Turkey is led by president Erdogan who has multiple times pressured or threatened Europe and the EU to either give him more money or he will open the borders. The same was historically the case with Gaddafi, the former dictator in Libya. He also would threaten Europe with more money or he would make Europe black, as he famously said. Europe, the EU has cooperated and funded and supported many of these dictators or authoritarian figures over the years. It is not anything new.

The problem is now that the consequences are being more clear. Recently we also saw how last year, I think in the summer, Morocco used the ‘bargaining power’ against a deal with Spain, by opening the gates to Melilla. In 24 hours, more than 8000 crossed the border. This, of course, caused a big political issue and scandal. But it also shows how vulnerable the EU can become.

Lukashenko also used this against the EU at the Belarussian-Polish border where he used misinformation to attract migrants. Planes were arriving from Iraq and other countries to cross into the EU. This was kind of a ‘payback’ because of the sanctions the EU had put on him. So migration issues are also a way to negotiate in geopolitical fights between the EU and other states. The so-called migration partnership is a problem that will also backfire on the EU. It is, in fact, backfiring already now.

If this policy is ineffective, leads to suffering and takes human lives, what are the alternatives to it? What are the good examples, if there are any, with regards to migration policy?

I think that’s a good question. And if I had a complete answer, I wouldn’t be sitting here. But I think that the most crucial part right now is that the EU rethinks its role.

The recent deal that was proposed in in Tunis by the EU, sketched by von der Leyen, Meloni and Rutte a few weeks ago, includes €1 billion to Tunis to ‘stabilize the economy’ and to ‘manage migration’ on behalf of the EU. Why? Because they are very afraid that Tunisian economy will collapse and then thousands and thousands will arrive to Europe. They have created a desperate deal to put kind of a plug in. But the problem is, as we’re seeing now, that the tensions are exploding in Tunisia because of continuous EU pressure.

I think what’s important now is that the EU has to rethink its role in these so-called partnerships, because they are not partnerships. They’re very unequal. There’s an asymmetric relation of power. On one hand, there is Tunisia, a small country in deep political and economic crisis. The other side is the EU, which is a huge power actor. They claim it to be a partnership. But the deal is completely about a relation of dependence and contingent on migration control to benefit the EU. It does not include, for instance, infrastructure in Tunisia, it does not answer questions whether Tunisia has the resources to manage migration, if there is a political will to make any of these policies or changes. In Tunisia, and this is a very important point, there is no national or legal framework on migration or asylum. None of the migrants in Tunisia, including refugees, has any legal status, protection or anything. They are just living in a legal and existential limbo. And there are more and more of them because the EU is, of course, funding and strengthening the coast guards that are intercepting tens of thousands and bringing them back to Tunisia. They are creating kind of open air prisons, not just in Tunisia. We have them in Libya already with the detention systems, in Algeria, in Morocco. There is a whole region being confined, and it’s only a matter of time before this creates local tensions and pressure.

We see already in Tunisia how these ‘solutions’ create a humanitarian and human rights crisis. And it is only going to increase migration – people will be fleeing from there, because it is not a safe place to be. The policies are creating these conditions. And then people will, of course, move and migrate to security and to a safe place. And for them, it means crossing the Mediterranean and arriving in Europe.

Instead of developing these ‘partnerships’, I think it’s important that the EU focuses on long-term solutions and true collaboration. And, of course, also to avoid deaths at sea, to increase sea and rescue operations again instead of criminalizing NGOs that are trying to save and rescue people from dying. Another issue is that many of these increased irregular journeys are happening because there are no longer any legal ways. Opportunities for visa and asylum applications are not attainable for thousands of people. They also need to be opened up, so that people will not go through smugglers and dangerous routes for safety, but that they can apply for a visa or asylum where they are. In the country where they currenty are, instead of making long journeys.

I think you made a very important point at this moment. A lot of far right and right-wing parties in Europe today focus on illegal migration, portraying migrating people as criminals. Meanwhile, the fact is that many of those people have actually no legal chance to apply for arrival in Europe, even if they could work here, even if they had means to settle here peacefully, they are just deprived of options to arrive in a safe and entirely legal way. But before I come to the final conclusion, I wanted to ask you about integration. Migration policies are one part – they should have their logical continuation in integration policies, also because this is basically on what the far right is now winning the political capital, by claiming that we cannot let people in because they are not integrating. I would like to ask you if there is any attempt in the European Union to have coordinated guidelines how to integrate the newcomers, how to make good living conditions for everybody in Europe, because Europe needs newcomers. European societies are getting older and older. Closing the door to migrants is no solution in any dimension – from humanitarian to this very pragmatic level.

Thank you for this very good question and good points, because you are absolutely right. Europe is already in need of workforce on many levels, especially, as you say, in the care sector because of an increasingly elderly population across Europe. So I think your point is so important.

I also think that what we saw in the aftermath of the Ukraine war, the Russian war in Ukraine was actually what was supposed to be happening with migrants. For instance, I can give you the example of Denmark, where the state welcomed thousands and thousands of fleeing Ukrainians – mainly, of course, women and children. What happened was that they were given shelter and assistance upon arrival. Very quickly after children were allowed to enter Danish schools, the women were allowed to enter the formal labor market and given access to learning Danish. There were very many efforts into integrating Ukrainian refugees very quickly after arrival. This is in very, very stark contrast to what happened with the Syrian war and the Syrian refugees. They are still in Denmark in asylum centers with no access to society, no access to the labor market or schools, thus not able to integrate fully into society.

You mentioned how right wing politicians were using the migrant issue to claim that they could not be integrated. As we have seen in case of Ukrainians, giving full access to the societies in the EU and access to labour market has proven to actually work. Meanwhile, Syrians, Afghans and others also want that, but have not been able to start working because of, I would say, discriminatory policies.

I think the Ukrainian case is a very good case, because it shows how different these policies are and responses have been – and that the response to the Ukrainian crisis has been the correct one. This is the policy that should have been used with all refugees, in all crisis situations. We can learn from it. If in the future we see another kind of influx of refugees, integrating them into society is important. Closing borders on migration or keeping people in asylum centers for rest of their lives without any possibility of integrating into society is not a solution for anyone. Neither for people who are just waiting in uncertainty, nor for the societies they are living in.

Looking at the European migration policy can make everybody ask the question: how serious is European Union when claiming to be the defender of values, democracy, personal liberties and so on? Seeing how much money was pumped into deals with undemocratic regimes just for the sake of stopping the desperate migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea, or seeing the closed detention centres, makes us think that the European migration policy came to a dead end and that we need something new. A new approach that takes into consideration how the situation really looks on the ground. For migrants will not stop coming to Europe if there are no conditions for good living in their countries of origin, which is unfortunately the case of Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, a lot of countries everywhere in the world. Perhaps it is good that new migration policies are being discussed in the European Union, but as our expert proved, there is still a lot to be changed in the European approach to the migration issue.

Thank you for being with us. Thank you to everybody who listened to the talk. I remind you that you can find Cross-Border talks on YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify, as well as in our social media. I encourage you to support the project and to subscribe not to lose any of the episodes that we will transmit in the future. Thank you very much again and have a good day.

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