Between Alan Kurdi and Angie Valeria: The Politics of Border Walls and the Criminalization of Humanitarianism

Between Alan Kurdi and Angie Valeria: The Politics of Border Walls and the Criminalization of Humanitarianism

Yesterday the captain of the Italian migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, Carola Rackete was arrested after a dramatic end to a two week standoff between the ship and the country’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini. The ship had rescued 40 refugees but had been barred from docking on Italian ports by the government.

Sea-Watch 3 rescued 53 people on the 12 June but was prevented from arriving at port by police boats. The standoff lasted over 16 days.

In a dramatic culmination, Carola Rackete rammed the border police boat blocking the path to the port and docked the ship. Upon disembarking she was promptly arrested. This is despite the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 which advocates that all ships at sea have a duty to rescue and save life at sea. The duty to save life is explicitly enshrined in Article 98 of the Law of Sea of 1982.

Several days before the photograph of 23-month-old Angie Valeria, face down beside her father in the Rio Grande shocked the world, reminiscent of the Alan Kurdi’s image back in 2016. The four years between the two eerily similar photographs prove telling. Following the shocking release of Alan’s body washed ashore in Turkey, world opinion galvanized. Countries like Germany, Sweden and UK made pledges to take on more refugees. Compassion appeared to win the day. However, four years later the story has returned to its starting point. Anti-refugees and migrant sentiments reign high, thousands of children are detained in facilities on the Mexico-US border, many live in limbo in terrible camps across Europe, while others languish into non-existence in off-shore detention centers.

Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

No longer are nations in the words of Benedict Anderson simply “imagined communities”, but rather citizens and non-citizens, legal and illegals, visa holders and non-visa holders. The nation-state is increasingly defined not by where its border is defined but by its capacity to patrol and control that border; by the length and breadth of its border walls, by its offshore and on shore detention facilities.  The measure of a nation’s sovereignty in this modern era is by its hardline anti-refugee and border protection policies. In short by its utter disregard for human life.

The response by governments across Europe, Australia and the US is becoming increasingly aggressive.

In Italy, the Far-right Salvini has launched a bill to fine rescuers €5,500 per refugee saved.

Many countries, including Turkey, USA and across Europe (from Hungary, Austria, Estonia) have resorted to building border walls, despite the fact that it has been repeatedly proven not to be an effective deterrent. In Europe before 2014, for instance, only five border walls existed. By 2017 over 15 border walls have been erected. America’s border wall, most of which is constructed between Mexico-US border, measures 705 miles (1,135 km). Trump continues to demand further funds from Congress to enforce and expand the wall.

The second largest border wall is built by Turkey. This border wall measures 828 kms (515-miles). The wall is made out of seven-tone concrete blocks topped with razor wide. The wall stands three meters (9.8feet) high and two meters (6.6 feet) wide. Dozens of refugees have been shot dead by snipers including farmers whose land has been separated by the wall’s incursion into Syrian sovereign land. However, Turkey has had help. In 2018 Das Spiegel reported that the armored vehicles patrolling the border wall, technology and other means had been provided by the EU to Turkey. It argued that “the EU states have provided the government in Ankara with security and surveillance technology valued at more than 80 million euros in exchange for the protection of its borders.”

The Turkey-Rojava border wall built with EU anti-refugee funds.

Building border walls, criminalizing activists and terrorizing refugees as a form of deterrence is lucrative business, apparently. A joint report by UNICEF Australia and Save the Children in Australia revealed that the cost of the Australian government’s spending on its asylum policies amounted to $9.6bn per annum. The offshore processing centers such as that in Nauru for instance were estimated to cost $400,000 per person, per year.

Likewise, spending in America has increased exponentially in an effort to curb refugee and migrant flows. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) alone has spent between 2017 to 2018 $912 million. By 2018, it had spent $2.2 billion, the major beneficiaries are defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and PAE Aviation and Technical Services.

By May 2019, $6.1bn in funding had been secured to create an additional 336 miles of the border wall. Keeping a child in Trump’s detention centers costs $775 per child per day. The cost, in permanent facilities managed by Health and Human Services, is estimated around $256 per person per night.

Disturbingly, America appears to be moving towards the Australian version of indefinite detention of refugees. A recent tweet by Trump praising Australia’s anti-refugee policies generated global outrage.  Australia has fine-tuned the detention of refugees- those that actually arrive alive- into a multi-million dollar business. Thousands are held in detention for years, resulting in children born in detention, daily suicide attempts, mass mental health issues and more.

Since the May 18 elections in Australia, with the re-election of the right-wing Liberal party and its hard-line policy towards asylum seekers a spate of suicide attempts have followed. The hardline policy appears to be working with far less refugees arriving ‘illegally’ than the previous decade, with those that have arrived safely holed away in off-shore detention centers and pushed increasingly towards despair, depression and suicide.  

The Refugee Action Collective and advocacy group reported that since the elections “there have been more than 95 instances of self harm on Manus committed by 62 asylum seekers and refugees.” Ravinder Singh, and Indian man with “severe” mental health issues, who was allegedly denied medical care attempted suicide by setting himself on fire as well as slashing at himself with a razor. The corresponding response from the government of Papua New Guinea, where the Australian detention facility is held, was to charge Ravinder for arson and attempted suicide. This charge would effectively give Ravinder a criminal record which would effectively bar him from receiving asylum in Australia. Even suicide by the desperate and the hopeless is criminalized. The indefinite state of detention, despair and hopelessness is used as deterrence, and a clear threat to other would be refugees and asylum seekers. The message is clear: there is no hope here, no humanity, no home to be found.

These off-shore detention centres are sites of misery, where the cries of the oppressed and the silenced come to be forgotten.

Still there are pockets of hope in the action of the likes of Captain Rackete and that of small cities in America. Portland, Maine is a great example.

Portland, Maine has welcomed refugees, calling the process an opportunity to enrich the city. The Mayor of Portland, Ethan Strimling stated that “We’re not building walls. We’re not trying to stop people. In Maine, and Portland in particular, we’ve been built on the backs of immigrants for 200 years, and this is just the current wave that’s arriving.”

Portland represents a perfect example of exactly what can be done to humanely address and respond to the incoming refugees. The city’s residents have raised $500,000 in support of the refugees. The city has passed a bill to provide further funding to Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.

Portland’s response, unfortunately, is not the norm. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, stated that “Criminal aliens, and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overturn our system of lawful immigration.” Trump recently openly stated that the refugees “aren’t people. These are animals”, which appears to personify the dominant hegemonic narrative of the western world towards refuges.

A tag on a female migrant in Texes detention facility.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

In “processing facilities”- a terminology disturbingly similar to animal processing in abattoirs – El Paso, Texas the conditions are horrendous. People are crammed into small rooms and forced to stand due to overcrowding. Lack of facilities has resulted in overcrowding, which increases the possibilities of abuse and disease spreading. The conditions are so terrible that they have been widely called “concentration camps”.

Border guards have been taped deliberately destroying water containers left for the migrants. When the filthy conditions in the facilities detaining children emerged mass donations were made. Essential basics such as diapers, toothbrushes and soap were collected by people.

All of these donations have been rejected by Customs and Border Protection.

The criminalization of pro-refugee activism continues. Scott Daniel Warren, a man who was charged with leaving water for the migrants trekking through the desert, faced 20 years in jail. The stretch of land where Warren had left food and water is a notorious stretch where many migrants have died. In the period of 2001-2016 over 2,615 dead bodies were found in that location alone by one single agency. Many more are thought to be dead in the area but bodies have yet to be discovered.

As a Kurdish refugee from Saddam’s genocidal Anfal Campaign the message is clear to us- current refugees or former refugees alike.

In the era of the ambiguous and open ended “war on terror” an Orwellian dystopia has emerged in which state’s security concerns gives governments carte blanche to treat humans- refugees- as they see fit. Detention facilities are perfect sites of control and power, places where people are categorized and determined as accepted citizens or as illegal aliens. Easy categories of “good/bad”, “legitimate/illegal”, ‘us/them” are promoted in which refugees- irrespective of the legitimacy of their claims to asylum- are painted as dangerous outsiders.

These detention facilities are sites of regulating, processing, and oppression, silencing and erasing refugees. They are sites of erasure on the one hand, while on the other they represent the state’s capacity to deal with refugees, with human beings as they see fit. These locations are sites of indeterminate state of existence for refugees, where not human rights laws, but the fascist, violent, exclusionary and inhumane laws of the state applies. The criminalization of humanitarian organizations picking up refugees at sea, the criminalization of suicide attempts by asylum seekers, the criminalization of providing food and water to hungry and desperate refugees, many being children and babies, is in line with this fascist ideology of oppression, erasure and violence. An ideology based on war profiteering, police state, white supremacy and the geopolitics of empire.

The objective is to instil an atmosphere of fear and terror, preventing activists and human rights organizations from helping refugees. The long term goal, however, is to create a monopolization of responses to refugees by the state. Only the state is the legitimate organization in helping refugees- and that, of course, involves any means deemed necessary, including violence, mass detention, separation of families and children and more.

The increasing criminalization of humanitarian organizations such as Captain Carola Rackete’s or that of Scott Daniel Warren is a deliberate policy to keep the field of ‘humanitarian aid and action’ firmly in the grips of international none government NGOs like UNICEF or WHO and UNHCR. These organs of the neo-liberal capitalist system function solely on self-interest, taking millions in administrative fees, only working with ‘official’ governments- many of whom are responsible for the mass flow of human migration- such as the Syrian government or the Turkish regime.

Both these regimes have been the producer of mass population displacement. In places like Afrin region, Rojava (Northern Syria) the occupation of the city of Afrin alone resulted in 350,000 Kurds being displaced. Their homes were soon allocated to fellow jihadists or even Palestinian refugees moved from Idlib and Aleppo regional camps. Afrin was also home to the Rubar camp- which alone housed 50,000 displaced people from Aleppo- before it was destroyed and bombed by Turkish aircrafts deliberately targeting civilian locations in an ethnic cleansing effort.

(AP Photo / Marco Ugarte)

One thing is clear: neither border walls nor inhumane detention centers are the proper response to curbing the mass flow of refugees and forced migration. Only when states like the US and those in Europe stop bombing and pillaging weaker nations, only with strict adherence to established human rights laws, only when politics of empire and industrial war complexes are seen as evil, vile institutions of terror and war can international relations and the issue of global refugee crises be addressed.  More than that, until the state with its monopoly on arbitrary violence with its artificial borders of control and terrorism is seen as the core of the problem the mass flow of desperation will continue.

Until then we will continue to see the washed up, dead bodies of Alan Kurdis and Angie Valerias on our borders.

Hawzhin Azeez

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