Sunday 21 April 2019

Borders are closing and hearts are hardening

A mother and daughter in Mexico last week after being denied entry to the US. Photo: Getty
A mother and daughter in Mexico last week after being denied entry to the US. Photo: Getty

Fergal Keane

They were sitting in neat lines. The women, children and men. Mostly old men. People carrying their lives in bags of canvas, nylon and plastic. Some had nothing at all to carry. They were after crossing from the Turkish side during the night and were tired and hungry. Babies were crying. We had come by the safe route, the ferry from Izmir to Lesbos. We were people with passports that mattered. The same colour as Homer's ''wine-dark sea''.

From ferry to landfall to immigration, our journey into our European homeland would take 15 minutes at most.

The other ones, the people with the passports of a country in flames, passports of the Syrian Arab Republic, would watch us pass, walking at our ease while they sat under a blazing noonday sun that caused the youngest and the oldest to sway.

I saw a man stand up and begin to walk towards the immigration offices. He was in his 50s I guessed. He had not made more than a few steps when a woman customs officer began to scream: "Sit down!" And this she repeated with increasing volume and velocity. Velocity. These were words hurled as weapons. "Sit down!" There was more shouting from another guard. Just in case the refugees doubted who was in control and what were the limits of their freedom.

When the guards noticed a colleague filming the exchange, they became enraged. Camera cards were demanded. I protested and was told we were filming in a port, a restricted area. There was another bout of shouting in the direction of the refugees. I said something about this being Europe and a place where desperate people should not be treated with such obvious contempt. "We are in a war," was the response from the immigration officer.

This was at the height of the great migration of 2015 when those fleeing war and hunger, those seeking a better life in the imagined paradise of western Europe were landing in their tens of thousands on the shores of Lesbos. This was part of the prologue to Brexit, Trump, the rise of populism and the retreat of liberalism.

I have thought many times since about the reactions of those Greek border guards, about how they had reduced those Syrian refugees to people less than fully human.

To be sure, their attitudes were counterpointed by those of the many Greek islanders I had seen offering succour to arriving refugees. But uniformed, bureaucratic Europe - and I would witness this hard-faced reaction in Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Hungary…yes, most of all Hungary - was showing its colours long before the first fences went up or the rescue ships were being turned away from Italian and Maltese ports.

In the last few weeks, President Trump has faced outrage over the treatment of immigrant children at the US border with Mexico.

Right-minded opinion in western Europe expresses horror at the wilful traumatising of children. But we are much less willing to confront what is being done in our name by the immigration agencies and police forces of the European Union. Mr Trump has bellowed about the wall he wants to build along the Mexican border. But Europe already has a wall. I watched it go up in the late autumn of 2015 on the frontier between Serbia and Hungary. Its leaders have done a deal to keep Syrians, Afghans and whoever else tries to cross by the Aegean route, confined in Turkey.

We have pushed the frontiers of Europe to the shores of north Africa and down into the Sahara desert, the responsibility for stemming the migrant flow turned over to the tender mercies of Libyan militias and Algerian police.

The European response was initially born of panic: what could be done to stop a seemingly endless flow of refugees and economic migrants heading north in 2015? Viktor Orban's fence and the Turkey deal were the beginning of a process which now involves the closing of ports to the NGO rescue boats and the plan for the establishment of migrant ''processing'' centres in North Africa. The EU has moved from panic mode to cold calculation: if migrants know that what awaits them is detention in a miserable camp in the Sahara and the probable rejection of their asylum claims they will stop coming.

There will be the usual accompanying rhetoric about Europe helping to tackle the conditions which cause people to flee. Good luck with that at a time when the EU is struggling to achieve coherent policies to face its own internal crises.

Apart from the obvious challenges around human rights, the policy of ''Fortress Europe'' has no guarantee of success.

Two daunting statistics above all others should concern us here. By the year 2050, the population of Africa will have doubled. By 2030, 90pc of world poverty - between 400 and 500 million people - will be in Africa. That's compared to 50pc now. For all the good news about economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, it shows no sign of reaching the levels needed to provide enough jobs for the rapidly expanding population.

It is usual at this point for the writer to say what should be done to tackle the crisis of the hour. But nobody with a grain of sense has an easy answer to the migration question. The answer is in long, patient engagement, in peace keeping and making in war-blighted countries, in helping to build African economies through trade and investment, in supporting independent institutions like courts and free media. This is the work of decades. Far more time than we have. And calls for open borders are not the answer. They are simplistic and irresponsible and are far more likely to fuel the rise of the far right.

Of course it would help if those on the far right who inflame public opinion with fearful rhetoric could desist. One of the most disturbing images of last week was of a woman in America screaming ''Dirty Mexican'' at a 14-year-old boy who spoke in support of immigrants at a rally.

There is too much hatred coursing through the blood stream. In America. In Europe. Our great danger is a gradual but irreversible hardening of hearts towards each other. That way catastrophe lies. And I fear it is much closer than we imagine.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent and Africa Editor

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