The deaths at Europe’s borders are the blind spot of this century

On World Refugee Day, Europe continues to exhibit its selective compliance with international law, applying racial criteria resulting in first- and second-class refugees.

Marta Llonch

World Refugee Day is held on June 20th to commemorate the Geneva Convention about the Status of Refugees signed in 1951 in response to the huge numbers of persons displaced by World War II.  

Signatory States undertake to afford protection to persons who, in compliance with the Convention’s criteria, are deemed to be refugees, and the return of any person to a territory where their life is endangered is prohibited. This convention is the foremost legal instrument regarding the right to asylum and has been ratified by almost every country in the world.  

Asylum is not a concession dependent on the goodwill of States but an obligation under international law

The 1951 Convention embodies the ancient traditions of asylum found in every culture around the globe. It is the legal expression of the conviction that the obligation to safeguard people overrides the eligibility criteria applied to foreigners entering the territory of a State. In other words, when a nation ceases to protect its citizens for whatever reason (because the State refuses to do so or cannot), then a third State must intervene to protect the people who flee. 

In legal language, this is known as international protection. It is important to remember that the State signatories of the Convention are obliged to afford international protection to those who meet the requirements. In other words, this is not a charitable concession dependent on a State’s goodwill, it is an obligation under international law

Necropolitics in Europe’s human rights 

This year, four days after World Refugee Day, it will be one year since the Melilla massacre in which at least 37 refugees died. They were young boys from Sudan, Chad and South Sudan who were fleeing war and persecution in search of protection. But they were welcomed with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons, and suffocated to death at the gateway to Spain whilst the Spanish authorities looked on impassively. One year on, the victims have yet to receive justice or redress. There is not even an official list of the deceased; the survivors and several civil society organizations have taken it upon themselves to notify families of the death of their children, siblings and friends. 

But this crime is not an isolated incident. It belongs to what the Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics, i.e. the use of political power to decide who lives or dies. According to Europe’s immigration policies, there is no room for migrant, poor or racialized persons in Europe despite claiming to be the cradle of human rights.  

Migration policies aims to prevent persons deemed undesirable from entering European territory

Just six days ago hundreds of people, including dozens of children, died in the latest incident when a boat sank in the Ionian Sea. According to the Caminando Fronteras report, 2,390 people died in 2022 en route to Spain. According to OIM records, 26,924 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014. Thousands of people die whilst trying to reach European coasts due to a lack of safe, legal migration routes.  

This migration policy aims to prevent persons deemed undesirable from entering European territory. If this means breaching maritime law, paying dictatorships such as Libya and Morocco to do the dirty work, or letting people die by failing to give assistance, so be it. Welcome to Europe, the land of human rights. 

Right to asylum: a matter of political will 

All this is happening against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, showing that where there’s a political will, there’s a way. When thousands of refugees fled Ukraine, the EU triggered for the first time the Temporary Protection Directive that grants people fleeing from conflict immediate protection and legal status. This directive, intended to respond to massive influxes into the EU as a result of war or systematic breaches of human rights, had never previously been implemented – not even when more than one million refugees fled embattled Syria in 2015.  

The upsurge in sympathy and administrative efficiency when welcoming refugees from Ukraine and giving them documents contrasts sharply with the response to refugees from other countries. Whilst citizens across Europe were springing into action, picking up refugees on the Polish border and taking them to other European countries, and the authorities were slashing redtape to give them temporary protection, documents and social security numbers in record time, 900 people mainly from Sudan and Mali, two war-torn countries, made it to Melilla.  

No buses picked them up as they left their war-torn country, they had to cross half the continent on foot, were tortured by Libyan authorities funded by European money and risked their lives jumping over a high-tech fence designed to be insurmountable, whilst those that did manage to climb over were received with riot gear. Awaiting them upon arrival was a maze of red tape meaning years to obtain the legal status necessary to live, work and exist without fear of being returned to their country. 

Ukrainians, Sudanese and Malians flee from countries at war

They cannot choose the EU country where they will settle. They must stay in the first country they enter, even if they have relatives or friends in another country or if they speak the language of another country, a detail that would hugely facilitate starting to live in Europe. They cannot choose because they have no agency, and must be grateful enough that we let them stay.  

The Ukrainians, like the Sudanese and Malians, are fleeing from countries at war. They are all entitled to international protection but are treated in completely different ways. It is not difficult to see that the difference depends on the color of their skin. We can all remember journalists saying that the Ukrainian refugees were “blond with blue eyes, like us.”  

Perhaps skin color determines the boundary of European empathy. To avoid any misunderstanding, we are all pleased that the response to people fleeing the Ukrainian conflict takes people’s dignity into account. But quite simply it has highlighted Europe’s racism and the double standards that cause first-class and second-class refugees, and also that a dignified response to displaced persons is not a matter of capability or resources, but simply of political will

The blind spot of the 21st century  

With the rise of the far right in more and more European countries who regard migrants as a scapegoat for all their ills and call for inhumane policies of mass deportations and even stricter border control, the future is frankly terrifying – which is saying a lot considering that the present is already bleak for migrants. 

The deaths on European borders will go down in history as the most shameful chapter of the 21st century  

The writer Amin Maalouf said that every era has a blind spot, the defect by which the future will judge us. The Spanish Inquisition and slavery, accepted practices in certain eras, were blind spots. Looking back, it is unthinkable that no one did anything to stop these atrocities. Europe’s response to immigration, deaths on the borders, impunity, racism and institutionalized discrimination against migrants are the blind spot of our time and will go down in history as the most shameful chapter of the 21st century

And so, during today’s commemoration of 72 years of international consensus about the protection of refugees, we must remember the importance of asserting that commitment and shedding light on that blind spot, for the principles and values that democratic societies claim to be based on are at stake

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