E&M’s Nicoletta Enria looks into why countries are refusing to sign the UN Global Compact for Migration and have forced the Aquarius search and rescue mission to no longer operate, and why these events are connected.

This week, fears and anxieties on ‘migration’, now a catch-all term for all the evils in society, returned to the front pages. Countries are furiously dropping out of signing the UN Global Compact for Migration, and have put an end to one of the last migrant search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean – MSF’s Aquarius. Why do I pool these events together? Not only do they both jeopardise the lives of vulnerable people seeking safety and a dignified life in Europe, they are also both significantly fuelled by the politics of fear.

British sociologist Frank Furedi theorised the politics of fear as the political manipulation of people’s anxieties, but also as something that exists in its own right to absolve practitioners from having to formulate what they actually stand for – whilst clutching onto power. Similarly, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote that “we, human beings, are inveterate meaning-seekers and once fighting fear becomes synonymous with meaningful life, we tend to become fear-dependent”.  Indeed, in a world where debate is thirsty for fear, rather than meaningful ideas – how do we make sense of developments on the UN Global Compact for Migration and Aquarius?

What’s actually happened?

The United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration went by relatively unnoticed for the two year negotiation period. In fact, when Trump pulled the US out about a year ago it elicited outrage. European leaders scoffed at the American patriotism, to then only ape the behaviour a year later. Its forthcoming adoption on 10-11 December in Marrakech has sparked serious turmoil, with a dozen countries pulling out from signing, the majority of which European, such as Austria, Hungary and Italy. It caused such a dispute in Belgium that it broke the coalition, costing the prime minister his parliamentary majority. 

The Compact itself is a tepid non-binding international agreement for more humane and orderly migration management. Whilst it’s the very first UN global agreement on a common approach to migration, it remains non-legally binding and heavily supports national sovereignty on migration matters. Born out of the 2015 migration ‘crisis’ it draws heavily on the UN Declaration of Human Rights – to which most UN members are signatories anyways – to ensure the management of fluctuating migration flows is executed with human rights in mind. Its aims are to address the risks facing migrants, displaced peoples and asylum seekers in their journeys and ally state’s concerns on rapid changes in demographic.

Photo: Openmigration.org; Licence: Free to Share and Use Commercially

It contains 23 objectives, which include collecting better data, ensuring migrants have legal proof of identity, saving lives, strengthening the fight against human trafficking, giving migrants access to basic services and a review mechanism of the services provided and whether they apply to the standards set by the Compact. In terms of effective action the Compact is vague, non-committal and merely gives states a gentle push for collaborative action. What’s most significant about it is its symbolic relevance: your state’s signature signals to other states its liberal, rights-focussed approach to migration management (whether that is then true in practice is a whole other story ). Or perhaps for ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ countries to cozy up and drum up more forced return bilateral agreements. Only time will tell.

Speaking of symbolic, on Friday the 7th of December the migrant rescue ship Aquarius, who conducted essential search and rescue missions in the deadly Mediterranean trait, was forced to end its operations. Under increasing European pressures to criminalise humanitarian work on the Mediterranean (mainly claimed to provide a ‘pull factor’ or ‘taxi service’) the Aquarius was filling in the gaps left by European authorities, who continue to close ports and doors, choosing to let the Mediterranean cemetery grow to avoid the political fuss.

Italian coastguard rescuing people at sea in the deadly trait in 2013 | Photo: UNHCR Photo Unit (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

It seems this week European nations have increasingly distanced themselves from their responsibility to offer safety and a dignified life to vulnerable people seeking protection in Europe. And turned a blind eye to how a responsibility to rescue lives in the deadly Mediterranean trait in Europe may somehow coincide with the responsibility encoded in international human rights law to save lives.

How are these events related?

An overarching link between countries pulling out of the Global Compact for Migration and ending the Aquarius operation – aside for a complete disregard for addressing global inequality and conflict and safeguarding its victims – is that they provide the perfect opportunity for populist actors to peddle fear for their support. Both not signing the Compact and lambasting the Aquarius mission until it can no longer operate are big symbolic actions that will add some muscle to anti-migrant xenophobic rhetoric. Making the faceless Other the enemy of the state and the people makes it way easier to distract the electorate from a state that is distancing itself from social-democratic and welfare principles, or any meaningful policy for that matter. In short “if you’re unhappy with your current state of affairs, it’s in no way related to state-level decisions or neoliberal tendencies, it’s because of that person who is inherently different to you”.

Both not signing the Compact and lambasting the Aquarius mission until it can no longer operate are big symbolic actions that will add some muscle to anti-migrant xenophobic rhetoric.

And so, by perpetuating fear and continuing to kick vulnerable people in the mud, state actors continue to escape having to provide meaningful policies for the welfare of its electorate. In doing so, European states are happily, and far too easily abdicating an international responsibility to safeguard the right to life. Furedi argues that by provoking a common reaction to a perceived threat, and showing your action to be the only alternative for public order, you gain consensus. This culture of fear is what reduces its electorate to passive powerless subjects, frightened, seeking for simple answers and quick action. Fear wins votes, and the ‘migrant’, silenced in all these debates, proves to be the easiest to pin down as a threat.

What’s next?

In reality, these bold gestures from ‘macho’ European leaders to pull out of the Global Compact for Migration may not result in its demise. Most of the faithful signatories are African and Asian countries, regions where, despite what European fear-mongers will have you believe, have the densest migration flows and refugee populations. Yet it is an ominous sign for what’s to come for migrants rights in Europe. Indeed, the end of Aquarius’s operations will provide very serious repercussions in Europe. The Mediterranean remains the deadliest trait into Europe, and the people who make the decision to cross it, were always aware of its deathly consequences and therefore will continue to traverse it regardless of search and rescue missions (proving search and rescue missions are not a ‘pull factor’).

We have a moral responsibility to call for action, exposing the politics of fear and asking for meaningful policy action. In a society dependent on fear to give our lives meaning, we must advocate that it is indeed empathy, compassion and kindness that make us inherently human – not fear and division.

Cover photo by Davi Mendes on Unsplash

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    Nicoletta Enria

    Former Editor

    Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, but grew up in London, Rome and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London studying Language and Culture, with a focus on German and Arabic. She spent the past year working for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in Brussels and London. She read an MSc Global Europe: Culture and Conflict at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow her on twitter at @NicolettaEnria.

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