zaterdag 9 april 2011

Mr. Van Rompuy, tear down this wall

Following the self-immolation of Kambiz Roustayi last Wednesday 6 April, a debate has flared up in the Netherlands about the heartlessness and murderous consequences of Dutch immigration policy. Kambiz Roustayi was an Iranian refugee who set himself on fire at Dam Square, the public space par excellence, in the face of imminent eviction. Particular outrage was caused by the reaction of Minister of Immigration Gerd Leers, who said the case was “very sad, but the procedures were just and had been followed correctly”.
Kambiz Roustayi, however, was not one sad case. In 2005, 11 prisoners died in a fire in an eviction centre near Schiphol Airport. Thousands of immigrants are currently locked away in prison boats, awaiting eviction, packed together with 4 or 6 people in one small cell. Thousands more are spending years waiting in refugee centres, effectively in custody, forbidden to do anything. The situation is not dissimilar in other Western European Countries.
Mr. Roustayi was a critic of the Iranian government who had good reasons to fear for his life on return – particularly after the execution of Dutch citizen Zahra Bahrami in Iran last January. Ten years in the Limbo of Dutch immigration procedures will do to break down anyone’s nerves. Moreover, Mr. Roustayi had two children, who now as alleenstaande minderjarige asielzoeker (lone asylum seeker under age) stand far better chances of being allowed to stay in the Netherlands. A desperate man’s death, Mr. Roustayi’s  self-immolation was also a rational act.

This is a Catch-22. We have now reached the situation where our politicians call the mass detention and deportation of human beings just and correct, and in which self-immolation becomes a rational choice. Mr. Leers’ reaction can also be read as a sign of powerlessness rather than heartlessness: as Minister of Immigration, he has to defend the legal procedures which secure that his policy is not based on whim. Dura lex, sed lex. The situation is certainly absurd, but it is not anyone’s individual irrationality or cruelty that caused it.
Probably the absurdity of that situation is best illustrated by Thilo von Sarrazin, author of Deutschland schafft sich ab, who claims that he is still a convinced social democrat and that he is only naming the elephant in the room. Equally, the transformation of  the United Kingdom into a police state has largely been brought about by Labour. Dutch immigration law in its present form was largely shaped by Job Cohen, now leader of the Dutch Labour Party.
The worst news is that xenophobia, repression, and anti-immigration policy have only increased since the Treaty of Schengen, which was meant to create “A Europe without Borders”. Countries are now increasingly competing against each in other in harshness against immigrants and refugees, for fear of becoming Europe’s ‘favorite destination’. Thousands die yearly in the Strait of Gibraltar, crossing to Lampedusa, or in containers. With the rise to power of the Danish Folkeparti and the Dutch Partij van de Vrijheid, the legacy of populist parties in Belgium and Austria, and the deportation of Roma by French government, it is very unlikely that any European country will take the initiative to end this situation.

In short, the evil is always someone else’s evil. It is called Fortress Europe and our governments are all just another brick in the wall. They could certainy do more than they do to admit asylum seekers or at least treat them humanely, and they are not exempt from guilt when refugees die. But at the level of national policy, they cannot get at the root of the problem, and the best they can do is set a better example. The only thing that can end this institutionalized de-humanization is concerted action on a European level.
In the past, the Council of Europe has completely failed to stop the growth of new walls, in fact, has been the main architect of Fortress Europe. It has done so basically out of a less-than-zero-sum-game of national interests. Back-door politics through European Commission guidelines, which have been very effective in Europeanizing markets, justice, and education, have not been pushed through to secure basic human rights for immigrants and refugees. However, the Lisbon Treaty has created small openings for European policy finally to take initiative instead of waiting for the member states. The chances are small but the moral need is imperative. Mr. Van Rompuy, tear down this wall.

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