John Oliver & Donald Tusk: Two very different views on the so-called ‘migrant crisis’

Over the weekend, John Oliver from HBO’s Last Week Tonight took on the migration ‘crisis.’ He does a great job showing just how absurd some of the commentary surrounding migration coming from the media and European politicians has been in recent months. Despite all available evidence to the contrary refugees are consistently being described as threatening to the European economy and labeled a national security threat –  even as ‘potential terrorists’ in waiting. Unfortunately, today that commentary took a dangerous geopolitical turn when Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, declared that migrants are being sent to the EU as part of a ‘hybrid warfare’ campaign. Orchestrated by Europe’s neighbors, with the intention of forcing concessions from the EU.

Tusk went on to describe migrants as ‘weapons’ and ‘political bargaining chips’ used by these antagonistic neighbors to extract political favors from the European Union.

“We are slowly becoming witnesses to the birth of a new form of political pressure, and some even call it a kind of a new hybrid war, in which migratory waves have become a tool, a weapon against neighbours. This requires particular sensitivity and responsibility on our side.”

As if the dehumanizing marginalization of migrants and refugees fleeing the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, as geopolitical ‘tools’ and ‘weapons’ wasn’t enough, Tusk went on to misdiagnose the ‘problem’ and the so-called ‘solution.’

“It is clear the greatest tide of refugees and migrants is yet to come. So we need to correct our policy of open doors and windows. Now the focus should be on proper protection of our external borders.”

His comments reflect a misunderstanding about how borders work – and most certainly a deeply flawed perception of migration itself. Both are gravely in need of correction. 

For years now, political geographers have contested the notion of borders as fixed territorial entities. Most consider borders as porous and flexible, and only nominally capable of directing flows of migrants, but almost never able of stopping migration entirely. Of course that’s never really been their intention. Borders, along with many other recent technologies like passports and ‘free trade zones’, were devised as tools of the modern capitalist state to manage the flows of labour – not to cut that flow off entirely. And even if the state wanted to, this has historically proven an almost impossible task.

The contemporary politicisation of the migrant and refugee as a ‘threat to national security’ came primarily In response to the expansion of security discourse after the 9/11 attacks and the launch of the War on Terror. This discourse fundamentally recast borders as matters of national security and equipped the state with new tools for monitoring and identifying people. It also politicised the body, making some people’s lives and human rights more expendable than others. This roughly coincided with the legal and material construction of certain sites or locations, like Guantanamo and migrant detention centres, where regular human rights abuses occur with relative immunity. Political geographers have taken to calling research about this phenomena the ‘bio political.’  

When politicians speak of ‘securing the border’ they invoke a grave sense of threat that plays into the fears that many in the public already have. But this threatening rhetoric hides the fact that these fears are mostly baseless and serve to increase state power and control over innumerable other aspects of our lives which have next to nothing to do with the fleeing refugee.

Recently, Thomas Nail has added to this debate a much needed new  kinetic philosophy of movement that challenges the very basis of how many of us understand migrants and migration. He argues that past theories have predominantly cast the migrant ‘as a failed citizen’ in part because they’ve wrongly  defined the migrant as a figure in opposition to stasis rather than on the basis of movement. By contrast, he suggests that movement, including migration, has always been at the center of the human condition. It wasn’t until the construction of certain types of territorial societies (those mostly responsible for writing history) that the most mobile among us began being described in oppositional terms. But even after these new territorial societies came into existence, human movement countinued to play an exceptional role in our development and does so today. 

His historical analysis of migration  even helps us better understand why politicians like Tusk and others continually make reference to migrants with terminology like waves and tides. It has its roots in ancient history:

The movement, action, and distribution of the barbarians are, for the Romans, most closely akin to uncontrollable waves of water, air, and lava…

They are heterogenous yet unified through a common transportation. They move down from the mountains like an undulating wave: a social turbulence.

Migrant flows throughout history, whether the Barbarian, the Vagabond, or the modern day proletariat Migrant, have since, consistently been described in these terms. 

When Donald Tusk describes the migrant wave and tide about to come as somehow part of a broader geopolitical campaign targeted against the European Union – he fundamentally misunderstands the motives of migrants themselves and the systemic causes of their expulsion. As a result he misplaces the ‘blame’ for their movement on the EU’s neighboring countries, and exhibits a borderline conspiratorial mentality. Indeed, more than blaming them for their heterogenous yet collective movement, he dangerously associates this movement with some kind of unified geopolitical agenda. And when he calls for greater ‘control’ and securitisation of the border, he quite clearly hasn’t taken a close enough look at the genealogy of borders themselves. No amount of security or finance will ‘secure’ them in the way that he envisions. That which would be spent on such a project would be better directed at improving the lives of the newly arrived.

My specialty is not in migration, but fortunately Professor Alison Mountz and Professor Thomas Nail have graciously agreed to come on as guests of our debut podcast launching late this October. Hopefully they can provide some further clarity to what has become a muddled and sometimes vitriolic discourse about migration. 

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