Cast Adrift, Torn Asunder
This week saw yet another humanitarian tragedy off the Turkish coast, in the Aegean Sea. In a failed attempt to cross the perilous waters between Turkey and Greece, 37 migrants drowned. Among the victims were six children and four infants. And while the Turkish coast guard was still able to rescue 75 others, the tragic loss of lives of those trying to exit Turkey has become a nigh-on daily event. Many of those who perish, including the shipwreck of January 31st, barely even leave the Turkish coast before they hit the rocks. Just two days later another nine migrants, including two children, died in the same way, in the same place.
According to Peter Bouckaert, the Human Rights Watch Emergency Director, January has been the single most deadly month for refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece. Yet as Turkey is brought in to help ‘manage’ the refugee crisis, Europe threatens to lose sight of the humanitarian toll. Having outsourced not only the logistical challenge, but the moral issue as well, the debate has effectively moved towards one of criticizing Turkey’s capacity to rise to the task. In doing so, it wilfully ignores the EU’s moral deficit in refusing to accept the true cost of the crisis: the triumph of isolationism and the wholesale loss of compassionate alternatives.
That the EU accuses Turkey of the very same calculating cold-heartedness is revealing as to the lingering discomfort the continent feels with its own handling of the crisis. In a recent report, Amnesty International raised concerns that migrants in Turkish refugee camps were being beaten, and many were being forced to sign papers to return to their home countries.
This of course, is the sticking point. By all appearances it seems there is little appetite among European voters to take in more immigrants and asylum-seekers, and even outright hostility towards migrants. So the crisis is relegated to the Turkish authorities, with unsurprisingly chaotic results. In other words, the idea of cooperation with Turkey is cast as a necessary evil. As a result, Turkey is both criticized and rewarded.
Turkey as Gate Keeper
In cooperating with Turkey, Europe effectively secures for itself the moral high ground without having to deal with the refugees themselves. The current influx of Syrian refugees combined with a decade long process of centre-right politics in Europe has come together in a perfect, and predictable, storm. In this way, European politicians have seized upon this fear as a paradoxical way to protect ‘European Values’, all the while criticizing Turkey as an undemocratic and unreliable alternative.
This discomfort becomes evident when one examines more closely the central argument in most news articles regarding Turkey’s role as migrant sponge. The outrage is not that the refugees might find themselves less safe in Turkey than they might be in Europe proper. On the contrary, the outcry that resounds as in a single voice is “How can we let Turkey gain so much leverage over us?”
Thus, the European fear of refugees is effectively externalized and in so doing transformed, mutatis mutandis, into a fear of handing over the moral responsibility to Turkey. “Surely the Turks will botch it”, the critics cry, all the while professing there is no way that Europe can possibly absorb all the migrants on its own.
Yet why does Europe remain so sceptical of Turkish involvement? Many commentators have attributed this to lingering fears of Turkish invasion, mirrored by Turkey’s suspicion of the West, the so-called Sèvres syndrome. Such an interpretation of the EU-Turkish relationship relies on the assumption that Europeans have a dormant recollection of Ottoman troops laying siege to Vienna, and that this would continue to reinforce contemporary suspicions and animosities. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. In fact, it can be argued that the situation has been reversed entirely. The Turks are no longer at the gates. They are manning them!
A recent cartoon in the Guardian illustrates this rather well. The image depicts Erdoğan as a thuggish doorman guarding entry to a dodgy nightclub, clearly identified as the EU. No longer pretending to be a member of the club, Turkey has instead found its place within the security façade. In the cartoon, Merkel looks on approvingly, while David Cameron lurks in the corner pondering his own EU wish-list.
The supposed Ottoman gate crasher is thus cast afresh; this time in the role of gate keeper. What the gate keeper has in common with the house keeper, is that he is held in suspicion by the residents. For it is he who knows best the private lives, the weaknesses, and even the dreaded ordinariness of those whose sovereign stead he dutifully attends to. This is the current EU predicament of Turkey’s role in the migrant crisis.
The exchange is not so much one of money (despite the magnitude of the £2.3bn pounds Turkey has received), but one of trust. For if the keeper is to ‘keep’, then he must already first, in some way, be granted entrance himself. Or at the very least be owed the privilege of sharing the togetherness implicit in keeping others out.
The Inequality of Equality
Yet as the antagonism towards refugees grows, so do the fantasies of supposed European enlightenment. Already dwindled down to little more than high-mindedness, ‘Europeaness’ is now actively invoked to contrast with immigrants who are accused of sexism, intolerance, and backwardness. Never mind that many Europeans already demonstrated these characteristics in abundance before the migrant crisis.
In this self-congratulatory, yet deeply reactionary state of affairs, one is reminded of a telling Picasso anecdote. In the story, Picasso is at work in his Atelier in occupied Paris, when suddenly a member of the Gestapo barges through the door. Upon seeing a print of the Guernica painting in the corner of the room, the policeman exclaims ‘Did you do that?’ To which Picasso replies, ‘no, you did’.
A similar situation is taking place in Europe. In its refusal to treat the migrant crisis as a moral issue, it externalizes and estranges from itself the violence implicit in the ‘management’ of refugees’ plight, and instead relishes in its own moral superiority. Anger towards Turkey’s role in the crisis becomes the only possible outcome of this moral relativism. A second side effect is to fetishize equality as fairness in all things, which in effect only further dehumanizes the crisis.
For example, when refugees are told to hand over their valuables to the state, the justification of ‘equality’ is readily produced. And when asylum seekers are made to wear bracelets identifying them as such, the rationale is again one of fairness, invoking other citizens on benefits and hospital patients who are required to wear similar tokens. While this ‘equality’ is undoubtedly preferable to the desperate plight of the 1.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of whom have been abused and shot at by Turkish border guards, the dehumanizing effects of these attempts to manage the refugee crisis are one and the same. They reconfirm the precarious relationship of the refugee as both human and other, as being in need, but not needed.
As such, one is reminded of the much-quoted Thomas Jefferson dictum that there exists “nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals”. While the former US President’s words are commonly invoked to justify preferential treatment, for example in the educational system, a much more interesting interpretation of the text might be to regard them as words of warning. For when the ‘fairness’ principle is applied to the refugee crisis, the result can only ever be dangerous antagonism masked by cries for equality.
This is where the recent proposals to send migrants back to Turkey betrays a shared misconception of a European continent besieged by migrants. The war-like rhetoric of Fortress Europe, i.e. the fencing off of the European ideal, can only ever be paradoxical. For if Europe resorts to being a project of walls and barriers, of surveillance and (in)security, then the emancipatory ideal of free movement will have truly failed.
Turkey and the EU: What Next?
Turkey’s increased isolation from Europe only cements its role as gate keeper, and allows the EU a false modicum of high-mindedness, which in turn will only further increase the fortress mentality. Migrants and refugees are not Turkey’s ‘problem’, nor for that matter, are they the EU’s. If we continue to treat the issue as no more than an issue of ‘fairness’, i.e. in the neo-liberal mode as a logistical challenge to be ‘managed’, we threaten to turn what surely must first and foremost be a moral issue into one of diminished returns and cost-benefit analysis.
That most criticisms of the EU’s cooperation with Turkey on the migrant crisis have focused on the country’s logistical and democratic shortcomings, rather than on the humanitarian cost itself, is indicative of how far the crisis has already been outsourced both in practical and ideological terms.
That Turkey is no longer perceived to be at the ‘gates of Vienna’, but instead is guarding the EU’s porous borders does not mean it will be joining the EU anytime soon. If anything, its role in tackling the refugee crisis head-on will make it too uncomfortable an ally to be fully included in what remains of European conceptions of togetherness. If Europe continues to stretch its moral legitimacy by both outsourcing to, and being critical of, Turkey, there is no reason it would endeavour towards any increased integration in the long-term.
As such, European criticisms of Turkey’s recent turn towards authoritarianism ring hollow, insofar as they are still voiced at all. Much in the vein of the paradoxical ‘Je sais bien, mais quand meme’(I know very well that it can happen, but nonetheless… I cannot really accept that it can happen), Turkey’s floundering record on civil liberties, freedom of speech, and human rights is tolerated as long as it serves the logistical capacity of Turkey to manage the influx of refugees.
The logical result of this will be that Turkey becomes neatly integrated within the Western security apparatus, without the need or desire for any actual socio-cultural cooperation along the lines of the EU accession process. In this the EU seeks to maintain the moral high ground, even while it threatens to lose sight of the humanitarian cost. As such, the question should not be whether Turkey can ‘manage’ the crisis. Instead we should ask ourselves if the European continent, and the UK for that matter, can still possibly be a place where people come together, and where no one gets left behind.