Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

On the Wrong Side of History: Europe's Mistreatment of Displaced People in the (Post)Colonial World


Ruqiya Anwar


Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Ms. Ruqiya Anwar and Dr. Marta Welander. Ruqiya is a PhD scholar of media and communication studies at International Islamic University, Pakistan, visiting Faculty, researcher, and Socio-Political Analyst. Marta is a critical border and migration scholar, activist, and Associate Director of Community Engagement and Activism at Border Criminologies. In this guest blog, the authors discuss Europe's mistreatment of people on the move, drawing parallels to colonial behaviours and calling for an alternative way forward.

The past several years have seen widespread mistreatment, and even deaths, of large numbers of displaced people in Europe and at its borders. From callous deals with third-countries with atrocious human rights records, to tragic drownings at sea and sustained police violence and containment at borders, it is clear that Europe is on the wrong side of history yet again, exerting its dominance and attempting to control peoples from other parts of the world much like during the darkest eras of colonialism.

A small blue boat filled with people
Dangerous boat crossings, by Shutterstock/Photofilippo66

Sea deaths and border violence

In the Mediterranean, the European Union (EU) and its member states have taken the approach of ‘letting die’ as a form of deterrence. In 2022 alone, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 2,000 people lost their lives fleeing across the Mediterranean, and over 25,000 since records began in 2014. Many of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean are intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard, with the backing of European states. The conditions to which individuals are returned in Libya when ‘rescued’ by the Libyan Coastguard are inhumane at best, and often deadly. We have seen countless reports of atrocities unfolding on Libyan soil, including rape, extortion, torture and killings, as well as reports of slave auctions.

Most recently, the Italian government passed a decree on 28 December 2022 which imposes severe penalties on rescue organisations if they do not immediately leave the search and rescue zone after an initial rescue. The rescue ships need to request a safe port immediately after initial rescue and proceed to that safe port without delay, which means that people will be left in distress at sea as rescue ships are kept away from the rescue zone for as long as possible as they make their ways to distant ports. As such, this decree directly targets civil sea rescue organisations and leaves many more at risk of drowning.

Men and children around a fire to warm up
Trapped on the Aegean islands, by Tessa Kraan

Border closures, pushbacks and callous deals

At the UK-France border, successive tightening and securitisation of the border has led to a harmful bottle-neck scenario in northern France, where displaced people are barely surviving in horrific conditions. Moreover, around the year-mark since the worst tragedy on the English Channel to-date, during which 27 prospective asylum seekers were left to drown in the ice cold waters, the French and UK governments moved to strengthen their border cooperation further, with an additional 72 million Euros of UK tax payers’ money being injected to deploy additional patrols and heighten surveillance further at the border along the French coastline. Indeed, the UK’s approach to migration and asylum took a further turn for the worse from 2022 onwards, with the entry into force of the notorious Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which essentially serves to expand the criminalisation, detention and deportation of those seeking safety in the UK.

Meanwhile, Spanish-Moroccan bilateral agreements are put in place to contain and prevent migration to Europe via the Western Mediterranean route. Outsourcing of border control to Morocco is nothing new, and has previously been dubbed by Human Rights Watch as ‘a recipe for abuse’ as Europe turns a blind eye to Moroccan rights violations and abuses against displaced people contained at its southern border with Morocco. Along the Eastern route, the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement seeks to reduce the number of arrivals via Turkey. Continuously criticised by human rights groups, this deal violates international prohibitions on collective expulsion and ‘blanket returns.’ According to Amnesty International “the premise on which the deal was constructed – namely that Turkey is a safe place for refugees – was flawed.”

Overall, Europe’s asylum and migration system is centred around the exclusion of migrant ‘others’ through enhanced securitisation of borders, as evidenced by states’ illegal pushbacks and widespread human rights violations and police violence at its internal and external land and sea borders. Ever increasing funding for restrictive border management, and the aforementioned externalisation of asylum responsibilities through ‘cooperation’ with third countries are part of the European approach which is in stark contradiction with Europe’s alleged values of respect for human rights.

Men wearing hooded jackets under a big umbrella in a snowed forest
Winter at the UK-France border, by Abdul Saboor

The colonial legacy

It is important to highlight that many of the tensions and conditions which continue to give rise to forced migration originate in postcolonial states and are caused by the colonial legacy. Consequently, academic discourses (Pedersen, Fett, Mayblin, Sahraoui & Stambøl, 2022; Danewid, 2017) conclude that the colonial legacy, still present in many postcolonial contexts, is a factor in Europe’s current so called ‘refugee crisis.’ Indeed, the current displacement and arrival of people in Europe takes place within the context of underlying structures of deeply cemented global inequalities, marked by Europe’s history of colonialism, where some of the world’s most disadvantaged groups of people are excluded and prevented from accessing their share of the world’s resources and spaces of safety. Subsequently, racialised populaces are trapped at borders when fleeing war, persecution and protracted crises, including those brought on by climate change and entrenched poverty.

In light of Europe’s colonial legacy, one might expect responsibility-taking on part of European states, but instead, what we are witnessing resembles a continuation of colonial behaviours of ‘othering’, control and exclusion. Indeed, (post)colonial and neoliberal migration governance leads to hardened borders; where autonomous and heterogenous migratory projects and migrant subjectivities are met with securitisation and exclusion, co-producing a heterogeneity of border struggles across the continent.

A different response to uphold international obligations

Viewed through the lens of the orientalist approach, refugees who resist restrictive border policies are pressed into illegality and occasionally left to die due to Global North governments’ efforts to deny access to their territories.

Europe's mistreatment of people on the move highlights the reluctance of nations in the Global North to meet their international duties to refugees, as stipulated in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The European Convention of Human Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights have all been ratified by the member states of the Global North. This means they must accept those seeking refuge when escaping situations of war, violence, and persecution because they must do so by law, if not by moral conscience and their frequently stated common values. The reality witnessed on the ground is starkly different however.

Additionally, Global North has attempted to evade its responsibilities under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the concurrent commitment to creating a Common European Asylum System, including the equitable sharing of responsibility for supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

Therefore, there should be an acknowledgement as part of Europe’s response to asylum and migration of the long legacy of past and present entanglement with countries and populations around the world, as well as an acknowledgement of the very intimate links between the current situation and the damages and injustices brought on by episodes in history such as colonisation, exploitation of resources, and different forms of domination.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

R. Anwar and M. Welander. (2023) On the Wrong Side of History: Europe's Mistreatment of Displaced People in the (Post)Colonial World . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/01/wrong-side-history-europes-mistreatment-displaced. Accessed on: 15/07/2024

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