Another day, another report of deaths at the borders. On Saturday, two women froze to death in the Bulgarian mountains. One of them was a teenage girl. This mountain pass is the way of desperation, for people who can not afford the death boats to Greece.
People subject themselves to this misery and this fatal risk because it offers them the one thing that matters: getting closer to safety, stability and a new chance at life.
This possibility is now rapidly being eroded. Only three nationalities still have it, and even they will only be allowed to stay in Europe while their “home” is suffering war. Then they have to go back. Their possibility of family reunification, which has allowed relatives of healthy young adults to join them later via safe routes, is being restricted. Fences are being built, pushback agreements signed and camps, which no person should ever have to live in, are being proposed as an endpoint for the refugee trail.
Thus everything is brought back to normality. Arabs stay in Arabia, Africans in Africa, and Europeans can again pretend they’re not racist by throwing money at refugees over the five-meter razor-wire fences. People fleeing war will again be portrayed as impotent beggars, not as autonomous subjects that are free to move on their own terms. Freedom of movement will again be reserved for the people who only move if they want to, but never have to. It will again become our luxury product.
Resistance to this apartheid has mostly been offered by the migrants themselves. Ever since thousands of refugees, fed up with delays and blockages, ran across the Macedonian border last August, they have been the dominant force in the course of events.
Since then, hundreds of thousands have made it through borders that kept them from realizing their dreams, and they’re still coming. It is an achievement that decades of European open-border activism could only dream of. But now that such a force has entered the stage, our activism has taken an unexpected turn. Instead of fierce battles for freedom of movement, we have directed our attention at providing food, clothes, shelter. Things to make it more bearable to be stuck somewhere. For the first time in decades, the European public has its eyes on the consequences of border politics, but the drama has been focused on the beaches rather than the fences. Where are the lock-ons, sit-ins, roadblocks, black blocs, banner drops and paint bombs? Where are the protests, political appeals and actions? The European public’s attention is waning, the state’s actions are growing more determined, and still we’re mostly providing the refugees and the public with feel-good activism.
Obviously, food and clothes are important. But they are not what we are being asked for. We are being asked: how can we get to Germany? This, the ongoing possibility of movement, is the all-important point that no amount of soup will resolve. It is also the point that the state is now clearing up all on its own, month by month, by chopping up and regaining control of the Balkan route.
The political activism has largely been left to migrants – and it’s been impressive: They’ve marched to the border against police orders, attacked fences, protested against detention while in prison and blocked roads when they’ve been kept stuck. In the prison at Corinth, two Moroccans even tried jumping out of a window to make a run for it. They broke their legs and got apprehended. When brought before a judge, they named bad food as one of their grievances. The food handler got changed as a result. They now face deportation.
Their case reminds us of two things. Firstly, change comes in small steps. We won’t open all borders with One Big Action – but we do need to start somewhere. There are fences, prisons, camps and government offices all around, offering opportunities for protest and direct action. There are companies, essential to the functioning of refugee segregation, that specialize in separating nationalities by listening to their accents. These methods and practices have to be protested, one by one, to resist their ever harsher use.
Secondly, the Moroccans’ fate reminds us how easy and risk-free it is for us to protest. We are not at risk of being deported into the cold, hard hands of a repressive regime. We have experienced protesters and activists in our ranks and passports that give us significant political freedoms. It is essential that we use them, not just for migrants, but for our own society’s sake. A society that kills people at its borders, segregates them, makes them drown and freeze to death, a society that resolves a mass movement of people fleeing war by storing them in containers for years, is a society that breeds evil. It is imperative that we resist it.