Migrants: deaths in the name of law

Seventeen years later, the 2,996 people killed in the 9/11 attacks continue to be mourned, while the 5 million people killed in the context of the six-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1998-2003) are long forgotten outside the DRC itself.

The phenomenon of the hierarchisation of life in mourning has been masterfully brought to attention by Judith Butler. However, little thought has been given to the way in which political and bureaucratic actors prioritise certain lives over others in their (non) decision-making. At first glance, bureaucracies seem to incarnate the Weberian rationality.

Inequality of life

The inequality of life is reflected in practices of risk analysis at state borders by European and American agencies such as the EU’s Frontex and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (referred to as ICE) of the United States. For the latter, it is the protection of borders rather than the protection of lives that is the object of risk minimisation. According to the International Organisation of Migration, the number of migrants who died crossing the US-Mexican border increased from 2017 compared to 2016, despite a 44% decrease in border apprehensions. The IOM also reveals that the risk of migrants dying as they attempt to reach Europe is on the rise: from 4 in 1,000 in 2015 to 14 in 1,000 in 2016 and even a 24 in 1000 in 2018. In both cases, while the number of migrants reaching the US and the European Union has decreased, the risk of migrants dying on their journey has increased. How can we understand this annual depreciation in human life?

A closer look at the framing of migrant deaths in the United States and the Mediterranean may provide some answers. Within this framing we can identify three dominant and interrelated rationalities of migrant deaths which allow states to relativise or even deny their responsibility for these “casualties”.

Migrants’ death as unavoidable

The first “policing” rationality presents migrants" deaths as the unavoidable consequence of legal disorder. Time and time again, from US president Donald Trump to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, political leaders and international organisations argue that these deaths are the result of the criminal activities of smugglers who make profit out of human misery. Smugglers overcrowd makeshift boats and send migrants off on hazardous journeys toward European shores. For instance, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker (FR) stated on July 4, 2017:

“We must act to support Libya, to fight smugglers and to strengthen the control of our borders in order to reduce the number of people undertaking perilous journeys to reach Europe.”

For these decision makers, the problem of migrant deaths is then due to this illegal, exploitative activity. According to this narrative, if we want to reduce migrant deaths we must eradicate smuggling. This view is widely contested by academics and civil society actors as ignoring the structural conditions that is to say the hardening border policies and the reduction of legal pathways, which render migrants increasingly dependent on smugglers if they wish to seek asylum in Europe. Accessing asylum structures in a European state almost always involves embarking on dangerous journeys and “breaking the law”. The legal mind-set is then conform to the belief that these fatalities are rooted in disorder and illegality. The phenomenon of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean could be resolved through the respect of law and order.

Mediterranean, summer 2015. Irish Defence Forces/Flickr, CC BY

Bureaucratic rationality

The second framing – bureaucratic rationality – removes responsibility of states from migrant deaths through the delegation of competences. Since the 2000s, Europe and the United States have been outsourcing migration management to private actors and to third countries.

While the UE has concluded agreements to contain migrants with states such as Turkey and Morocco with poor human rights records, the United States has delegated migrant detention to private actors such as G4S with an even more dubious record. This process of delegation is justified by arguments for efficiency and humanitarianism. Indeed, it is held that it is too risky for migrants to cross the Mediterranean or the Mexican desert, their well-being would be better served at “home”.

This delegation of competences also takes place inside the European Union notably through the Dublin regulation (1997, 2003, 2013). This regulation obliges asylum seekers to register in the first European country they enter. This renders only a small number of EU countries responsible for the vast majority of asylum claims, notably Italy and Greece. In reality, this policy shifts responsibility to peripheral countries forming a cordon sanitaire. The large majority of European states can now justify their non-intervention by referring to legal rules like Dublin. The pretended rational division of competencies and responsibilities conceals from view the way in which European leaders have designed their own irresponsibility. With the comparable logic of appealing to a legal apparatus, Donald Trump referred to American law in order to justify his irresponsibility in the separation of migrant children from their parents:

“They are following the law. Kids are supposed to be separated from them. They are here illegally. They know it’s going to happen. I don’t understand what the problem is.”

Lack of resources

The third framing – rationality of efficiency – is underpinned by the argument of a lack of resources. Some refer to the lack of jobs, others to the lack of appropriate reception structures. In 2015 Slovakian authorities even claimed that they were unable to receive Muslim migrants due to a lack of mosques.

As the argument goes, European countries only have a limited migration carrying capacity and cannot afford to host migrants with human decency. They refer to an imaginary tipping point in which American and European societies pass from social cohesion to economic, social, cultural and political chaos. As Trump recently put it:

“We can’t afford to support them. They’re flooding our own country and we can’t afford to take care of our elderly and children.”

People marching in solidarity with migrants from Vintimiglia (Italy) to Paris, June 2018. Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr, CC BY

The law of Homo economicus

Are migrant deaths at the border preferable to such chaos? While this thinking does not refer to legal rules per se, it refers to the law of homo economicus, that is an individual whose behaviour is driven by a desire for profit maximisation.

These three rationalities reflect a unidimensional understanding of law as if law is not a matter of interpretation and can be unproblematically applied to a given situation. They share a total reliance on a system of rules and laws which purport to be neutral and deny a role for political agency. The German chancellor’s decision in 2015 to temporarily open the borders to migrants was criticised for not respecting the rules of European migration management.

Today’s “rulification” of migration management would make such a decision ever more unlikely. Problematising migrant deaths as collateral casualties caused by the necessary application of rules and laws enables European states and the US alike to frame their role in this tragedy as a passive one. A bit like the Greek statesmen referring to the oracle of Delphos in justifying going to war, American and European decision makers act as if they are compelled to depreciate individual migrants lives in the name of respecting supra-human law. Could American and European decision makers consider that migrants deaths, much like the tragedy of 9/11, are not casualties of natural forces but victims of human agency?

Thomas Lindemann, Professor of International Relations & Political Science at L'École polytechnique, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin en Yvelines – Université Paris-Saclay and Shoshana Fine, Research Associate at CERI Sciences Po, Sciences Po – USPC

La version originale de cet article a été publiée sur The Conversation.

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