How Fooled We Were: A Reflection on the European Union in ‘Dark Times’

‘The Europe’ we know has gone. In fact, it never existed. Maybe it existed for those who were living on the edge of Europe, trying to reach Europe mentally, economically, and politically, or trying to reach it physically on smuggling boats. It was a sanctuary of human rights and democracy that we could look up to, imitate and, in return, be approved of. It was a land of freedom where an asylum-seeker could buy a loaf of bread without being shot.

How fooled we were! How majestically we were fooled.

Decades ago, in her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt gave warnings about Europe. Through the concept called ‘the boomerang effect’, Arendt explained the process through which European imperialism in Africa and Asia created the idea of supreme race, hierarchical colonial relations, and brutal ways of dealing with ‘the different’, ‘the lower’. It engendered a new politics and transferred these new political ideas and methods to the Continent. The rest of the story is well-known: racial classifications, ethnic division, war, and the Holocaust. In other words, colonialism hit Europe back, just like a boomerang. Arendt alsowarned us in relation to another issue: what ‘we’ are, who ‘we’ are to become is reflected upon how ‘we’ deal with those who are not ‘us’. Similarly, what the European Union is about to become can be seen in its dealings with refugees and Turkey.

The EU’s attempts to stop individuals from obtaining protection begun at the beginning of the 1990s with the legally questionable ‘safe third country’ and ‘host third country’ clauses as well as the Dublin Conventions. It accelerated with the atmosphere of urgency following the terrorist attacks in the USA and Europe. Border controls were integrated into the fight against terrorism. The EU made visa facilitation offers to North African states through the European Neighbourhood Policy to convince them to become ‘Europe’s dumping area’ for irregular migrants, many of whom could be legitimate asylum seekers according to international law; instead, they were detained under inhumane conditions and subsequently repatriated, even if their lives were at risk. The EU also offered regional protection programmes in North and Sub-Saharan Africa that would ‘improve the management of refugee flows’ so that asylum seekers would not attempt to go to the EU. ‘Asylum-seeker’, ‘refugee’, and ‘illegal migrant’ have all been mixed and mashed in the same basket as ‘the different’, ‘the poor’, and ‘those liars who want to exploit our social services’: those who should be stopped outside the EU borders.

The EU has not been ashamed of any political bribe to achieve this end. It offered its neighbours ‘visa facilitation’ regimes if they accepted to work with the EU in preventing individuals from seeking protection, safety, and a new life in Europe. To this end, it worked with the authoritarian regimes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi until they were toppled by their own people. Now it has made a similar pay-out offer to Turkey, a country that is daily sliding further and further into authoritarianism. Turkey ranks at 138 in the global Press Freedom Index, 98 in the Democracy Index, 3.53 of 10 in the Index of Civil Rights and Freedoms, and 130 in the Gender Equality Index. In November 2015, the EU agreed to pay 3 billion Euros to Turkey to keep refugees within this borders and enable European countries to send them back to Turkey, all while promising ‘to think about’ visa facilitation for Turkish nationals.

The days when ‘we’, who looked up to Europe as an ideal and called it ‘normative power’, a different type of power whose strength was derived from its dedication to human rights, democracy, and freedoms, have long gone. What is left for the EU? What kind of power is it, if it is certainly not ‘normative’? In fact, the EU has never been proven to be a ‘normative power’ for refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean. It was, and is, a mirage of democracy and human rights for its ‘EU citizens’, not for those who are fleeing for protection to its borders. The question is, how long will the EU be able to keep this mirage alive for its own citizens? When will the boomerang that Arendt argued decades ago hit back at ‘the home’ again? The signs are already alarming in the new curfew state in France or Victor Orban’s Hungary.

Both EU citizens and non-EU citizens are faced with choices that will greatly impact their common future. What type of common future this will be is a pressing question in the EU’s ‘dark times’.


The Refugee Crisis of the Euro-Mediterranean: Steps for Building New Protection-Seeking Politics

Bodrum, Turkey, 2015


The image of the drowned body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, washed up on the coast of Turkey’s touristic town of Bodrum, has created a momentary outrage in Turkey and abroad. Such powerful images are indeed useful to create awareness about ongoing problems among the wider public insofar as the public would like to hear about them. The danger of such a momentary reaction and outcry is that it can prevent us from seeing the bigger picture about the refugee issue today in the Euro-Mediterranean region. The images of refugee bodies washed up on Spanish, Italian, or Greek coasts have never been rare, although they are new to the public eye in Turkey. However, in the past those images did not create the momentum to engage effectively with the humanitarian disaster on the northern side of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it is likely that the image of the Syrian boy will be added to the other photos in the file of the shame of humanity in the 21st century.

A body of a refugee, Spanish coastline. Source:

Then what is the problem? The main problem is that the refugee ‘crisis’ is only remembered when such powerful images are published, or when a mass scale drowning or a killing of around 300 people in ‘one go’ occurs. The fact is that people who are on the way to protection in Europe have been dying on a daily basis not only in the Mediterranean, but also in the Sahara desert and in the shanty towns in North Africa while waiting for the next boat to Europe. What about the violence of human smugglers? Rape, killings, beatings… A quick look at the reports of NGOs will enlighten anyone about the daily humanitarian disaster on the way to seeking protection in Europe. Rather than deepening the Refugee Convention, the developed states have become examples for the rest of the world regarding how to violate it. Therefore, we as members of global human community need new counter-steps. In order to engage with the refugee crisis in the Euro-Mediterranean, I would suggest the following for the people who value human life regardless of race, skin colour, religion, nationality, and gender:

  1. The developed states in Europe should accept their responsibility for violating the 1951 Refugee Convention in two ways. Firstly, through legally questionable regulations such as ‘host third country’, through the militarization of the Mediterranean by FRONTEX, whose main practice has become to ‘push back’ the boats or to collect bodies from the sea, and through deferring asylum responsibility to the neighboring states in the Middle East and North Africa, the EU states have denounced their convention responsibilities. Surely they have created the precedence for countries like Turkey to treat the refugees as ‘unwanted people’. Secondly, the rhetoric of the racist right, which has been adopted by other right wing parties and so-called ‘left wing’ parties on ‘illegal migrants’, ‘economic migrants, not refugees’, ‘coming to steal our jobs’, has generated a political atmosphere that easily denounces asylum responsibilities. In such a political structure, the Convention has become a memory of the past, basically, a legacy of the Cold War when Europe needed refugees to discredit the Iron Curtain. The new refugees are not ‘useful’ for Europe after all.
  2. We need a new ethics. Even one death on the way to protection in Europe should be considered as a humanitarian crisis. Decriminilization of protection-seeking should go with rehumanization of the issue. Protection-seekers are not just numbers. This should be the ethics of protection of human life.
  3. We have to accept an uneasy fact: the Refugee Convention is rendered politically void by the developed states.
  4. In addition, the Convention, which has never been updated apart from the 1967 amendment, does not reflect the realities of contemporary protection seeking. It has become almost impossible to determine whether an individual is forced to leave her/his country for ‘individual political persecution’. Many individuals are forced to leave because of their membership in a particular group, even if they are not individually persecuted. Moreover, political and economic crises go hand in hand. Poverty is sometimes a stronger motivation than a bullet. I recommended the concept of ‘protection-seeker’ in my earlier work as a new legal status for refugees who do not meet the Cold War-determined criteria of the Convention. I still stand behind this new status.
  5. It does not matter how many detention centers are built in North Africa in particular, how long militarized borders are, or how many naval ships patrol the sea. Migration is a fact of human life. Individuals in search of protection will seek protection whatever obstacles Europe puts in front of them.
  6. Despite the risks, individuals take these boats. It is not because they are ‘crazy’. It is because they cannot find protection where they are.

Points 5 and 6 are particularly addressed to migration scholars. It is the responsibility of migration scholars to talk to those in power about the realities of migration, keeping in mind the political and ethical responsibility they have towards migrants, even if it risks the funding of their next project.

  1. Finally, racism and xenophobia have to be tackled ‘seriously’. Greece’s way of dealing with the Golden Dawn should be an example for the rest of Europe. The hijacking of politics of racist right wing has to be stopped. As European leaders know from history, the appeasement of fascism does not end well.

The body of the three-year-old boy will have a tomb. We do not know how many like him lie in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. It is up to the good people of the world, to whom I have appealed to, to stop sending new bodies there. This is not politically easy. Nothing that matters is.