The law and the migrant – what ought we to do?

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Prominent stories and images in the media last month force us to consider our ethical obligations in the face of the present migration crisis. The news on the weekend of the 6-7 July reports a rescue boat saving 49 migrants, and docking in at Lampedusa in defiance of the Italian government and its Navy. Does the increasing violence meted out by state agents against immigrants instigate an ethical confrontation with the law? In light of exhortations such as those in Laudato Si’ to accompany the marginalised and oppressed, what duties do we owe those who knock at our door; the refugee, the asylum seeker, and the displaced?

Reports from Libya tell of the mass death of immigrants in a detention centre there. These immigrants had been captured in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean and into Europe. Last week, 82 migrants were drowned off the coast of Tunisia. Alongside this news, activist groups like those reporting on chronicle an array of violent actions by European states and proxy militia to deter extra-legal entry into Europe. These efforts in the Sahel, the Sahara and the Mediterranean constitute an aggressive ‘pushing back of the European border’.

Last week, global media also carried the distressing images of the entwined corpses of Oscar Martinez and his baby daughter Valeria. The two migrants were drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande River. The week also featured the publication of images depicting extreme conditions for migrants in detention camps near the southern border with Mexico. Caught in attempts to cross over into the wealthiest country on the planet, captured migrants have been found huddled under conditions of extreme crowding, forced to sleep on concrete floors and even to drink toilet water. A militarisation of the border similar to that in North Africa and the Mediterranean includes proxy militia and the excitement of popular prejudice against migrants. These migrants are poor Central American refugees fleeing economic deprivation and violence in the lands of their birth.

In Italy, rescue ship captain Carola Rackete faces prison for the crime of saving 53 migrants from the threat of drowning off the Libyan coast. The capture of her ship the Sea-Watch 3, large fines levied at NGOs and other deterrent measures constitute an escalation of punitive legal measures to discourage humanitarian rescue in the Mediterranean. In the United States, the court cases against Scott Warren and the group No More Deaths illustrate the criminalisation of humanitarian action there. Warren’s group have been targeted for leaving water and food for the sustenance of migrants passing through a punishing terrain that has become a graveyard, the final resting place for thousands who have died of hunger, thirst, despair and exhaustion.

Whether travelling into the United States or into Europe, migrants seeking refuge in the wealthy north encounter extreme danger and the deadly stress of criminalisation. Even though hard borders have delineated global inequality for a long time, they increasingly constitute boundaries between on the one hand spheres of prosperity and peace, and on the other the sites of extraction, ecological destruction, conflict and the harshest effects of the climate crisis. As Pope Francis has said, migrants are “emblems of exclusion,” that reveal “the myth of a progress that benefits a few while built on the exploitation of many.” In Laudato Si’ (link to previous article), the Holy Father’s elaboration of an integrated ecology clarifies our planetary interconnectedness, and helps us understand that migration pressures from spaces of despair are fuelled by ecological, climatic, and political crises. This is the beginning of an ethical turn toward “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating” the stranger as part of our global family.

Legal challenges against oppressive laws and parliamentary politics struggle to articulate this integrated planetary ecology. Cowed into silence by the rage of xenophobia, politicians and other leaders fail to rally us to our shared responsibility for one another. Instead they enact laws that promote a ‘globalisation of indifference’ and the scapegoating of migrants.

In his address for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis spoke in solidarity with refugees, warning against the proliferation of cruel attitudes towards immigrants and advocating for “the highest form of charity.” He praised expressions of generosity toward those “unable to reciprocate” or “even to thank us”. As this good will runs against the contemporary tide of law-making and electoral politics, it fortifies a growing popular action in defence of migrant welfare. Like Rackete and Warren, many others have risen in a countervailing politics that prepares the wealthy countries of the north for an encounter with the immigrant.

Social media campaigns agitate on behalf of stranger brothers and sisters. Campaigns like BurgerAsyl (Citizen’s Asylum) and collectives like Seebrücke (SeaBridge) mobilise for public declarations of solidarity with the displaced, safe harbours into which rescue ships may call, sanctuary cities of refuge for migrants and a normalisation of rights for the undocumented. Combining a measure of individual and collective actions, they collect donations, offer room in personal homes, show up for public demonstrations and lobby city councils to take in and provision asylum seekers and refugees. Most radically, some of these measures take a principled stand against legal provisions, and pledge to hide and care for those under threat of deportation by state authorities. This form of sanctuary by individuals and churches extends an old Christian tradition of sacrifice that runs through mankind’s dark history of cruelty against outsiders. Through slavery in the Americas, colonialism, Jim Crow, Nazism and Apartheid in South Africa, faith supplied countless individuals with the courage and moral conviction to stand in opposition to social and legal violence waged against vulnerable minorities. By publicly defying regimes of callousness and speaking up for the weak and the oppressed, these campaigns and individual sacrifices transmit an exemplary ethics of care. Like the activists of the Underground Railroad under US slavery, they propose to reshape social mores and to change the trajectory of history.

Vitally, these media campaigns are situated in broader collectives of solidarity. They energise and guide resistance to oppressive laws through workshops and conferences that coproduce a peaceful and persuasive civil disobedience. Through both campaign efforts and in successful realisation, the idea of Solidarity or Sanctuary Cities in the United States and Europe cultivates a popular conscience that may heal the complexity of the global migration crisis. By granting a form of citizenship to legally marginalised migrants, these activist networks for justice and freedom actively chip away at the fear and anxiety that undergird so much xenophobia. Like with the Lampedusa Charter produced in the wake of the horrible mass drownings of 600 migrants off the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2014, they orient us away from compliance with the violent regimes of the present and toward prioritising the welfare of our neighbours. They offer a warm embrace, and by “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating” the outsider begin the hard labour of imagining an alternative future in which “No Human is Illegal.”

Here in Africa too, the migration crisis calls us to show solidarity and generosity with strangers. African states are also implicated in regimes of exclusion and marginalisation. The criminalisation of migrants, their detention and deportation is as terrible a feature of refugee life here on the continent as in Europe. This isn’t just with regard to refugees and minoritised groups hosted within the territories these states control. African states often on behalf of European states, implement cruel restrictions and violations of free movement. Against shared ideals such as pan-Africanism, Ubuntu or Christian charity, norms of hospitality and integration have been widely eroded and replaced instead by narrow conceptions of duty, parochial belonging, and the casualisation of malice against the othered. Even in countries that thrive off remittances and connections with undocumented emigrants to the global North, state and ethnic nationalisms precipitate prejudice and entrench exclusion in law and administrative practice. The questions of ethics and responsibilities remain pertinent here, as much as further abroad: in the face of injustice will we speak up for justice, will we welcome the stranger?

Article by Basil Ibrahim


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