Over the last weeks and months almost every day has brought a new headline. Hundreds drown in the Mediterranean, 70 suffocate to death inside a truck, Thousands stranded at Budapest train station. The media and the continent have woken up to the fact that Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since the Second World War, with thousands of people a day trying to claim asylum. This shouldn’t be a cause for panic though. Instead, European leaders need to take a look at the opportunities this crisis offers, and what can be achieved by accepting the refugees heading towards the EU. Continue reading
This week reports emerged that the Australian navy paid people smugglers to take their human cargo back to Indonesia. Three sailors arrested in Indonesia stated that when their boat was intercepted by the navy, they were paid 5000 USD each to turn around. Their story is backed up by migrants on the boat in question, interviewed by the UN, and the Indonesian government is investigating. Continue reading
A few months ago I was studying Arabic in the train when the man next to me asked about my textbook. It turned out he was from the tiny African nation of Eritrea, and he spoke a Sudanese variety of Arabic. After trying out a few words, the conversation turned to how he came to be in the Netherlands. It turned out he had fled the incredibly oppressive regime in Eritrea, and taken an incredible journey through the Sahara desert across Sudan and war torn Libya. In Tripoli he got on a crowded boat to cross the Mediterranean, before landing on a beach in Italy. From there he went overland to the Netherlands, looking for a country that was more open to refugees. Here he managed to gain asylum, and now has a job and is learning Dutch.
300 people just like him drowned this week in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
This week President Obama showed just how powerful the presidency can be by potentially drastically changing the lives of 4 million people. After years of Congress not passing any law to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, Obama used his power as President to pass immigration reform that ensures illegal migrants whose children were born in the US will no longer be able to be deported. The Republican Party reacted with predictable fury, saying that Obama is acting like a dictator or monarch. So what the ‘immigration problem’ in the US, and what will now change? And what does this mean for the next few years of American politics? Continue reading
An extra post today, on a story that hasn’t made the news in a big way, but one that I just can’t get over. The Australian government has made an agreement with the Cambodian government to resettle refugees in Cambodia. These refugees are people who arrived in Australian waters by boat, were detained, and then found to have a genuine claim to asylum. Instead of being allowed to enter Australia, because they arrived by boat they are being sent to Cambodia. Let’s take a look at Cambodia.
Firstly, I have nothing against Cambodia. I spent some time there while backpacking, and loved it. It’s a great country with amazingly friendly and open people. However – it is a Third World country. It is poor, with one of the lowest annual incomes in the world. It is corrupt, ranked 15th worst in the world. It lacks freedom and struggles to feed its own population, being ranked as one of the worst in the world for HDI and hunger. Unemployment is high and many young Cambodians struggle to find jobs. Less than 40 years ago it suffered one of the worst genocides in history, one that was preceded and followed by years of horrific war. The country still bears the scars – on the landscape and on the culture – today.
It’s also a country that’s not known for treating refugees well. They have deported refugees numerous times, including Uighurs from China who were being protected by the UN’s refugee agency. Refugees are not wanted by the majority of the population either. The decision has been greeted with protests in Cambodia by people who don’t want even more competition for meagre resources and jobs. Note that this is the same argument some Australians will make – from a country 42 times larger and 16 times richer than Cambodia. Guess in which of these countries I’ve seen the bumper sticker “F**k off, we’re full”.
Australia will be responsible for the cost of health insurance that is “commensurate” with local community standards for five years. Most Cambodians do not have health insurance. (Lindsay Murdoch, SMH)
To sweeten the deal for the Cambodia government, Australia will pay them 40 million US dollars, on top of resettlement costs. In what is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where exactly does the Australian government think this 40 million is going to go? It’s unlikely it will do much to benefit the people of the country who never agreed to the deal in the first place. To make the deal even dirtier, it has been carried out in secrecy with no room for debate.
UNICEF, Amnesty International and other groups have labelled the deal “inappropriate, immoral, and likely illegal” – and that describes it perfectly. As an Australian I am deeply ashamed that my country is doing this. It enrages me that no vote I cast can change this – as the opposition Labor party made similar plans. But that isn’t surprising when 60% of Australians polled said that they wanted refugees treated more harshly. We are one of the world’s richest countries handing some of the world’s most vulnerable people to one of the world’s poorest nations.
Oh, the refugees don’t have to go to Cambodia though – they could also remain in their detention camps on the tiny, hot, barren and bankrupt Pacific island of Nauru. They’ll be glad to hear it.
For more on Australia’s asylum seekers policy, see this post from earlier this year.
On the very same night his Party for Freedom (PVV) scored a victory in local elections, Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right politician, managed to attract the most negative attention he’s seen in a long time. Standing in front of a huge Dutch flag, Wilders asked his supporters if they wanted “more or less” Moroccans in The Hague and the Netherlands. After his supporters chanted “Less! Less! Less!” he said “Then we’ll arrange that”. The ugly scene has attracted a firestorm of controversy across Dutch politics, media and social media. So what do Wilders and the PVV stand for these days? What makes these remarks different than what we’ve heard before? And what has the reaction been in the Netherlands?
On Sunday the Swiss public voted in a referendum to reimpose quotas on the number of people from EU countries allowed to work in Switzerland, thus making it much harder for Europeans to work in the country. The law passed with just 19,516 votes, but because of the Swiss system the quotas have to become law. Swiss politicians and business leaders are extremely disappointed, pointing to the political and economic consequences. But what will these consequences be? And what does this vote say about Switzerland?
Firstly, the vote is going to cause a lot of headaches for the Swiss government. In Europe we often forget that Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU, though it has made a deal with the EU which means it’s a part of the “common market”. This “common market means four things:
- Free movement of goods – a company can sell its goods in any country without extra tax
- Free movement of capital – Money can go across borders at no cost
- Free movement of services – Anyone can sell their services throughout the EU
- Free movement of people – Any EU citizen can live or work anywhere in the EU
What Switzerland has done with this referendum is reject parts of these last two aspects. According to the treaty the Swiss have with the EU, this can now mean that all other agreements will also be ended. This means Swiss companies selling chocolate to Germany will now have to pay customs duty, and sending money to a Swiss bank account will carry costs. And this is no idle threat. The German Finance Minister said the vote would “cause a host of difficulties for Switzerland”. Swiss businesses fear losing their workers, and Swiss working in EU countries could find themselves being sent home. It’s no wonder therefore that Swiss businesses were so against the new quotas.
But if this vote will cause such problems for Switzerland, why on earth would they vote for it? Switzerland is a small mountainous country, with a national identity going back for centuries. This national identity is despite the division of the country along linguistic lines: French, German, Italian and Romansh. These divisions were also seen in the referendum, with the French speakers voting against quotas, and the Germans and Italians for. However, Switzerland also has a foreign population of 23%, the highest in Europe after Luxembourg. For the traditional Swiss, these foreigners are contributing to overcrowding, and driving Swiss salaries down.
There is also the unfortunate fact that the Swiss are known for a certain xenophobia. Years of mountain isolation has created a unique and inwards facing culture. There was outrage recently about segregation of asylum seekers to keep them away from the public (still less harsh than Australia’s policy). There has also been fairly obvious racism present in some anti-immigration advertisements by the Swiss People’s Party, the main supporter of the quotas (see photo above). This xenophobia has contributed to support for quotas on EU workers.
Finally, this vote will also boost the cause of nationalist parties across the EU, in countries like the Netherlands, the UK and France. These opponents of the EU will point to this decision as an example of what can be done about the regulations imposed by the EU. Brussels will be under increased pressure about the most basic principles of the entire European project.
While I’m a passionate supporter of the rights of immigrants, and the importance of opening borders, in the case of countries like Switzerland I can see where their reasoning is coming from. Small countries with little history of immigration will often feel at risk of being ‘swamped’, even if this fear isn’t very realistic, and sometimes even based in racism. However, Switzerland needs to realise that they can’t have it all; being in the EU means free movement of people. It will be interesting to see how the Swiss deal with the consequences of their decision.