Is the UK turning into an offshore enclave for the world’s wealthiest, at the expense of the most vulnerable?
As the British government funds the repatriation of poor undocumented migrants from Greece to war zones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, it is considering auctioning to the highest bidder the right to come to Britain. The UK government is funding to the tune of £2 million a Greek project to ‘assist the repatriation of migrants to countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East’. The plan is for the ‘voluntary’ repatriation of 1,500 migrants over the next two years, through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to destinations including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Sudan. Vulnerable people including unaccompanied children, trafficking victims, single-parent families and those needing medical treatment will be among those returning. The funding is justified by the need to prevent onward migration to the UK.
Everything every human rights organisation has reported about Greece’s treatment of migrants over the past few years demonstrates the project’s recklessness and its scant concern for human rights. The Greek government and coastguard are currently under scrutiny for breaking international law through the ‘push-back policy’ (where rickety boats full of desperate people are pushed back into international waters). Greece’s asylum reception and determination procedures were acknowledged as wholly dysfunctional, and are still utterly inadequate to identify and receive those needing international protection, despite reforms in 2011. Meanwhile, Operation Xenios Zeus, a huge stop and search operation to detect, detain and deport undocumented migrants, launched in 2012, has led to tens of thousands of people being rounded up on the streets of Athens and other cities on the basis of their appearance. Visiting academics and tourists have been violently arrested. Some are held for months in shocking conditions in the basements of police stations or makeshift camps like Corinth, home to 1,000, patrolled by riot police and known as the ‘Greek Guantanamo’. In Drapetsona, 100 people were imprisoned in a 70m² basement for nine months, with no natural daylight, sharing two toilets and with no medical care, leading to contagious skin diseases and suicide attempts, and beaten when they went on hunger strike. The chief of police reportedly told officials that irregular migrants should be detained for as long as possible to make their lives unbearable. Police brutality, extortion and collaboration with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, have created a climate of fear for foreigners.
So bad has the situation for migrants been in Greece that both the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) have banned other governments, including the British government, from returning asylum seekers there, because of the real risk of inhuman and degrading treatment and of return to dangerous home countries without proper examination of their claims.
Refusal of ‘burden sharing’
Several factors, including the total surveillance of the Mediterranean and the west coast of Africa, and the co-option of regional countries of departure and transit for immigration policing, have meant that Greece has become the major reception country for refugees and migrants from the war zones of the world. From Afghanistan to Sudan, they include those whose desperation to reach Europe is measured in the ever higher price they are prepared to pay, both in financial terms and in the risks to life involved in the deadly crossings. Yet northern European governments including the UK have steadfastly refused the EU’s request to share Greece’s burden by receiving some of those who arrive there. Even in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis, which the UN describes as the worst for twenty years, the British government was so anxious for Britain not to be seen as a soft touch that it would offer refuge only to a pitiful 500 – an offer billed as outstandingly generous.
It is in this context that the repatriation project must be seen. Repatriation cannot be described as voluntary if it is the only alternative on offer to living as an outcast, in conditions of utter degradation and destitution, with the constant fear of being hunted down by gangs of police or neo-Nazis. Until there is in place a proper chance to claim international protection in Greece, with decent reception and living conditions, and claims assessed in fair and lawful proceedings, a government which seeks to uphold the Refugee Convention should be condemning the repatriation project rather than assisting it. The latest illegal ‘push-back-operation by Greek coastguards, which claimed twelve lives, has attracted calls by the European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s call for an investigation and from asylum groups for EU infringement proceedings and a freeze on EU funding. But instead of condemning Greece’s illegal ‘push-back’ operations or Greek policing of migration, instead of devoting funds to urgent improvements in reception conditions and training of officials in refugee determination procedures, our government opts for funding a project which adds insult to injury by sending people back to the countries they tried to leave when they have given up hope of survival and decent treatment in Europe.
Britain for the rich
In funding this project, the government has once more made its priorities abundantly clear. From the very beginning, it has made clear that the immigration it is interested in, and supports, is of the wealthy. In this, it has merely continued further along the road travelled by its predecessors. Investors with a million pounds to spare for investment in Britain are described as ‘high value individuals’ or of ‘high net worth’, and are afforded unequalled red carpet treatment in UK immigration rules. Alone of all the immigration categories, investors don’t even need to speak English – their money speaks for them. The coalition’s sole criterion of value being wealth, its policy of importing rich people while tightening controls on the rest makes sense, and the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) proposal to auction off UK visas to the highest bidder follows this logic impeccably. The MAC complains that investors are getting round the only requirement of the rules – that they will invest £1 million of their own money in the UK – by using government gilts and loans and ‘leveraged’ offshore investments which do not benefit the UK. The proposal is that 100 ‘investor’ visas be auctioned off annually. An alternative proposal is for visas to be ‘bought’ with large endowments to universities or hospitals. Immigration lawyers have described the plan as bringing an ‘eBay culture’ to residence rights. How soon will it be before British citizenship is auctioned, they ask? And if the government truly believes in private enterprise, can we all auction off our rights to live here to the highest bidder?
But the auction proposals are all of a piece with the constant jacking up of visa and settlement fees which, instead of reflecting administrative costs, are set at a commercial level, to reflect the value of the benefit granted – a process of commodification, and exclusion of the poor and vulnerable, embodied by the Immigration Bill currently going through parliament.