November 25, 2017
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This Age of Migration: Europe’s Rising Militarization

As part of our series “This Age of Migration,” Paul Currion argues that increasing militarization in Europe in response to the refugee crisis is akin to an autoimmune response that could attack the very body it is supposed to protect.

By Paul Currion


A Macedonian Army engineer attaches razor wire to a fence at the Medzitlija border crossing between Macedonia and Greece

A Macedonian Army engineer attaches razor wire to a fence at the Medzitlija border crossing between Macedonia and Greece

THE UNITED STATES has a history of militarization that is much more entrenched than in Europe.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution made sure of that, with its “well regulated Militia” based on “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.” This militarization became more explicit during the 1970s, in response to the civil unrest of the period and the war on drugs declared by President Nixon. But in recent years it has become much more visible and advanced.

This is partly the result of the U.S. rotating large numbers of military veterans back into society, where official policy supports them going into domestic police service. It is also partly the result of military surplus being off-loaded onto police forces, leading to the police lines at Black Lives Matter protests sporting more intimidating gear than your average Baghdad foot patrol. The U.S.’s expeditionary wars have started the slow transformation of its own cities into conflict zones.

Europe’s militarization is the fruit of the same wars, albeit in a different fashion. While Syria has not been invaded like Afghanistan or Iraq, the European Union has felt the twin pressures of the refugee crisis and extremist attacks, and belatedly started to recognize it might bear some responsibility for Syrian reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the refugees arriving in Europe are evoking reactions that are similar to the injection of military surplus onto American streets.

While Europe’s militarization comes from the same place, it doesn’t have the same face. The walls that have sprung up on E.U. borders are not garden fences, but explicitly militarized structures. Hungary’s wall – operated by the Hungarian Defense Force rather than a civilian agency – is a case in point. These walls are essentially body armor for the body politic. Yet that body politic is restive. We already see paramilitary forces springing up behind those walls, such as the “migrant hunters” of Bulgaria.

In this new age of migration, we are likely to see more of these militias springing up, a domestic crop irrigated by water from the underground springs of far-right political thinking. In my last column, I pointed out how such groups often refer to migrants in terms of an infection. To those who subscribe to this abhorrent yet resonant metaphor, militarization plays the role of the immune system for countries receiving refugees, a defense that kicks in to stop the infection.

But not all immune responses provide appropriate remedies. In the same manner that autoimmune diseases attack the very body that they are supposed to defend, militarization degrades the society it is intended to protect. Border walls that are undoing decades of progress toward freedom of movement are the first such symptom. The recent Brexit vote is another example, showing how citizens can make decisions that are likely to be against their own long-term interests, at least partly to defend themselves against the perceived impact of migration, where refugees act as stand-ins for all types of migrants.

Apparently not content with militarizing itself, the E.U. has started to invest in militarizing other countries as well, particularly those from which the migrants come. It would be difficult to militarize Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq further, but countries such as Sudan are happy to receive an additional 100 million euros ($113.4 million) in funding “to address root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement,” despite the active role of the Sudanese government itself in creating that displacement.

The E.U. deal with Sudan sounds good on paper – “reducing poverty, promoting peace and good governance, supporting the creation of jobs” – but leaked documents reveal that it also includes training border police and constructing detention camps. Such E.U. support to Sudan was agreed despite earlier reports from Human Rights Watch in which Eritrean asylum seekers described how “Sudanese police … intercepted them near the border … and handed them over to traffickers.”

More worryingly, the report covering this leak cites a general from the Interior Ministry explaining that the “technology would not just be used to register refugees, but also all Sudanese.”

And this is how the mechanics of militarization work.

The migration crisis is a convenient excuse for leaders of a certain inclination to control not just borders, but also the general population – all under the cover of providing security and reclaiming sovereignty.

To achieve this end, refugees are reduced to extras, rarely acknowledged as actors in their own right, except when they can be used as scapegoats for the actions of extremists. As I noted previously, refugees are the canaries in the coal mine of our political crisis, precisely because they are marginalized. They are the first to receive the treatment that is destined eventually for all of us. And too often it is bitter, bitter medicine.

Fear is a poor basis for policy decisions, one that will lead to battle lines of heavily armed police battalions, surveillance drones scouring the skies above our cities and civil liberties suspended in the name of security. Nobody should pretend that dealing with large-scale migration is easy, but even before the current crisis we already knew that better migration policies could have saved lives by providing safe passage and boosted national economies by enabling economic integration.

Governments around the world are reluctant to face the possibility that their own policies might be turning refugee movements into refugee crises, leaving them with only one option: to reinforce their remaining policy levers of increased surveillance, increased control and increased militarization.

Post-coup Turkey and the continuing E.U.-Turkey deal clearly illustrate the self-created dilemma of Europe – choosing between its values and its borders. The next column in this series will examine whether the September 2016 U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants is likely to lead to a reality that starts matching the rhetoric of the rich countries of the world.

“This Age of Migration” is our commentary series that reflects on some of the currents running beneath the crisis, from border fences and biometrics to the role of innovation and the rhetoric of invasion.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.