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University of Basel

The fall of the border guards

Text: Irène Dietschi

Political sociology professor Bilgin Ayata explains the surge in migration toward Europe largely as a consequence of the Arab Spring. In cozying up to Turkey’s Erdogan regime over the refugee crisis, the European Union has shown that it learnt nothing from previous events in Libya and the Arab Spring, she argues.

Events in Turkey and their implications for the European Union have unfolded at such a pace this summer that it can be hard to keep track: «Attempted coup in Ankara – thousands arrested», «EU refugee deal with Turkey at risk», «Erdogan demands visa-free travel». For Bilgin Ayata, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Basel, this is hardly a surprising development. A German researcher with Kurdish roots who has been teaching and conducting research in the field of political sociology as an assistant professor since August 2015, Ayata has already made a name for herself with her incisive remarks in the media. She believes that EU relations with Turkey are following a pattern she has seen before: «Europe is making exactly the same mistakes with Erdogan as it did with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi five years ago», she says. «In an attempt to control migration, it is pandering to an autocrat.»

Fallout from the Arab Spring

Ayata traces many of the current migratory flows toward Europe back to the Arab uprising of 2011. Together with sociologist Sarah Schilliger, she recently organized a hugely popular lecture series on the issue at the university entitled «Topographies of displacement and resistance.» Ayata’s verdict on European migration policy in light of recent events in Turkey is sobering: «The EU has learnt nothing from the Arab Spring.»

Returning to that time five years ago, the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle East was plunged into disarray as millions of people rose up against repression and human rights violations, in defiance of the prevailing despotism and authoritarian power structures. In Egypt, rebels toppled the long-standing ruler Hosni Mubarak; in Tunisia, head of state Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the country, while Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was shot. The unrest spilled over into Syria, where crowds took to the streets in Damascus in protest against president Bashar al-Assad, who suppressed the insurgents with brutal force. Ever since, Syria has been in the throes of a civil war which is reducing the country to rubble and ash, forcing countless thousands to flee their homes.

Elsewhere too, little remains of the initial revolutionary euphoria, and not a single state has succeeded in establishing democratic order in the wake of the turmoil. Nevertheless, the Arab Spring is widely hailed as an historic watershed which brought about lasting change in the Arab world and beyond.

Neighborhood policy against immigration

Ayata sees the watershed in a very different light, with consequences – including for Switzerland – which, while clearly felt, are rarely acknowledged: the Arab Spring brought with it the collapse of the EU border regime in North Africa and the Middle East. «Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi – besides being national dictators, were also Europe’s border guards», she explains. From 2003, the European Union imposed its new «Neighborhood Policy» on the surrounding countries. While the policy’s purported goal was to promote democracy and cooperation between the expanded EU and its neighbors, «Europe’s aim was also to block immigration from African countries», says Ayata.

This task was something the EU and its member states were prepared to pay handsomely for: Muammar Gaddafi is thought to have received some 5 billion US dollars in exchange for controlling the EU’s Mediterranean borders from Libya, keeping refugees from the Maghreb and the Arab world at bay. «For all these years, Libya served as an offshore reception facility for people trying to reach Italy and Europe via the Mediterranean,” says Ayata. Gaddafi’s fall was followed by a stream of refugees passing through Libya and seeking to cross the Mediterranean in boats.

In 2011, Brussels conceded that the EU’s Neighborhood Policy might have helped support authoritarian structures in the Arab region. However, the admission did nothing to prevent the EU from reaching a deal with Erdogan similar to the agreement with Gaddafi, in the hope that Turkey would retain as many refugees as possible within its territory. Under the refugee deal celebrated with the EU in March this year, Turkey will eventually receive 6 billion euros to this end. In Ayata’s view, the deal with Erdogan is indefensible. «Human rights are being sacrificed for short-term political interests», she says. «The EU is giving the Turkish president free rein to wage a brutal war against the Kurds, while increasingly stifling democratic structures in the country.»

Academics seek exile

What is more, as with Libya, the EU is violating its own asylum guidelines, Ayata adds. These guidelines clearly specify the conditions under which refugees can be repatriated to a third country, as they are currently being from Greece to Turkey: The third country must be a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. «However, Libya never signed the convention, while Turkey only signed the first version of 1951 – which applies only to refugees from Europe – and not the subsequent 1967 protocol.» In other words, the almost 3 million Syrians and other refugees from Asia or Africa do not currently have refugee status in Turkey.

Europe’s support for an autocratic leader will once again prove to be a mistake in Turkey’s case, Ayata concludes. «Decision-makers are clearly unaware of the boomerang effect their policies will have.» The draconian measures taken by Erdogan in the wake of the attempted military coup in mid-July are indicative of a development which Ayata had already predicted back in October 2015: Turkey will soon once again be producing refugees of its own. These will include the roughly 300,000 Kurds which Erdogan drove from their homes and who are presently classified as «internally displaced people», as well as the many academics and critics of the Erdogan regime who are waiting for a chance to leave the country.

Asked how the EU can learn from the past, and what form an honest migration policy might take, Ayata replies: «There is an urgent need to start looking at migration as an opportunity rather than as a problem.» She points out that Europe’s prosperity is the result of centuries of slavery, colonialism and violent exploitation of resources – something all too easily forgotten. «A migration policy characterized by openness rather than exclusion could go some way towards atoning for this past. Europe must allow much higher levels of legal immigration, and bring its policies into line with reality», she says. This includes a shift in public opinion to do justice to the plurality of migrants – their ideas and struggles, their history, their individual characteristics. The alternative – to wall ourselves off from the outside world and criminalize immigration – is doomed to fail, Ayata believes: «People will fight back, and still come all the same.» The belief that migration – and therefore people – can simply be controlled is an illusion, she concludes.

Bilgin Ayata is assistant professor of political sociology at the University of Basel. Her research focuses on the transformation processes that are influenced by migration, conflict, social movements, and the politics of memory.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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