With its square white tents perfectly aligned with the yellow sands of the Sahara, Adam's home could be an exemplary refugee camp. Unless it's not like that. The Nigerian government and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) describe the camp as a "humanitarian site". Real refugees for the government are those who have come from the war-torn areas of neighboring Mali and Nigeria and are temporarily housed until the fighting pauses. Then they are expected to return to the other side of the border.
The Sudanese at the humanitarian site are diverse and trapped between trips. They fled the conflict in their native Darfur and headed north, crossing different borders to reach Libya – which turned out to be as dangerous as the country they had left behind. Then they went south to Niger, this time in front of detention centers, slave markets and the arrest by the European Union-backed Libyan coast guard.
Before coming to Niger on his first trip, Adam had even managed to reach Europe. He came to Italy, but was arrested at the French border and deported to Sudan. Since then he has been nicknamed "Italy". He's not happy to wait at the humanitarian site, but UNHCR staff told him Niger could send him back to Libya if he didn't like it there. In 2019 there were painfully few resettlement flights from the humanitarian site to Europe, but they existed and gave Adam hope. He dreams of returning to the country that gave him his name. Or really anywhere in Europe. The present offers no possibilities.
Coming to Europe is now almost impossible. The resettlement drip feed was turned off in early 2020 when the virus reconfigured our world. In September he wrote to us: "There is no future for me."
A migrant sits near a fire in a tent in a camp outside Bihac in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina on November 19, 2019. ELVIS BARUKCIC / AFP via Getty Images
Migrants made their way through Serbia near the city of Subotica on September 9, 2015 to reach a break in a steel and razor fence erected by the Hungarian government on the border. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
Since the beginning of the pandemic, drawbridges have been built around the world, restricting the movement of business travelers, vacationers and asylum seekers. While airlines are eagerly anticipating tourism to return to normal, many of the asylum restrictions enacted during the current crisis are likely to be permanent. This year, more than 90 countries stopped processing asylum applications. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands of migrants who fled wars at home and were looking for a route to Northern Europe were detained in camps, while in Malaysia and Thailand boats carrying Rohingya refugees were turned away. In the Mediterranean, the virus has proven to be an effective weapon for politicians looking for ways to justify Europe's blockade of irregular movements from the south.
The far-right party's political rhetoric accuses refugees of carrying COVID-19. At the beginning of March, the Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared that he was waging "a two-front war: one front is called migration, the other is part of the coronavirus". The law has brought the two issues together and built on a centuries-long history in which strangers were scapegoated as sick. In fact, asylum seekers are no more likely to carry the virus than anyone, and its initial spread followed the routes of international air travel more than irregular migration. However, according to Susan Fratzke of the Institute for Migration Policy, the pandemic is a useful excuse for "countries adopting anti-asylum policies that they would have been pursuing anyway".
The measures taken in the last six months are not exceptional measures in times of crisis, but a crisis that is being used to complete a project that has been running for 30 years: an almost complete blockade against the refugee movement and the end of asylum as a practical option.
Asylum law has always been positioned ambiguously between law and geopolitics. When the U.N. Refugee Convention was first adopted in 1951, it only applied to Europeans trying to find their place in a new puzzle of nations after World War II. The focus of the post-war discussion was on “non-refoulement”, the principle that asylum seekers cannot be sent back to the countries they have fled from if they are persecuted there. The anchoring of non-refoulement was a reaction to the original sin to which the convention responded: many countries refused entry to Jewish refugees during the war. However, the fact that refugees cannot legally be sent back to dangerous places does not mean that they are guaranteed a place to go– a limitation in convention brutally exposed by stories like Adams.
Not that Adam gave it much thought when the convention was signed. It would take until 1967 to sign a protocol that generalizes the right of asylum outside Europe to people who have a reasonable fear of persecution because of their political views or belonging to a persecuted group. Even after the protocol was signed, the right to asylum remained fragile. While the signatory countries are theoretically obliged to accept asylum seekers, no country is obliged to do so, and in reality asylum policy is always shaped by the requirements of national immigration policy.
There were relatively few asylum cases in Europe and the Anglophone world in the 1950s and 1960s simply because labor was needed, immigration regulations were relatively lax, and migration was easier than complicated asylum procedures. Those who applied could be held up as political victories: the victims of communist systems in Hungary and Poland, the failure of which was shown during their flight.
As the oil crisis spread in the 1970s and unemployment rose to Europe, the demand for migrant workers subsided, immigration restrictions tightened, and immigrants became useful punching bags for politicians looking for scapegoats for the global economic downturn. The seeds of popular discontent took root after the guest workers who came to Europe in the 1950s and 1960s stayed and became the target of political anger. The consolidation of immigration policies went hand in hand with an increase in the number of asylum seekers as those fleeing conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and the wars in Central America sought safety.
The asylum institution was tied to the political economy of the nation states from the start. With the crises of the 1970s came the institutionalization of a new method to keep asylum seekers away: the refugee camp.
There is a divided world system for dealing with refugees, as the French anthropologist Didier Fassin has argued. Asylum is possible in a very few countries; In the rest of the world there is the refugee camp. Over the past 30 years, even those countries that offer asylum, such as those within the EU, have set up camps within their borders. Asylum is accompanied by the promise of permanent residence, possible citizenship and a new life. In the federal states, however, asylum seekers are not allowed to apply to their embassies. This means that an application requires difficult irregular travel to apply.
Such a journey has become increasingly difficult over the past 30 years and most refugees now live in camps in countries like Kenya, Lebanon and Pakistan next to the war zones from which they fled. At the end of 2019 there were 79.5 million displaced people worldwide, 85 percent of whom were housed in developing countries.
While it is very difficult to get asylum, it is easy to get to a refugee camp. However, building a good life there is almost impossible. Staying in such camps is based on the idea, at the heart of UNHCR, that refugees will either be relocated or returned home. This means that most refugees are not allowed to work, receive citizenship in their host country, and receive minimal services to sustain life – but not to build good ones. The camps are meant to be temporary, but as relocation becomes more difficult and wars never end, many never leave. The consequence? In places like the Darfuri refugee camps in Chad, hundreds of thousands of people without citizenship have grown up, dependent on handouts, and waiting for a future that will never come.
From the UNHCR's point of view, such camps save lives. From a historical perspective, however, such camps are a means of managing uprooted populations. In fact, camps act as cages, as American sociologist David Scott FitzGerald calls them, to deter people from coming to wealthy countries and seeking asylum.
Since the 1990s, Europe, the United States and Australia have tried to prevent asylum seekers from making applications within their territories, even though the signatories of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol are still legally signed. The measures they have taken include tightening the global visa regime and restricting travel, as well as externalizing border controls far removed from the actual borders of the nation states concerned. Since the 1980s, the U.S. Coast Guard has increasingly intercepted and forcibly returned asylum seekers at sea without a legal hearing, while Australia is relocating its asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, while companies are moving factories overseas – saving money and making the horror easier to bear, if they do not take place at home.
In Europe, the continent's borders have shifted steadily to the south over the past 30 years, even if North Africans find it increasingly difficult to cross the Mediterranean. In recent years, African and European officials have referred to Niger, Libya and Sudan as "Europe's new southern border". This new border wall consists of a growing number of drones and border fences, sometimes guarded by militia forces contracted by Europe, which can intercept migrants in places where human rights violations are less visible. While Australia has built buffers and an offshore processing system for asylum in other countries, Europe has focused on blocking asylum seekers south of the Mediterranean. Amid all his other disagreements about the need for this new frontier, as writer Thomas Meaney noted last year, Europe sings from the same anthem sheet.
Adam "Italy" lived in the village of Ab Duel in Darfur until 2004 when it was attacked by the Sudanese government's militias. He became one of 3 million Darfuris displaced to camps surrounded by militias who destroyed Adam's village and stole his family's cattle. The militias prevented the camp residents from going to the farm or finding work, so Adam decided to go to Libya to look for work.
Life in Libya wasn't easy. Adam switched between temporary jobs, worked in restaurants and for construction companies, was beaten and harassed, and lived on the brink of the Libyan civil war. After a year he decided to travel to Europe. In 2016 – the peak year for crossings to Italy with 181,000 arrivals – he boarded one of four dinghies, each with 140 migrants. He made it to Sicily and traveled to Rome to go to France. Shortly before the border in Ventimiglia, however, he was arrested and driven to the Sudanese embassy, where he was interrogated and deported to Sudan. Upon arrival, he was given the general greeting that Sudanese intelligence services customarily give to returnees, and he was brutally interrogated.
Adam's deportation was made possible by an agreement that Italy – like several other European countries – had signed with Sudan, which allowed Sudanese intelligence agents to come to Europe and interview asylum seekers to facilitate deportations. This deal was made with the very Sudanese regime that Adam fled to effectively ensure his rejection. Following Adam's deportation, a group of Sudanese nationals won an appeal against their deportation at the European Court of Human Rights under the same scheme. Amid these and other legal challenges Europe continues to rely on the externalization of its borders in order to evade legal control.
In 2016, the EU signed a € 6 billion (US $ 6.6 billion) deal for Turkey to keep Syrian refugees – including those returning from Greece – on their soil. Indeed, Turkey became a cage, much like the refugee camps further south. In the same year Niger – a major recipient of EU aid with one billion euros (approx. 1.18 billion US dollars) for 2017-2020 – passed a new law that allowed its armed forces to remove migrants from Agadez last major city in – apprehend the edge of the Sahara, another 700 miles from the Libyan border. According to EU officials, this is a model agreement.
The borders of Europe are moving south and with this enlargement the border guards are also changing. In 2009 the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reached an agreement with the then Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi that would enable Italian coast guards to quickly deport immigrants to Libya. There has been a regime change in Libya in recent years, but Italy's priorities have remained unchanged.
In March 2016, a weak government under the National Agreement (GNA) was established in Libya, but it had little control over parts of Tripoli. The fictitious sovereignty of the GNA did not prevent the Italian-led EU from training the Libyan coast guard. Many of these Coast Guard units were until recently militias involved in migrant smuggling. Adam had left Libya from a terkina (corner – a name used for the places where migrants gather before boarding boats) in Sabratha, thanks to a smuggler associated with Ahmad al-Dabbashi also known as Al-Ammo, "the uncle", had risen from being a wheelbarrow to the most famous migrant smuggler in Libya. He was about to diversify his business and also become a coast guard.
After his interrogation, Adam returned to Darfur, the same IDP camp where he grew up. It was still guarded by the same militias that were still killing its people. "We haven't seen you in a long time," they said. "Where have you been?" Adam decided to go again. He was fed up with being hunted and hunted.
When Adam returned to Libya in 2017, the situation had changed. Al-Ammo was no longer a famous smuggler in command of a militia, but the head of an anti-migrant force recognized by the GNA. His terkina – a former Italian tuna factory – was now an official internment camp for migrants. However, rumors of a € 5 million ($ 5.9 million) grant from the Italians proved blood in the water, and the sharks circled. Rival smugglers attacked and evicted Al-Ammo from Sabratha when 10,000 migrants fled again, this time from the so-called Sabratha War, to be arrested by Al-Ammo's rivals and locked up in deportation centers along the coast.
Regardless of which commanding officer is responsible, the militia forces have proven to be skilled prison guards. In 2018, at the behest of the EU, the so-called search and rescue zone of Libya was recognized, which enabled the coast guard to expand its area of operation outside the coast. The results were impressive. The number of arrivals in Italy fell from 181,000 in 2016 to just 23,000 in 2018.
The EU officially condemns the arbitrary detention of migrants in Libya, which has not yet signed the 1951 Convention. In reality, part of the 500 million euros the EU has donated to the GNA since 2016 has gone to the Coast Guard. It's the numbers that count. In 2018, a senior EU official told us: “Our aim is to reduce the number of migrants coming to Europe. Our guidelines are successful. We don't care about the consequences in Libya or Niger. "
The pandemic has proven the final nail in the coffin for what was once the cornerstone of the liberal international order. In Hungary, Orban's government has used the virus to intensify rhetoric against migrants and to justify closing national borders. In March, the Trump administration passed a blanket ban on asylum applications, which resulted in more than 20,000 people being deported who would otherwise have sought asylum. While that order was put down by a federal judge on June 30, the government issued a new order a week later, with the exception of asylum applications from countries with serious COVID-19 outbreaks under a number of other measures.
In Europe, populist politicians have used the pandemic to stir up fears of migrants. Sicily regional president Nello Musumeci tried to close all migrant centers on the island in late August – before he was blocked in court – and accused the immigrants of spreading the virus. Musumeci's rhetoric echoes that of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is trying to resume his stalled political career by calling for the suspension of all migrant boats landing in Italian waters. Port after port has turned away migrant boats in recent months, and frontline states such as Malta have announced blanket bans on NGO ships disembarking migrants on their banks.
This leaves people like Adam trapped. When he returned to Libya, he fell into the same cycle and was stuck in abusive jobs that refused to pay him. He decided to go to Niger. In Agadez, he was pushed to the humanitarian sanctuary a few miles from town. There he waits, does not want to return to the government militias waiting for him in Sudan and cannot go to Europe.
The emphasis on non-refoulement in the legal architecture of refugee law has created a situation in which – fortunately – some people cannot return to war, but also cannot lead new lives. Instead, they are locked up in camps and detention centers and left practically stateless.
In Libya and Niger, UNHCR is practically a proxy for the EU, its second largest donor. It's not entirely UNHCR's fault. Even before the pandemic, of the 50,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, UNHCR was only able to relocate 2,000 people a year, mostly to Europe, because governments were unwilling to accept refugees. In such a supply-demand mismatch, UNHCR has focused on maintaining refugee storage.
The 1951 Convention is no longer appropriate. In 1949, a group of intellectuals, including Albert Einstein – himself a refugee – and Bertrand Russell, wrote a public letter to the United States Secretary-General Trygve Lie suggesting a more cosmopolitan approach to refugees. "History has made them citizens of the world and they should be treated as such." Rather, the refugee problem was an opportunity "to allow the ideal of global citizenship to persist not only in theories and programs, but also in courageous experimentation and genuine respect for the human person."
The International Refugee Organization (IRO) – the forerunner of the UNHCR – was hostile to the proposal for a world passport for the displaced: refugees were a problem, there were no international rights, and repatriation or resettlement was the only way for refugees to find their place in a world of the nation states. The result, 70 years later, is a growing population of stateless people around the world – exactly the kind of situation the IRO and UNHCR were supposed to prevent.
The discussions about a Global Compact on refugees in 2018 could have opened up a real discussion on how to reform asylum practice in the 21st century. Instead, there have been little changes to the current legal framework, and even those changes have been rejected by the United States and Hungary. There is no room for asylum on a map of nation-states painted with an increasingly thick brush, and for those like Adam, the future may be a country he will never visit.
In December 2019, several hundred Darfuri refugees left the humanitarian site and organized a protest in front of the UNHCR office in Agadez. After three weeks, the Nigerian security forces pushed them back into the camp and arrested more than 300 of them, including Adam, who was in prison for two months.
In July 2020, the refugees resumed their protests, this time at the humanitarian site. One of her WhatsApp messages earlier this month read: “September 7th, the 50th consecutive day of our peaceful protest to claim our right to a decent life, and the UNHCR did not visit the camp. They left us in the desert. "