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Refugees and Migrants? meet National Identity…

Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford poses the deeper philosophical quandary facing Europe (and the rest of the world) today

Once upon a time states and borders as we know them today did not exist. Instead sundry kings, queens, emperors, popes, dukes, tsars and warlords held sway over those territories where they could count on (or impose) enough local loyalty to stay in business. Within the territories they controlled they passed laws and issued edicts and proclamations, and thereby exerted power. But their writ ran only so far until it petered out.

Then along came the treaties signed in 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster, usually known as the Peace of Westphalia. A brand new idea emerged. Sovereignty (and sovereigns) started to be linked explicitly to defined territory. The states we have today began to form.

With these ‘states’ came, slowly but surely, defined borders. And once borders were established by both law and fact, new legal questions arose. Who exactly is a citizen of state X? And what rights (if any) does a person who is not a citizen of state X have (a) to enter state X and (b) to stay there?

The answer? It depends on the rules state X adopts. All states have fences around them. In some places there might be physical fences both demarcating the state’s border and keeping out intruders. But even if there are no physical fences there are always virtual legal fences with real-life consequences: when you cross an international border you move from one defined legal jurisdiction into another.

The point is this: no-one has an untrammelled right to go to any country and live and work there. You need to ask nicely to be let in, and politely accept any conditions that may be imposed on you. Something like 1.5 billion international air passengers every year fly between states, and wait for dour local officials to confirm that indeed they have the right to enter the country as signified by the documents and proof of identity they produce. If you do not have documents they like, off you go, back where you came from.

An example. I have visited Tanzania only once, for about an hour. Back in 1989 or thereabouts as a UK diplomat based in Pretoria I stupidly arrived at the airport in Dar es Salaam to meet local officials to discuss the South African situation. My passport was all in order, but it featured a South Africa visa stamp. This showed that I had been in the hated apartheid state, so I was immediately sent packing back to Zambia on the plane I had arrived on. Boom. Gone.

It is no exaggeration to say that the ability to implement such practical controls over its own territory is what makes a state a state. For individuals as for countries, good fences make good neighbours by defining the very identity of neighbours, and their respective claims to live peacefully on specific plots of land.

But what if large numbers of people manage to cross international borders outside any orderly legal framework? What rights do they have? And what of the rights of the people in the countries where they arrive?

According to the Office of The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2014 on average some 40,000 people a day were driven from their homes by conflict or persecution and compelled to find somewhere else to live, either within their own countries or in another country. Many of them cross international borders as refugees or asylum-seekers. Millions more people are on the move trying to escape poverty: they want to cross international borders as normal ‘migrants’, people wanting the opportunity to live and work somewhere else.

Why is all this happening? Pick your causal factor. In my view one of the main drivers of global disorder is the growing availability of small but powerful weapons. This calls into question the ability of any state to maintain control. Imagine what chaos would be caused if just a few small groups of terrorists armed with AK47s and grenades started attacking targets at random in different British towns and cities simultaneously. The scale of the firepower needed to suppress them would be huge, and the damage and disruption to life and property in the process almost beyond calculation. Within no time at all thousands of people would be racing to escape the battlefield.

You don’t have to spend long on YouTube to find astonishing quantities of horrible footage of different well-armed militia groups around the planet shooting up neighbourhoods and destroying local law and order. This in turn creates panic and forces people to flee their homes in colossal numbers. Syria and Libya are currently the grimmest examples of states slumping towards complete collapse, but there are plenty of others.

When so many people turn up at once at international borders, many with no documentation, how to work out where they’re from and what category of rule might apply? Asylum seekers, refugees and ‘migrants’ all get jumbled up.

Supposedly progressive forces in Western countries see this chaotic state of affairs as unproblematic. They present all ‘migrants’ (legal or illegal) as well as refugees and asylum seekers as people who all deserve to live wherever and however they choose, free from pettifogging legal niceties. Even the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’ is scorned as somehow demeaning, if not actually racist. Hurrah for post-modernity! No one is a foreigner any more.

This way of looking at these issues is fundamentally unfair to those who do respect the rules, and so creates inevitable political tension. If there are ‘healthy’ levels of migration, there must be ‘unhealthy’ levels too. This means that any state needs rules that define both categories, and ways to enforce those rules without fail.

However, how in practice to respond to the recent horrible scenes in different parts of Europe as tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and many other places start crossing international borders outside any established procedures?

Hungary has found itself confronting significant numbers of non-EU Europeans from Kosovo who want to cross unlawfully into the EU and establish themselves there, using Hungary as the gateway to a better life. The Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban has not endeared itself to other EU capitals in asserting so strongly that Hungary has the right to protect its national identity. As Mr Orban himself says:

“The question is not what sort of a Europe we Hungarians would like to live in, but whether what we call Europe today will continue to exist. We would like Europe to continue to belong to Europeans.”

Shock! How dare he say that? But doesn’t any state in some key sense ‘belong’ to the people who are citizens of that state, and only them? Isn’t that, after all, what in fact makes a state a state?

This is an immediate existential issue for countries with relatively small populations. Take, say, Montenegro. It has some 600,000 citizens. If tens of thousands of ‘migrants’ from North Africa arrive there and demand to stay and manage to stay, it won’t be long before the unique character of that country starts to change irrevocably in ways that Montenegrin citizens won’t control for long.

This explains why it is almost impossible for someone not closely related to an Emirati citizen ever to acquire UAE citizenship. Millions of foreigners may live and work on UAE territory, but they are there on sufferance only. The Emirates are determined not to lose their control and identity by letting non-Emiratis have any chance of having a role in setting local rules. The UAE belongs to them!

Aren’t all states entitled (and wise) to follow the example of the UAE and to take whatever measures they deem necessary to defend their language and culture against what they see as unwelcome outside influences, including mass immigration of people with utterly different cultural traditions? Or is ‘national identity’ something out-dated and unpleasantly reactionary in Europe, but vibrant and legitimate everywhere else?

It’s obvious what happens when a state starts to crumble. People try to escape. But how then to stop it crumbling? Is there any form of ‘intervention’ that grips the situation and restores stability that does not involve pouring in more weapons or taking sides militarily, or even invading the territory to conquer it? Does not that sort of thing start to look like hated colonialism?

Gripping questions. They do nothing to help us back in real life, as thousands of poor people arrive at a European border and start to try to force their way across it.

The immediate ghastliness of this situation lies, of course, in the human suffering and confusion on display. But the deeper philosophical quandary is no less dramatic. What if our proud and even honourable rules emerging from the existence of national states start to collapse under sheer weight of numbers?


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