Last spring, millions of Ukrainian civilians fleeing the Russian invasion of their country settled across the European Union. They were welcomed with open arms, given places to live, jobs to work, and were generally the object of unconditional solidarity whether in Poland, Germany, or Spain.
Clara Bünger has been an MP for Die Linke since January 2022 and is its spokesperson on refugee and legal policy.
Bernd Kasparek is a cultural anthropologist at Humboldt University in Berlin. He co-founded the Network for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies (kritnet) and is a member of the managing board of the research association bordermonitoring.eu.
Yet Europe’s attitude towards other migrants and refugees has been less forgiving. Tens of thousands of migrants have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, and an increasingly xenophobic tone dominates European politics as right-wing populists win elections on anti-migration platforms. The days when Europeans welcomed refugees with open arms, it seems, are over.
In response to the rising numbers of migrants and the increasingly xenophobic discourse across the EU, member states have begun renegotiating the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), restricting the ways that people can apply for asylum and making it easier for states to deport them to so-called “safe third countries”. Perhaps most surprisingly, the German government, led by the Social Democrats and Greens, have been major protagonists of these reforms, despite campaigning on a humane migration policy only two years before.
Is the current CEAS reform a tipping point for how Europe treats newcomers and those in need of protection? Die Linke MP Clara Bünger and migration scholar Bernd Kasparek spoke with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Hannah Schurian about these and other questions.
European governments have agreed on a framework for reforming the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). It enables detentions and fast-track procedures at the external borders for a majority of arriving refugees. Is this a watershed moment?
BK: It is still unclear exactly what the implementation of this reform will look like. Nevertheless, I would answer yes, it is a major turning point, since it marks a departure from a system in which individuals had a legal right to access asylum procedures.
CB: People were already being deprived of their rights at the EU’s external borders. On top of being legally dubious, the EU-Turkey deal has created camps in Greek hotspots, where people are sometimes held for years in inhumane conditions. The introduction of a reform that will make it legal to systematically deprive people of their rights in camps like Moria is absolutely a turning point.
The CEAS reform was passed by the European Council and is set to be adopted by April 2024 in coordination with the EU Parliament. Its purpose is to shift asylum procedures to the external borders. A fast-track procedure would make it so that people who come from countries with low acceptance rates or who enter via “safe third countries” may be summarily turned away. A large portion of refugees will be affected by the extension of the third-country rules. Furthermore, an emergency decree will expand the scope of these rules, extend detention periods, and facilitate direct deportations. Would you characterize this as an authoritarian tipping point, that is, a change that threatens to permanently undermine our democracy?
CB: Yes, if this reform is implemented, it will be difficult or even impossible to regain these rights, especially under the current political circumstances. The reform will undermine the basis for legal battles that have been ongoing for years to protect migrants. If these disputes are already complex at the EU level today, and rulings often have no consequences, then the new reform will make it so there is no leverage to create a scandal around or take action against violations of the law in the first place.
Who are the driving forces behind the reform?
BK: The reform has been on the table since 2015. The EU border regime, which had arisen partly in opposition to the interests of individual member states, was unable to prevent what came to be called the long summer of migration. Since then, EU member states have increasingly been doing as they please, and the new pact gives them the liberty to continue doing so with respect to a number of issues. As a result, the various asylum systems end up being highly fragmented.
At the external borders, systematic violations of fundamental human rights as well as breaches of international and European law are taking place on a daily basis. This is a scandal. There should actually be a public outcry.
CB: The explicit aim of European governments is to avoid a repeat of the year 2015, and the CEAS reform is a step in this direction. Governments that uphold a strong anti-migration policy like those in the Visegrád group have shifted the discourse to the right. However, it is more powerful nations like Germany that are responsible for implementing these policies. The traffic light coalition, contrary to what its agreement stipulates, is committed to preventing so-called secondary migration at the EU level all costs.
In 2015, there certainly seemed to be a social majority that wanted to take in refugees. What has happened since then?
BK: The discourse has shifted massively. After 2015, there was a lack of public visibility around the movement to welcome refugees because most people’s capacity was put into concrete support work. This has allowed the Right to build their own narrative around the issue and in doing so, they managed to gain a substantial amount of discursive power.
Despite the fact that the number of refugees “normalized” after 2015, the alleged scandal of migration remains a perennial topic of debate across Europe. This has had a tremendous impact on the incumbent conservative parties, which are in decline everywhere and are now shifting further to the right.
But what’s at stake is a broader trend which is by no means only limited to conservatives: some traditionally social democratic parties have even shown themselves willing to toe the line set out by the right — just look at Denmark, or the statements made by Sigmar Gabriel.
How do you explain the fact that the SPD and especially the Greens have done an about face on asylum policy?
CB: I have literally heard Greens members arguing that the only way to counter fascism in Europe is to meet the right-wingers halfway and limit the number of asylum seekers. Everyone from Lang and Nouripour, who are calling for a “repatriation offensive,” to Annalena Baerbock, who is now aggressively defending the CEAS reform, have adopted this position.
Instead of depriving the Right of its political foundation, they make compromises which include right wing positions — ultimately engaging in right-wing politics themselves. The same line of argumentation was used to justify the so-called asylum compromise in Germany back in 1993. Even then, it was fundamentally wrong.
CB: Sealing off external borders goes hand in hand with domestic right-wing authoritarianism. It is never “just” about migration or the rights of those seeking protection: it is about laying the foundations of an authoritarian social order.
This cause is finding an increasingly broad appeal. It has managed to establish a network of new alliances, which includes people who are anti-immigrant to COVID deniers and right-wing putschists. There’s a bigger picture that cannot be ignored. That is why it is imperative that we remain intransigent on this front and resolutely defend the right to asylum.
How will this trend develop further? What is the Right’s larger goal?
BK: The main argument made by proponents of the CEAS is that it will reduce the number of refugees. But I’m sure that this will not be the case. Nor will secondary migration decrease. Since there is no solidarity-based model of re-distributing the refugees, the southern EU states have no incentive to implement the plans.
Therefore, the CEAS will not solve the alleged problem, and the right-wingers will be able to continue making a scandal of what they hate: they claim that the European Union is not viable and that migration must be stopped. As the rise of Thorsten Frei and Jens Spahn (both CDU) already indicates, it’s possible that an even more far-reaching authoritarian turn will then be in the cards — the complete abandonment of the fundamental right to asylum. A development like that would be almost impossible to reverse.
Even if there is no organized immigration movement per se, immigration itself gives rise to ideas about how the world should be organized. These ideas express themselves in the fact that people exercise the right to cross borders and seek a new home.
CB: Ending “irregular” migration is an empty promise. There will never be a time when there are no refugees. Immigration will not simply cease so long as there are underlying reasons for people to flee their homelands. Any time politicians base their policies on this unattainable goal, the rhetoric goes on and people continue to be stripped of their rights. The right knows this, and they could use this as the basis of their politics of fear for the next 20 years. But the SPD and the Greens don’t understand this, and keep pandering to them.
BK: It’s similar to the issue of so-called internal security, which is another staple of right-wing electioneering. It’s impossible to achieve absolute security. That means that one way to win political support is to constantly call for more police. The left-wing approach is to tackle the social roots of crime and promote decriminalization.
CB: This problem has even cropped up within Die Linke. Some segments of the party have taken part in this migration spiel, claiming some people have “forfeited the right to hospitality”, etc. Nonetheless, our policy with regard to crime has remained consistent, with everyone calling for prevention and decriminalization. The most important thing is to hold the line. To avoid succumbing to authoritarian trends, oppose the repression of anti-fascist, anti-racist, and climate movements, and empower left-wing counter-structures.
In recent years there have been many protests, from #unteilbar to #Seebrücke. Today these kinds of protests are largely absent. How do you explain the lack of resistance against the CEAS reform and the right-wing shift in the asylum debate?
CB: One problem is that many people placed their hopes in the current coalition government. They assumed such a reform would be impossible with the Greens in government. It becomes harder to organize resistance when a party that for years prided itself on representing progressive movements suddenly endorses this kind of attack.
BK: In the meantime, it has also become extremely difficult to even keep track of the political context. When the Basic Law was amended for the asylum compromise in 1993, thousands of people gathered in Bonn and tried to storm the no-protest zone. It was clear to everyone what was at stake.
The CEAS reform, on the other hand, is difficult to explain. What is a trialogue? What does the Council of Interior Ministers do? What is the role of the Parliament and the Commission? All of the procedures take place 2,000 kilometres away, which makes it difficult to mobilize against the CEAS reform at an early stage.
CB: All the more so because the German government itself is deliberately spreading disinformation. Nancy Faeser gave assurances that people from Syria would not be subject to border procedures — this is factually incorrect. Facts are distorted to make the CEAS reform appear to be a step to prevent human rights violations at the borders. In this respect, the discourse has lost touch with reality entirely.
Does this mean that the absence of protest is not simply due to callousness?
CB: We are seeing a tremendous amount of burnout, as well as stigmatization and criminalization of all those who have gotten involved. Aid organizations are vilified as traffickers, repression and disinformation are rampant. All of these things factor into the reasons why we don’t see tens of thousands of people taking to the streets.
Of course, many are still doing incredible things, such as documenting pushbacks or accompanying people in deportation proceedings. But this doesn’t add up to substantial social pressure, and that results in a prevalent sense of powerlessness. I think that for the time being, many people in the movement are reflecting on how they can come to terms with this fact and become effective again.
BK: At the external borders, systematic violations of fundamental human rights as well as breaches of international and European law are taking place on a daily basis. This is a scandal. There should actually be a public outcry. But for many, it seems more like a tragic event without consequences.
Meanwhile we are actively being asked to get used to it, as if human rights were just “nice to have”. But this is a fundamental crisis of European democracy, which will affect all European citizens sooner or later and also calls our basic rights into question.
CB: Yes, and that’s why it’s so problematic when self-professed leftists accuse migration activists of being moralistic. If we don’t pay attention to how right-wing alliances and attacks are consolidating on this front, we won’t be able to react. The issue is an increase of authoritarian formations in all social spheres — from smear campaigns against the poor to repression against climate activists or anti-fascists to attacks on sexual autonomy.
BK: I can only stress the point that for the Right, it’s not only about migration, they want an authoritarian restructuring of Europe. They want a Europe of individual nations, in the sense of a European confederation — that is a different European project from what currently exists. In recent years, the left-wing movements have lacked an alternative vision of Europe.
What should such an alternative look like?
BK: A Europe that starts from the bottom up, one in which communities have more say than nation states. A more democratic Europe which builds a European social union. This would make it possible to negotiate immigration and the reception of refugees in a completely different way. Today, we are stuck in the straitjacket of this EU with all the shortcomings of its democracy. It is a system that one would hardly want to defend it. Nevertheless, as the reception of people from Ukraine has shown, many of its structures are still effective. Public infrastructures and the commitment of civil society worked well together.
CB: But for that to succeed, we have to create the material conditions for resilient communities. Because they are in crisis everywhere. In the larger cities, there is a huge shortage of affordable housing. In the countryside, facilities are closing and people are moving away.
Refugee politics is also class politics.
BK: Absolutely. Housing is scarce, social infrastructures have been dismantled, we’re only able to provide regional mobility by the skin of our teeth. Of course, these issues will be exacerbated with the addition of more people. But none of the problems are to do with immigration — they’re the result of 30 years of neoliberalism.
That’s why we have to ask how conditions on the ground can be improved for everyone. For example, everyone would benefit from rent caps, the construction of new outdoor swimming pools, improvements in school facilities, and an increase in educational and counselling services.
Bernd, the concept of “autonomy of migration”, which emphasizes the agency of refugees, is central to your work. What remains of this in an almost totalitarian border regime?
BK: First of all, the concept simply points out that refugees are not simply passive people who immigrate in response to the conditions in their countries of origin, but that migration is an active process that is always also driven by a desire. Even if there is no organized immigration movement per se, immigration itself gives rise to ideas about how the world should be organized. These ideas express themselves in the fact that people exercise the right to cross borders and seek a new home.
But do they currently still have this option?
BK: Borders are never entirely sealed off, as evidenced by the current rise in the numbers of immigrants. Immigration will continue. States are acting on the issue, and of course, there will be more suffering, more incarceration as a result. But none of this will stop immigration.
That’s why we need to decriminalize it. It’s not about making detentions at the external borders more humane, but accepting that immigration is a fundamental part of society.
What would that mean?
BK: We cannot separate the issue from the massive transformations taking place in our societies — from digitalization to war and environmental crises. We have to find new ways of dealing with this as a migration society. We can’t do that at the national level alone.
Closing our borders off and letting people die as a result is a short-sighted and fatal way of dealing with crises. It ultimately denies the need to address global crises and seek solutions based on solidarity. We need them not only in immigration, but also with regard to climate change and of course with regard to the dramatic increase in social and economic inequality. For me, it means reinventing democracy from a global perspective.
CB: Social inequality is an important keyword. Refugee politics is also class politics. The people who are striking at the oil refineries in Iran are risking their lives. In the end, they may have to flee to the EU. They are workers, our comrades, who are seeking protection with us. We in Die Linke and also in the trade unions have to wake up to this. We have to develop a policy that addresses people as subjects, as part of this society.
This article first appeared in LuXemburg. Translated by Hunter Bolin and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.