A concise, impactful and essential book. In May 2019, Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler took a trip to Lesbos in Greece. There he met refugees, political leaders and humanitarian aid operators, as well as Greek and European officials who, on a daily basis, implement what is known in administrative terms as "migratory flow management" and "external border control" but which we know better to be an all-out war on migrants.
Lesbos is an island of captivating beauty. Close to the Turkish coastline, it has become a "hotspot" location, a reception point for migrants. The camps there are supposed to "assist" with the efforts made by the migration authorities and, in particular, to facilitate examination of asylum applications. However, this description is a far cry from the reality of the situation.
"When I worked as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, I witnessed first-hand life in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, and in the slums at Smokey Mountain in Manila, and experienced the stench of the shanty towns of Dhaka, Bangladesh," the author comments. "But never in my life had I ever encountered any dwellings quite so squalid or families quite so desperate as in Moria’s olive groves."
The true function of the hotspots is to create conditions that are so inhumane and degrading as to serve as a deterrent to those people fleeing wars and violence from seeking refuge in the European Union (EU). A dual reality exists on Lesbos and the four other "hotspot" Aegean islands. There are the 40 000 people crammed into the poverty and filthy living conditions of the camps, with no access to the most basic care; and then there are the multiple perpetrators of state violence, from Turkey and Greece’s military and police forces to their EU sidekicks, predominantly Frontex. And this violence is certainly not without effect: while 172 000 refugees made it onto the shores of the Aegean islands in 2016, the number dropped below 30 000 in 2017 and declined yet further in the following year.
Refugees, 35% of whom are children, can spend years waiting among the rats and refuse. Suicide is commonplace. Food rations are inadequate, and the lack of shower and toilet facilities creates appalling hygiene conditions.
One important feature of the book is the spotlight it shines on the "security economy", which is financed for the most part by the European budget. While much spending in other areas is stagnant or curtailed, the budget projections for this "war" on migrants are still excellent. According to the EU’s budget forecasts, allocations for "border security" and "migration" will be tripled between 2019 and 2027, reaching a total of 34.9 billion euros. The Frontex budget will be allocated an additional 12 billion euros over the next seven years.
The security and defence sectors benefit from this financial boost. They have an important lobbying contingent in Brussels, including the European Organisation for Security (EOS). Among the lobbyists, the author points to the role played by Dirk Niebel, former General Secretary of the FDP (Germany’s Free Democratic Party) and former Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development in Angela Merkel’s coalition government between 2009 and 2013. He subsequently moved into the private sector, working for defence contractor Rheinmetall.
To Jean Ziegler’s mind, the war on migrants is more lucrative than any of the wars currently raging in Syria or Yemen. Highly sophisticated equipment has been designed to monitor, terrorise and kill unarmed individuals. Scanners used by Frontex to check whether people are hidden in lorries each cost in the region of 1.5 million euros. Bankrolled by the EU, the Turkish government has installed devices along the border with Syria which automatically activate machine-gun fire if they detect the presence of refugees. Anyone entering the controlled zone first hears warnings in three languages with an instruction to turn back. After that comes the automatic gunfire. One particular example of the inventiveness of companies in the non-lethal weapons business is presented in the form of the Spanish undertaking ESF: "The principal manufacturer of NATO barbed wire. Its engineers have racked their warped brains to come up with an unbreakable iron wire with metal, razor-sharp barbs. Refugees attempting to lift up this barbed wire in order to slide beneath it will have their hands lacerated, and occasionally even have their tendons severed."
There are hundreds of books which examine the relationship between political systems and the human body. The merit of this book lies in its direct language, stripped entirely of its theoretical casing. It pursues a single objective: to convert outrage into a collective force. Ziegler concludes with an appeal to his readers: "We have to get every single hotspot shut down immediately and definitively, wherever they are. They are the shame of Europe."
Lesbos, la honte de l’Europe [Lesbos, Europe’s Shame] by Jean Ziegler, Éditions du Seuil, 2020, 144 pages