Trumps, Pirates, Refugees and Terrorists

A View from the Mediterranean

By Sébastien Bachelet

Medina of Rabat,” by İhsan Deniz Kılıçoğlu. CC BY-SA 3.0.

A “Muslim-majority” country, Morocco – a place not (yet) on Trump’s travel ban, was allegedly the first country to recognize the United States of America in the late 1770s. Much has changed since George Washington wrote to Muhammed Ibn Abdullah in 1789 to thank the Sultan for his efforts in preventing pirates in the Mediterranean from attacking American vessels and to assure him that the young American nation, bereft of riches yet endowed with industrious people, would gradually become useful to its new friends. Today, citizens of those seven countries currently listed on Trump’s executive order are to be prevented from entering the U.S., even if they hold a valid visa, for fear they may be terrorists. The contemporary figure of terrorist, associated with bloodshed, violent spectacle, and pillage has replaced the pirate, albeit with none of the romanticism attached.

As it has now been widely reported in the press, zero Americans have been killed by terrorists from this list of countries. The decision is not grounded on “a factual basis,” contrary to what Rudy Giuliani alleged on Fox News. Yet, this recent set of hostile measures targeting migrants and refugees – especially if they are Muslims – and conflating them with terrorists is not surprising. It was a campaign promise after all. The crude hysteria targeting Muslims and the demagogic understandings of terrorism being conveyed by Trump illustrate Kundnani’s (2014) remarks about how both popular and official “understandings of terrorism are more a matter of ideological projection and fantasy than of objective assessment” (17). This is relevant on both sides of the Atlantic.

Observing developments in America from Europe, while keeping in mind what is currently happening across the Mediterranean, is despairing. Trump has received fulsome praise for the ban from European politicians, notably from far-right leaders such as Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has repeatedly called migrants (especially Muslims) “poison,” praised Trump’s domestic and foreign policy and wished for Europe to follow suit and “become great again.”

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea.” UNHCR / A. Rodriguez / 24 October 2007. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The ban on refugees especially is part of a disturbing trend that has seen the criminalization of asylum-seekers and migrants in the west in general, but particularly in Europe in the light of the so-called migration/refugee crisis. As migration across the Mediterranean is increasingly interpreted as a security problem, “bogus asylum-seekers,” “benefit-scroungers,” and “illegal migrants” have become interchangeable terms in hostile media – especially the tabloid press – as well as scaremongering discourses by politicians.

Smuggling and trafficking – two very different sets of activities – are systematically confused in the media and politicians’ discourses. Last year, a survey by Pew Research Centre claimed that the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism were very much related to one another in the minds of many Europeans. This is not surprising given the moral panic surrounding the coverage of migrants and refugees in summer 2015 crossing into Greece and walking through the Balkans as fences were erected and border-controls reinstated. Media stories about terrorist attacks in Europe have often focused on real or alleged refugee claims made by the perpetrators. Trump has been quick to blame Merkel’s open door policy to refugees as a “catastrophic mistake.” One such catastrophic mistake occurred when a Pakistani asylum-seeker was wrongly accused of being responsible for the Christmas market attack in Berlin and had to flee for his life, even after the real suspect was found. The fearmongering about ISIS militants hiding among flows of asylum-seekers continue to fuel anti-immigrant sentiments.

As in America, a vast array of complex and entangled socio-economic and political issues in Europe are conveniently re-packaged as a “migration problem” which political correctness and lenient politicians have allegedly prevented being tackled with the required vigour. Faceless migrants and refugees are depicted as a polluting tidal wave that will not only flood welfare provisions, destroy jobs and corrupt common cultural values, but also threaten the physical safety of citizens. This violation of the integrity of borders must be stopped and, according to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, “everyone thinks” there should be proper border controls and vetting.

Border Spain-Morocco,” by Melilla. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Although, thankfully, not everyone seems to agree with Trump and his European eulogists, opposition has been lukewarm at best in Europe. E.U. commissioner Federica Mogheri’s assertion that “the EU does not believe in walls and bans” but prefers “cooperation and partnership” was very misleading – a sugar-coated example of how “alternative facts” proliferate in Europe, too. Mogheri was speaking ahead of the informal meeting hosted on 3rd February by Malta. European leaders agreed on a series of immediate measures to better manage, i.e., reduce, migration from North Africa. Under the familiar but problematic humanitarian impetus to save lives, Libya was offered 200 million Euro to partake in Europe’s fight against “illegal flows.” After Turkey, it is now Libya, a failed state, is to become a close partner of Europe – another example of fruitful “cooperation and partnership.” This is only the latest effort in a series spanning decades of hostile European migration politics across the Mediterranean where “cooperation” has also funded the building of razor-topped fences, such as the ones around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and failed to prevent the escalation of deaths at sea – over 5000 for 2016 alone.

As explored in the works of anthropologists Ticktin (2005) and Fassin (2005), compassion and repression are intimately entangled in the politics of migration. The “management” of irregular migration to Europe oscillates between concerns with rescuing the suffering bare humanity travelling on unseaworthy dinghies, and stamping out the illegals who have attempted to enter Europe by the back door instead of waiting in “safe countries” such as Turkey. In the dominant narratives of salvation and detention, there is no space to engage with how the Mediterranean, like the U.S.-Mexican border, “es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the third world grates against the first and bleeds” (Anzaldúa 1987). The colonial history and the contemporary economic and political links between Europe (or the U.S.) and the places where refugees come from are erased. There is also no space to account for migrants’ own understandings of their journeys. My sub-Saharan informants trying to cross from Morocco into Spain talked about how they were on a dangerous quest to “look for their lives” as they fled a range of economic and political difficulties to find better opportunities. One Cameroonian man who mistook me for an E.U. official railed that the fence I had erected between Morocco and Spain would not stop them, that they would ”eat it.” Bans and walls do not address refugees’ legitimate claims for a better life, nor do they address the equally legitimate concerns by American and European citizens who feel left out by globalization. They participate in the scapegoating of refugees and migrants and contribute to making journeys more dangerous for border crossers – who are blamed for Europe’s ills even before arriving – and more lucrative for those who benefit from this “illegality industry”(Andersson 2014).

Demonstration against racism, National Front party and Rassemblement Bleu Marine, further to elections to the 2014 European Parliament, 29th May 2014 in Beaumarchais boulevard, Paris. By Jiel Beaumadier. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Although opposition to Trump’s ban from European leaders has been tepid, civil society has quickly mobilised to denounce the racism and xenophobia of the executive order. On 4th February, a second march in London gathered over 30,000 people to show opposition and denounce rising anti-immigrant sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic. Regardless of the outcome of the legal challenges against Trump’s order, one hopes that such momentum can be sustained to confront rising xenophobia and islamophobia in Europe too. European leaders such as Theresa May must be held to account for not condemning such breaches of human rights, and the subsequent contempt against the judiciary displayed by the Trump administration. Importantly too, they must be held accountable for the equally worrying measures against migrants and asylum seekers routinely taken in Europe too.

This is an arduous task in the face of the many populist politicians hoping to repeat Trump’s success in upcoming elections in Europe, making use of the same incendiary discourse about migration. The Dutch anti-Islam Geertz Wilders, whose party is predicted to gain the highest number of seats in recent polls on the upcoming election in March, has applauded the ban and tweeted that “no more immigration from any Islamic country is exactly what we need. Also in the Netherlands.” In France, advisors to Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National party who is expected to make it to the second round of the presidential election, have already made clear they could replicate Trump’s ban if Le Pen was elected. Worrying anti-migration announcements do not come solely from candidates to upcoming elections in Europe. Hungarian government’s chief spokesman Zoltán Kovács called for the systematic detention of all asylum-seekers while their claims are processed as he rejoiced over the “change of mood in Europe” following Trump’s election. Yet, this change of mood cannot solely be attributed to developments in American politics. After the Brexit referendum in 2016, a report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance condemned rising xenophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence on British streets as well as rising hate speech by U.K. politicians and the media. The travel ban targeting migrants is part of an increasingly hostile context on both sides of the Atlantic, and requires a concerted effort among anthropologists as well as engagement beyond academia.

sebastienSébastien Bachelet is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh, currently working on a project entitled “’Arts for Advocacy’: Creative Engagement with Forced Displacement in Morocco”. This interdisciplinary project examines the links between artistic practice(s) and advocacy over migratory issues in Morocco. Sébastien completed his Social Anthropology PhD in 2016 at the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral thesis is entitled “Irregular Sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco: An Ethnography of (Im)Mobility, Illegality and ‘Adventure’ in a Marginal Neighbourhood of Rabat.”

Works Cited

Andersson, R. 2014. Illegality, Inc. Oakland: University of California Press.

Anzaldúa, G. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Fassin, D. 2005. “Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France.” Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 362–387.

Kundnani, A. 2014. The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror. London: Verso.

Ticktin, M. 2005. “Policing and Humanitarianism in France: Immigration and the Turn to Law as State of Exception.” Interventions 7(3): 346–348.

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