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In late 2023, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell forecasted that 2024 would be the year of fear. Borrell expressed his concern that Europeans’ fears would lead them to elect the far right en masse. In that respect, he is probably correct. 

Latest polls show authoritarian populists gaining votes across Europe. They also top the polls in nine member states (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia) and come second or third in a further nine countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden). In the US, Donald Trump is leading in the polls, while in India, Hindu nationalist incumbent Narendra Modi is poised to win by a landslide.

As millions of people across the world head to the polls in 2024, migration continues to be a pivotal issue as both mainstream and far-right parties stoke and capitalize on fears around migration from non-majority white and Christian countries. Where migration is not the focus of policy and political discourse, it lingers in the background.

Scapegoating migrants is the key strategy of the far right, but the failure of migration policy and discourse in Europe and North America cannot be placed on the far right’s back nor reduced to its impact on migrants’ lives—although that on its own is an unacceptable reality.

Over the past few years we have seen how migration discourse and policy is increasingly evolving in support of measures that jeopardize human rights and normalize anti-democratic practices, be it through the approval of asylum-offshoring, increased use of surveillance and artificial intelligence for border control, reduction of access to social services, targeting of NGOs, rejection and questioning of human rights frameworks, defiance of court rulings, dehumanizing human beings, or providing public financial support to autocrats and non-state armed actors. 

It is tragic that any semblance of a humanitarian migration and asylum policy has been abandoned, most evident with the latest agreement on the European Union’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which human rights groups have called “an ill-functioning, costly and cruel system.” But these developments also demonstrate how standards that are lowered to accommodate restrictive and inhumane policies around migration can normalize lowered standards in other areas as well, through a gradual process of normalization and desensitization. It is a slippery slope.

A Terrain to Explore Anti-Democratic Practices

Anyone concerned with democracy and social justice should make sure to take stock of how migration policy is evolving. Each measure, as the ones detailed below, is deplorable. Taken together—supported by legitimizing and dehumanizing discourse—they are making things easier for authoritarian populists, creating a ready environment for their policy proposals and serving as a blueprint for how to normalize them. The migration policies that governments of different ideologies are adopting are clearing the way for a public growing accustomed to such measures that right now most visibly target and dehumanize migrants, mainly from non-western nations, but could then be easily expanded to other arenas beyond migration policy without much backlash This is even more terrifying in the context of a surging far right, which has gone from winning merely hearts and minds to winning major policy battles (former US President Donald Trump seemed to up the ante by stating that migrants crossing the southern border are "poisoning the blood."). 

In December 2023, for example, the French government made the headlines over a long-debated controversialn bill that aimed to pass a hardline reform of migration policy and which was ultimately endorsed by the far right. A country that has always prided itself on its welfare state and generous public services has started to unravel access to its statutory health insurance system, which was previously known for providing universal coverage for all residents (not just nationals). Marine LePen, the far-right leader of Rassemblement National (RN), claimed the law as an ideological victory for her party.

The French Constitutional court, however, rejected many of the bill’s measures in late January, including those that make it “harder for immigrants to bring their families to France, and limiting their access to social welfare,” although the ruling also strengthens France’s ability to deport foreigners.

The French interior minister did not dispute the ruling, but the RN’s president was quick to criticize it as a coup by the judges—thus questioning the impartiality of the judiciary. While holding the judiciary to high standards and keeping it accountable is necessary to maintain the rule of law, instrumentally deploying attacks against it is also a step that enables the far right, if it comes to power, to intervene and monopolize the judiciary, as they have attempted and succeeded to do, to different levels of success, in Hungary and Poland

It also remains to be seen whether the French government will try to find a way to reinstate those struck-down measures despite the court's ruling, as the British government has repeatedly done with its Rwanda policy.

Indeed, the current British government has made questioning human rights standards perhaps its signature move. Over and over again, its plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda has been struck down in both international human rights and British courts on the basis that it does not comply with international human rights standards. The British government’s response has been to repudiate international human rights frameworks and to challenge the role of the judiciary and the rule of law, creating a legal fiction to be able to pass the treaty with Rwanda. 

Further south, the Italian government has approved a deal with Albania which contemplates the creation of two camps in the Balkan nation to house migrants that Italy will relocate, despite these families and individuals having no ties whatsoever to Albania. NGOs and international organizations are unlikely to have access to the facilities, impairing their ability to ensure safeguards are in place and human rights violations can be minimized and reported. 

The deal continues the British trend of offshore asylum (Denmark also passed a law in 2021 to allow for offshoring asylum-seekers), both raising serious concerns over arbitrary detention and living conditions in the detention centers, likely leading to violations of human rights law. Previous attempts to pay non-EU states to process their asylum claimants never overcame diplomatic and legal obstacles and in 2018 the European Commission went as far as to say that similar proposals were legally “neither possible nor desirable.” Clearly the tides are turning, and one can only wonder what can happen if the far right has significantly more power at the EU level after the EU Parliament elections. I fear that offshoring of migrants will then result in offshoring of prisoners or other vulnerable communities. After all, we already know that the prison industrial complex is a domain where a lot of questionable measures are already tested. Could offshoring start with migrants and then move beyond from there?

More recently, it was revealed that members of the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party as well as two members of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) attended a meeting with Neo-nazis and sympathetic businesspeople in which a master plan to deport migrants was discussed. In the meeting, the deportation of “unassimilated citizens” was also proposed (that is, non-white Germans). According to Corrective —the organization that conducted the investigation—“Their shared goal is the forced deportations of people from Germany based on a set of racist criteria, regardless of whether or not they have German citizenship. [...] [the] plan would divide German residents into those who would be able to live peacefully in Germany and those for whom this basic human right would no longer apply.” 

The German gathering — occurring at the same time as freedoms in the country are being curtailed for those who oppose Israel’s atrocities in Palestine—indicates that restrictions and authoritarian practices born to target migrants can easily be extended to others. 

Targeting Civil Society

Due to their efforts to provide humanitarian support to migrants, civil society groups are also finding themselves targets of illiberal policies in governments’ efforts to curb migration. Italy, for example, has done so by making it harder for NGOs to efficiently engage in search and rescue operations at sea, but also by criminalizing them, while Greece similarly has a history of targeting NGOs who report abuses against migrants.

It must be noted that it's not only governments targeting NGOs assisting migrants. In 2023, it was reported that the US-based Heritage Foundation “locked on to the locations of at least 30,000 cell phones at non-government (NGO) migrant aid shelters and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. The Washington D.C.-based conservative think-tank then continued tracking the movement of the devices across the country over the course of at least a month in January 2022.”

The global crackdown on NGOs is generalized, and even more acute in countries such as Russia and India that use blacklists or tax codes to persecute civil society organizations. But what we are seeing in western countries is a slow process by which disparate policies that clearly defy human rights or long held public standards (even if only held on paper and not in practice) are being passed on the basis that they will deter migration, with fear-based narratives to convince the public and justify them. 

This effort to deter migration (deterrence presented as the only available option), also justifies other drastic measures. According to Statewatch and EuroMed, border control in Europe has also entailed the development of an “extensive infrastructure of surveillance systems, databases, biometric identification techniques and information networks put in place over the last three decades to provide authorities with knowledge of—and thus control over—foreign nationals seeking to enter or staying in EU and Schengen territory.” 

The US southern border with Mexico also boasts cutting-edge mass surveillance, some of which is “driven by investment from big tech—specifically the billionaire PayPal co-founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, whose venture capital firm Founders Fund is a large investor in Anduril, one of the companies behind surveillance towers.” [This January 2024 ACLU report lays out the expansion of the American surveillance program that Congress is currently considering and this one from the Strauss Center provides an asylum processing update along the U.S.-Mexico border.]

Given the current status of public discourse on migration, one can imagine how the public could be convinced that this techno infrastructure—to which artificial intelligence continues to be added as it evolves—is justified to manage migration, perhaps preceding a greater degree of public tolerance for the resulting infringement of rights in other areas (tolerance or support needed in electoral democracies to win elections). Lest we forget, it has been already been well documented that spyware has been used to monitor, intimidate and discredit opponents, journalists and civil society, with systemic violations in Hungary and Poland, serious concerns over its use in Greece and Spain, and leaks that the U.S. government was tracking activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan in 2018. In those instances, the revelations generated outcry. But if the public becomes used to them, one can imagine they could eventually just generate apathy. 

Increasingly inhumane migration policy—and the accompanying narratives that justify those policies—can open the door to policies in other arenas that would have previously been decried as illiberal and anti-democratic. They normalize practices such as administrative detention and desensitize us to dehumanization. Once the far right comes to power, others have prepared the public and built the necessary legal or technological infrastructure. These migration policies can become the precursor of what’s to come for all, a harbinger of what can befall anyone deemed inconvenient, whether a citizen or not. 

In other news…

The Greek conservative government plans to submit a bill to parliament on Thursday that legalizes same-sex civil marriage. Yes to love!

European farmer protests continue across Europe.

For the Soul…

On the philosophy of Ubuntu, which “embodies a communal ethos that emphasizes shared responsibility, trust in each other, and interconnectedness among the community.” Accompanied by beautiful art.

Random, but here’s a virtual tour of Gloria Steinem’s home.

“joy is not made to be a crumb” - Mary Oliver

Connecting the Dots: Musings on Bridging and Belonging is a monthly column by Míriam Juan-Torres. In it, Míriam reflects on current events, connecting the trends and considering the specificities across countries, applying a bridging and belonging lens and translating concepts from academia for a wider audience. In Connecting the Dots, Míriam carefully curates readings and resources to further expand our understanding and shed light on the complexities of our time. Join our mailing list to stay up to date on the latest of the Democracy & Belonging Forum's curated analysis from Miriam and more.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the authors.

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