The first steps of someone who has just arrived in the city reflect their anxieties, their expectations, their history. When they first set foot there, they look around anxiously for signs they have arrived in a welcoming city. But they have already taken the first step: they are here. Unfortunately, this is something that is becoming close to impossible for migrants.
To enjoy a habitable city, they first need to get there, and these days there are people who are stuck at the gates, on the threshold. Because to apply for asylum you need to get into the host country. First, you have to cross borders. Either legally or illegally, making your own way or accepting the extortions of mafias, opening a hole in a fence or setting sail in a rickety boat, hiding from police patrols or crossing the desert. If they arrive safe and well, this is because they used safe, legal routes. Unfortunately, these are the minority.
Migration policies are not a one-way street. The focus on security and militarisation, in the form of border patrols and detention centres, is the option on the European table. But it is not at all the only one. Nor is it the most desirable. Instead of tanks, there are safe, legal ways. Some of these are already included in European legislation: resettlement programmes and the asylum seeker relocation scheme, humanitarian visas, establishing humanitarian corridors and promoting academic visa plans. All that is lacking is the political will to apply them.
They are not even pioneering. In 1921, Fridtjof Nansen, High Commissioner of the League of Nations, organised a campaign to help First World War refugees. He created an ID card, a passport, that would continue to be used for other actions afterwards: the Nansen passport. A total of 52 nations recognised this document as valid. Today, it would be called a humanitarian visa. Almost a century ago, it enabled thousands of people to travel. And, as a result, it saved their lives.
There are much more recent experiences: Sweden's swift response to the refugee crisis, taking people in while the rest of Europe argued over ridiculous quotas that were never reached; or the humanitarian corridors set up in Italy and France by the community of Sant’Egidio since 2016. Without a doubt, these initiatives are now being rolled back.
If people could apply for visas at embassies and consulates in their country of origin or a transit country they would be spared a great deal of suffering and danger. If asylum application procedures could be faster, instead of vulnerable people having to wait 18 months, two or even three years in danger, with support petering out in the early stages of the procedure, they could start a new life safely.
We recognise borders as lawless spaces where rights are violated, but the city is also often a hostile environment for newcomers. Nowhere is the lack of basic rights more evident than in the CIEs (foreign national internment centres), that remain open and in force. Not being able to vote, not having access to health care, and the limited support available to asylum seekers and refugees also constitute an infringement of human rights. Also, remaining in an irregular situation because the papers don’t arrive. A lawless space means citizens are stripped of their rights.
A habitable city is one in a country that is habitable for everyone, that doesn’t divide society into first and second class, or even non-citizens. A territory where the laws apply to everyone, particularly the most vulnerable.
As CIDOB researcher, Blanca Garcés, says: “The most effective borders are made of paper, in the form of a visa”. This is why Stop Mare Mortum is working to promote the establishment of safe legal routes, so that this paper can overrule the border, the fence, the wall, the sea which has already become a mass grave of intolerable proportions.
These days, the rules of the migration policy game are constantly changing. When it is not convenient, current legislation is not enforced. If it is convenient, however, new improvised rules are put into practice that favour economic and financial interests over people.
Governments are now going against the wishes of the majority of citizens, who want to welcome people in. They push the borders outwards, with tanks and razor wire, but also with policies and agreements that barter with human rights. They do it to stop people being able to get here. They also push them inwards, adding to the pressure on those who make it here and who face institutional racism, administrative and legal obstacles, exclusion.
The bogus argument of some of these governments is that they are unable to take in everyone. Their public statements claim they are overwhelmed by a 0.2% to 0.4% increase in population; one or two million refugees in a European Union of 500 million inhabitants. The figures themselves show how false these claims are. And they are stripped of all credibility when we add that 86% of the world's forcibly displaced people go to poor countries. We have not taken in vast numbers of people seeking refuge. However, current policies have driven thousands of people underground simply for seeking a better life.
One of the priority objectives of our migration policies should be to prevent more deaths in the Mediterranean, rather than increasing spending on border protection. Because ironically, in the name of security, migratory routes are becoming increasingly dangerous and deadly for the people who use them.
While goods and capital circulate freely, the mobility of people is restricted to the point that not even refugees and asylum seekers can travel unhindered. Migration is not a crime, it is a right. A right that has become restricted to just one part of the population, excluding those who most often find themselves in more vulnerable situations.
Migratory movements will not disappear. They are as old as human society and will continue to exist in the future. Neither the highest walls nor the most sophisticated razor wire will stop them. New policies focused on human rights, cooperation and giving sanctuary, rather than security and militarisation, could make this process harmonious, instead of the human tragedy we are now seeing.
It is no exaggeration to say that the right to asylum in Europe is currently under threat. If we let it go, through passivity and indifference, the other rights that we have fought for over the decades and that make our territory a longed-for paradise will be in danger. The democratic and guarantee-based society that gives us the peace of mind and comfort that we have experienced up to now. Because opportunity for some people is also progress for others.
Within a complex global context of stubborn refusal, cities can be an alternative place of refuge, offering full rights. A space where there is no impunity for human rights violations, where there is still a clear right of entry and an effort to provide sanctuary. This is the only way to ensure that those who come here to live can enjoy their right to a decent life, and cease to be invisible, a number on paper, or an abstract statistic, and instead become a neighbour, another member of the community.
Stop Mare Mortum (Barcelona, Spain, 2015). Citizen's platform to raise awareness and mobilise civil society, contributing to state and European policies on immigration and migration to ensure that human rights are observed in these situations and to avoid deaths in the sea due to a lack of legal and safe channels.