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Gerald Knaus
Making the case for humane borders

Gerald Knaus initiated the 2016 refugee deal between the EU and Turkey, which is now said to have failed. The Austrian sociologist and migration researcher’s latest book is another attempt to make the case for a realistic and yet humane border regime

By Holger Moos

Knaus: Welche Grenzen brauchen wir? © Piper How can we secure our borders without turning Europe into a fortress? How can we stop illegal migration whilst respecting the right to asylum? Is there an “empathic” way to control and police national borders? In Welche Grenzen brauchen wir? (What Borders Do We Need?) Gerald Knaus argues that empathy and control need not be mutually exclusive in refugee and asylum policy.
 
Knaus deconstructs various tropes in the migration debate. Metaphors from the field of hydraulics, such as the oft-mooted “migration pressure” or comparing migration flows to “water in communicating vessels”, are rampant – but totally misleading. On the other hand, he exposes the widespread myth that there’s no stopping migration: after all, he points out, it is not a law of nature. It’s a dangerous cliché, he adds, because it gives rise to a feeling of helplessness. And when people feel helpless, they pin their hopes on what look like simple solutions.

Another misconception is that the Dublin Regulation discriminates against the southern European countries to which refugees wash ashore. “Dublin Was Never the Problem” is the title of a section of the book in which Knaus shows that the numbers of first-time asylum-seekers and, above all, of refugees granted international protection in recent years have actually been lower in southern than in northern European countries. Furthermore, demographics-based apocalyptic prognoses of huge waves of migration from Africa heading our way are very questionable, to say the least.

(No) Lessons LEARNED from history

Particularly telling are the historical parallels in the chapter on “Inhumane Borders”. There was just such a border between Nazi Germany and Switzerland. At the time, Switzerland categorically rejected tens of thousands of people seeking protection there and drove them back across the border to Germany. The Swiss showed how low even democracies will stoop to curb “migration pressure”, even if it means turning refugees away at the border with brutal force.

Another inhumane border was created more recently off the Australian coast. In 2011, the country tried to reach a deal with the Malaysian government to send “boat people” from Australia to Malaysia, where their refugee claims could be processed by the United Nations. In return, Australia would take in UN-certified refugees from Malaysia – an arrangement that anticipated the operating principle of the EU-Turkey pact. But the Labour government at the time needed the support of the Greens in the Australian parliament, who rejected the scheme because it didn’t include all asylum-seekers in Malaysia. The “Malaysian solution” failed, much to the delight of the Green Party and Human Rights Watch. In the aftermath, the number of irregular entries into Australia by boat rose sharply again, and hundreds of people died trying to make it there. Under mounting pressure from their constituents, the Labour government reopened the detention camps on the islands of Nauru and Manus (Papua New Guinea) they’d previously closed down due to cruel and inhumane conditions there. In Knaus’s view, what could have proved a pragmatic solution was politically blocked for ethical reasons, which actually led to a much worse situation.

get real about Deportation and smart migration diplomacy

In his chapter on the failed EU-Turkey refugee deal, Knaus makes no bones about the fact that he’s still proud of his brainchild. The deal didn’t fail because it was wrong, but simply because it was not implemented. The structures necessary to process refugees efficiently were not set up, which delayed asylum procedures. As a result, the refugees were left stranded in overcrowded refugee camps and miserable conditions on the Greek islands, which, in turn, amounted to a strategy of deterrence.
 
So what does Knaus propose? First off, he asks us to “get real” about deportation, which starts with acknowledging the fact that only a tiny number of rejected asylum-seekers are currently returned to their countries of origin, and only a fraction of these deportees get sent back to countries outside the EU. Knaus points out that African states refuse to accept any solution that would entail the return of migrants.

“Smart migration diplomacy”, he says, means giving countries of origin incentives to cooperate in the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers. In addition to migration partnerships, creating opportunities for legal migration and visa liberalization as well as private sponsorships would help reduce illegal migration.

“Fair means fast, too”

Knaus stresses the need for rapid refugee processing at the EU's external borders, albeit with safeguards to protect their human rights: “Fair means fast, too: it’s gruelling to have to wait forever to find out whether you’ve been granted asylum.”
 
So Knaus makes the case for a middle way, for pragmatic solutions beyond ideology. He writes very vivid prose and eschews overdramatizing and clichés, so it’s a pleasure to read. And he backs up his arguments with some eye-opening tables and statistics. Knaus's historical accounts show that states can ward off almost any number of migrants if they’re prepared to resort to brute force. So it’s up to our political leaders to prevent a social climate from arising in which inhumane closed-border policies can gain majority support.
 

Logo Rosinenpicker © Goethe-Institut / Illustration: Tobias Schrank Gerald Knaus: Welche Grenzen brauchen wir? Zwischen Empathie und Angst - Flucht, Migration und die Zukunft von Asyl
München: Piper, 2020. 336 S.
ISBN: 978-3-492-05988-6

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