The aftermath of a Syrian Air Force strike on the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus. Photo Credit: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Living in a void: life in Damascus after the exodus

Article in The Guardian
25 August, 2017

An excellent article about those who stay home and receive news of those who have gone abroad. Many thanks to Raoul

“I would like to say something along the lines of how the refugees are Syria’s loss and the world’s gain, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Abandoning one’s identity is like ripping a heart out of a body. I think of the families of friends who have migrated en masse. For example, I received a phone call from the father of a friend, a man over 70 years old, who spoke to me in tears. He just wanted to speak to someone who understood his language, who understood the secrets of the language, who would listen to a joke in his version of colloquial Syrian and who would have a hearty laugh with him. A hearty laugh – that’s a metaphor for the way people like to live, and refugees in general do not find many reasons to laugh, especially in their first years in exile. But not long after that conversation, the phones stopped ringing. Everyone had dropped into the black hole of exile.”

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Opening the Door to a New Solution

Article in Forced Migration Forum
27 July, 2017

A truly excellent novel, now long-listed for the Booker Prize, about how the world could adapt to global mobility, and how individuals strive creatively when given mobility opportunities.

“Today, there are over 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of those, over 21 million are refugees. 21 million individuals have been forced to move from their homes in search of safety elsewhere. In our world today, refugees move through borders and swim through oceans; in Mohsin Hamid’s world in Exit West, refugees move by stepping through doors. Hamid offers readers (and perhaps even refugees themselves) a new lens through which to view and understand refugees: agency. The thread of agency is apparent throughout the novel – from the choices the characters make about their clothes and lifestyle, to decisions about the kind of life they want to live. However, the more apparent fact is that agency is dependent on mobility;  refugees need mobility to exercise agency over their lives.”

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  Demonstrators stage a beach party outside the French Embassy, in Knightsbridge, London, in protest against burkini bans. Photo Credit: EPA

European Court of Human Rights upholds Belgium’s ban on burqas and full-face Islamic veils

Article in The Independent
17 July, 2017

Another wrong decision on the part of the European Court of Human Rights.

How can a ban on full face covering not be discriminatory when the full face covering is banned when Muslim, but allowed in many other circumstances not defined as Islamic? Indeed, a scarf over one’s face protects from the cold, as is the case for months on end in Canada. A full face helmet protects most motorcyclists. A mask protects from pollution or dust, as is often the case in New York or other cities. A face covering may be worn to protect the skin against the sun. And I remember mantillas worn in church by ladies when I was young and which are still often a fashion statement when attached to a small hat. Why should, without any other specific circumstance, protecting one’s face from the view of others be treated differently?

The idea that such a general distinction can be justified by vague notions such as principles of “living together” or the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others”, without specifics, seems totally insufficient. Distinctions made between individuals without justification are prohibited discriminations. A justification is often possible (showing one’s face for identity controls before taking a flight is a good example), but it needs to respond to specific criteria. Restrictions to freedom should be specific, individualised, necessary and limited to the minimum restriction possible.

For example, a young football player should not be permitted to wear a head scarf with a knot under the chin, as she could get accidentally strangled in a kerfuffle during a play. A “reasonable accommodation” can be found. A head gear bound in the nape of her neck, or a bandana, or a bathing cap will ensure, at the same time, the hair covering she wishes (and should be free to decide for herself) and her physical security during the game.

How can one tell a person that she needs to remove her face covering for the sole reason that she is Muslim? How can one tell one Muslim women that her clothing preference prevents the “living together” (of whom?), when motorcyclists and persons who do not want to breathe pollution are not requested to abide by the same standard? Why would a face covering prevent the “living together” more than a face full of metallic studs, or even a big beard? How can one seriously argue, without any other information, that a young Muslim woman’s face covering threatens the “rights and freedoms of others”, if a motorcyclist’s helmet doesn’t? How are those “rights and freedoms of others” specifically threatened: What rights? Whose rights? In what circumstances? Should not the same reasoning lead some cities to ban masks at Halloween altogether? What about carnivals? Venice’s would be sorry without the masks.

Freedom of religion, including the right to express one’s religion, should not be a second-class freedom, only acceptable when the majority doesn’t “feel” offended. We would not have same-sex marriage in Canada if Canadian courts had followed this kind of reasoning. Freedom of expression should not be limited based on the single fact that this is a religious expression.

The caveat in the judgement that Muslims should not be singled out seems a very feeble attempt to limit the considerable effect of the judgment. Muslims will have to go to court and spend time, energy and money trying to demonstrate that each specific instance of implementation against them of the ban on face covering is specifically aimed at them as Muslims, which will always be very difficult. In a properly hierarchised scale of values, it should be for the power that wants to restrict the freedom of any individual to justify specifically and individually the necessity and limited nature of the restriction they wish to impose: in this case, the authorities should be asked to demonstrate that the specific request to uncover one’s face is not implemented for the sole reason that the person is Muslim.

The “margin of appreciation” left to States in the case law of the ECtHR should not allow such blatant religious discrimination. Recognising the essential freedom to dress as one wishes, with only limited and specifically justified restrictions, should be essential.

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  South African soldiers apprehend irregular migrants from Zimbabwe. Photo Credit: Guy Oliver/IRIN

Securitising Africa’s borders is bad for migrants, democracy, and development

Article in IRIN
6 July, 2017

Seeing Europe export to Africa its worst border policies – based on repression, detention, expulsion and separation of families, considered as an appropriate deterrent for undocumented migration – and spending “development” funds for capacity building of African “integrated border management” systems is tragic. So much money, time and energy spent for naught, and such a toxic discourse being “adapted” to the African context!

Africa certainly has difficulties guaranteeing the rights of undocumented migrant workers, but it is not through repression that their situation will be made better. It is through regularisation processes which will empower them to claim their rights and through the availability of many more regular, safe, affordable and accessible mobility options, such as electronic travel authorisation mechanisms, visa liberalisation agreements (with dispense of short term visas) and visa facilitation for all kinds of visas (family reunification, student, retiree, internships, au pair, work permit, looking for work, etc.) which will allow most of them to circulate regularly and avoid finding themselves trapped in the vicious circle of migrant smuggling and underground labour markets.

Exporting one’s mobility problems to another continent by encouraging them to do what has utterly failed at home is not a solution. It will neither produce development in Africa, nor will it reduce unauthorised mobility to Europe. It will increase the precariousness of migrant workers everywhere, and push them further in the underground, in the hands of smugglers, unscrupulous recruiters and exploitative employers. And it will encourage authoritarian regimes to use anti-terrorism, anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking rhetoric to justify abhorrent human rights and labour rights violations.

One would expect much better from a continent that “invented” the human rights doctrine.

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The Pragmatism of the Court of Justice on the Detention of Irregular Migrants: Comment on Affum

Article by Giovanni Zacaroni in European Insight
18 March, 2017

Abstract: The recent Affum decision (judgment of 7 June 2016, case C-47/15) represents a new step forward in the case law of the Court of Justice on the detention of irregular migrants. The Court, departing from its previous case law in Achughbabian and El Dridi, adopts a rather pragmatic approach, preferring to stick to a procedural argument (to forbid detention in order to ensure a fast return procedure) rather than indulging in the assessment of the compliance of the detention with fundamental rights. This new approach seems to facilitate the cooperation between the EU level and national administrations. The Court seems, however, driven more by the need to secure the effectiveness of the return procedure rather than the rights of the individuals involved.

On migration issues, many courts try to “balance” the human rights of migrants with administrative efficiency, reducing the protection of foreigners against arbitrary detention, as compared to the standards applied to citizens. Is this a response to the strong stance of mainstream politicians using a populist migration agenda to stave off an outright nationalist populist victory? Are courts fearing for their own relevance in view of a strong democratic pushback against seemingly uncontrolled migration movements? In any case, it is not a good sign for the future.

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Giovanni Zaccaroni