After surviving the perilous journey to Europe, migrants are met with two seemingly opposite responses. Increasingly, European governments are criminalising migration, militarising borders and expanding detention centres. Meanwhile, non-government organisations (NGOs) are reaching out to migrants offering food, clothes and temporary accommodation.
These very different approaches can, in fact, have similar effects. Talking of a “refugee crisis” and a “state of emergency” – whether it’s to drum up support for government policies, or encourage wealthy Europeans to donate to the cause – ultimately creates a climate of urgency, where migration is portrayed as a problem that needs to be solved using emergency measures.
These days, the borders of European countries aren’t simply marked by walls, fences and camps. Rather, a growing variety of actors and institutions are becoming informal border guards: from landlords and doctors, to employers and even teachers working in schools and universities.
This creates a hostile environment, where the migration status of every person is constantly monitored and reported to the authorities. In this way, border controls and surveillance become invisible yet all pervasive, embedded in everyday social life. As a result, those labelled as “illegal migrants” feel pressured to stay silent and invisible, living in constant fear of arrest, detention and deportation.
Spectacle of suffering
While many European governments are treating migration as a security threat, NGOs and charities have responded by framing it as a humanitarian emergency. In charity appeals, migrants are often portrayed as victims, who need to be saved and protected. This paternalistic approach is supported by a “spectacle of suffering”, which turns migrants into objects of compassion and piety.