Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Emergency Thinking

by Alison Phipps


Photo: Alison Phipps

Photo: Alison Phipps


The EU Interior Ministers Summit took place in Brussels on Monday with Denmark and UK predictably refusing to take on refugees arriving in other Member States. Outside the massive glass and steel edifice that is the Commisssion the world’s press waited for news of quotas and what would be done to stop the drownings in the Mediterranean.

A little further along the same road as the press camp a demonstration was taking place. Blue tarpaulin lined the centre of the road, surrounded by razor wire. We were invited to lie down, around a rickety boat, full of besuited ministers drinking champagne and talking animatedly. The cameras had something to watch at last. As the Brussels offices emptied of their staff many made their way to the protest site. The mood was sombre, defiant, not unlike that of the vigil in George Square in Glasgow on Saturday. People were resigned to the uselessness of the measures and quotas being discussed. 40,000. 160,000. Like chasing the wind.

An announcement was made by the organisers that the demonstration would be joined by the ‘sans-papiers’ – the undocumented refugees seeking asylum who were living destitute in a camp in parc Maximillian. Round the corner they came, singing at the tops of their voices and the assembled crowd cheered them, and their courage.


Photo: Alison Phipps

Photo: Alison Phipps


Earlier in the day I’d been attending and EU Economic and Social Committee permanent study group meeting on immigration and integration, as part of the European Migration Forum. The mood was similar to that of the demonstration. Some committee members were exasperated, others spoke passionately, and some could not finish their speeches for tears. I’ve come to recognise this as part of the feeling of these times. Tears once shed in private, if at all, are on the street and in public.

The following day I attended a Conference organised by the Public Policy Exchange on ‘Rethinking the European Asylum System.’ The UN and UNHCR were making statements through the day of disappointment in Europe. Hungary, Austria and Germany were bringing in border controls. Our work began with a focus on the instruments the Council of Europe and the Member States already have at their disposal, as part of their agreements. Article 1 was cited. I’d read it earlier in the day kindly supplied by the indefatigable barrister, Colin Yeo:

“The Purpose of the Directive is to establish minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons from third countries who are unable to return to their country of origin and to promote a balance of effort between member states in receiving and bearing the consequences of receiving such persons.”

The reluctance of the Members States to adopt the directives to which they have signed up for precisely such a historical moment as this is in line with what Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry calls ‘emergency thinking’. She describes the way in which, since 9/11 Governments have set aside the democratically agreed directives designed precisely for use in times of crisis. Instead they have invented rafts of ill-thought through, politically-motivated and oft-times dangerous ‘emergency measures’ which have not been subject to the same democratic scrutiny as existing directives and articles. The war on Iraq would be one such example.

We have laws, and the rule of law, most especially for times such as these, to help us when emotions run high, when many lives are in danger. The peaceful, creative demonstrators in Brussels on Monday evening know this well. They know how to move into a politics of the street and of witness to the articles of Human Rights, to remind their politicians of their duties in the matter of human protection.

As part of her contribution to our work Lilija Gretarsdottir, Head of Migration and the IDP Unit, Council of Europe, cited the way chaos has become the main reality for asylum in Europe with a societal drama of desperation and fear of the other. She pointed to the Binding Obligations on States, presently breached in several Members States. She then spoke of the collective, compassionate response witnessed on the ground amongst ordinary citizens and a situation ‘where people are leading, leaders are following’.


Photo: Alison Phipps

Photo: Alison Phipps


Europe has all the laws and directives and articles it needs for the situation it faces at present. It has been warned by its own committees, including by civil society groups and academics, of what has been happening and what needs to be done, for many years. States have legal obligations to protect human life. Life first, then borders. The ‘emergency thinking’ follows a line towards ever greater security of borders, not of human life. Why is this? The border security industry benefits greatly from the mongering of fear. Vastly greater sums are spent on security than human protection and the two sectors tend to have very little to do with one another, paradoxically.

The present situation in Europe is a political failure. A failure to follow what has already been laid down. In Scotland, at least, the Minister for Europe is are calling for Scotland to be known as a Compassionate Country, and to fulfil its obligations as part of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Meanwhile, on the streets, those who have nothing more to lose, who have survived the perilous journeys, are leading the singing, affirming their right to protection, to life.


Alison Phipps a the Co-Convener of Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network.


This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.



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This entry was posted on September 22, 2015 by in Personal reflections series and tagged , , .