I have accompanied Tash to most of her interviews and all the noteworthy events of the last two weeks, but mostly I have sat back in respectful silence – her knowledge of immigration issues vastly outweighs my own. These meetings require a great deal of sensitivity. Knowing little about the laws and systems that control migrants' lives puts me at a disadvantage. It's easy to say the wrong thing, easy to gawp with horror or pity as someone reels off what's happened to them.
However, as soon as we leave, lively debates ensue. I can't offer much in the way of facts so we usually end up wrestling with the principles and values of EU policy, migrant and activist resistance and our own personal conduct. A recurring theme is about whether appealing to rights is a useful tactic for people trying to improve their lives, for migrants, for the 300 hunger strikers who went 44 days without food.
Tash has a deep suspicion of this tactic, perhaps due to years of working through conventional channels. So what's the problem with appealing to the notion of rights? Don't we care about the rights of migrants? The rights to live in safety, to find work, to flourish?
I have my own objections to rights coming from my philosophical background. What are rights? They don't exist in reality. We have to make them. We decide something is really important to us and we put a box around it, a fence, so that people don't have to worry that some other thing or decision or person will get inside it in the future. Of course lots of good can come from these boxes – people can vote, practise their own sexual orientation, have an abortion, have free healthcare etc. But the problem is that reality isn't rigid. Things change. What is right changes. Many people believe in the right to free enterprise, but does that include selling weapons to dictators? Once the box has been erected it can be hard to move, even when it needs to be. For me, these rigid boxes of non-interference are products and reinforcers of patriarchy.
But Tasha's problem with rights comes more from the relationship between the people fighting to improve their lives and those from whom they are seeking permission and help. Rights do not come about by themselves. They are awarded – by authority. And the rights migrants are seeking must come from the state, or the international community. What was the point of the 300 hunger strike if not to ask the state to be recognised, legalised, left alone?
Is this as good as it gets then? Appealing to the hearts of those in power, those who have, those who flourish, those who have vested interests in keeping migrants out. Europe has become a fortress, with borders made of laws and border guards (while in Greece there are plans to erect a wall on the Turkish border). It is getting harder to get in. Everywhere people are calling for tighter border control, less migrants, less refugees. The notion that millions of immigrants are descending upon Europe, making it poorer, sullying its culture, crowding it out, is very strong. (The Greek ministry responsible for assessing asylum is called the Ministry of Civilian Protection!) We tell ourselves this fortress is our right, our box, our rigid area of non-interference.
So by appealing to the state to give them status, are they not strengthening this box? A cynic might even say that they are just trying to get in the box themselves, to get all the advantages Europe bestows, and once they're in they'll be just as selfish as everyone else. Maybe, I said, but what else can they do? A hunger strike speaks of desperation. It's a passive response by people who have no real power. The 300 group decided this was their best way to make themselves heard. They couldn't win through force, so their only chance was to stir the conscience of the powerful.
I have a lot of sympathy with this kind of action. It's very easy to judge someone's strategy from a privileged perspective and say 'that's not going to work. If I were them I'd...' because you're not them. Emotionally, mentally, even physically you're coming from different places. I've heard people talking about the horrendous conditions of detention centres – how the prisoners go without sunlight, are squashed in together, how they are treated by the guards – people go crazy. Even on the outside, there's so much racism: people are beaten up by Fascist gangs, spat on, sworn at, hassled by the cops. So while it's easy to say 'a better strategy is to co-ordinate thousands of migrants across the country and go on strike,' (this has happened in the States), the idea might be impossible to someone with fragile mental health or low self-esteem.
An argument can be made that these sort of actions – while being effective for the small number of people involved – do not benefit migrants at large. Their demands are limited to themselves. They are not weakening the laws or borders. But I'm not sure how much I agree. I mentioned the case of Mohammed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in Tunisia in protest of his treatment by the authorities. His self-immolation in front of a government building has been credited with beginning the uprising. The result of that was regime change. A desperate act like that can become a powerful symbol – of government abuse, of economic hardship. 13 more cases have been recorded across the Middle East since Bouazizi. We also talked about the monks who self-immolated to protest against the Vietnam war. Neither of us were around during the war but both of us have seen photos of those monks and they will be hard to forget.
Our discussion led me to the conclusion that there are are only two ways for migrant's to pursue their goals: using force – whether that is political, military, economic – to break through these walls; or by appealing to the consciences of those inside the fortress – so that they might dismantle their own walls. Acts like mass hunger strikes, sowing up lips and self-immolation are powerful ways of doing the latter. They can make us question our own humanity in a way that petitions, appeals and arguments cannot.