In Canada and the United Kingdom, migrants are sometimes confined in prison-like settings. In Malta, they’re held in converted military barracks. Like so many others, these countries have come to rely on imprisonment to enforce their immigration laws. Indeed, I recently reviewed a book that provides an excellent overview of immigration imprisonment tactics in fifteen countries. This blog’s readers know full well how pervasive this phenomenon is in the United States. With over 400,000 people confined every year by ICE, we count the world’s largest immigration prison population (without even considering the tens of thousands who are confined after conviction for a federal immigration offense).
The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen seems unaware of these developments. In a column published earlier this week (May 24, 2016), Cohen sharply criticized Australia’s creation and financing of offshore detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, two nearby island nations who are economically and politically overshadowed by their larger neighbor. Cohen is absolutely correct to do so. Australia’s policy, termed the “Pacific Solution,” may be popular with many voters and elected officials, but it is a moral catastrophe. The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court’s recent declaration that the facility there violates domestic law indicates that the Pacific Solution—in PNG at least—is legally dubious too.
Where Cohen falls short is in narrowly focusing his attention on Australia. It may have taken offshore detention to a new level, but it’s not doing anything new. Both the United States and the European Union are well-versed in buying detention space from poorer, politically vulnerable neighbors. Long before Guantánamo Bay became the infamous destination for suspected “enemy combatants” captured in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was the site of choice for refugees fleeing Haiti. In the early 1990s, Haitians who tested positive for HIV and who had been found to have a credible fear of persecution if returned to Haiti were taken to Guantánamo instead of being allowed into the United States. Later we sent unwanted Cubans there. At one point there were approximately 45,000 migrants isolated there. No wonder that Michael Flynn, one of the world’s foremost authorities on immigration imprisonment, wrote in a 2014 paper, “it is the United States that has been the world’s pioneer in offshore interdiction and detention” (p.3).
The facts and context may differ, but the European Union’s track record isn’t much better. Italy has collaborated with Libya to finance and operate detention centers in the North African country for decades—stretching well into the Gaddafi era. Just this year the EU brokered a deal with Turkey to return migrants who managed to reach Greece. There’s little doubt many of those will end up detained for this transgression even though in 2010 the European Court for Human Rights concluded that conditions at a Turkish detention center constituted inhumane and degrading treatment.
Is it too much to describe any of these examples as the kind of “progressive dehumanization of people” that Cohen lambasts? I don’t think so. Is it inaccurate to say that those practices mean that “people are dying,” another of Cohen’s points? Not at all. It would have been refreshing for Cohen to acknowledge this history and present reality not just because it would have helped tell the broader story of immigration imprisonment, but because, just like the Australian example, the use of immigration imprisonment by the United States and Europe is a stark reminder of the West’s moral hypocrisy. Given the Times’ audience, there is immense value in reminding readers of the moral failure happening much closer to home than the other side of the planet.
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