Erasure of the Human

In France, I encountered a number of refugees who had their fingerprints completely scratched over, burned or partially disfigured. One of the main distinguishing features of being a unique member of the human family is reflected in fingerprints as no two are identical. A fingerprint is a defining characteristic of every human around the world. What happens when it is erased, burned or damaged? More importantly, what is the implication if one in his/her attempt to save one’s own life and escape death or misery results in the obliteration of the distinguishing feature of his/her humanness? How does it feel to be forced to obliterate one’s humanness so as to be able to arrive as a human refugee in a country that has written you off as a mere commodity not worthy of admission and recognition?

Being a refugee and escaping one’s home is bad enough, but having to undergo a process of self-erasure in order to avoid the exclusion structures put in place to prevent your arrival into safety is even harder. In a supposed effort to regulate and control refugees streaming to Europe across the Mediterranean, the European Union set up a centralized database to collect the fingerprints of every refugee arriving to the continent. From a policy perspective, the fingerprinting process is intended to track the refugees and to establish the point of entry and to regulate the subsequent movement across Europe. More importantly, the right to a refugee status, per European Union adopted polices, is connected to the first port or country of entry, which tends to be Italy, Spain or Greece. The arriving refugees tend to land at the shores of these three countries in the Southern tip of the continent, then make their way to Germany, France, England and other northern countries.

Upon arrival in southern Europe, a refugee is registered and fingerprinted, which immediately assigns this person to the receiving country rather than being a European Union-wide responsibility. Italy, Spain and Greece (others as well) become the responsible countries for these refugees and are assigned the responsibility to address their needs, which interestingly enough does not include facilitating their movement to northern countries.

Entering fingerprints into databases and monitoring it is a sophisticated system of control and restrictions on movement outside the first country of arrival. Again, northern Europe is utilizing its legal framework to give the impression of supporting and helping the refugees while in reality wanting to prevent their movement and settlement. Every country wants to shift the problem away from its borders and utilizes all existing laws to resist serving human beings that badly need a safe haven.

Registration and fingerprinting in the southern countries creates a refugee border and localizes the problem, which from northern Europe’s perspective prevents the ongoing massive influx of people arriving daily. The refugee problem is serious and solutions must be found to address the daily misery of thousands upon thousands of people that are escaping civil wars and total economic collapse. How to regulate and normalize the movement of people is at the heart of the current crisis.

As the refugees arrive in Italy or Greece and then get fingerprinted, their information is entered into the centralized database. Many refugees manage or get assistance to leave the first receiving country, say Italy or Greece in this case, because they  are unable to keep up with the thousands arriving daily and are not getting the needed support from the northern part of the European Union. The northern European countries don’t want to admit refugees into their territories, and registration and regulations are used as the metaphorical wall to stop them at the coastal regions.

Since the refugees know that their fingerprints are stored on a database, they intentionally work on damaging their fingertips so once their new country catches them, the government can’t locate their information on the database. Not having the information available in this second country makes it possible for the refugee to apply for status in this country as if it was the first place of arrival. The process of damaging or burning of fingertips by refugees so as to erase the distinguishing features of themselves continues as they cross from one European country to another until they are able to reach a destination that is somewhat welcoming and grants opportunities.

The refugees are negotiating through European Union-exclusionary policies and walls of indifference to their plight. The way to understand how problematic and xenophobic the European Union has become can be seen through the basic comparison with Turkey alone having some 2.7 million refugees and possibly more that are not registered while France has only taken in some 25,000. Admittedly, Germany has been the exception with one million refugees allowed into the country and has provided the needed services, but the European Union as a whole should be ashamed of its response to this human crisis.

Here we must point out that the refugee crisis from Africa, Asia and the Middle East was caused by successive policy failures, European and American interventions in countries too numerous to list, Cold War politics, globalization, crony capitalism and market domination. The problem of the refugees was caused and belong to all of Europe and the United States, which means they have the moral and ethical responsibility to prevent the erasure of the human on the doorsteps of their borders. Human rights conventions and international law looks good on paper but when fingertips are burned then the challenge of giving meaning to the principles that lay flat on the surface of white papers is not met.