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Essay: Europe’s hard borders

Matthew Carr investigates the brutal border regimes of our ‘gated continent’ and suggests the possibility of a different politics of solidarity

December 16, 2012
15 min read

In the aftermath of the cold war, the more utopian prophets of globalisation hailed the advent of a new ‘borderless’ world in which national borders would become irrelevant and obsolete. Since then governments across the world have dismantled barriers and tariffs against the free movement of capital and commodities, and entered into regional and transnational agreements that have relinquished traditional tenets of national sovereignty.

Yet the past two decades have also been seen an unprecedented political concern with borders as symbolic markers of national identity, and barriers against the movement of unwanted people. In various countries, from the United States and India to Israel and South Africa, governments have reinforced their borders with new physical barriers, technologies and personnel.

This dual process of softening/hardening borders has been particularly striking in the European Union. On the one hand European governments have achieved something that only a few decades ago would have seemed unimaginable – the reintegration of Eastern and Western Europe, the removal of internal border checks and the creation of a vast ‘space of freedom, security and justice’ in which some 500 million European citizens can live and work freely anywhere on the continent.

At the same time European governments have gone to extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to limit and monitor the entry of people from outside the continent. From Ceuta and Melilla in the south to the 1,800-mile frontier that marks Europe’s eastern frontier with Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic and the Aegean, European governments have reinforced their borders with police, soldiers, border guards, naval patrols, and an array of physical barriers and surveillance and detection technologies that amount to the most extensive border enforcement effort in history.

The new political prioritisation of borders has been shaped by various factors, from economic insecurity and anxieties about national identity to law enforcement and security concerns. But the overriding priority behind the new border regimes, from the Rio Grande and the Sinai to the Greek-Turkish border, is the prevention of ‘illegal immigration’ – a category that generally refers to undocumented migrants from the global south, whether defined as ‘economic migrants’ or refugees and asylum seekers.

Today Europe’s immigration controls are no longer limited to the continent’s territorial frontiers but extend both inside and outside the continent. They include a sprawling archipelago of detention centres scattered across and beyond the EU; draconian ‘post-entry’ policies which victimise and marginalise asylum seekers in order to transmit a deterrent message; ‘upstream’ immigration controls aimed at detecting and trapping unwanted migrants before they can even reach Europe; and neighbourhood partnerships that seek to involve an ever-widening array of countries in Europe’s ‘externalised’ border controls.

Devastating consequences

This system has had devastating consequences for the people it is designed to exclude. At least 15,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the EU’s maritime and land borders. Men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean and the Aegean, frozen to death in the mountains of Slovakia and Poland, or been blown up in minefields along the Greek-Turkish border.

Migrants have also fallen from trucks and trains, or killed themselves to escape detention or deportation or because they were reduced to stateless destitution. Such deaths have since become so routine that even the most spectacular tragedies increasingly attract little more than cursory media attention.

European governments frequently attribute the horrific migrant death toll to the ruthlessness and cynicism of traffickers and people smugglers – and not always without reason. But the death toll on the continent’s borders has become a kind of collateral damage in an undeclared ‘war’ that treats undocumented migrants as criminal and harmful intruders to be kept at bay through a quasi-military enforcement effort.

The moral condemnation of the people-smuggling industry ignores the fact that that migrants make use of such services in order to find a way through the gauntlet of obstacles that have been placed in their path. It also tends to overlook the demand for undocumented migrant labour in key sectors of the European economy – a demand that is often enhanced by the fact that illegal workers have few or no legal protections.

European governments do not want migrants dying on the continent’s borders. But their common determination to prevent or at least slow down the pace of migration has in practice created pockets of impunity, in which the worst things can happen to migrants but no one is ever responsible or accountable for them.

In 2005 at least 13 African migrants were shot or fell to their deaths when Spanish and Moroccan security forces attempted to prevent mass crossings of the border fences in Spain’s Moroccan exclaves at Ceuta and Melilla. To date neither the Moroccan nor Spanish security forces have accepted responsibility for these deaths.

In the Aegean and the Mediterranean, there have been a disturbing number of incidents in which coastguard and naval vessels from various countries are alleged to have rammed migrant boats or refused to rescue their passengers. Such allegations have tended to produce inconclusive investigations, insofar as they have been investigated at all. These incidents cannot be considered the norm. Thousands of migrants have indeed been rescued at sea by European coastguard officers and naval personnel. But the horrendous death toll means that the glass must always be considered half empty, and the proliferation of ‘left-to-die’ episodes is the most extreme manifestation of the repressive model of border enforcement, which generally prefers to ensure that migrant journeys are as hazardous, difficult and harsh as possible – the better to deter others from following their example.

Undermining Europe’s principles

These priorities have remorselessly ground away at the principles that supposedly define the European Union, in ways that are not always visible to the general public. The European Union places human rights at the heart of its political identity. Article 2 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty states that: ‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.’

This commitment to human rights is further reflected in various treaties and conventions, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, in addition to conventions and treaties to which the EU is a signatory, such as the Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Charter.

No European government has explicitly abrogated these agreements, even though some have called for some of them to be revisited. Yet these commitments are routinely violated in practice by the continent’s border enforcement procedures.

The Geneva Convention explicitly mandates its signatories to observe the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, whereby refugees and asylum seekers are not sent back to a country where they may face persecution or harm. But this principle has been regularly evaded or ignored by numerous European governments. In 2009, Italy signed its notorious ‘pushback’ or ‘towback’ agreement with Gaddafi’s Libya, whereby migrants intercepted on the high seas were handed over to the Libyan navy without any asylum screening procedures and sent back to a country with some of the worst immigration detention centres in the world.

Both ‘pushed back’ migrant detainees and migrants entering Libya from the Sahara were subjected to the routine violence, overcrowding, and sexual exploitation that characterised Libya’s detention regime – some of which received funding from the EU itself. Both Italy and the EU were aware of conditions inside these centres, but Gaddafi’s Libya, like Tunisia, was nevertheless allowed to play the role of migrant dumping ground – a role that has continued since his overthrow.

Other countries have also been drawn into the EU’s migration controls in an attempt to deny access to asylum in practice without explicitly refusing it. In Greece, the police and army have conducted secret deportations of migrants across the Greek-Turkish land border, and Turkey’s weak traditions of refugee protection have not prevented the EU from attempting to involve the Turkish government in its ‘externalised’ border controls.

In Slovakia and Ukraine, migrants crossing the border from Ukraine to seek asylum have been handed over to Ukrainian border guards without any assessment of their claims and placed in detention for months or a year in a country where almost no one gets refugee protection.

At the Moroccan-Algerian border, I visited forest camps where migrants, including young children, were living in homemade bivouacs (improvised shelters) at the mercy of the Moroccan police and army, who regularly shunt them across the border, and where female migrants are routinely raped or sexually exploited by bandits, law enforcement officials and other migrants themselves.

Within Europe itself, a number of ‘border countries’ have acted as dumping grounds and migrant traps as a result of the Dublin Convention’s ‘geographical’ clause, which limits asylum applications to a single country. In Greece tens of thousands of migrants have become trapped in a country that accepted few refugees even before the economic crisis erupted. In Malta migrants have sometimes been detained for five years from the moment of their arrival in detention centres that were condemned by all external observers.

Punitive array

Formal detention is only one instrument in an array of punitive measures aimed at isolating migrants from the societies in which they find themselves. Thousands of rejected asylum seekers across the continent are not allowed to work and receive no benefits because they won’t sign an agreement agreeing to return to the countries they came from.

In the Spanish exclave of Melilla in Morocco, some migrants have spent more than five years in the ‘migrant reception centre’ or living in camps on the outskirts of the city, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. Even when migrants have been registered officially as asylum seekers and theoretically entitled to continue their journeys to the Spanish mainland, they have been turned back on the ferry and forced to remain in a city that effectively acts as an offshore detention centre.

In the Greek ports of Patras and Igoumenitsa, migrants have been harassed by police in an increasingly vicious campaign of persecution in an attempt to make them leave. In Calais, the demolition of the Sangatte ‘jungle’ in 2009 was followed by a relentless war of attrition, in which police have attempted to prevent migrants from using the city as a conduit to the UK.

In the spring of 2010, I personally witnessed police taking away blankets from more than 50 homeless migrants in Calais, in temperatures that were only just above zero, under the supervision of the local authorities. Since then police have raided migrant squats and camps, some of which have been demolished by the municipal authorities.

All these developments have formed part of a punitive response to what the European border agency Frontex once described as a potential ‘human surge’ of immigration that might overwhelm the continent.

In some countries, such as Berlusconi’s Italy, extreme right wing politicians have described undocumented migration as an ‘invasion’ – a fantasy that is sometimes reframed more specifically as an Islamic invasion that threatens to undermine European culture and civilisation. In other countries, even left-of-centre governments have presented ‘immigration management’ as an instrument of ‘social cohesion’ and an essential prophylactic to keep more extreme political forces at bay.

The result is a border enforcement model that is simultaneously ruthless, devious, incoherent, hypocritical and lacking in any moral credibility, and which has proven largely futile and counterproductive. If militarised border controls have sometimes succeeded in reducing the flow of migrants in some countries, these ‘victories’ have generally paved the way for new migratory routes elsewhere.

Europe’s need for migrants

Numerous economists have argued that a ‘greying’ Europe needs migrants to pay the taxes that provide the continent’s pensions and public services and to fill the demand for labour in key economic sectors. In 2011, a strategy paper presented to the European Commission noted that ‘European countries are facing labour market shortages and vacancies that cannot be filled by the domestic workforce in specific sectors’ and that ‘long-term population ageing in Europe is expected to halve the ratio between persons of working age (20-64) and persons aged 65 and above in the next 50 years.’

The paper called for less stringent visa requirements and the development of ‘migration and mobility dialogues’ with neighbouring migrant-producing countries that would attempt to transform migration into a mutually-beneficial process. These recommendations were accompanied by the same emphasis on restrictions, barriers, readmission agreements, and outsourced border controls that have dominated EU policy debates for so many years, and which called into question the paper’s stated aspiration to ‘protect the human rights of all migrants throughout their migration process’.

These contradictory objectives are even more glaring in mainstream political discourse. Too many politicians and policymakers recognise Europe’s need for migrants yet refuse to acknowledge this publicly and prefer instead to celebrate crowd-pleasing deportation statistics as proof of their ‘toughness’ on immigration, and commit themselves to drastic immigrant-reduction targets that cannot be met without replicating the ‘closed’ security-obsessed borders of the 1930s.

In Europe’s age of debt-driven ‘austerity’, it has become even more convenient for governments to prioritise national privilege and depict migrants as parasitical intruders – a tendency reflected in meaningless populist promises of ‘British jobs for British workers’, in unrealisable immigration reduction targets and in the Spanish government’s recent law denying free healthcare to undocumented migrants.

Today the economic crisis has become a further justification for an intensification of border enforcement, at a time when the numbers of migrants coming to Europe are falling across the continent because of the crisis. Not only have migrants in various countries begun to return home because there is no work available for them but European countries that have only recently undergone the transformation from ‘immigrant-producing’ to ‘immigrant-receiving’ countries have once again begun to produce a new generation of migrants.

These developments suggest an inherent rationality to migration that rarely features in media debates about immigration and policy documents pertaining to Europe’s ‘hardened’ borders. Instead of recognising such rationality and developing policies that can harness migration for the benefit of Europe and migrants themselves, too many governments have accepted the exclusionary model without any regard for its human or political consequences.

Contradictory principles and practice

The European Union was not only intended to be a trading bloc and an economic union. The project of European unity was a response to the most catastrophic period in European and world history. Its architects aspired to create a common European space that would reflect the continent’s best political traditions, rather than its worst. These aspirations are at odds with the punitive border enforcement policies that have been put in place over the last two decades – and the attitudes and assumptions that have shaped these policies.

A genuinely inclusive Europe that prioritises human rights and aspires to be a ‘Europe of asylum’ cannot coexist indefinitely with exclusionary policies based on detention centres; with target-driven deportations; with ‘externalised’ border controls that transform ‘offshore’ countries into migrant dumping grounds and prevent potential refugees from even reaching Europe; with border surveillance technologies, fences and barriers; with ‘post-entry’ policies that reduce men and women to homeless pariahs in the heart of some of the richest cities on earth.

Sooner or later the contradictions between principle and practice will become impossible to ignore or smooth over. If European governments are to avoid a dynamic of repression that risks replicating some of the darkest pages in the continent’s history, it is incumbent upon Europeans to develop a more humane and rational approach to immigration, which reflects the continent’s best political and moral traditions, rather than its worst, which places human rights at the heart of migration and does not treat people in search of work or a place of safety as criminals, invaders and threats to its cultural identity.

Thousands of people across the continent have already made this choice. They include NGOs, militant anti-border control activists, church and civil society organisations and individuals from a variety of different backgrounds who have intervened in Europe’s immigration wars to stop the deportations of migrants they have known as friends or colleagues, provided humanitarian assistance to destitute asylum seekers, or engaged in popular mobilisations against detention centres and deportation flights.

In their examples we can glimpse the possibility of another kind of Europe to the ‘fortress’ model that is currently under construction, one that is based on solidarity, inclusivity and common humanity, rather than fear, xenophobia and the demonisation of the alien Other.

The great challenge is how to find governments that not only pay lip service to these principles but are prepared to develop policies that reflect them in practice, and replace the continent’s hardened borders with a more generous and realistic approach to migration than the one that has dominated the past two decades.

Matthew Carr is the author of Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a gated continent. He blogs at Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

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