Fortress Europe's Expulsion Machine
By Alain Morice and Claire Rodier
Control of migrants is now coordinated at a European level by deals that shift the surveillance of frontiers towards the East and South. And the cost in human lives is rising.
The world’s democracies unanimously welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall as a victory for freedom 20 years ago; article 13 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights – “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own” – would finally be upheld. The Council of Europe congratulated itself in 1991 that “political changes now allow for free movement throughout Europe, which is a fundamental condition for the survival and development of free societies and flourishing cultures.” It was not long before the fallout from this freedom frightened Europeans. Initially, it was stressed that, “the right to free movement as set out by international conventions does not imply the freedom to settle in another country.” There was concern about “the spectacular rise in the number of asylum seekers in western Europe and some central European countries who have been tempted to use the Geneva Convention to bypass immigration restrictions.”
New fronts appeared at the end of the cold war and along them, ramparts real and virtual were thrown up, all formidable. In the East, the EU negotiated enlargement in return for a commitment by new member states to control their borders. Every state had to build its own Berlin Wall. For countries around the Mediterranean, the 1999 European summit at Tampere had already advocated “regional cooperation between EU member states and neighbouring third countries in the fight against organised crime,” including people trafficking.
Migrants are called stowaways or victims, but are severely reprimanded as soon as they help each other, as though they were people smugglers. They have now become the target of a discourse that justifies combating them to help them. The summit of heads of state at Seville in June 2002 made the fight against illegal immigration the EU priority in its negotiations with neighbouring countries.
As a result, Old Europe, considering itself unable to control its borders, has scorned existing international accords, and set out to unload this task onto migrants’ countries of origin or transit. The research network Migreurop has popularised the term “outsourcing,” borrowed from economics, to describe these obstacles to the free movement stipulated by international treaties.
The external borders of the Schengen area now benefit from a second, outer perimeter, which depends on the collaboration of third countries. Called the “external dimension of immigration and asylum” policy by the 2004 Hague programme, outsourcing has many ideological excuses. In reality, its purpose is to transfer border controls to non-European states within a partnership that is as opaque as it is unfair. But the leaders of the 27 EU countries see it as their duty to present the matter as the concerted management of immigration flow.
Outsourcing means putting in place a flexible system that consistently moves a little further away from the EU’s borders, through expatriating controls and subcontracting the fight against illegal immigration. What is lost is the right to asylum — although all EU countries have committed themselves to respecting it by ratifying the Geneva Convention on refugees — and the right to leave “any country including one’s own,” found in several international treaties.
As early as the 1990s, the EU sent technical advisers abroad, especially to EU accession countries, to block migration at source. A network of immigration liaison officers was formally established in 2004 with the objective of “helping to prevent and combat illegal immigration, return illegal immigrants and manage illegal immigration.” Immigration was labelled illegal before it happened. The main task of these liaison officers has been to assist local authorities in verifying the validity of travel documents in airports, which can lead to the sovereignty of the country of departure being flouted.
In 2001 an EU directive established a system of financial sanctions against haulage contractors found guilty of moving people whose passports or visas were invalid. These sanctions are a strong deterrent, with fines of up to $630,000, and the return of any intercepted people being billed to the company. They force staff without special training to carry out pre-boarding screening of travellers. This privatisation of controls reduces screening on arrival. It has serious consequences where it affects the departure of asylum seekers in need of protection. In principle, their lack of papers or visas cannot be held against them once they have arrived in the host country — if they can reach it. In August 2007 seven Tunisian fishermen were found guilty and imprisoned by an Italian judge for abetting illegal immigration. Their boats were confiscated. They had rescued a small craft that was sinking and transported its passengers to the closest port, Lampedusa in Sicily, as stipulated by maritime law.
Since 2005 the EU agency Frontex has coordinated interceptions between the coast of Africa and the Canary Islands, and in the Strait of Sicily. Last year the Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero congratulated himself on having halved the number of illegal arrivals in Spain by sea.
But mortality rates among migrants, at sea or in the desert, have not fallen. Reinforced departure barriers certainly force migrants to turn to circuitous, and more dangerous, routes. Nobody knows how potential asylum seekers are identified during Frontex interventions, although this identification is theoretically mandatory under European norms. The decentralisation symbolised by Frontex takes place beyond any democratic oversight, and it also enables European countries to evade the obligations that apply to their territory because of commitments made to fundamental rights.
The outsourcing of border controls runs through the global partnership with countries of origin and transit consecrated by the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum concluded between the 27 members in 2008. The pact was initiated by France, which at the time held the EU presidency and had made the fight against uncontrolled immigration its pet subject. In the name of “synergy between migration and development,” the treaty obliges the countries from which migrants come, or through which they pass, to become border guards. They are compelled to protect Europe’s boundaries in exchange for financial or political compensation.
The advanced status that Morocco was granted by the EU in 2008 rewards a country that did not stint in its efforts in migration management. In autumn 2005 some 20 sub-Saharan migrants trying to cross the Spanish-Moroccan border fence at Ceuta and Melilla died from falls, suffocation or bullets fired by the Moroccan army. This and the ensuing deadly relocations into the desert beside the (closed) Algerian border had extensive media coverage arranged by the Moroccan government, anxious to show its zeal. The tragedy off al-Hoceima in northeast Morocco on 28 April 2008 had less press coverage: Some 30 people, including four children, drowned after their rubber craft was — according to witness statements — deliberately pierced by the police. No independent enquiry has been able to shed light on this.
The readmission agreements signed with neighbouring countries are a key element. To be able to expel from European soil a foreigner whose residence papers are not in order, he must be recognised by his country of origin or the last country he passed through. European states are aware that third countries see little interest in accepting the return of their citizens and even less the return of migrants who merely transited. They have therefore thrown themselves into a never-ending cycle of deals, which has led to corruption and a general decline of rights in Senegal, Ukraine and some Balkan states.
The right to asylum is a direct victim of the war of the EU and its member states against asylum seekers. Those who might be eligible for refugee status are deprived of the possibility of demanding it by being repulsed or retained in buffer countries, tasked to protect Fortress Europe. The EU pretends to believe, in the name of burden sharing, that the asylum seekers it no longer wants to accept will be hosted in good conditions by allies whose cooperation it has bought. It encourages xenophobia against people resented and forced to live precariously in countries that have neither the logistical capacity nor the political will to integrate refugees.
The EU has also encouraged — and financed — the development of retention camps. Since 2004, these have been built in the Ukraine, which has at least signed the Geneva convention on refugees. That is not the case with Libya, where the ill-treatment of migrants and refugees is well documented. And yet, since May 2009, Italy has been driving immigrants’ boats back to the Libyan authorities, violating international maritime law and the principle of no return, which makes it illegal to return persons who might require protection.
These are principles that the EU must uphold as part of its commitment to fundamental rights. Yet the violations were perpetrated by a member state without provoking any reaction. In July 2009 the European Commission suggested to Libya that it cooperate in an effort to create a joint balanced management of migration, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offered to act as a mediator for a humanitarian management of detention centres.
The EU’s partnership with third countries not only violates the rights of refugees but seriously threatens a fundamental freedom: that of being able to come and go. The concept of co-development, which might seem generous in associating migration with development, aids this decline. Officially, border security issues are only a part of co-development, but in reality they are predominant: many of the measures planned and monies promised concern the fight against illegal immigration (illegal as viewed from the incoming side). This April the president of Mali, having listened to his diaspora, protested against migrants being systematically escorted back to the border.
The co-development discourse makes unilateral European decisions palatable for populations suddenly described as “players in their own development,” and propagates the idea, not just in Europe but also at the points of departure, that the development of countries of origin will halt illegal immigration. In fact, a country’s economic takeoff encourages its population to be more mobile. And as for aid, this is often misappropriated by leaders. But it is an efficient trick because these countries do lock down their borders and transform themselves into prisons for their own nationals to carry out screening work.
These are the results of the cooperation between Spain and some of its African neighbours: In Algeria and Morocco, illegal emigration is a crime punishable by law, while in Senegal it is punished de facto. Locals are not fooled by this reverse blockade. As the Senegalese daily Le Soleil put it on the eve of the 2006 EU-African conference in Rabat, outsourcing means that Europe is closing our borders.
Alain Morice is an anthropologist with the CNRS, Paris. Claire Rodier is a lawyer with Gisti and vice-president of Migreurop. This article is translated by Tom Genrich.
Copyright © 2010 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global