By Sam Hawke
Thousands are killed each year as they attempt to reach the shores of the European Union, amidst a forced migration crisis suffered by the global poor and tragically exacerbated by last years’ uprisings across the Arab world. This comes as the EU increasingly militarises its borders and spreads the reach of its enforcement system wider and deeper. But has the EU any right to defend its frontiers against those who demand a share of its privilege?
Since its humiliation over an Olympic security contract, more and more people are getting to know a company called G4S. A massive private security firm operating in over 100 countries, G4S has led the way in the privatisation of prisons and more recently tried its hand at administering the government’s ‘welfare to work’ schemes. (Helpful overviews of G4S’s activities are available here and here.) Most worryingly, it remains a powerful force in the private enforcement of the UK’s immigration system. Alongside other documented abuses, such as forcibly detaining children as young as five, its systematically abusive expulsion techniques resulted in their employees killing Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga by suffocation in 2010, as he was bundled onto an aeroplane. This was, of course, followed by the Crown Prosecution Service’s pathetic and cynical refusal to pursue manslaughter charges against those responsible, as if there was not a pretty reasonable chance that Mr Mubenga’s death was the result of his head being forced between and below his knees long enough to fatally restrict his diaphragm, as he cried aloud that he couldn’t breath, shouting “they’re going to kill me”.
But the cruelty and persecution of migrants is by no means a phenomenon local to the UK or to private companies. We live in a Europe that defends its external frontiers through increasingly militarised, brutal methods, with massive human and financial cost, and for almost no legitimate gains.
Thousands of migrants die each year attempting to get into the EU. Most recently, 61 migrants were killed as their boat capsized in the Mediterranean, with 28 children and 3 babies amongst the dead. Such catastrophes are increasingly common. Earlier this year, 5 people were discovered dead on a boat bound for the island of Lampedusa, Italy, with many of its remaining occupants seriously ill. Since 1988, 18,000 people have died at the borders of Europe, with an astounding 1,500 deaths last year alone.
So how do these tragedies occur? We, as citizens of the global rich, should be deeply troubled by the answer this question demands. Over the last decade, the EU has increased efforts to militarise its borders and repel those it deems to have illegally and illegitimately attempted entry. This has been carried out by organisations such as Frontex, an EU agency mandated to coordinate and facilitate member states’ protection of the EU’s borders through a variety of surveillance and control measures. And it is this intensification of border enforcement – carried out with a fanatical, almost rabid commitment to the total control over the movement of people – is what is causing this suffering and death.
The tactics of border militarisation and control are myriad. A lot of Frontex’s work is surveillance-related, monitoring the build-up of migratory movement and providing analyses of future risks for EU member states. Recent proposals for expansion in the area is the use of unstaffed drones, alongside spy planes and satellites, to track migrants as they traverse the Mediterranean. This is justified by claims that it will be crucial to the life-saving effort in which Frontex is engaged: more surveillance means fewer tragic migrant deaths, it is claimed. Others more plausibly fear that these will be used to monitor coastlines of non-EU states deemed to present the greatest migratory risk, permitting pre-emptive action to better stem migration at its source.
Regardless, much of its activities are heavily militarised operations on land and at sea. The interception of vessels transporting migrants to the EU are critical target for the EU member state forces that Frontex mobilises and controls. In 2009, Frontex Operation Nautilus IV orchestrated the interception of a boat of 75 individuals by a German helicopter south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, resulting in their being pushed back into the hands of the Libyan military in Tripoli. Collusion with non-EU countries for the same purpose is also a key Frontex strategy: since 2006, for example, the HERA operations have involved the deployment of naval forces in non-EU territory, with the cooperation of local governments, for the interception of migrant boats bound for the EU via the Canary Islands.
Some of its most horrifying activities have been firmly on EU soil, however. The 2007 Rabit Regulation authorised Frontex to deploy ‘Rapid Border Intervention Teams’ within situations of ‘urgent and exceptional pressure’. These powers have been used to subject migrants to even greater suffering. For example, Frontex was widely condemned for its Rabit deployment in 2010 and 2011 to assist the Greek government in administering its immigration detention system. In 2010, however, the system was deemed the centre of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ by the UNHCR, with migrants subjected to conditions so disgusting that the European Court of Human Rights ruled in January 2011 that they contravened the European Convention prohibition against inhuman and degrading treatment. For the material support that Frontex provided to maintain the detention system and facilitate the jailing of migrants within it, Human Rights Watch deemed Frontex gravely responsible for the abuses perpetrated against the 12,000 migrants imprisoned.
Frontex claims that it repels migratory flows from key risk points across the EU’s frontiers, such as the Canary Islands. But, as Thomas Spijkerboer of the University of Amsterdam states, the available evidence suggests something quite different: “Rather than abandoning their plans to travel to Europe, these migrants have simply chosen more dangerous migration routes, routes that expose them to even greater risk.” In short, those who want to come will still come. The EU’s border enforcement tactics may do little but force migrants into routes that risk further suffering and death.
So what is this all for? The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty created the Schengen Area, the EU’s existing liberal paradise of free movement – for its occupants – and the measures are justified by FRONTEX Director Ilkka Laitinen as the defence of this utopian world: “To safeguard the right of Europe’s citizens to travel and trade freely without internal borders requires increased surveillance and control at the external borders.” So this all comes at a price. Or, rather, it comes at a price for the rest of the world. Whilst it’s enormously easy for EU citizens and their families to move from EU member state to EU member state, it’s extraordinarily difficult for anyone from outside the EU to get in. Indeed, it’s the fact that the documentation required is so difficult to obtain and to forge that so many take the desperate and painful route of travel on the high seas.
Of course, this is not without attempts to quash even this mode of entry. Various ‘non-arrival measures’ outside the EU’s borders are undertaken to block migrants from reaching them in the first place. This includes the obligation on carrier companies to return migrants without valid documents found on their vehicles or vessels – on pain of criminal prosecution – and the deployment of advisors within carrier companies and border outposts of non-EU states so as to train others in the EU’s documentation requirements and, ultimately, outsource their enforcement. Indeed, alongside Frontex operations with non-EU countries, this is all part of an entirely novel approach to border enforcement: as Ruth Weinzierl and Urszula Lisson at the German Institute for Human Rights note in their analysis of EU law on the subject, “protection of the material border is no longer in the foreground, but rather the goal of making the border unreachable for people without valid travel documents.”
But what about refugees? Aren’t they the benevolent, humanitarian exception to the EU’s border control system? Certainly, at the worst of the Bosnian conflict in 1992, around 650,000 people made asylum applications in Europe, and the 1990s in general saw a significant increase in asylum applications across the region. Alongside a torrent of anti-immigration politics that began to overwhelm the continent, it was this spike that rulers took to necessitate the retrenchment of asylum provision that the last decade has suffered. Indeed, the militarisation of the EU’s borders needs to be understood in the context of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), agreed in 1999 at Tampere, Finland, for this very purpose. A host of Directives relating to the admission of refugees and their asylum claims has had at least one desired effect – the reduction of asylum claims from their 1990s heyday. Of course, it’s had a number of very bad effects too, not least of all the systematic practice of states (permitted by the Dublin Regulation) to return refugees to the EU country that they first entered – usually Greece, until a 2011 judgment of the European Court of Justice (the EU’s supreme judicial body) ruled also this contrary to the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
But isn’t this all justified by the fact that the EU remains inundated by massive refugee flows which it has a right – even an obligation – to regulate? Let’s look at the facts. Only 14% of the world’s refugees live in the EU. The majority remain in the regions of the world’s poor, with around 90% remaining in the areas from which they fled. This is whilst the total number of refugees across the world remains at a comparatively minute 8 million people. With the EU’s population standing at over 500 million people, it’s difficult to substantiate claims of refugees ‘swamping’ the region, stripping away the dehumanising rhetoric of the allegations usually made. In fact, there’s a far larger crisis going on elsewhere: there remain 155 million other forced migrants across the world, those who fail to fulfil the terms of the Refugee Convention in fleeing a wider variety of very serious harms. They are fleeing, for example, the devastation of climate change, brutal civil wars, severe poverty, even ‘development projects’ such as the building of hydroelectric dams in India that destroy the homes of hundreds of thousands of people. Localised, predictably, in the world’s poorest regions, they remain without any specific legal framework for their protection and yet form the vast majority of the world’s forced migration crisis. The EU receives around 3 million migrants a year. This might seem a lot, until you realise that, on Christian Aid’s predictions, the number of forced migrants across the world will have reached a total of one billion people by 2050, almost all of whom will remain in the regions least equipped to house them.
The most recent example of the appallingly unequal burdens of forced migration came with the Arab uprisings of 2011. Of course, migration from Northern Africa during this time was considerable. It’s believed that over a million people were displaced as a result of the turmoil, with 77,000 people fleeing the region during the last ten days of February alone. Europe was predictably terrified by the influx of migrants that these developments appeared to pose. What’s less obvious from the screams of horror was the fact that only 43,000 people – again out of a total of 1 million displaced people – reached the EU’s frontiers during the first five months of 2011. But to quell Europe’s fevered calls for greater border security, Frontex happily stemmed the oncoming tide, increasing its maritime and surveillance work and providing financial assistance and training to Tunisian border authorities. EU member states were able to keep a straight face as they claimed that this ‘crisis’ proved the necessity of intensified border enforcement across the entirety of their frontiers. Contrast this to the exemplary behaviour of Egypt: despite a far larger influx of migrants during the same period – around four times the number of those who reached the borders of the entire EU – they were praised by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Gutteres, for keeping their borders open.
But wait – don’t states have a right to control their borders, to make choices about who can and can’t enter their territory, and in what numbers? For the sake of argument, we can grant that borders have morally benign goals whose pursuit by a system of forcible exclusion is an objective good. (I’m sceptical of this, but we can grant this for the sake of argument – insert any of the goods you think borders protect here.) But this would say little in itself as to whether borders can be used for certain other purposes and goals. I may have a general right to exclude people from my house – the right may well protect a selection of real goods. But I’d be a moral monster if I refused to protect the victim of an impending fatal attack by letting him through my door.
On the same humanitarian reasoning, a majority of the world’s states have committed to the Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, fulfilling (in part) their foundational moral duties to protect those facing serious harms. The Refugee Convention, of course, doesn’t enshrine this fundamental principle, but a far more specific and limited one. Its aim is the provision of asylum to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and who, owing to that fear, are unwilling or unable to avail themselves of the protection of their home state. We can debate the appropriateness of restricting or expanding our understanding of who deserves protection from serious harm as a matter of morality and international law. But we’ve illustrated the key point sufficiently well: our general right to control our own borders is subject to serious moral limits. Indeed, it may be seriously wrong to exercise control of our borders in a way that excludes those in need of protection from serious harms.
But this is only one aspect of a far larger moral issue. It can be illustrated in the following, only slightly tortuous way. During the Cold War, hundreds were killed as they attempted to enter West Berlin from the East, shot by border guards or torn apart by landmines. People were desperate to break through the bounds of the Berlin Wall, and the grotesque mockery of socialism that it enforced: the state refused and, as a result, they were murdered. And so it seems appropriate to ask: how could such a system be justified, if it could only survive by forcibly keeping everyone in? Well – and I don’t mean to be facetious here –, what about a system that can only survive by keeping everyone out?
What could we mean by this? It’s an obvious feature of our current world that it’s grossly unequal in many respects. It’s no profound insight of moral philosophy that the chances of our having fulfilling, satisfying lives, rather than near-endless toil and degradation, is determined largely by the circumstances of our births. I was lucky enough to be born in the UK, and so my life, overall, is likely to be a pretty enviable one. Had I been born amongst the majority of the world’s population, by contrast, it would have been significantly worse. Of course, there are variations: it’s by no means uniformly awful to live anywhere other than the Western world – to say that would be appalling bigotry. But it’s an obvious fact that the global rich have largely inherited the privileges of modern life simply by circumstances of birth.
Across a wide variety of otherwise different political-moral opinion, we tend to think of such as things as grossly arbitrary and unfair. That the fundamental character of your life is largely determined by your place of birth or location begins to seem as appallingly arbitrary and unfair as its being determined by your race or sex. This is especially so where it appears to be obviously the case that your birth may also force you into a life of mindless, unfulfilling toil or even excruciating suffering: the toll of death, suffering, and degradation of global poverty need only be hinted to evoke the monstrosity of the global system. It’s therefore not difficult to come to the conclusion, stated by egalitarian philosopher Joseph Carens alongside many others, that “[c]itizenship in Western liberal democracies is the modern equivalent of feudal privilege”. How can any of us in the EU deserve the benefits our birthplaces and state citizenship bestow?
As a matter of global justice, therefore, there’s a powerful case to be made that much of the world has a just claim on our resources. Indeed, the global poor may well have a right to our resources, either as restitution for the harms we’ve done to them, as a fundamental human right to a certain decent standard of living, or simply as a matter of basic fairness. On the whole, we refuse to discharge these stringent duties of justice. For example, we, the global rich, still on the whole fail to give even 0.7% of GDP in development aid that the UN urges as a most basic minimum. Where we do attempt to assist those in need, our assistance is more often than not tied to projects whose real beneficiaries are no one but ourselves. And our governments continue to support institutional structures such as the World Trade Organization whose pro-rich rules grossly prejudice the economies of the global poor, whilst our bankers continue to trade in food derivatives, driving up prices of basic necessities and making life unlivable – to mention only two of the ways in which the countries of the global rich continue to perpetuate severe poverty across the world.
But what does this entail for our discussion of immigration control? We can ask the following question: do we have a right to resist the movement of people into the EU from outside? Do we have a right to use military force to stop people crossing our borders, assaulting them, abducting, imprisoning them, and forcibly returning them to their countries of origin? I claim the following: if we refuse to give much of the world what is owed to them as a matter of global justice, how could we have any right to resist the attempt by the rest of the world to take what is rightfully theirs by coming to live amongst us? Obviously, if we will fulfil our duties of justice, then border enforcement may well be perfectly acceptable. But until that occurs, we not only fail to fulfil the stringent demands of global justice, but commit an additional injustice in forcibly – violently – defending our privilege from those who seek, in effect, redistribution by migration.
It’s difficult, therefore, to make sense of the bold claim that the EU constitutes a glorious region of ‘justice, freedom, and security’. We may instead conclude that it’s a system that demands the suffering of millions of for the benefit of a privileged few: the hordes are kept at bay, as we protect our feudal inheritance from rightful challenge. It’s a system whose existence seems to depend on the treatment of millions as so much human waste to be repelled and dumped elsewhere – leaving them to fester, out of sight, for as long as possible. You can’t help but recoil at the obscenity of it all: that there are so few migrants who make it to the EU, that the vast majority of forced migrants remain in regions of the global poor, that those regions face extraordinary, unremitting hardship as it is, and that we continue to do our utmost to push them away.
We have a number of choices. At the very least, we have to stop pursuing border enforcement measures that kill thousands each year as they attempt to reach our frontiers. But we are duty-bound to do a great deal more. It may well be that free movement for all peoples is no simple panacea to these ills – it could even do great harm as the most able, most qualified, and often best-off flee for the understandable allures of the global rich. Indeed, the hyper-consumptive, environmentally destructive lifestyles of the global rich need to end, not be replicated, as no doubt many migrants seek to do. Real, green development within a framework of global justice is the only solution. But until this occurs, using force to repel those who seek to effect something of this redistribution is an obscenity.