Bordering on Brutality: the militarisation of Europe’s borderlands

(Originally published in Peace & Justice News, June 2015).

For those of us who are European citizens, it might appear that life in the early part of the 21st century is in part defined by mobility. Given the privileged status of our passports and the multiple modes of transport available to us, we are relatively unhindered by the growing number of border controls that zone off our continent. Yet for an increasing number of citizens from the Majority World countries, human movement is rapidly becoming an ever deadlier endeavour – and nowhere is this seen more starkly than at Europe’s borders.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that over 40,000 migrants worldwide have died in transit since 2000. In 2014 alone, more than 4,900 migrants died or went missing while attempting to reach destinations around the world (more than double the total figure of 2,400 recorded deaths during 2013). Over 3,200 (66%) of these deaths occurred in the Mediterranean, making this the world’s deadliest region if you happen to be a migrant. The urgent need for a humane and comprehensive response to this huge loss of lives has intensified since the Italian government’s Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation, which saved 150,000 lives in 2014, was phased out last winter and replaced by Frontex’s more limited Triton operation, with the IOM confirming recently that there have been at least 1,826 deaths in the Mediterranean so far this year.

Migrants attempt to cross the border fence separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla on 22 Oct. Photo: Jose Palazon.REUTERS
Migrants attempt to cross the border fence separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla on 22 Oct (Photo: Jose Palazon / REUTERS).

These arresting figures reflect the trajectory of European asylum policy during recent decades: one which has prioritised control and border security – both at the militarised edges of ‘Fortress Europe’ and deep within it, as evidenced by the proliferation of prison-like immigration detention centres – over recognition of human rights and dignity. This tendency is reflected by the fact that between 2007 and 2013, according to the Jesuit Refugee Service, the EU dedicated around €700 million to supporting asylum procedures, and €1,820 million to enhancing border controls. The introduction of ever-more stringent VISA requirements and biometric ID systems, maritime missions and surveillance around the Spanish Mediterranean to prevent sea-arrivals, political agreements with ‘buffer states’, such as Morocco, Mauritania and Libya, which agree to intercept, detain and turn back sub-Saharan migrants travelling towards Europe, and the construction of heavily-fortified walls along EU member-states’ borders – all of these concerted, and costly, measures combine to systematically foreclose all conceivable safe, legal routes for refugees to claim asylum, and undermine a legal obligation to extend protection to asylum seekers. If many UK citizens haven’t noticed this dramatic reconfiguration of the Euro-African/Middle-Eastern border, this is because they inhabit a relatively privileged position in what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called the emerging ‘global hierarchy of mobility’.

Picture credit: Tjeerd Royaards
(Picture credit: Tjeerd Royaards /

The UK government recently demonstrated its commitment to reinforcing this fatal state of affairs, despite public outcry over the loss of migrants’ lives off the shores of Sicily, Malta and Greece.  The Home Office has stated its strong opposition to the European Commission’s ‘European Agenda on Migration’, rejecting proposals to  triple the budget for life-saving missions and asserting that a reallocation scheme, which would establish a more equitable distribution of responsibility amongst EU member-states for hosting incoming asylum seekers, was ‘unacceptable’. The UK government’s intransigence on this issue – which occurs amidst the increasingly chauvinistic parameters of political debate encouraged by the rise of UKIP –  is hard to defend, particularly as records indicate that Germany hosted six times as many total asylum applicants as the UK during 2014 (202,815 compared to 31,945). Indeed, when these figures are adjusted according to national population size, it may be seen that Sweden accepted 17 times as many asylum seekers as the UK during the same period.

Theresa May recently expressed her approval of military measures to identify and destroy smugglers’ boats, in an attempt to prevent migrants making the sea-crossing from war-torn Libya. Although May is right to point out that these smugglers profit from “trading on people’s aspirations” (ITN, 13 May 2015), she surely cannot ignore the far greater profits accrued by the defence (including the arms companies whose weaponry exacerbated the conflicts leading to displacement in the first place) and security industries (not least G4S and Serco), as well as benefits to western security forces, which are assured as long as EU countries maintain a securitized approach to dealing with refugees. This phenomenon, of the ‘illegality industry’, has been explored to great effect by anthropologist Ruben Andersson, whose book Illegality Inc. reveals that although ineffective, the business of bordering Europe is a lucrative enterprise for these sectors – and the powerful interests which control them.

Whilst the UNHCR has indicated that the number of people displaced by violence and conflict is now at the highest levels since World War II, with the greatest number of refugees coming from occupied Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic, it is important to highlight the oft-overlooked fact that 86% of refugees are hosted by Majority World countries, most notably Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. That this is simply never acknowledged by mainstream politicians in the UK indicates a strong absence of leadership on this issue, one of the defining crises of our time. That even despite the relatively small number of refugees attempting to reach Europe, so many are condemned to death by policies which fetishise control and negate the human value of women, men and children confronts us with a choice: to continue building up the walls of ‘Fortress Europe’, or to demand that our government cooperate in building a genuinely secure, peaceful and hospitable Europe.

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