The trouble with Fortress Europe

To prevent illegal immigration, the EU has built a set of far-reaching border control and enforcement policies. But it doesn't work: today's 'Fortress Europe' is an inefficient, immoral and costly bureaucratic construction that should be urgently reformed.

Border police on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a primary European entry point for African migrants. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.Border police on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a primary European entry point for African migrants. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.

For more than two decades now, the European Union has been conducting the most extensive, sophisticated and far-reaching border enforcement programme in history, largely in an attempt to prevent ‘illegal’ immigration – a category that generally refers to undocumented ‘economic migrants’ and refugees from poor countries and the Third World.

Militarised border patrols on land and sea; 400,000 police and border guards and the creation of a new European border agency Frontex; computerised databases and surveillance technologies at the border; the ‘externalisation’ of the EU’s border enforcement to neighbouring countries; quota-driven deportations; an escalating tempo of detention, immigration raids, identity checks and police harassment - all these developments have formed part of an ongoing programme of border control and enforcement that is no longer limited to the territorial border itself.

These efforts are increasingly at odds with the values of human rights, solidarity, inclusion and openness that the EU has defined as the cornerstone of its political identity. Though all EU member-states have signed the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, these commitments are often contradicted in practice in ways that are not always visible to the general public, whether it is the outsourcing of Europe’s migration controls to countries with weak traditions of refugee protection, or the introduction of stringent visa requirements in refugee-producing countries.

Some governments have arbitrarily ‘excised’ designated areas of airports and ports from national jurisdiction in order to evade their legal obligations to process appeals for asylum. Others have carried out mass deportations of asylum seekers without even considering their claims, or conducted maritime ‘pushbacks’ that force migrant boats out of their territorial waters. A number of governments, including the UK’s, have introduced harsh ‘post-entry’ policies that isolate and marginalize asylum seekers who succeed in reaching Europe.

Though most European governments condemn the exploitation of undocumented migrant labour, migrant workers without legal status are often particularly attractive to unscrupulous employers or labour recruiters, precisely because they are illegal. But many governments have been more concerned with the prevention of ‘illegal working’ than with ensuring that such workers receive legal protection. 

In the discourse of European politicians, ‘people smugglers’ and ‘traffickers’ are frequently identified as the great villains of the continent’s migratory drama, yet the continent’s hardened borders have directly empowered the facilitators and passeurs who help migrants try to cross them.

European immigration policy is riddled with such contradictions, all of which have had a devastating human cost. At least 16,000 migrants are known to have died trying to enter Europe since 1988, though the actual numbers may be considerably higher. Most have drowned trying to cross Europe’s maritime borders. Others have committed suicide in detention centres or in public places because their applications for asylum were refused. In the Sahara desert and the dangerous migratory bottleneck between Algeria and Morocco, female migrants trying to reach Europe have frequently been exposed to rape and sexual exploitation at the hands of other migrants, police or predatory bandits.

Within Europe, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been trapped in bureaucratic limbo, in some cases for years, unable to become part of European or any other society. Others have been reduced to homelessness and destitution in the heart of some of the continent’s great cities. From Greece and Malta to Slovakia, the vagaries of the Dublin Convention II that obliges asylum seekers to make their claims in a single country – in practice the first one they come to – have forced migrants to remain in countries that rarely grant refugee protection and which often lack coherent asylum systems. 

From a moral and humanitarian perspective, Europe’s ‘hard borders’ constitute a monumental failure. Nor have these borders succeeded on their own terms. If the concentration of manpower and resources has sometimes closed specific migratory portals along the EU borders, other routes have invariably opened up elsewhere, and new sources of migration have sprung up in response to changing geopolitical developments beyond Europe itself.

Intended to ‘manage’ migration, Europe’s exclusionary policies have left pockets of chaos both inside and beyond the continent. Presented as an antidote to racism, xenophobia, and a precondition for integration and ‘social cohesion’, exclusionary immigration policies have done little to challenge the toxic combination of populism and nativism coursing through the European body politics, and have sometimes reinforced these tendencies.

In Greece, the semi-permanent presence of stateless migrants has become a rallying cry for an explosion of racist street violence and a fascist resurgence that threatens to undermine Greek democracy. Across the continent ‘asylum seeker’ has increasingly become a pejorative and questionable category in the media and in the rhetoric of politicians.

All this has taken place at a time when the European Commission and many European employers recognize migration as a vital economic necessity in countries across the continent. Yet too many governments remain committed to a ‘fortress-like’ model of immigration enforcement which often ends up by creating and perpetuating the illegality that it purports to eliminate.

There are alternatives to this sterile, dysfunctional and incoherent process. European governments could stop placing migrants in detention for the ‘crime’ of travelling without a visa or a passport. They could abrogate the Dublin Convention and allow asylum seekers themselves to choose the country in which they make their claims. 

Instead of forcing outlying ‘border countries’ like Greece, Malta and Italy to act as migratory buffer zones, Europe could share responsibility for refugee protection more fairly across the continent, according to the resources and capabilities of individual countries. 

Europe could also take steps to ensure a clear, fair and transparent asylum process that applies across the continent, instead of the murky and often arbitrary procedures that prevail in many countries. European governments could allow asylum seekers to work or learn new skills while their applications are considered. They could also consider the possibility that refused asylum seekers who are prepared to live on the streets for years rather than return to their countries of origin may have very good reasons for making this ‘choice.’

They could abandon the shamefully vindictive policies of police harassment that have been intensified in countries across the continent since the 2008 financial crisis, which have pushed migrants to the limits of survival in a futile attempt to make them disappear. If Europe is to take its commitments under the Geneva Convention seriously, then its governments could end the policy of ‘outsourcing’ immigration control beyond the EU’s borders to countries that do not share these commitments.

A more humane immigration policy should not only apply to refugees. Instead of stigmatising ‘economic migrants’ as violators of national privilege and ‘unfair’ economic competitors, Europe could negotiate more generous visa agreements with migrant-producing countries that take into account the various forms of temporary and ‘circular migration’, with a view to transforming migration into a safe, positive and mutually-beneficial process for migrants and the countries they come to.

In a strategy paper presented to the European Parliament in 2011, the European Commission itself recognized that ‘European countries are facing labour shortages and vacancies that cannot be filled by the domestic workforce’. Among other things the paper called for ‘migration and mobility dialogues’ with migrant-producing countries and the extension of employment and social security protection to non-EU citizens working in the continent. 

Few mainstream politicians are prepared to act on these recommendations, or explain to their electorates the inevitability – and desirability – of immigration. To do this requires real political courage and a willingness to court unpopularity, at least in the short-term. Too many governments prefer to present their ability to exclude and remove migrants as proof of their determination to defend ‘our borders’ and/or engage in unrealistic immigration reduction targets that hold them as hostages to fortune.

No one can say that a more open approach to migration would be a panacea, nor would it be without complications. But Europe itself has shown what can be done when the political will is present. Following World War II, the architects of the European Union set out to create a space of free movement for all European citizens. Long before the Maastricht Treaty and Schengen, northern European countries such as Belgium feared that these developments would lead to a massive influx of poor migrants from southern Europe.

These predictions did not materialise. Not only was Western Europe able to achieve the historic dismantling of border controls that had once seemed permanent and inviolable through the creation of the Schengen Area, but the European Union was subsequently able to incorporate new countries into the same system following the collapse of communism.

Today it is incumbent upon Europeans to abandon their phobias of immigrant ‘invasions’ and ‘floods’ and formulate a more open, generous and sensible immigration policy that reflects its best values and traditions, rather than its worst. And ultimately Europe’s response to the challenges posed by migration will not only determine the futures – and in some cases the lives - of the men, women and children who will continue to undertake migratory journeys regardless of the obstacles placed in their path.

It will also shape the political and moral character of the European Union itself and determine whether solidarity, justice and human rights are to become real guiding principles in its dealings with the men and women who come to Europe as workers or refugees, or whether these worthy declarations are to remain as rhetorical window-dressing in treaties, conventions, and the speeches of politicians. 

About the author

Matt Carr is an author and journalist. His latest book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent has just been published by Hurst. He blogs regularly at Infernal Machine.