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Tear gas at the EU’s border

The chloropicrin agent used as a popular pesticide belongs historically to the same family of toxic irritants used in tear gas attacks against refugees.This is not an innocent coincidence.

Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved. Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.On 16 September, Hungarian law enforcement officials deployed tear gas against refugees (men, women but also children) who were trying to enter the country, close to the Serbian border village of Horgos. A police statement justified the decision to attack refugees, to “[protect] the border of Hungary and the EU while respecting the law and the principle of proportionality.”

This is a telling statement. It exemplifies an increasingly observable tendency among Hungarian law enforcement officers who have come to identify themselves as the disciplinary guardians acting on behalf of the European Union. Hungarian police (and possibly soon also the army) are installed and equipped to protect the territory not of a nation state, but of an institution which has come to characterise itself not by an actual geography or a set of ideals, but by its violent and pervasive bordering apparatus.

Border ignorance

Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved. Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.Where the European Union is, is an entirely different question from asking where Europe is. The former is an institution which constantly includes and excludes. Some states are Schengen members, while others are not; some have the Euro as a currency, others do not, and so on. Europe is a historically fluid geographic entity. As Balibar notes in an earlier contribution to openDemocracy, “Europe cannot be defined on the basis of a territory, except in a reductionist and contradictory way”, and yet this is exactly what is happening with the EU’s violent border practices targeted against refugees.

A recent Iraqi refugee, unaware of the geographic complexity of the difference between the European space and the Hungarian imagination of an EU territory, was evicted yesterday by a Hungarian court. The judge responded to the refugee’s defence of unawareness of the EU’s borders by stating that territorial ignorance is not an excuse. Judge Krisztian Kemenes expressed his hope that the court’s verdict would set a precedent for those thinking of committing similar ‘crimes’.

Some 367 refugees have since been arrested for crossing the ‘border of Europe’. These refugees should have known that the geographic question of where the territory of the EU starts cannot be answered by looking at a map, but can only be found by feeling where ‘legal’ and ‘appropriate’ violence commences.

A gaseous border

Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved. Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.The violence of the Hungarian border (or is it really the EU’s border?), is not only materially visible in the barbed wire fences along the 167km-long barrier, but has also been inhaled through the medium of the air. Gas is as such becoming the aerial extension of the razor sharp terrestrial barrier, attacking the body no longer only physically, but now also physiologically. The EU’s attack on the body of the refugee has become total in the sense that every possible means is used to protect its imagined territory from the ‘waves’ of unwanted ‘migrants’.

The EU’s attack on the body of the refugee has become total.

The chloropicrin agent used as a popular pesticide belongs historically to the same family of toxic irritants used in tear gas attacks against refugees. This is not an innocent coincidence. In both western and eastern media and policy rhetoric, the thousands of refugees trying to find a place of shelter have consistently and repeatedly been portrayed as a "swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean", a "tsunami" that could "swamp Europe" and even “cockroaches”. Such language has a performative function at the place of the EU’s imagined Hungarian border, where its territory is gassed and cleansed from parasitic benefit-seekers and dangerous ISIS informants.

Not at the border

Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved. Migrants clash with riot police, close to Horgos, 2015. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.Attacks against refugees do not only occur at the EU’s territorial border. It would be unfair to solely blame the terrorism of Viktor Orbán as the sole reason for the relentless violence against human beings from beyond the imagined frontier. Only a few days ago, the German government decided to close its border with Austria, thereby not only putting into motion the auto-destruction of the EU’s proud principle of freedom of movement, but also triggering a sequence of border closures of yet unknown magnitude.

This is not an innocent coincidence.

Austria soon followed with a decision to close its border with Hungary, Slovakia introduced spot-checks while in Bulgaria, developments push ahead for the already 80km-long fence across the border with Turkey. The political climate against refugees in northern countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, where right-wing populism has had a long time to become institutionally instilled, is not much better. Neither should we forget the still unresolved crisis at Calais which exposed the level of border brutality that both the French and the British state is capable of.

The refugee crisis not merely exposes the false myth of a supposedly enlightened Europe but reveals how violent and lethal the EU’s experimental geography actually has become. In the midst of the ongoing Greek hostage situation and the equally dehumanising refugee disaster, few would dare to continue to uphold the idea that the EU symbolises a place of the classical ideals of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Its all-pervasive border practices have instead become representative of what the Italian thinker Agamben has called a ‘permanent state of emergency’, in which these long-deceased enlightenment values are constantly suspended in the violent treatment of refugees.

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About the author

Marijn Nieuwenhuis teaches Political Geography at the University of Durham. He works on the politics of atmospheric relations.


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