Since 1993 a staggering 16,136 deaths at the borders of Europe have been recorded by the activist network UNITED. This will be a considerable under-estimate of the true death toll, since many deaths at sea - which account for the vast majority of border-related deaths - remain invisible and unremarked. Deaths also occur at the internal borders of Europe in detention centres, during forced deportation, or arise from the risks faced on a daily basis by people living without the protections of legal status or social acceptance.
UNITED has pursued this grim task because no official agency takes responsibility for the collection of information about those who die trying to penetrate Europe’s border defences. The Institute of Race Relations in Britain puts it this way – ‘Governments count the numbers coming in. But who counts the numbers that do not make it?’. On their website, UNITED makes a link between counting and accountability, saying – ‘If the deaths of more than 16,000 people does not wake up the conscience of Europe, what will?’.
On May 12th a group of actors, activists, academics, public intellectuals and concerned members of the public gathered in Stockholm’s Kulturhuset to take part in Tribunal 12 - an attempt to wake up the conscience of Europe about the unjust, and sometimes deadly, consequences of European border controls. I provided testimony which links European border control policies to avoidable deaths in three different contexts.
In the first context, individuals who are subject to border controls die directly at the hands of agents acting on behalf of the state. Such deaths have occurred in detention, during apprehension or attempts at forced deportation. Jerome Phelps has described how in 2010 an Angolan deportee named Jimmy Mubenga died in full public view – on British Airways flight BA77 - after a protracted struggle with security ‘escorts’. Witnesses stated that he shouted repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe. No-one intervened.
These are instances where one might think that state culpability is most apparent – where the connections between border policies and avoidable deaths are immediate and compelling. However governments are able to distance themselves from accountability in a number of ways.
Firstly, management of detention centres and the conduct of forced deportation is increasingly contracted out to private security firms. One response that is open to government is to simply change ‘provider’, so that causing deaths is recast as a breach of contract. This occurred in Britain following the death of Jimmy Mubenga. However, media reports now allege a ‘litany of abuse claims’ against the new provider of deportation escorts, Reliance, many of whose staff, it is said, were inherited from the discredited security company G4S.
Moreover, in these cases individuals are available to be held personally responsible for the deaths. Criminal convictions in the case of Jimmy Mubenga would no doubt send an important message of individual responsibility. However, neither of these responses - the attribution of criminal liability or the acknowledgement of commercial failure - promotes a fundamental reappraisal of the underlying policy of forced deportation. Typical policy responses are to promise improved training in the use of restraints, or to merely hide the violence of forced deportation from public view using charter flights.
In the second category of border-related deaths, individuals struggling with the burdens of unlivable lives , die at their own hands. At first glance the culpable state is nowhere to be seen. But if we look again, we see border control policies that are deliberately designed to break spirits and remove hope, so that suicide may seem the best option.
Frances Webber has argued that UK policies of immiseration which deny both employment and financial support to asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected are designed expressly to ‘starve out’ even those who may still have strong claims for refugee status. News of imminent expulsion can also be the catalyst for suicide – both inside and outside of detention.
Taking one’s own life can sometimes be a desperate attempt to save others. Shahram Khosravi tells the story of an Afghan father facing imminent deportation from Sweden who attempted suicide hoping it would enable his family to stay. In Khosravi’s words: ‘When all the documents he had offered the authorities were deemed not “enough” to prove his and his family’s suffering, he thought to attest to the authenticity of their case with his death.’
This man’s attempt failed, but Angolan father Manuel Bravo succeeded in taking his own life in Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre, in England in 2005, as he and his 13 year old son awaited their forced return. He left a note imploring the authorities to allow his son – who was by then an unaccompanied minor - to stay.
In the third category of border-related death – and numerically, the largest category of all - it seems that deaths occur through tragic accidents. At one time, in southern Spain, bodies washed up on the beaches with such regularity that a local writer Garcia Benito was moved to observe that: ‘Dead people appear, who haven’t been killed by anybody. Who truly kills them? The dinghy-captain, another wretched person who undertakes the journey as well? The law? Rather, it seems like a horror story in which the culprit fails to appear.’
However, on closer inspection, border control policies turn out to be that invisible culprit. As Benito goes on to say: ‘With a visa they would cross the strait in the ferry, which would result in the problem of corpses disappearing.’
Death by policy occurs through a series of displacements that can be traced to specific policies such as visa denial, interdiction and forced return, which shift risks onto those who lack permission to travel legally. The displacements may be geographic (to do with where people cross) or demographic (to do with who attempts to cross – their age, gender and nationality), or may involve diversion into ever-riskier modes of transport (such as hiding in airless containers or lorries).
All these effects are driven by the lack of legal modes of travel, the imperative of evading detection and individual judgments about the value or necessity of making the dangerous crossing into Europe. The shifting patterns of deaths have been graphically documented by the Paris-based NGO Migreurop. After a significant drop in border-crossing deaths in 2010, the uprisings across North Africa have ignited a renewed exodus that has once again turned the Mediterranean into a ‘nautical graveyard’.
Failure to rescue adds further to the risks associated with unauthorized border crossings. The tragedy of 72 sub-Saharan men, women and children, most of whom died slowly from exposure and starvation when left to drift in their disabled boat, was described by Nina Perkowski last year on openDemocracy. A Council of Europe inquiry has since condemned the failure of a host of military and commercial vessels to come to their aid, despite repeated opportunities to do so. The report’s author is quoted as saying that the incident reflects ‘double standards in valuing human life’.
So, one is left to wonder - what will it take to wake up the conscience of Europe? Spreading the word about the terrible costs of contemporary border controls is a first step, but this information will only have an impact if the equal value of all lives is accepted as a fundamental human value which places real limits on the means by which states express their sovereignty.