The EU and its neighbours: enforcing the politics of inhospitality

Today marks the start of the two-day Valletta Euro-African summit on migration in Malta, but the outcomes of deterrence, surveillance and militarisation are already written. 

Emmanuel Blanchard Yasha Maccanico Bill MacKeith
11 November 2015
Migrants on Lesbos wait for permission to enter Europe. August, 2015 (Björn Kietzmann/Demotix)

Migrants on Lesbos wait for permission to enter Europe. August, 2015 (Björn Kietzmann/Demotix)Faced with the ‘refugee crisis’ occurring since the end of the summer, hurried observers have pondered the direction the European Union would take: would it lean towards respecting the ‘shared values’ defended by ‘generous’ Angela Merkel, who has opened her arms to Syrian refugees, or would it adopt a more hostile approach, following the example of ‘scandalous’ Viktor Orbán, building walls around Hungary to prevent these same asylum seekers from entering?

In practice we have seen that these two positions were far from contradictory. Although Germany has opened its doors to Syrian refugees, it has simultaneously applied a policy of turning back tens of thousands of asylum seekers (namely those arriving from the Balkans) under the pretext that they are ‘fake refugees’. Worse still, the country’s government and interior minister have considered ways of signalling to future refugees that they were unwelcome  through, among other measures, reductions in allowances, house arrest and pressure on countries of origin.

Meanwhile, by closing its borders, Hungary was simply implementing a policy aimed at preventing refugees from reaching European territory. Indeed, the EU has long encouraged such practices at its southern and eastern external borders, especially around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.

Just a few weeks after the global sensation caused by the photo of the corpse of young Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the Turkish coast, the masks fell. From exceptional ministerial summits to ‘historical speeches’ to the European Parliament, via action plans and other texts from the Commission, the EU clearly restated its priorities with regard to border policing, subcontracting migration management to neighbouring countries and deterring migration movements.

The African-European Summit which begins today in La Valletta, Malta, from the 11-12 November, will mark more of the same forced politics of inhospitality imposed by the EU on its neighbours. The Summit will bring together 35 Heads of African states and 28 European countries and will officially deal with five negotiation topics: fighting the causes of emigration, legal migration and mobility, international protection and political asylum, combatting human trafficking and human smuggling, and enhancement of repatriation and readmission.The gathering follows the Migration and Mobility Summit held in Brussels in April 2014, and draws on the previous results of the Rabat and Khartoum Processes, both of which focused on controlling migration at any cost.

Writing on the eve of the Malta Summit, Migreurop, a network of 46 organisations and 53 individual members based in 17 countries of the EU, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb and the Near East, denounced the priorities behind the EU’s response. 

Known for its Map of detention camps and its Atlas of migration in Europe, Migreurop aims to identify, denounce and spread information concerning European policies that marginalize migrants - such as detention, expulsions and externalization of migration controls - as “unwanted” on European territory, and concerning the consequences of such policies for Southern countries.

The network promotes synergies between actors from the North and South in order to reach a shared vision and analysis of such processes, in particular regarding the externalization of policies to manage migration flows, the detention of migrants and the increasing militarization of borders.

The experiences of our network have alerted us to the consequences of outsourcing the EU and its members states’ international obligations towards migrants and asylum seekers to “third states”, including to repressive regimes (such as Sudan or Eritrea). The following proposals to be debated at the Malta Summit are of particular concern: limiting the number of asylum seekers to be welcomed in Europe through sorting within the ‘hotspots’ and reinforced deportations rates, subcontracting of border surveillance and the militarisation of border control.

A politics of deterrence, surveillance and militarisation

Hotspots have caused much debate since they were announced as new initial reception centres for migrants earlier this year. Through ‘hotspots’, migrant detention will become more widespread, including for asylum seekers. In a display of absurd logic, in Italy, where the time limit for immigration detention has recently been reduced to an initial period of 30 days, if the recommendations of the EU action plan on return were applied, in new ‘hot spots’ lawyers warn that asylum seekers could be held for up to a year as a matter of routine. These camps will be used to sort ‘good refugees’ from ‘bad migrants’. European states declare themselves willing to ‘share the burden’ of receiving (small) numbers of asylum seekers, but on the condition that the few rights and procedural guarantees enshrined in law for all migrants are abandoned. ‘Hotspots’ are primarily envisaged as catalysts for expulsion, allowing the ‘return rate’ of refugees ineligible for the holy grail of ‘resettlement’ (the possibility of inclusion in the refugee quotas bitterly negotiated by member states) to be increased.

In the Valletta agreement, the subcontracting of border surveillance, as well as reception of asylum seekers, to states neighbouring the EU is also reaffirmed. On 7th October, the president of the French Republic was thus able to state before the European Parliament that “it’s in Turkey that refugees must, as far as possible, be received”. The Commission and the majority of member states take a similar line, despite the fact that more than two million Syrians have already found refuge in a country which President Erdogan is taking in an increasingly authoritarian direction, stirring up tensions with the Kurdish minority and democratic forces.

Finally, with the Malta summit the militarisation of border controls has reached a new level, a trend that has been vociferously condemned on openDemocracy 50.50 previously by leading human rights activists in the North and South such as Zahra Langhi of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace and Madeleine Rees of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In the name of the fight against people smugglers and other ‘traffickers of human beings’, we are witnessing a war on migrants. The military ships used in the EUNavfor Med operation, cynically renamed ‘Sophia’, can now board vessels suspected of involvement in people smuggling at sea. Tomorrow, if the UN agrees, these interceptions, along with the destruction of vessels, will be authorised in Libyan waters. The most probable fate of passengers rescued from their supposed persecutors is to be sent to camps in Italy or returned to the hands of those they sought to flee, whether in Libya or elsewhere.

Securitisation, and the militaristic EU border agency Frontex in particular cannot be the solution to the ‘refugee crisis’, as Nina Perkoswki has recently argued on these pages. By reinforcing the financial, material and legal resources of the Frontex agency, the EU is effectively implementing a true surveillance network aimed at allowing only the minimum number of people possible to approach its coastline. Having blocked the possibility of entering Europe by air by denying visas to people deemed to pose a ‘migratory risk’, European decision-makers now dream of an impenetrable blockade along the coasts of North Africa and Turkey. Their vision would be supplemented by an aerial pathway for the forced return of all those who would be transported back to these EU outposts transformed into ‘hotspots’ (especially the Italian and Greek islands), putting their lives in danger.  

In order to justify the EU’s moral bankruptcy and refusal to respect international conventions on the protection of human rights, including those applying to asylum seekers, European authorities will continue to resort to a politics of fear: the balance of member states and the European Union in general is said to be under threat from ‘the biggest migration influx since the end of the Second World War’. To reinforce this point, statistics conveniently provided by Frontex will continue to be hammered home: nonetheless, Frontex itself has admitted double counting, tallying the number of border crossings, not the number of people. The latter, throughout their journeys towards Germany or northern Europe, are therefore frequently counted several times.

The figures conveniently hide the fact that in 2015, the EU has indeed been a mirage for hundreds of thousands of refugees, but it is no longer a true land of asylum: it receives only those who have survived the numerous obstacles placed on their routes, in such small numbers that this policy of inhospitality is shown for what it is. Thus, Turkey, which the EU would like to make the guardian of the impossibility of crossing its borders, receives at least four times as many Syrian refugees than the 28 member states combined.

To attain their objectives, the EU and its member states have shown themselves willing to engage in all sorts of shameful behaviour: military operations led by France and Belgium in the Sahel are now envisaged as a way of cutting off migration routes; plans have been made to construct camps in Niger to facilitate forced or ‘voluntary’ returns away from European borders; the most repressive regimes (such as Sudan or Eritrea, especially in the context of the ‘Khartoum process’), which produce tens of thousands of asylum seekers, receive subsidies to contain their populations and ‘securitise’ their borders. These immense negotiations, and also the issue of readmission agreements (in other words, commitment by origin or transit states to ‘take back’ people expelled from Europe), will be the key points of discussion in Valetta.

It is these values – inhospitality, denial of basic rights and cynical bargaining – that the EU brings to the international negotiating table today in Valletta and it would appear that the outcomes are already written. To achieve its aims, the EU will use any means available. In business as usual, it will stubbornly defend the house arrest of the majority of the world’s population and the de facto establishment of an ‘emigration crime’, contravening all international conventions, particularly Article 13 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


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