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Border walls don’t stop immigration, they make migrants into criminals

As European governments solidify the Aegean edge of Fortress Europe, it’s the portrayal of migrants as criminals that makes their deportation, exploitation and abuse morally digestible to their electorates. 

Corné Rijneveld
23 May 2017
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"Border fences don’t keep desperate people out, but they do turn them into spectacles of illegality." Taken March 2016. Fotomovimiento/Flickr. Some rights reserved.This extract is taken from an essay in Skin Deep magazine’s 6th print issue: The Spectacle, available from their website: www.skindeepmag.com

‘It’s prison,’ explains Omar* over dinner in one of Samos’s many tourist tavernas. Business is brisk tonight; ours is one of several long sets of conjoined tables where new flasks of the sweet local wine arrive before the old ones are even half-empty. The Palestinian-Syrian refugee has to raise his voice to make himself audible over the band playing Turkish folk music. Hunched over empty meze plates, he takes his registration papers from the chest pocket of his characteristically crisp shirt. 

‘See this stamp? Samos only. Why? For nothing. No work, nothing. Ok, I wait for six months, eight months, fine. But my daughter wants to go to university, she must go. But we got to Samos and they tell us I must stay. After the 20th  of March, everybody must stay. For what? I am a criminal? The EU throws money to keep us here.’ 

Omar’s comments neatly sum up a recent shift in European asylum policy: a move away from protection towards containment and deterrence. With its emphasis on keeping refugees ‘in the region’, on ‘screening’ and ‘flow management’, its enabling of detention and deportation, and its pretence of humanitarian concern with ‘dangerous crossings’, the Turkey Deal to which Omar refers is something of a poster child of Europe’s current immigration regime. In a bizarre barter involving various acrobatic legal manoeuvres, the EU promised to relocate one refugee to a member state for each refugee re-admitted by Turkey, already home to some 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

In a bizarre barter involving various acrobatic legal manoeuvres, the EU promised to relocate one refugee to a member state for each refugee re-admitted by Turkey.

While reducing the number of refugees arriving to the Aegean islands from over 1,000 to an estimated 100 refugees a day, last year’s Turkey Deal led to worsening conditions on the islands, as it stalled refugees’ journey to the Greek mainland. It’s clear that most European countries are less concerned with relocating refugees than they are with making sure refugees never make it to Europe in the first place. Just look at the spectacular drops in refugee recognition rates in countries such as the UK and France since the 1990s.

All of this is made morally digestible to European electorates by the way in which Omar’s arrival to Samos and subsequent detention has rendered him a ‘criminal’. The fences, the Kustwacht boats, the riot police on watch, Omar’s ‘Samos-only’ stamp and other paperwork all justify themselves by very visibly turning their object – the ‘irregular migrant’ – into a lawbreaker, a delinquent, a villain. Anthropologist Nicholas De Genova calls this ‘the Border Spectacle’, whereby ‘migrant ‘illegality’ is rendered spectacularly visible’. 

Of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that tried to make their way to Western Europe in the summer of 2015, over 90,000 entered Europe via the Aegean islands. Images of this dangerous crossing on precarious dinghies captivated European news-consumers. For a moment it even seemed like the haunting photograph of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless little washed-ashore body might shift what had until then been overwhelmingly negative public opinion towards those braving the crossing.  

But headlines moved on, as headlines do.

And in any case, they had revealed only the tip of the iceberg of the human cost involved in making and maintaining Europe’s border in the Greek Aegean. The Turkey Deal is only the most recent effort in a string of attempts to solidify the Aegean edge of Fortress Europe. 

The fences, the Kustwacht boats, the riot police on watch, all justify themselves by very visibly turning their object – the ‘irregular migrant’ – into a lawbreaker, a delinquent, a villain.

Of course, these fortifying efforts are vulnerable unless they are bolstered by a political rhetoric capable of naturalising the notion of migrant illegality. Through erecting fences, camps and travel restrictions, European governments attempt to make us forget that refugees and migrants are not the criminals they are treated as. Magnetic to the media, these ‘border spectacles’ help to make migrant illegality seem like natural fact, and policies like deportation agreements and detention of refugees on the Aegean islands look like logical solutions to what is, in fact, a manufactured problem. 

While the number of arrivals to the Aegean islands did drop after the Turkey Deal, it is important to reiterate that borders don’t actually stop anyone from migrating. As long as there is poverty, stagnancy and conflict horrendous enough to flee from, people will simply find new, often more dangerous, routes. Borders are spectacles that have more to do with boosting anti-immigration populisms than stopping immigration. This is perhaps best exemplified by the already mythical US-Mexico wall. This wall – if the minor squabble over its payment is ever worked out – will undoubtedly do many things, but stopping immigration won’t be one of them. 

But any European smugness at Trump’s buffoonery is misplaced; the only reason our leaders are not promising walls is because they are already there. They are the high-tech fences and obstacles connecting places as disparate as the Spanish enclave in Morocco to the Evros land border between Greece and Turkey, and Frontex’s headquarters in Warsaw.

However, while border walls have killed more than a few, they have not stopped refugees and migrants from seeking a better life. As spectacles of illegality, they have instead degraded them, rendered them deportable, exploitable and, increasingly, legitimate targets of abuse. 

*Not his real name.

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