Images de Scanner, migrants intercepted, by Sara Prestianni. All rights reserved.When Libyan refugee slave markets were exposed on CNN in November 2017, the world was rightly shocked. President Macron declared the news “scandalous” and promised an emergency operation to rescue migrants; EU Commission President Juncker said he couldn’t sleep easily with the knowledge. Yet seven months on, Amnesty International has reported that even higher numbers of refugees are being detained in Libya, kept in dire conditions. It is hard to know if Juncker is still suffering fitful sleep but he certainly can’t act surprised.
The increase in detained refugees in Libya is the inevitable consequence of a deliberate EU policy of turning neighbouring countries into border guards – insisting on them increasing border control measures and funding the equipment and training to carry it out. The growth in refugee detainee numbers in Libya is precisely because the EU trained and equipped the Libyan Coast Guard to pick up and return refugees. Italy provided ten of the patrol boats, which were used to pick up and detain 6,340 refugees between January and May this year. The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa shows that, out of five strategic objectives, most EU money goes to projects under the 'Improved migration management' goal.
Libya is a prominent example of a more general trend. A new report, 'Expanding the Fortress' by Stop Wapenhandel (Dutch Campaign Against Arms Trade) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) shows that at least 35 countries have been prioritised to receive EU support that strengthens and militarises their border security. All of these countries are considered high risk environments for human rights and nearly half are considered authoritarian. Yet this hasn’t stopped the EU from providing support to their police and security forces that are most responsible for human rights abuses.
In fact, cooperation over migration has become so central to EU foreign relations that it is distorting and skewing all other areas of international cooperation. A European Commission's report this month on the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa shows that, out of five strategic objectives, most EU money goes to projects under the 'Improved migration management' goal.
For refugees, this policy has led to more violence and harm, forcing them to search for more dangerous migration routes and into the hands of criminal smuggling networks. Many end up dead or in detention, waiting for deportation, or living illegally in dire circumstances.
So while the European Commission may have celebrated the falling numbers of refugees arriving in Europe since 2015, they less frequently admit that this has come at the cost of increased death rates. The proportion of recorded deaths to arrivals in 2017 was over five times as high in 2017 as it was in 2015. Many more deaths at sea and in deserts in North Africa are never recorded. While the European Commission may have celebrated the falling numbers of refugees arriving in Europe since 2015, they less frequently admit that this has come at the cost of increased death rates.
These EU policies also have far-reaching consequences for the populations of Europe’s neighbouring nations. Not only is the EU legitimising authoritarian regimes, and directly strengthening their most repressive security institutions, they are also undermining economic development and stability by diverting money from development, social and environmental spending.
Ultimately, this poses a threat for future instability not just for the region but also for Europe. The combination of instability, injustice and authoritarian governments has a tendency to create explosive conflicts that can spill far beyond a country’s borders as recent experience with Syria shows.
There is one guaranteed winner from Europe’s policies though, and that has been the military and security industry. In the case of Libya for example, the donated patrol boats used provided business to Italian ship builder Intermarine, French company Ocea and Dutch Damen. Some of these boats have since been used in controversial incidents, violently targeting both refugee boats and NGO search and rescue missions. Germany has similarly donated a large array of border security equipment to Libya’s neighbour, Tunisia, benefiting European arms giant Airbus and Hensoldt, its former border security division. Companies like Gemalto, soon to be taken over by French arms company Thales, Veridos, a German joint venture, and the French OT-Morpho have received European funds to provide (biometric) identification systems and digital ID documents to African countries.
The increased European focus on border security, reflected again in its latest proposal for a six-fold budget increase for Europe’s border and coastguard agency, Frontex, has attracted the attention of large European arms companies such as Thales and Airbus who have publicly acclaimed the promise from new geographical markets for border security, especially in Africa. Thales and Airbus… have publicly acclaimed the promise from new geographical markets for border security, especially in Africa.
The corporations have backed this up with successful lobbying efforts to open up more EU funding. Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), for example, lobbied to amend the Instrument contributing to Security and Peace (IcSP), an ostensibly peace-building fund to allow for the supply of non-lethal security equipment and services 'to strengthen the capabilities of both military and non-military security forces' to work on 'border control' and 'counter-terrorism'.
The European Commission not only embraced these industry recommendations, they also increased funding for the IcSP by €100 million for the period 2018-2020. ASD also argued for 'a new EU instrument specifically to support security in third countries' that has now been echoed in the European Commission’s proposed Multiannual Financial Framework (2021-27) that includes the creation of a Neighbourhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument including migration control measures, worth €89.5 billion.
Yet this corporate profiteering from the suffering of refugees largely passes under the radar as its costs are born out in countries far from the public gaze and where there is less chance it might prick the conscience of an EU official.
This is probably part of the intention of the European Commission, particularly some of its hostile anti-refugee member states – not only to outsource migration control to other countries but to put its obvious consequences for human lives out of sight. The challenge for Europeans committed to upholding the values of human rights and dignity on which the European Union was founded is to ensure that its costs are made visible and that the shock at the inhumane treatment of our fellow human beings is never normalised or ignored.