Can Europe Make It?

Surveillance, migrant deaths and humanitarianism in the Mediterranean

Smugglers are not the cause of migration; they are the consequences of the EU’s expanding border surveillance regime. The EU should concentrate on saving migrants from this regime.

Özgün Topak
28 April 2015

Migrant deaths systemic in the Mediterranean continue, with this one accident causing more than 800 deaths, 1,600 since the start of 2015. The end of Italy’s Mare Nostrum Search-and-Rescue Operation in November 2014 played a role in the rising death toll. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Frontex-led Triton, which is a lesser scale operation that prioritizes border control over search-and-rescue.

However, migrant deaths in the Mediterranean are not only explained by the absence of military-humanitarian operations. A broader look at the shifting migration routes towards the EU demonstrates that it is as a result of increasing surveillance that migrants die.

Surveillance has forced migrants to find riskier routes for making the crossing. The more surveillance has intensified the more migrants have felt the brutal reality of European borders. Many have died in the process. What we need, rather than this type of humanitarianism is a human rights approach to curb surveillance.

Shifting migration routes

Before it got re-activated after the civil war in Libya in 2011, the Libya-Italy route was an active migration route between 2000 and 2009. During this period, Italy collaborated with Gaddafi’s Libya through the signing of a readmission agreement and through funding Libya’s border surveillance and migrant detention projects. Italy also intensified its push-back operations to stop and return migrants back to Libya, a practice which was later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.

 As the Libya-Italy route closed down in 2009, from 2008-2009 to 2012, the Greece/Turkey borders became the main route towards the EU. Migrants were particularly using the 12.5km long stretch of land not delineated by the Evros River, as this was the least dangerous section of the borders. The Greek government built a fence on this section in late 2012. Since the construction of the fence, crossings from the land section have halted and migrants began crossing instead from the riskier sections of the Evros River and the Aegean Sea.

The death toll increased but it did not stop migrants from trying. In response, the Greek authorities, with the assistance of Frontex, further increased the level of surveillance at the borders, to detect and brutally push-back migrants. Meanwhile, the Spanish authorities in the western Mediterranean route (from Morocco to Spain) followed the Greek example and engaged in brutal push-back activities. These developments have resulted in displacement of the migration route back to the central Mediterranean, which is a far more dangerous route because of the length of the journey.

During this same period, the EU authorities also intensified remote surveillance techniques, through Airline Liaison Officers (ALO), carrier sanctions and Visa Information System (VIS). ALOs provide immediate information to local border authorities and airlines on undocumented migration in departing EU flights.

In order to avoid financial penalties from carrier sanctions, private airlines also deploy private security agents to conduct security checks before the flights and identify passengers carrying false documents.

Visa Information System (VIS), which allows sharing of biometric application records among EU embassies, have also made it difficult for the nationals of visa-required countries to reach EU territories through regular means. These developments have indeed had some deterrent effects on migrants. Having no prospect of reaching the EU through the normal routes, migrants ended up at the territorial borderzones where they encountered brutal surveillance operations and experienced a suspension of their rights.

Humanitarian phase

The 2013 Lampedusa tragedy marked the beginning of the humanitarian phase in EU border policies. Italy launched Mare Nostrum and aided thousands of migrants. For many migrant-rights advocates, including Amnesty International, the replacement of Mare Nostrum with Frontex-led Triton has played the primary role in the rising death toll in the Mediterranean. But this argument reflects a partial truth. Unlike earlier border operations, search-and-rescue was prioritized over push-backs in Mare Nostrum. However, we have to be cautious about the proposals to launch a European Mare Nostrum or extend the scope of Triton, considering the lack of transparency and accountability in border operations and the long-standing EU practice of push-backs.

Furthermore, understanding migration and migrants in humanitarian terms partially contributes to the problem rather than solving it. The humanitarian discourse deflects the attention from the expanding surveillance programme of the EU and displaces the discourse of human rights. It may even result in more violence against the migrants. Recent humanitarian proposals in the EU manifest the violent aspect of humanitarianism in the form of externalized policing of migrants and humanitarian intervention.

The EU authorities plan to increase cooperation with the border authorities in transit countries (such as Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali, Niger and Turkey) to make them police migrants on behalf of the EU in order to ‘save migrants’. This is not a new proposal. It follows in the footsteps of Italy’s cooperation with Gaddafi’s Libya and EU’s mobility partnerships and readmission agreements. These externalization policies are responsible for the violation of migrants’ rights in transit countries, which neither have a clean record in respecting migrant rights nor the necessary resources to support migrants. The ultimate goal of the EU authorities seems to be establishing immigrant-processing centres in main transit countries such as Egypt and Turkey.

Considering the extensive surveillance during an ordinary Schengen visa application, it is highly unlikely that those processing centres would effectively process the claims of war-torn refugees, who are often labeled as ‘security threats’ within the European domestic political scene. The statistics regarding Syrian refugees demonstrate the unwillingness to resettle refugees in the EU. Between 2011-2014, the EU Member States offered to resettle only 36,300 refugees out of the total pool of 3 million refugees living in neighbouring countries. Even the recent tragedy did not change the approach of the EU leaders, who agreed to resettle only 5,000 refugees. Furthermore, offshoring asylum applications could also curtail the right to seek asylum for migrants who manage to reach the EU territories.

The second proposal, which came out straight after the recent tragedy, is to launch military operations against migrant-smugglers in Libya; in other words another humanitarian intervention to Libya, this time to ‘save’ migrants from the smugglers. Such a move can only contribute to the ongoing chaos in the region through destruction of the fishing economy, and further marginalize migrants. Smugglers are not the cause of migration; they are the consequences of the EU’s expanding border surveillance regime.

Furthermore, smugglers are extremely resilient. They can easily adapt to new circumstances and develop new methods, which may end up being ever riskier for migrants. The EU should concentrate its efforts on saving migrants from its own brutal surveillance regime rather than trying to find the culprits elsewhere.

Human rights against surveillance 

What we need is human rights that will ensure respect towards migrants as equals, political beings with political rights rather than humanitarianism that at best leaves migrants to the mercy of sovereign powers and at worst legitimizes further violence against migrants. As first steps, access to the EU territory has to be granted with full respect to fundamental rights to asylum and non-refoulement.

A civil form of humanitarianism can play a strategic role in this process. If the EU authorities are sincere about their search-and-rescue commitments, then they should agree to work under independent organizations during search-and-rescue operations, rather than launching a joint military or Frontex-led operation. Organizations such as Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the Sea-Watch Project can lead search-and-rescue operations and mediate the passage of the migrants into the EU territories.

The surveillance regime of the EU has not only increased technically, through Eurosur, ‘smart border’ initiatives, drones, External Borders Fund and Frontex budget increases, but has also encroached ideologically, through reducing the social and political issues of migration and migrant rights to technical matters of governance.

The ideology of surveillance masks the structural causes of forced migration (wars, poverty, climate change, global inequalities) and the historical and contemporary role and responsibility of the EU and its allies in these processes (from colonialism to contemporary military interventions and unjust development policies).

It also depoliticizes migrants, turning them into bodies without political rights. Only a human rights approach can transform the murderous surveillance regime of the EU and show that human rights is not simply about the rights of some particular groups who already have rights (EU citizens), but it is also about the rights of others regardless of status, class and skin colour.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData