Legitimating immigration regimes in the European Union

The threat that immigration poses to so-called western democratic values ​​is increasingly the subject of neo-orientalist public discussion: it willingly refers to the (often Muslim) migrant as a savage, uncivilized, terrorist ‘other’; an ‘anti-citizen’. If we are to arrive at a model of citizenship beyond orientalism, we need to abandon current border and citizenship regimes.

8 November 2012

On 25 January 2012, Nicanor Haon, coordinator of Boats 4 People, a project that saves migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean sea, wrote of a recent experience on Air France flight 2184 from Paris Charles-De-Gaulle airport bound for Tunisia. He described the scene:

On 25 January 2012, Nicanor Haon, coordinator of Boats 4 People, a project that saves migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean sea, wrote of a recent experience on Air France flight 2184 from Paris Charles-De-Gaulle airport bound for Tunisia. He described the scene:

"Four people from the border police, accompanied by an officer of another body of the national police, were guarding the front door of the plane. (...) In the last row, two strongly built plainclothes policemen held down a young man about twenty years old. (...) I thought that this young man certainly had done nothing but to be in France without papers, and I tried to draw the attention of people sitting around me on this. At that moment someone started to shout: ‘Deportations are completely normal, sir, there are rules! If people are illegal, they are expelled, otherwise this would turn into anarchy! May I remind you that this is a democracy!"

Tunisia, Libya, Malta, Lampedusa (Italy), the border between Morocco and the colonial cities of Ceuta and Melilla and the Canary Islands (Spain), the Greek border with Turkey, the Mediterranean Sea itself, have all become a sort of laboratory of neoliberal regimes for the selective control of migrations.  The EU is developing an immigration regime with strategies of innovation and privatization and technologies of externalization. The policies of expulsion, detention centres for foreigners, identity checks at railway or bus stations and the use of borderzones equipped with advanced technology devices, all make up for what Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz have called the ‘deportation regime’.


Migrants in the city of Ceuta. Demotix/Riccardo Valsecchi. All rights reserved.

This regime which has emerged has a cost, not only economic or political but also human that needs to be legitimised.  The fact that ordinary citizens, such as the passengers of Air France 2184 flight, consider that the expulsions of people arrested for illegally staying in a country preserve higher values such as democracy is not irrelevant. As H.Driessen pointed out in 1999: 

“the Mediterranean is not only a political, demographic and economic divide, but also an ideological and moral frontier, increasingly perceived by Europeans as a barrier between democracy and secularism on the one hand, and totalitarianism and religious fanaticism on the other.”

The ‘southern border’

Since Spain joined the European Economic Community in 1986, the line through Ceuta (8.2 km) and Melilla (12 km), and across the Strait of Gibraltar, represents the ‘southern border’ of the current European Union.  Here, enormous resources have been expended on preventing migrants, mainly from Africa, from crossing to European territory without permits.

These crossings happen frequently. The last ones were in October 2012 when around 300 people jumped the fence into Melilla. However we need to go back some years to investigate the origins of today’s fence, to the night of 23 June, 2005. More than 200 migrants with handmade ladders tried to jump the two sets of three-metre-high fences separating Morocco from the city of Melilla. These were mainly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, but also Northern Africans and some South Asians. They had spent months, even years in some cases, living precariously in makeshift camps in the mountains near the borders. In the preceding days there had been frequent raids by the Moroccan police, who repeatedly dismantled the improvised camps, forcibly moving some of the migrants to the Sahara desert on the border with Algeria. In the attempt to clamber over to the Spanish side, some of the migrants were caught by Spanish soldiers conducting manoeuvres in the area, who alerted the Guardia Civil, the military police with jurisdiction over the border. Eight migrants were injured by rubber bullets and cuts from barbed wire. According to the report published by SOS Racismo, most were eventually returned to the Moroccan border authorities (who had arrested a further 87 people), without any legal deportation procedures and about 30 people managed to enter Melilla.


Makeshift camps near Ceuta. Demotix/Riccardo Valsecchi. All rights reserved.

A month later, following the announcement that the Spanish Interior Ministry would invest 1.5 million euros in the strengthening of fences, numerous similar attempts to cross the border from camps in the forests of Mount Gurugú occurred near the Melilla fence as well as in Bel Younech near Ceuta. Although such attempts had long been routine, this time the Spanish and international media immediately focused their spotlight on them using terms such as ‘invasion’, ‘avalanche’, ‘assault’, ‘massive attacks’, ‘military strategy’, causing alarm throughout Spanish and European society. In addition, the opposition party in Spain, the conservative Popular Party (PP) seized upon the issue to accuse the Socialist Party (PSOE) in government of weakness in controlling immigration, a lack of patriotism in leaving the cities of Ceuta and Melilla defenceless, and cowardice in their dealings with the government of Morocco. They further accused the Moroccan authorities of collaborating with Islamic terrorists in Spain. The government's immediate response was to deploy between 480 and 640 troops armed with anti-riot gear to help the Guardia Civil control the border perimeter.

At the time of the events of 2005, the physical barrier itself consisted of parallel fences 1 to 2 metres high, with razor wire, and a platform large enough to ensure the  movement of motor vehicles and the landing of helicopters all along the border perimeter.  Surveillance towers, 100 24-hour surveillance cameras, microphones and motion sensors and high-intensity lights has been installed, and nearly 2,000 policemen hired for the surveillance of the Melilla and Ceuta borders. This cost nearly 50 million euro, largely financed by the EU within the framework of the ‘Europeanization’ of borders. Since 2006, under the auspices of the European Frontex, the fences have doubled in height to 2 metres more. A third new fence, costing 20 million euros, aims to prevent scaling by ladders or climbing. It is tilted about ten degrees to the Moroccan side, and is designed to prevent immigrants from reaching the second fence. In between the two fences there are also high intensity lights that enable visibility, ‘pepper’ pressure water hoses and a network of twisted steel cables.


The fence and surveillance tower. Demotix/Riccardo Valsecchi. All rights reserved.

One of the main requirements for Spain’s entry into the European Community was the enactment, in 1985, of an immigration law which made it the ‘first gendarme’ of Europe’s southern border. The direct consequence of the entry into force of this law was the immediate ‘illegalization’ of the people residing in Spanish territory without a permit. In particular, thousands of people of Moroccan origin who had lived in the enclaves for decades became susceptible to being arrested and punished with the possibility of expulsion if their paperwork did not meet the standards required by the new foreigners’ legislation. These tensions led to the mobilization of Terra omnium and Asociación de Mujeres Musulmanas - civil organizations that struggled in Melilla during 1985 and specially 1986, in favour of recognition of the Muslim community in Ceuta and Melilla. Finally, more than 6,000 people were made nationals in each city.

During the same period, people residing in the Moroccan neighbouring regions, such as Tetouan and Nador, acquired a special status under which they were exempted from the visa requirement for a period of 24 hours. The argument for setting up this exceptional regime is that between 30,000 and 40,000 people are linked to the (clandestine) trans-border trade. The border posts of Biutz-Tarajal in Ceuta and Enzar Beni in Melilla have since become infamous for chaotic queues of cross-border carriers (including those with 24-hour visas) waiting for police checks to gain access to Spanish territory with their goods.

In this context of a certain limited freedom of movement across the border, legal uncertainty has meant that thousands of people have been forced to stay in immigration detention centres (CIEs) in Ceuta and Melilla pending the granting of refugee status or deportation. They acquire the status of ‘non-removable’, among other reasons because there is no readmission agreement with their home countries. These people are de facto located in a legal limbo because they cannot be expelled but nor can they rectify their legal situation, much less work legally. These are the scenes where boundaries and institutional discourses define the construction of categories of otherness. At the same time, they are a ‘site of contestation’ through which thousands of migrants find their way to Europe.

So, is this how the European Union is constructed? Who has the privilege, right or power to constitute themselves as European citizens and to constitute others as foreigners, strangers or aliens – these categories of citizen, foreigner and migrant that are being used to legitimise the creation of a specific concept of being a European ?   

Orientalising discourses and immigration

After the Cold War, but more intensively after the 9/11 attacks, immigrant populations, often those coming from Muslim and Arab countries, have been considered a threat to a so-called western European rationality, democratic values and social order. Replacing the old discourse of the hierarchy of races, these identities are now regarded as incompatible with our own because of the existence of determined groups considered unable to integrate. This inability is said to stem from their cultural backwardness. Therefore, the necessity of distinguishing reliable and authentic citizens from other individuals or groups, it is argued, justifies this extension of governmental control over human migrations.

In recent times we have witnessed a proliferation of academics and politicians who justify the systematic application of exceptional measures for the government of populations conceived as dangerous or threatening to values ​​considered ‘universal’, ‘democratic’, ‘European’ or ‘western’. Zaki Nahaboo argues in openDemocracy this week that multiculturalism is one of multiple ‘difference management regimes’ that exist today. But what we have seen in recent years is a concerted attack on multiculturalism, not just coming from those extremist parties which have enjoyed largely symbolic electoral triumphs (such as the French Front National, the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid, or the Italian Lega Nord), but from conservative political heads of government who have actively shaped a restrictive immigration policy throughout Europe.

The ​​Clash of Civilizations (1993) by Samuel Huntington is probably one of the best known works that consider liberal values, such as democracy, individual rights, citizenship or even the welfare state, endangered by the invasion of uncivilized, savage or fundamentalist migrations or civilizations. But many other key texts have since been published along similar lines, such as La Rabbia e l'Orgoglio  (‘The Rage and the Pride’) (2002) by Oriana  Fallaci; Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (2005) by Giselle Littman also known as ‘Bat Ye 'Or’; ‘Identity, Immigration and liberal democracy’ (2006) by Francis Fukuyama; Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West (2009) by Christopher Caldwell, and Deutschland schafft sich ab (‘Germany  Does Away With Itself’)(2010) by Thilo Sarrazin.

It is the Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori, however, who has contributed the most complete synthesis to date of the notion of what we may call ‘contemporary orientalism’ to this pantheon. In early 2000, he published a book in Italian entitled Pluralismo, multiculturalismo e estranei: Saggio sulla società multietnica (2000), that was translated into Spanish under a similar title La Sociedad Multiétnica. Pluralismo, Multiculturalismo y Extranjeros (2001) with the addition of e islámicos (‘and Islamics’) for the second edition in 2003. Sartori´s thesis is based primarily on the defence of a pluralist liberal model and the criticism of the multicultural model and differentiated citizenship. According to him, the granting of special rights for belonging to a group, characteristic of multicultural policies, leads to unequal segmentation, or in his terms, balkanization or “ethnic servitude”. Specifically, Sartori focuses on the attribution of collective rights to foreign immigrants, especially immigrants from countries with an Islamic tradition. He refers to this group as the “Islamic sub people”: “the universe, certainly very variegated, of the many that leave their own country because of hunger, and (often even using force) get themselves onto European soil.”

Sartori´s reflections on immigration contain two main ideas. First, he offers the vision of an ​​invasion of illegal-immigration, mainly from African and Islamic countries, stating that “uncontrolled migration flows are starving armies besieging Europe”. Flexible border policies and generous asylum policies represent a demographic, economic and social threat, since the only permissible immigration can be that which is appropriate for the western economic system.

But perhaps the most criticized thesis in Sartori’s work is the concept of the “un-integrability” of Muslim groups. Sartori describes “the Muslim” as “the type most distant from all individuals in the culture and system of western values ​​and beliefs”. He conceives contemporary Islam as a homogenizing and totalizing package that has the ultimate goal of destroying western values. The problem in Sartori’s view is that most immigrants who come from Islamic contexts are not culturally prepared to live in “the West” and become instead ensnared by a defensive form of radicalism:

“The isolation and marginalization of the Muslim immigrant are especially acute. Even their cultural level is usually much lower than that of the Indians and Asians in general. This implies that outside of their faith and their religious identity they have no cultural defence. But a highly protective religion comes to their aid.”

According to this theory of un-integrability, all integration policies based on the progressive equalization of rights between such foreigners and those who hold the status of citizens is doomed to failure, because these subjects have entered into a new state that he calls that of the “anti-citizen”.

In 2005, Sartori was awarded with one of the most prestigious awards in Spain, the Premio Príncipe de Asturias de Ciencias Sociales. As the former Spanish president, José María Aznar said in his speech in Madrid in July 2005, “Sartori has described perfectly the difference between pluralism and multiculturalism: pluralism is respect for individual liberty, the laws of all and shared values. Multiculturalism is a risk that can easily give way to confrontation and encourage inequality”. During Aznar's conservative government (1998-2004), besides being one of the main partners of George Bush's War on Terror, Spain developed the most restrictive legislative reforms on immigration law, including the law 8/2000, law 11/2003 or law 14/2003 which linked immigration with security issues. During the Spanish presidency of the European Union, in the European Council Meeting in Seville in June 2002 a new direction was proposed for European institutions: the fight against illegal immigration should be shifted to the countries of origin, at the same time as demanding more coordinated and integrated management of external borders. 

In 2007, José María Aznar, this time at his Honoris Causa Doctor investiture ceremony at the Sacro Cuore University in Milan, stated that the biggest challenge that Europe and the west faced was the need to believe, “in their own values ​​and universal predicament”. He continued on the subject of gender: “I must say that it is not imperialism to desire that gender equality should be implemented in Milan, London or New York but also in Kabul, Baghdad or Tehran”. He followed this up with remarks on immigration, stating that, “each new immigrant who comes to Europe comes to share our values ​​and the principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition. (...) And the only way is to join the nations of Europe, in Italian society, French or Spanish, each with its history and its rich diversity”.

In February 2011, during the annual Munich Security Conference, the British Prime Minister David Cameron, while considering the need to distinguish between Islam and Islamic extremism, centred a major part of his speech on what Europe should do and what the UK is doing. He said,

“[W]e won't defeat terrorism simply by the actions we take outside our borders.  Europe needs to wake up to what is happening in our own countries. (…) Move along the spectrum, and you will find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist world-view including real hostility towards western democracy and liberal values.” 

On 27 September 2001, The Guardian published an article entitled ‘Berlusconi breaks ranks over Islam’. During a lightning visit to Berlin, the Italian president boasted of the “supremacy” and “superiority” of western civilisation and called on Europe to recognise its “common Christian roots”. Berlusconi was president of Italy during the years when restrictive (criminalizing) immigration policies such as the law Bosi-Fini No. 189 of 2002 were passed with the help of his extremist right wing partners of the Lega Nord and when secret repatriation agreements with Libya's Gaddafi were forged.

Both Berlusconi and the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy were involved in the mass expulsion of Roma and other ethnic minorities. When Sarkozy was interior minister between 2005 and 2007, numerous racist-police incidents took place in the banlieues of France. These incidents took place in the context of increasingly inflammatory speeches and pronouncements by Sarkozy, who referred to the young people in these areas as ‘racaille’ (‘scum’). Some years later, Sarkozy, first as a candidate and then as elected President of France, called for a “selective immigration” (referring to skilled workers coming from convenient origins) in contrast to “suffered immigration” (reunited relatives and unwanted migrants coming from certain other countries), through a filtering immigration system, control, containment and removal. The culmination of Sarkozy’s legislative efforts was the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum in 2008, and a zero tolerance policy against unintegrable migrants. The reinforcement of French national borders were the leitmotiv of his recent electoral campaign in 2012.

From the mythical Europa to the Kill Bill Europe

In late 2010, a European level joint operation called Hermes took place – Hermes being Olympus’ messenger, travelling from one country to another, hence the god of borders. It is interesting to notice that many of the operations carried out by Frontex, especially those in the Mediterranean, receive their names from European mythological beings: Hera, Aeneas, Hermes, Minerva, Argos, Mars, Hydra, Meteor, Jupiter, Mercure, Indalo, Nautilus, Poseidon, Zeus, etc. The idea of ‘new Europe’ as an originary ‘mythical Europa’ also underpins border control. These gods and goddesses will help police and military forces repel the ‘barbarian invasions’ from beyond Europe’s borders. The aim of this police operation was to simultaneously coordinate border agencies from all member states in order to identify illegal aliens in strategic transport stations. The results of the operation were published by the European Council in the Final Report 17816/10, 13 December, 2010, according to which between 11 and 17 October, 1,900 people identified themselves as irregular.

Early in 2012, a European Commission promotional video designed for youth in the member states and drawing on the same mythological sources had to be withdrawn, when it revealed rather more about the ‘idea of Europe’ than intended.

This strategy that legitimises the implementation of immigration regimes, in the sense that certain people need to be categorized and then governed in a certain way because of their putative ‘incompatibility’ with determined values such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom or security – is what we call orientalisation. Nowadays not only foreigners are caught under these regimes. Citizens such as young people, dissidents or activists -  whom Alessandro De Giorgi calls the ‘social surplus’ - are also categorized as problematic subjects that need to be contained.

Now seems to be the time for an urgent debate on how the European Union, with the cooperation of the member states and third countries, has implemented migration policies based on constructing the migrant as a ‘barbarian’, or ‘uncivilized’ subject. This subject is trying to break into Europe or is already inside, and therefore must be contained. In this sense, border policies in the European Union have strengthened an argument echoed by social movements and activists: the European Union, beyond its discourse of dedication to human rights, has built itself an immigration regime against the migrant ‘other’, implementing policies based on the ranking of legal status, on postcolonial practices, outsourcing, privatization and the selection of migrant origins. 


This article is an edited extract of ‘Orientalising citizenship: the legitimation of immigration regimes in the European Union’ which appeared in the Citizenship Studies 2012 special issue ‘Citizenship after orientalism: an unfinished project’. The referenced and complete essay can be found here. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 249379.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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