European Frontex migrant search and rescue mission in Mediterranean Sea, off coast of Spain, August, 2015. Francisco Seco / Press Association. All rights reserved.Over 3,000 migrants have died at sea on their way to Europe this year, up from about 2,000 in the same period last year. Facing such a horrific death toll, one would expect the main response would be to do everything to prevent such deaths, notably by providing safe routes for people to seek refuge, yet the EU's response has focused instead on increased and militarised border security – less concerned with saving peoples’ lives than preventing people from entering the EU.
Why has the EU reacted in such an inhumane way? Well there are obviously a range of reasons. The toxic mix of austerity and perceived insecurity in the wake of terrorist attacks, for example, has been a major recruiting tool for far-right groups and made politicians across Europe fear being perceived as lax on border security.
However, it is also important to follow the money. In this case, there is clearly one group of interests that have only benefited from the refugee crisis and the European Union’s investment in ‘securing’ its borders. They are the military and security companies that provide equipment to border guards, the surveillance technology to monitor frontiers, and the IT infrastructure to track population movements.
A new report by Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel, Border Wars, shows that since the start of the twenty first century, the EU has provided billions of euros for border security and control measures in both member states and neighbouring countries, creating huge profits for large European arms companies, including Airbus, Finmeccanica and Thales. Among the main beneficiaries of border security contracts are some of the biggest arms sellers to the Middle East and North Africa, who fuel the conflicts that force many people from their home countries in the first place.
Human rights organisations and experts have repeatedly warned that the EU's current response to the refugee crisis will only lead to more suffering and violence against refugees, who will be forced to use even more dangerous routes to safety. Yet the EU remains deaf to such criticism, just as it denies its responsibility for the drivers of migration.
The majority of people arriving in the EU come from the war-torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, where European and broader western interventions and policies, including the arms trade, have added to violence and chaos. EU arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa, worth over 80 billion euros in the last decade, are fuelling war (Yemen, Syria), armed conflicts (Iraq, Turkey, Libya) and human rights violations (Egypt, Saudi Arabia).
The military and security industry is not only a beneficiary, it increasingly shapes European border policy with persistent lobbying on border security and control policies, and calls for more funding for research and purchases in this field. What has emerged is a European border security industrial complex where the interests of European securocrats and the profits of military companies are increasingly aligned.
In the past weeks, the militarisation of our borders has strengthened considerably. The European Parliament approved the transformation of Frontex – the European agency for the coordination of operations at external borders – into a European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which will have control over member states border security efforts and a more active role as a border guard itself. Hungary deployed thousands of soldiers and police at its border with Serbia to push back refugees, with reports of violence and abuse.
The migration deal with Turkey remains under severe criticism of human rights organisations, because of (lethal) violence against and deportations of Syrian refugees. The fragile political situation in Turkey itself, in the wake of the failed coup that is leading to increasing repression, offers few prospects for improvement.
Along with strengthening its own borders, the EU is also looking to export its borders to ‘third’ countries, with new controversial plans to use some 100 million euros development aid money to fund foreign armies outside the EU, to participate in border security. Even cooperation with the dictatorial regimes of Sudan and Eritrea is being considered.
The EU's treatment of refugees violates human rights, including the fundamental right to seek asylum, and is contrary to international law. It needs to change course and put the lives and fundamental rights of refugees first. This means acknowledging its part in fuelling the drivers of migration and working to stop them, including the establishment of an embargo on arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa. It requires a halt in militarisation of border security, either in Europe or outside. And most of all it needs to be based on welcome refugees trying to find safety and a liveable future to the EU.
Instead of listening to the military and security industry's lobbying for ever more border security projects, the EU needs to honour its human rights and international obligations.