One could not have put it better than Idil Atak and Francois Crépau: ‘State authorities should admit that sealing borders is a phantasy: in democratic states, borders are porous by default and sealing them would require levels of control and violence incompatible with true democracy and the rule of law’.
Last weekend, shortly after the news emerged of another shipwreck killing hundreds south of Lampedusa, in Italy, the European Union’s communication machine sprang into action. While countless outraged European citizens called out the perceived failings of various European institutions and officials through their social media accounts, bureaucrats and politicians used the tragedy as a chance to get into the business of spin. During first reactions, Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy said that what was at stake was no less than ‘Europe’s credibility;’ the time has come to act. Italian PM Matteo Renzi stated that we ‘cannot remain impassive in front of systematic massacres in the Mediterranean.’ ‘The time has come for the European Union to address without delay such tragedies,’ reported Frederica Morgerini, head of the EU Foreign Affairs Office. Over a brief twenty minute period, the European Commission, its President Jean-Claude Junker and Commissioner Avramopoulos, reproduced in their tweets the same short statement published by the Commission on the subject:
‘The reality is stark and our actions must therefore be bold. These are human lives at stake, and the European Union as a whole has a moral and humanitarian obligation to act,’ this said.
An EU summit of Interior and Foreign Affairs Ministers was scheduled immediately while the new Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, packed his bags for Italy where, he met Angelino Alfano, Italy’s Interior Minister. There’s already a plan that will be ready next month, baptized a ‘new European Strategy on Immigration.’ ‘The only way to change the reality is to tackle the problem at its roots,’ the Commission says. ‘As long as there is war and hardship in our neighborhood, near and far, people will continue to seek a safe haven in European coasts. And as the origin and transit countries do not take measures to prevent these desperate journeys, people will continue to put their lives at risk.’
The ten point action plan produced by the Commission on 20 April sets the framework within which the solutions will be discussed today and over the coming months. In the face of tragedy, the Commission has opted for militarizing Europe’s external borders and further securitization of EU immigration policy. In this regard, by far the most interesting point out of the ten is the last one: ‘Deploy Immigration Liaison Officers (ILO) in the key third countries to gather intelligence on migratory flows and strengthen the role of the EU delegations.’ The common sentiment among experts discussing this option is that legal and political complications make it unlikely that a system, which will externalise population influxes, can function effectively in the coming years. As such, important questions emerge as to whether the real, yet undeclared, purpose of the new strategy, formally adopted by Commissioner Avramopoulos―who’s already designing trips to Morocco and Tunisia to promote it―is to prevent irregular transit to Europe.
A European Déjà Vu
We have been here before. Yet, European officials appear to practice politics in a historical vacuum, conveniently forgetting the previous ‘tragedy.’ On 3 December 2013, for instance, a boat carrying migrants and refugees from Misurata, Libya, to Europe capsized just outside Lampedusa. That day, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta tweeted: ‘this is a tragedy,’ while then Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström called for ’genuine European Solidarity beyond words.’ Then European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso rushed to Italy taking along €30 million in emergency aid for refugees.
What was the outcome? Again, the devil of the story was hidden in the details. Three weeks after the mass drownings, EU institutions and international organisations held the first of two extraordinary sessions of the Task Force for the Mediterranean, creating the ‘European Response’ of Barroso to the ‘tragedy.’ This Task Force provided a vehicle through which EU conservatives promoted the militarization of EU external borders and a policy of externalization. In so doing, it tied into the nascent Eurosur, which had been formally launched just weeks earlier on the 29 November 2013. Branded once again as a ‘truly European response that would save the lives of immigrants’ who risked their lives coming to Europe ‘on unseaworthy boats,’ Eurosur is the epitome of the EU’s long-term project of creating an architecture of surveillance at Europe’s external borders; rescue operations were never a priority of those who conceived and implemented it.
The European Politics of Death
Promoting reactionary policies dressed up with words of grief seems to have become a habit. The cynicism of European officials has transformed EU immigration policy into a project that manages human tragedy as political opportunity. It has long roots. Back in 2008, European leaders constituted the Pact on Immigration and Asylum, interrupting the practice of mass regularization and forming the basis for common mechanisms of repatriation. Such mechanisms later produced the notorious Returns Directive, which set the framework of administrative detention.
This legislative evolution has produced the infrastructure for EU member states to manage population influxes. It typically includes first reception centers, asylum systems, pre-removal centers, repatriation projects, and a range of informal measures, which the Commission has allowed silently for years to occur. Refoulement, inappropriate detention conditions, and human rights violations have all occurred in operations the EC paid generously for while turning a blind eye to the problems. This system is not engineered to control a refugee crisis in a way limiting the burden for EU states.
The Limits of a System
With the new tragedies, European leaders, at an emergency meeting on Mediterranean migrant crisis due to be held today in Brussels, will have to innovate policy once again, likely citing humanitarian excuses to as a means to sever the last road left to those who want to reach Europe, locking refugees and migrants in the chaos that the EU has co-created in the Middle East and Northern Africa. As news emerges of ‘tougher’ rhetoric still―a cap on the numbers permitted to stay who make it safely to our shores―it’s unclear what is to be done. The UN special rapporteur has called for a far more radical solution, of burden sharing. Yet, within the political that uses human tragedy to further militarize border controls and externalize refugee flows, such compassionate thinking has no place. We need a whole new politics of migration, and for that citizens must act.