No moral high ground while Europe pursues a policy of death at its borders

Europe’s treatment of migrants and refugees at its border is in clear contradiction to its alleged defense of human rights and against international law

February 27, 2022 by Martin Aidnik
Rescue operation on the Mediterranean Sea carried out by MSF in August 2020. Photo: MSF/Hannah Wallace Bowman

Europe’s treatment of refugees has come under increased scrutiny over the last several years. Brute force, deterrence, including push backs and barbed wire fences have become the instruments with which European governments have used to respond to the influx of irregular migration and refugees. Far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orban have exerted a decisive influence on the politics behind this response. This has been accompanied by the rise of far-right groups and parties which have over the last decade have swayed opinions of large sections of populations across Europe. It is a sharp contrast from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s initially stated welcoming attitude towards refugees (Wir Schaffen das, We can do it). The “Fortress Europe” mentality which has become mainstream speaks to a callous disregard for humanity with authoritarian tendencies.

Although Member States of the European Union repeatedly chose to circumvent supranational institutions in order to stem the tide of refugees, they have been emboldened by the conduct of the EU. The Mediterranean can be considered the deadliest border in the world. It is the veritable global epicenter of lethal border crossings.

Outsourcing border control to Libya

Over the past years, as the EU and its Member States have decreased their maritime search and rescue operations, the Libyan Coast Guard has increased its role in intercepting migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea and returning them to Libya. In 2020, at least 10,352 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard, compared to at least 8,403 in 2019.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeatedly stressed that Libya cannot be considered a safe place for the return or disembarkation of migrants intercepted or rescued at sea. Furthermore, such returns may constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution. Migrants returned to Libya systematically face the risk of death, disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment and gender-based violence by both State and non-State actors.

::Watch this discussion for more on the impact of the NATO-led invasion of Libya::

Pressure from the EU and Italy has been decisive in making Libya more proactive in search and rescue/interception operations. The country has also dramatically increased their search and rescue zone, barring NGOs from entering their waters.

Among the EU’s machinations with Libya is the unlawful policy whereby the Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) flight crews or drones provide coordinates of refugee vessels to the Libyan coast crew for interception (or so-called ‘pull-backs’). This coordination has paved the way for Member States’ further human rights violations (for instance, Greece’s decision to stop accepting asylum applications in 2020). This strategy has relied on a denial of Europe’s responsibility for Libyan coast guard operations. Brussels and Rome have flouted international law in the name of controlling migration.

Table 1. Migrant deaths by route from 2014 to August 12, 2021 (IOM Missing Migrants Project 2021).

The violations of non-refoulement principle through cooperation with the Libyan state and criminalization of NGO search and rescue operations are some of the key policies that exemplify what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called the “lethal disregard” shown by the current EU’s migration regime. It thus should not come as a surprise that a recent inquiry into search and rescue and the protection of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea, titled “Lethal Disregard: Search and rescue and the protection of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea,” argued that the real tragedy of the death and damage along the central Mediterranean route is that so much of it is preventable. If saving lives was a priority, then, Frontex would be above all else a rescue agency instead of a border-patrolling security enforcement at the EU’s external border. Nation states and Frontex would clearly also cooperate with NGOs. However, in reality, Italy and Spain have criminalized a large part of the search and rescue activities of NGOs.

At Europe’s doorstep, the Mediterranean, the EU’s and the nation states’ defense of territorial sovereignty is prevailing against humanitarian efforts to save lives. Those who dare to try to enter Europe’s closed border risk perishing. This is a calamity which continues daily — each new sunken vessel fails to bring change. Sporadic, ritualized mourning attended by Europe’s political classes fails to conceal that racialized refugee lives matter little in Europe and for the EU.

Passing responsibility for these (avoidable) deaths on smugglers or blaming refugees’ recklessness means that European institutions and states often shirk theirs. The EU, as a force for a better, more livable world, is on its way to becoming irrelevant, something that was obvious well before the COVID-19 pandemic. This is what is principally at stake today, rather than the Union’s ability to survive an authoritarian nationalist turn in Europe, which has not helped its cause.

The refugee calamity that occurred at the border of Poland and Belarus in December 2021 is another instance of ‘hardening of hearts’ towards people seeking access to Europe. Refugees from mainly Iraq but also from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries were trapped in a no man’s land between Poland and Belarus in sub-zero temperatures, with limited access to food, water and shelter. Regular push backs of refugees were carried out by Polish border guards. At least 21 deaths were recorded along the border areas in this period. This signifies a declining importance of the 1951 Refugee Convention which shaped the humanitarian refugee policy of postwar Europe. The right to seek and be given refuge was an integral part of this policy. But 70 years on, proliferating barriers and fences together with a defensive rhetoric testify to far harsher conditions on the increasingly inward-looking continent.

The freezing to death of 19 refugees at the beginning of this month near the border of Greece and Turkey should dispel hopes that 2022 will be different and more hospitable. Circumstances surrounding this tragic incident remain unclear: Greece denies that its guards deliberately pushed people back across the border to deny them entry. Instead, the country argues that Turkey should shoulder the blame for its inability to stop vulnerable people undertaking such a dangerous journey. What we, however, do know is that another 12 lives have been lost at the hands of either state violence or criminal state negligence. The impunity of violent states and the suffering inflicted by border enforcement practices continues unabated in Europe.

Martin Aidnik is an Estonian sociologist and Postdoctoral Fellow at Nottingham University, England. His interests include European Studies and Utopian Social Thought.

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