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'Fortress Europe' Migrant Policy Exposes True “European Values”

Updated: May 23

In 1951, after the atrocities of the Second World War, Europe and the United States formulated the Refugee Convention, to guarantee protection for people fleeing persecution. The egregious caveat in the convention was its intentional exclusion of people from Majority World countries – many of which were still clasped by colonial powers. In 1967 these geographic limitations were dissolved by the Refugee Protocol which – in theory - guarantees protection to people fleeing conflict or persecution regardless of their nationality.

However, in practice, international refugee law remains colonial and white supremacist. If this weren't the case, inhuman border regimes would not exist. Today, Europe situates itself on the international stage as a continent committed to upholding human rights. The European Union lauds itself as a “firm promotor and defender of human rights and democracy across the world”, postulating that every person and child unequivocally deserves dignity and human rights. But these values are superficial and apply only to those whom the EU chooses to see. When considering how the EU’s border control agencies operate, the “universality” of human rights does not appear to journey beyond its borders. 

On 23 February, the EU and the United Kingdom signed a deal to join forces in their conspiracy to “stop the small boats” arriving on European shores. Political debate across Europe has been dominated by talks of tackling illegal immigration and border crimes, with the EU spending €845 million on Frontex, its largest border control agency in 2023, whilst erstwhile EU member UK is now pledging to share intelligence and train border control officials with Frontex. Human smugglers charge people thousands of pounds to be transported across the Mediterranean to Europe and for many of those being trafficked, this journey is unsuccessful and even fatal. Demonising human smugglers allows Europe to evade accountability for the harm caused by its draconian border regimes. Met with the impossibility of travelling to Europe legally, people are left with little option but to take clandestine routes carved out by trafficking networks. 

The security agency, Frontex, guards the EU’s external borders. Held up by the EU as its largest and fastest-growing agency, Frontex is responsible for monitoring and preventing irregular migration and cross-border crime at EU borders. It has a carte blanche from the EU to acquire any surveillance tools and equipment it may desire. On its website, Frontex explains how every year, thousands of people are sent by remorseless smugglers on treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean, attempting to reach the European Union. Often, sixty-five or more people are crammed onto dinghies that have the capacity for no more than fifteen people, are scarcely equipped with enough life jackets, food, or water, and are almost inevitably doomed to meet danger on the waters. This is why, Frontex states, “it is crucial to spot people in distress at sea before it is too late.” Accordingly, through its diligent aerial surveillance of the Mediterranean Sea, Frontex boasts that it assisted in rescuing 24,000 people last year. Scrutinising this claim, however, it seems that using the term “rescuing” is quite misleading. Especially considering that the same number of people have died in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. These deaths were preventable, and Frontex is culpable. 

In 2019, navy patrols in the Central Mediterranean were replaced by the EU with aerial surveillance carried out by Frontex. With this distance from the sea, Frontex can manipulate the outcome of rescue for boats spotted in the sea. NGO front-Lex, investigating how Frontex violates European law, human rights, and maritime law, believes that by intentionally and cunningly withdrawing assets from locations where refugees are anticipated to be in distress, Frontex is guilty of “killing by omission”. Front-lex’s investigation also uncovered that Frontex has taken refugees and migrants from safety and put them in the middle of the sea to be captured by Libyan coast guards – a complete breach of international law that prohibits people from being returned to a place that endangers their lives. In June 2020, seventy people on a dinghy left Garabulli, Libya hoping to safely reach Lampedusa, Italy. As refugees in Libya, they had endured extreme brutality from the Libyan militia. Whilst at sea, they report having seen a white aircraft (Frontex aerial surveillance) overhead but received no help from nearby cargo ships; instead, they were intercepted by a Libyan coast guard vessel and returned to Libya, where they faced arbitrary detention and torture. At least two people died in the process.

Not only is this a blatant and horrific breach of international law, it also contravenes Frontex’s own code: to “not cooperate with Libyan authorities in any capacity”. Frontex does cooperate with the Libyan authorities. In fact, Frontex strives to connect with Libyan authorities. Libya’s rudimentary Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) makes it hard for Frontex aerial surveillance to contact them. When orthodox communication between Frontex and Libya’s MRCC fails, the agency has resorted to using WhatsApp to alert Libyan coastguards of refugees spotted on seas heading to the EU. Excerpts of a WhatsApp conversation, released by Frontex following a freedom of information request, reads as so grotesquely facetious, it is as though they were discussing what to make for dinner, not deciding the fate of innocent people wanting nothing more than safety. The conversations make it unequivocal that Frontex stalls the rescue of people on migrant boats by European vessels so that the Libyan coast guard can intercept and haul refugees back to Libya, with full knowledge of the fate that awaits migrants in Libya. Praised and supported by the EU, Frontex enjoys complete impunity for its actions.

Libya is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Libyan authorities limit who the UNHCR can register as refugees to just nine nationalities. Regulation of Libyan detention centres is entirely and deliberately defunct, with no way of truly knowing who is inside. Journalist Sally Haden’s book My Fourth Time, We Drowned powerfully exposes the grotesque reality of the thousands of refugees trapped in Libyan detention centres. In these detention centres, people have been separated from their families, assaulted, sexually abused, beaten, starved, murdered, and denied even the most basic humane conditions. Haden’s book makes for a chilling read. In a recent Der Spiegel investigation, a Somali man who had been detained in Abu Issa detention centre explained how, “On good days, he ate 18 pieces of macaroni pasta. On other days, he sucked on toothpaste.” 

According to a fact sheet published in June 2021 by the European Commission, the EU has so far spent almost €60 million in Libya to prevent refugees from travelling from Libya to Europe. This includes the EU training and equipping Libyan coastguards to intercept boats of refugees hoping to reach Europe. Further investigations of EU spending in Libya reveal that a significant portion of the EU Trust Fund for Africa ends up financing and empowering Libyan militias, thus enabling the dysfunctionality of the Libyan state and permitting the horrific treatment of refugees in Libyan detention centres. What is more, the NGOs that visit the detention sites receive the majority of their funding from the same European countries calling for Libya to prevent migration from its coast to Europe. Feeling - and frankly, being - abandoned and ignored by the international community, people surviving in Libyan detention centres are left with a choice: to spend a lifetime separated from their family, languishing in detention; or to pay smugglers thousands of pounds and endanger their life to cross the sea and arrive on the shores of the continent that “believes in human rights”. Once at sea, there are four possible outcomes: to drown; to be recaptured by Libyan coast guards and returned to detention; to arrive on European shores and successfully claim asylum; or to arrive on European shores and face such hostility and xenophobia that it completely overpowers the human rights and dignity Europe claims to provide to everyone.   

Europe is the desired destination for refugees based on the precept that Europe is a “firm promotor and defender of human rights and democracy across the world” – an identity that Europe has awarded itself. An identity that is superficial and even sadistic when considering Europe’s border and asylum regimes. Over 50,000 people have been killed by militarised European border policies since 1993, financed by taxpayers’ money. All the known deaths are recorded and published by the organisation United Against Refugee Deaths. It is a harrowing statistic. Most of all, it shows that the EU is in no way a defender of human rights and democracy around the world.

Image: Photo by Ggia, dust spots/scratches removed by Kim Hansen. Edges cropped due to scan. Further restoration improvements using masks by Ggia.

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