Europe’s Borders and the Continuing Migrant Crisis

Europe’s borders seem to be constantly in the headlines. Unfortunately, these headlines bring with them harrowing stories of human survival. The latest story that has been developing at Europe’s frontier is situated on the border of Poland (the EU) and Belarus.

The Current situation

Let me briefly summarise the current debacle. 2020 saw the Belarus leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, win the government’s general election with an impressive 80% of the vote. However, it is not really impressive as the election, and Lukashenko, were lambasted with accusations of fraud. The people of Belarus were not pleased with their government’s behavior, so protests ensued. Lukashenko, being an autocratic leader and ally of Russia, forcefully suppressed these protests.

The EU, as the ‘supposed’ global leader on human rights and liberties, imposed sanctions on Belarus for their farcical election and the manner in which they handled demonstrators. Thus, the tension between Lukashenko and the EU rises. Lukashenko wants these sanctions lifted. So, what does he do? He decides to politically weaponize migrants. How? He allowed thousands of displaced people from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria (mostly ethnic Kurds), into Belarus – he literally granted people visas and one-way tickets to Minsk (Belarus’ capital).

Lukashenko knows most of these migrants want to move on to greener, wealthier pastures (i.e. the EU). There are reports of Belarusian busses literally taking migrants to the Polish border and instructing them to cross. The result is thousands of migrants camped in the forest by the Polish border. Those brave enough to cross are met with tear gas and water cannons. It is a dire situation.

Now you are caught up on the current situation. The point of this article is not to analyze this story that is currently in the news. The sad fact is that this is merely one of many, many stories of migrants seeking to enter the EU. It is not more, or less, important than any of the other instances of people desperately trying to cross the border, many of which pay with their lives. The real story is about the border itself and the EU’s attitude toward it.

Europe’s Borders

Would you believe that there is an entire academic field devoted to the study of borders? The academic literature uses the term “borderscapes” rather than borders. It takes a more inclusive, dynamic, and multi-dimensional view of borders. For example, the EU border is dynamic, not rigid, when new countries join it is altered. Academics also explain how there are in fact three types of borders, paper, iron, and camp.

Paper refers to the passport and visa systems that determine whether or not you enter a country. Iron is the traditional physical border marking the boundary of a country’s territory. Finally, camp borders are the refugee camps and direct provision centres we know so well from the media. Whilst asylum seekers are in these camps, they might physically be in a country, but they are not officially in it. Each one of them serves the same purpose – they are mechanisms put in place to keep people out.

The EU has the most sophisticated and expensive paper, iron, and camp (external) border systems in the world. The irony here is the contrast between these systems and the EU’s internal borders. The Schengen Treaty, first signed in 1985, eradicated internal borders between EU member states, allowing the free movement of people and goods between countries. Basically, the EU aims to bring all those within the union together, in an open and cohesive society, whilst simultaneously taking the most extreme measures to keep others out. It seems to promote two separate ideals.

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The EU’s Deadly Perimeter

There are a number of entry points migrants use when trying to make it into Europe illegally. The typical routes traveled by migrants are through, Western Africa (to the Canary Islands), and North Africa (Morocco or Algeria into Spain or Italy), from Albania to Greece, and via the Western Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Eastern land borders (i.e Belarus to Poland).

The main mode of transport through these routes is by foot, or by boat. However, there have been high-profile stories of migrants being smuggled in via trucks, and there was even one harrowing story of a man traveling from Nigeria to the UK in the wheel of a plane! The home countries of these migrants have been decimated by violent conflict and oppressive leaders. Can you imagine how dire the situation must be in their countries of origin if walking from Middle Africa to Europe is a better alternative?

Unfortunately, once migrants leave their tumultuous countries of origin, their treacherous journey is only just the beginning. The EU’s external border is the deadliest on the planet. Since the early 90s, an estimated 37,000 people have died attempting to make it to the EU. Almost all of them have been African or Middle-eastern. A disturbing number of these migrants drown or disappear at sea, suffocate in trucks, or die of hypothermia. 22,748 migrants have died in the Mediterranean region alone since 2014 (at least 848 have been children).

So far in 2021, 1,465 people have been reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean sea, and 785 have died in the Atlantic. 2016 holds a depressing record for the highest recorded annual death toll of refugees coming to Europe – 4,900 people.

What is Europe’s Answer?

These fatality numbers indicate that human life is being disregarded at an alarming rate. So, what is being done to lessen this humanitarian crisis? Well, let’s have a look.

In 2018, the Global Compact on Migration was adopted by most of the world’s nations. It is a non-binding statement of principles where governments committed “to save lives and prevent migrant deaths” by ensuring search and rescue, and also by reviewing various policies and laws that put migrants at greater risk. 29 countries in total did not adopt the compact, five of which are member states of the EU. In fact, EU countries and institutions are actively pursuing policies that endanger lives.

Countries along the European Mediterranean coast are actually obstructing and even criminalising non-governmental rescue groups. 12 member states have demanded further preventative measures including more walls and fences on the periphery.

The UK has tried to amend its already draconian nationality and borders bill, introducing a provision that gives border staff immunity from prosecution if they fail to save lives at sea. To combat the situation in Poland, the Polish government passed a law that instructs authorities to turn back refugees at the border. As mentioned previously in this article, this has led to the crisis on the border, with a number of deaths.

A group of investigative journalists in South-East Europe (Croatia and Greece) uncovered that these countries have been using a “shadow army”rmed groups, linked to the respective countries’ security forces, wearing balaclavas and plainclothes to forcefully turn back migrants at the borders. These are EU member states! It is almost unbelievable.

The Italy and Libya Agreement

In 2017, a Memorandum of Understating was signed between Italy and Libya (which is in Africa). It made reference to illegal immigration, human trafficking, smuggling, and reinforcement of border security. Italy’s prime minister agreed to support and finance the development of programmes, and the technical and technological aspects of the agreement. So, what exactly does that entail?

‘Operation Sophia’, implemented on the coast of Libya, was one of the results. As part of the operation, Italian forces trained Libyan coastguards, who already have a history of violence against migrants. In spite of Libya’s poor human rights record, the EU still wants them to halt refugees. The goal is, if Italy can get the refugees to never leave Libya to begin with, they can avoid EU obligations, under international law of non-refoulment (i.e. not returning refugees to their home countries).

Furthermore, the EU finances unofficial migrant centres in Libya, under Libyan control. These camps are reportedly rampant with rape, torture, slavery, forced labour, and trafficking. The Memorandum also includes the funding and securitisation of Libya’s southern land border control system, to stop migrants even getting into Libya. This border is with Chad (another African nation).

I already mentioned the various types of borders (Paper, Iron, and Camp). This situation between Italy and Libya is the EU financing and developing both iron and camp borders in Africa. Effectively, the Libya-Chad border is being developed as an EU border. It sets a dangerous precedent and begs the question: where will it end?

Stricter and harsher border controls don’t change what is happening in the migrants’ countries of origin. Therefore, these displaced people will always try to get into Europe. Militarising the borders and using more advanced technology will only result in migrants taking more dangerous risks to get in.

Why So Desperate to Keep Migrants Out?

We discussed how the EU promotes two contrasting ideologies. An internal, cosmopolitanism between all the member states with the freedom of movement and goods, and the promotion of the idea of “Europeanness”. Yet, keep all of the ‘others’ out at all costs. So why is this? Why is a supposedly progressive and liberal union taking drastic measures to ensure exclusion?

To put it simply, the media have a big part to play. Frontex, the EU’s border agency, has been accused of their misleading use of visuals on their maps. The maps I refer to, I’m sure you have seen, show a distorted representation of undocumented migrants approaching Europe. The maps include huge, alarming red arrows all descending on the continent. These maps are then taken by the media where they are accompanied by trigger words like “invasion” and “swarms”.


Source: Frontex

5In actual fact, undocumented migrants make up only between 0.1% and 0.7% of the EU’s total population. Not exactly enough people to mount an invasion. Either way, the reader, or viewer is exposed to this visual which leaves them fearful and worried. A good example is the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015. It was one of the most heavily mediated world events of the last decade. The “crisis” was heavily pushed, images of people washing up on shores, shipwrecks, etc. Unfortunately, this is what sells.

The media’s exaggeration of the issue mixed with a number of terrorist attacks (many of them carried out by EU citizens) has left the EU population worried about outsiders disrupting or invading their countries. This has resulted in a worrying increase in popularity for right-wing populist parties all across Europe. A clear manifestation of this fear-mongering was Brexit.

To Sum Up

There have always been, and always will be, borders. Borders and people to keep out go hand in hand. The EU and its internal border system promote an almost utopian society. Yet, their external border is plagued with sorrow and death. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution on how to fix this problem. But, perhaps less fear-mongering by the media could lead to populist parties gaining less popularity and ultimately less pressure on the EU to make their external border so deadly.

Ronan Kirby
Ronan Kirby

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