Letter From Brussels

Murders on the Borders

Julie Robert

Thursday, 3rd of October, Lampedusa, a little island south of Italy: a boat carrying more than 400 Somalian refugees sank in the middle of the night: 359 dead. A few days later, this time off Malta, another boat, this one coming from Syria, sank on a Friday afternoon: more than 30 dead. Both were heading for Lampedusa, an island in the middle of the Mediterranean that is considered a privileged entry point for the immigrants coming from Asia and Africa. All these people had left their country and, risking their lives, embarked on makeshift boats to try and reach Europe. They all have various reasons to flee: poverty, war, harassment. The number of accidents keeps on increasing year after year. Since 1993, more than 18,000 people died trying to reach Europe, among which 4,000 died during the last two years. In fact, the road to Europe is becoming more and more dangerous. Why is it so?

On 14 June 1985, five of the then ten European Union member states signed the Schengen Agreement. This agreement, named after the small city of Luxembourg where it had been signed, led to the creation of the Schengen Area on 26 March 1995. Today, it comprises 26 European countries that have abolished passport and immigration controls at their common borders. In 1995, it was a revolution as every citizen of one of these counties could now travel to the other countries freely. All these countries function as a single unit for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy. The other side of the coin is that joining Schengen entails the strengthening of external border controls with non-Schengen states. Opening the internal borders, and closing the external borders... One can even find the premise of this policy in the Treaty of Rome, where one reads that'... fostering the free movement of people has been an important objective of European integration since the 1950s. Free movement of goods, people, services and capital were identified as foundations of the Community ...'. So here it's... Let's talk about Frontex.

For more than ten years now, the European Union is at war against an enemy it has invented. Its migratory policy has led to the designation of a common enemy : the refugees. Yet, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in its article 13 : 'Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country'. But never mind, Europe is leading this war, as if it is threatened by an invasion. Yet, the international migration has remained stable for the last fifty years. Frontex is at the end of the numerous measures taken over the years: restrictive delivery of visas, building of walls and fences, militarized control of the borders, forced expulsions towards the country of origin, and so on. Frontex was created in 2004. After the conclusion of the Schengen Agreement, all the countries agreed to introduce the principle of cooperation and coordination of the work of the police and judicial authorities. Going further, in 2009, they decided to strengthen cooperation in the specific area of migration, asylum and security. All this resulted, in 2004, in the creation of Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union. Based in Warsaw, the main admitted aim of the agency is to secure the external borders of the EU. It is responsible for coordinating the activities of the national border guards in ensuring the security of the borders with non-member states. Frontex protects EU external borders from illegal immigration and from 'infiltration' into Europe.

Frontex is described by different intellectuals as a nearly clandestine military organisation. The annual budget of the agency has been multiplied twenty times in five years from 6 million euros in 2006 to 118 million euros in 2011. In 2010, the agency had 26 helicopters, 22 light aircrafts, 113 ships and 476 'technical devices' at its disposal. Besides its army of guards, Frontex is an intelligence agency as and it has police, military and diplomatic connections with the other European countries. More-over, it has concluded technical cooperation agreements with countries like Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Morocco and Azerbaijan. Making the borders 'intelligent' is another mission of Frontex. With a budget of 2 billion euros, the agency is developing, in collaboration with arm manufacturers, new technologies to make the borders more 'intelligent' : thermal security cameras, motion and heat detectors, drone systems, etc. With passing years, Frontex is becoming more and more independent. Thereby, it is also less and less transparent as it is not accountable to anyone. Frontex can sign agreements with third countries, to organise joint return flights, and since the revision of its mandate in 2011, it can share personal data with Europol (short for European Police Office) and initiate ground and maritime operation to control the borders. Eurosur, created in the same revision of 2011, has been thought of as a pan-European border surveillance system. It uses high tech systems to militarise the external borders of the European Union to limit the entries of migrants.

Frontex uses all this paraphernalia to keep an eye everywhere, and to intervene. But, as people have seen in the recent past, not to save lives. How can it be that with all these devices deployed, the agency did not see what was happening? How can it be that it did not take action and save all those people who were drowning a few miles away from the coast? In fact, no one really knows.

For a few days, all the politicians shed crocodile tears. Then, they started pointing at culprits: the boatmen, the mafia, the human traffickers, etc. They also talked about some fishermen, who might have seen the sinking ship and did nothing. Some politician even asked to find and punish them for 'failure to assist a person in danger'. But have they forgotten the case of those seven Tunisian fishermen? In 2007, they rescued migrants whose boat was sinking, took them on board and drove them to Lampedusa. Accused of having subserved the irregular entry of foreigners on Italian soil, they have been prosecuted by Italian justice, put in jail and their boat sequestered. After having pointed out potential culprits, just six days after the tragedy, the European commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecila Malmstrom showed her colours stating that: the solution to prevent the deaths offshore is to speed up the establishment of Eurosur to better monitor the refugees' boats, and to invest additional means to launch a big operation in the Mediterranean sea under the aegis of Frontex.

Unfortunately, Frontex's mission has nothing to do with any kind of rescue operations. The project of strengthening the agency and giving it more money will only toughen the possibilities of entry for the migrants. But one should not be mistaken. Shutting down European's boundaries will not stop people from trying to come in. The only thing one can be sure of is that it will force the migrants to take more and more risks.

What about Belgium? Europe is turning itself into a fortress, but is every European country following the same path? Talking about Belgium, this Country is not directly involved in the European struggle for the security of its maritime boundary as it only has a few miles of coastline. Nevertheless, Belgium is also at war and is aiming at the total control of the migration. Last month, the minister in charge of the immigration was very proud to announce that between January and August last year, more than 8400 asylum requests have been rejected. Moreover, because of the new asylum policy adopted in 2012, the numbers of asylum requests are steadily decreasing. But this topic has already been evoked in one of the previous Letter from Brussels (Rows and Rows of Fences...). There is not a day without a flight carrying Afghans, Congolese, Syrians and Albanians back to their countries. A few weeks ago, Aref, a young Afghan (22) arrived in Brussels because he feared for his life in his country. His asylum request had been rejected. The Belgian authorities found that his fear of the Taliban was not credible and that his neighbourhood, close to Kabul, was not dangerous. He then 'lived' during a few weeks in a station in the centre of Brussels, before agreeing to go back on the basis of a 'voluntary return' which includes the payment, by the government, of the plane ticket and a return allowance. At the beginning of October, Aref was shot down by the Taliban.

If 18,000 deaths in twenty years cannot make them change their minds and hearts, what will?

Vol. 46, No. 28, Jan 19 - 25, 2014

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