Fortress Europe – the death toll rises

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The EU is reorganising its border controls, in an effort to maintain the divide between workers of oppressed and imperialist countries and to contain the consequences of its overt and covert wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Britain and other European imperialist powers rely on super-profits extracted from oppressed countries, with rates of return from UK Foreign Direct Investment of 9% in Africa and 13% in Asia in 2014, compared to 5% returns on FDI in the UK, and a net transfer of £45bn each year out of Africa. To protect this super-exploitation European imperialist states do whatever is necessary to prevent people from oppressed countries from moving where better wages and conditions are available, and to limit their rights if they manage to get there. But people on the move continue to resist these restrictions, leading to a constant struggle at Europe’s borders.

Europe’s borders: deadlier than ever

By the start of November 2016 at least 4,220 people had died trying to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe this year – already higher than the total for 2015 despite lower numbers making the crossing. People are driven to move for a variety of reasons – war, political repression, poverty and, very significantly, the chaos in Libya following the NATO bombardment in 2011, which has left the country divided between three warring factions and migrants prey to abduction and forced labour. The EU and its member states continue to focus on border control, while in many cases rescuing migrants from the sea is left to NGOs, activists and informal networks. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has rescued over 24,000 people from the southern Mediterranean over the last two years. A major report published by the MEDMIG project in November, Destination Europe? Understanding the dynamics and drivers of Mediterranean migration in 2015, identifies the role of European states in creating the desperate situation facing migrants and refugees: ‘the “crisis” was, in large part, policy driven and sustained by the failure of the EU to put in place adequate and humane responses to deal with this unprecedented but also foreseeable movement of people’.

The EU–Turkey deal signed in March provides for the deportation of migrants en masse from Greece to Turkey and provides Turkey with funding to prevent migrants reaching Europe. This has enabled a coordinated campaign of violence against migrants, which has reduced the number of people entering Europe while pushing people to use more dangerous routes and thereby increasing the death toll. This alliance is now being presented as a blueprint for agreements with North African countries. On 23 August an agreement was signed for EU navies to train Libyan coastguards as part of EU Navfor Med, also known as Operation Sophia, which involves military action including boarding and destruction of ships and arrest of migrants at sea. So far Libyan coastguards report they have already returned more than 11,000 people who attempted to cross to Europe. Agreements are also in place with Tunisia and Morocco. At the start of November the German interior ministry proposed establishing a system whereby migrants picked up in the Mediterranean by European coastguards or navies can be transported to camps in Tunisia, Egypt or other north African states, justified by the argument that removing any prospect of reaching Europe would deter people from trying to cross.

Europe’s border camps

Greek islands like Lesvos have been turned into open air prisons, with thousands of people trapped on the five main islands between the Greek and Turkish mainland. These are being used to test a new EU mechanism of the ‘hotspot’ – sites for the coordination of national state agencies, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the EU border agency FRONTEX, the European Police (Europol), and the European Judicial Cooperation Unit (Eurojust). On arrival at Lesvos migrants are registered and detained for 25 days in the closed detention centre of Moria, where thousands are held in overcrowded conditions. After this period they are allowed to move around the island but are prevented from leaving, other than via deportation to Turkey: they are barred from boarding any of the regular ferries connecting the island to the Greek mainland and the port has become a militarised zone. Migrants have staged regular protests on the Greek islands, and on 19 September an uprising broke out in the Moria centre on Lesvos, ending with much of the centre burnt to the ground.

Migrants continue to travel through the Balkans, despite the announcement on 9 March 2016 by European Council President Donald Tusk that this route into the EU was now ‘closed’ – while tens of thousands are stranded in Greece; The Guardian estimates 24,790 people passed through Serbia and into Europe between March and the end of August. They are subject to repeated violence by police and in some cases smugglers, and are accommodated in transit camps where conditions are often poor.

Criminalising solidarity

The MEDMIG report exposes the lie that most of those helping to smuggle people across borders are part of organised crime networks – instead they show the ‘traffickers’ targeted by NATO and the EU to be largely people who are part of local communities and migrants’ social networks and are trying to help desperate people to overcome the restrictions imposed by Europe’s borders. All acts of solidarity are now coming under attack. Individual volunteers rescuing migrants at sea have been arrested by Greek authorities on charges of trafficking, while organisations including MSF and Sea-Eye have been attacked by Libyan coastguards. Activist networks assisting migrants continue to develop, like the Alarm Phone organisation that coordinates rescue efforts and sends credit to satellite phones on refugee boats so they can keep making distress calls – this contributed to around 5,500 people being rescued from the Mediterranean in a single day on 29 August.

Britain: the internal border

Within Britain immigration controls continue to extend into everyday life, limiting migrants’ rights and enforcing greater misery. In November a survey by the Residential Landlords Association found that 56% of landlords they asked said they would now be less likely to rent a property to people from outside the EU, following the introduction of fines of £3,000 for renting to an undocumented migrant, and from December potential prison sentences for knowingly doing so. This drives migrants toward the margins of the housing market and the worst slum housing. In October, it emerged that the Home Office have been using the national schools census to target families for immigration enforcement, making 2,500 requests for information from the database over a 15-month period. United resistance involving migrants and non-migrants needs to be the response.

Tom Vickers

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 254 December 2016/January 2017