Cassie Werber

Writer & journalist

A managable enemy

Printed in Ukrainian Week, 7th June 2011 | Cassie Werber | London

“Does funding detention centres in the Sahara desert for the Libyan government constitute a violation of international human rights law?” asks Nando Sigona, Senior Researcher at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) in Oxford, UK.

While a widely held perception exists that the EU is under ‘attack’ from illegal immigrants, there is little consensus on how best to deal with the problem. Some researches, Sigona included, doubt that ‘facts’ of the case are widely understood. France and Italy, locked in a dispute over refugees from northern Africa, have called the European Union’s borderless area into question. As Schengen, arguably one of the most tangible EU achievements, begins to falter, how has European immigration policy developed since the agreement, and where might it be headed?

The immigration ‘problem’ in its current form is relatively recent. Migrant flows to European countries were once more self-regulated, connected to specific interstate relationships and particularly post-imperial links. France maintained reciprocal relationships with former colonies, Britain with Commonwealth states. Germany, with little colonial history to utilise during post-war reconstruction, reached out to countries with a large untapped workforce, such as Turkey.

The Schengen agreement, creating a ‘borderless’ area of free movement within the EU, undermined this system. The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, which brought all EU member states into the agreement (excepting Ireland and the UK, which remain outside), effectively created ‘migration to the EU’. Izabella Cooper, spokesperson for the EU border agency FRONTEX, explains: “with the removal of internal borders…the external border has moved, to Greece, to Lampedusa, to the Canary Islands, to the Polish-Ukrainian border.”

While it was agreed that borders should be strong, however, the 1951 Geneva Convention (which recognises the human rights of refugees and gives states responsibilities towards them) complicated the issue. Strong could not equal impenetrable. Attention turned to the asylum ‘complication’. “Since 1997 the European Union has started the process of harmonisation of asylum policy,” says Nando Sigona, Senior Researcher at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) in Oxford, UK. “They set a road map for the implementation. But the problem was they didn’t manage to achieve it completely.”

The first plan was to keep potential entrants as far as possible from Europe’s borders. Since the early 1990s, says Sigona, “the EU has been considering…what is called the ‘off-shoring’ of asylum, to deal with asylum applications outside the borders of the EU.” This would “create centres where forced migrants get stopped, or assessed, and then only the successful ones get resettled in the EU,” he explains. Centres were created in Turkey and planned for Croatia, Ukraine and Tanzania: close to the border of Europe or close to an area of conflict. “This is a project which has been going on for years, and there have been various countries trying to push it,” Sigona says, mentioning Denmark and the UK as keen backers. It was ultimately unsuccessful, he suggests, because  “countries like Sweden were very resistant, because Sweden has got a very liberal tradition.”

Europe’s new border states turned to more practical measures. Spain created a massive system of offshore radar surveillance and called on FRONTEX to coordinate better policing of the Mediterranean.

A second ‘pragmatic’ policy developed: the signing of bilateral agreements between EU and non-EU states. Spain negotiated deals with Senegal and Mauritania, who undertook to prevent people leaving their shores. Italy, feeling the increased pressure of refugee flows pushed along the coast from Spain, also signed bilateral agreements. The 2009 ‘Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation’ between Italy and Libya allowed for the return of boatloads of immigrants to Libya, which undertook to sure up its borders. It also saw Italy agree payments to the Gaddafi regime totaling $5 billion over the following 20 years.

“This has really created a lot of interesting dynamics, from the point of view of these governments and the EU,” says Sigona. “Do EU member states fulfill their obligation towards migrants seeking protection by sending them back to a country like Libya that is not a member of the Geneva Convention?” Since the Libyan uprising the treaty has been effectively suspended. There have been reports of the Gaddafi regime using refugees as a ‘weapon’, encouraging or even forcing them to leave the Libyan coast in overcrowded boats, to be dealt with by Europe’s coastguards, or by FRONTEX.

FRONTEX itself was created in 2005 in response to the shifting of borders, when, says   Cooper, “it was recognised that irregular migration…was affecting the entire EU, and therefore required a joint, concerted European response.” Its success stories are many and grand: a 99% reduction in the flow of migrants to the Canary Islands between January 2009 and September 2010; the ‘virtual closure’ of the central Mediterranean. Whether this is a sustainable solution is a matter for debate, however. “Border control is a little like squeezing the balloon,” says Cooper. “You close one route and another route intensifies.”

Squeezing doesn’t come cheap. Since its creation FRONTEX’s budget has increased fourteen-fold, from 6.2 million EUR in 2005 to 87 million EUR in 2010. Its operations are based on careful risk analysis, Cooper says. Sigona questions whether the agency’s success is really so concrete. “If I tell you that there is the possibility of one million people coming to Europe it makes sense to have a European border agency trying to block this flow of migrants,” he says. “Then if it turns out there are ten thousand people coming I can say, ‘well, we did very well, we managed to stop 990,000 people’.

People are, of course, coming. But suggestions that figures are exaggerated – by the media, by domestic governments – recur. “It is a myth that [EU states] are flooded with refugees,” says Ketty Kehayioylou, Public Information Officer for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Athens. Citing the recent conflicts in North Africa, she says “400,000 people left Libya…the vast majority went to Tunisia and Egypt, who kept the borders open. And a few of course, tens of thousands, also came to Italy and Malta. But much smaller numbers.”

It may not feel like a myth if you live on Lampedusa. But the lengths to which EU states will go to stop immigrants, and the cash they are prepared to spend, highlight a symbolic dimension to the battle. What is really at stake, Sigona suggests, is an idea “around which the European identity can crystallise and rejoin” to face an uncertain future. “The EU is somehow desperate to find an enemy,” he says, and adds: “A manageable enemy.”

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