Walls and forced returns, Europe’s only response to migration
“Each fortress and straight line of stone / partition was built by a zealous emperor / to keep out the barbarous.” These verses by the British poet Daljit Nagra would make an appropriate introduction to the many articles commenting on the newfound popularity of walls in today’s Europe. It is a recurring theme, one especially well served by events since the 2015 migration crisis. Back then a number of EU states decided that instead of strengthening their capacity to deal with the increase in asylum seekers, they would solve the problem by building fences. There was no shortage of examples to emulate, such as Spain and its enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco (since 1993) or Greece and Bulgaria, that had bolstered their borders with Turkey in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
After eight years and fifteen hundred kilometres of new fences, all the talk is again of walls and why they might be built with EU funds. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was the first to ask, in 2017. Four years later, Hungary made a further request in a letter to the Commission signed by eleven other European governments. As justification, the twelve raised the spectre of a “hybrid and artificial attack using a massive influx of irregular migrants” from third countries.
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On 9 February 2023, the request reappeared on the table of the European Council, supported by a growing number of member states, including Italy. The Council conclusions do not explicitly refer to walls, but as the Transnational Institute wrote in its 2019 report “The business of building walls”, “the real barriers to contemporary migration are not fences so much as the broad spectrum of associated technologies, from radar systems to drones, from surveillance cameras to biometric identification systems” – technologies already developed with European money. The European Commission may try to delay as long as possible the moment when a member state puts the EU logo on a brand new “anti-migrant wall”, but that detail will be cosmetic – fortress Europe has been relying on EU funds for some time now.
The third model
The real focus of the European Council conclusions on “migration” is not walls, but repatriations. With fifteen mentions, this subject is confirmed as the top priority of the member states (conversely, the document does not contain a single reference to asylum-seekers and mentions fundamental rights only once).
Those who know the reality of repatriation centres know what lies behind these figures: shattered lives, separated couples and families, detained people who are terrified of returning to a nightmare from which they had escaped.
The Commission kicked things off on 24 January 2023 by presenting a document entitled “Towards an operational strategy for more effective returns”. Two days later, at the first Council of EU interior ministers under the Swedish presidency, the Italian representative Matteo Piantedosi proposed to “develop a third model of return which we could call ‘accompanied forced return’, somewhere between a ‘forced return’ and an ‘assisted voluntary return'”.
While we await clarification of this vague concept, Europe’s repatriation machine rolls on. In a forthcoming report, the NGO Statewatch and the Heinrich Böll Foundation denounce, among the most recent plans to externalise migration policies, an “ambitious programme of repatriations from the Balkans”, promoted by the EU in the greatest secrecy.
When reading articles on repatriation, one is usually overwhelmed by the figures. For example, these: according to Eurostat, in the third quarter of 2022, 109,895 orders to leave were issued in the EU and 31,825 returns were carried out. 39% of EU-wide returns were voluntary and 61% forced. Only since 2021 have member states been obliged to specify the type of return carried out, but it is clear that they have very different conceptions of what is “voluntary” and what is “forced”: there is no other way to explain how, in the same period, 100% of returns from Germany and Hungary were forced while 100% of those from Spain were voluntary.
Eurostat also provides data on the gender, age, nationality and destination of returnees (the term repatriation, although official, is in fact incorrect, as the person is not always deported to their country of origin). Those who know the reality of repatriation centres know what lies behind these figures: shattered lives, separated couples and families, detained people who are terrified of returning to a nightmare from which they had escaped. The figures do not tell us how long these people had been living in the EU, what their family situation or employment status was, why they chose to live here, how they (or their parents) arrived, what they had built or hoped to build in Europe.
As Marta Gionco of the Picum Network observes, “European repatriation policies do not take into account marital status or socio-economic factors, nor the often violent impact of repatriation on people’s lives. The data collected by the authorities simply records the number of returns. Repatriation policies also often overlook the fact that many of the people concerned cannot in fact be deported, either for practical or legal reasons, for example because of family circumstances, or health, or because they are minors, or because they risk torture or other violence if returned.”
Arbitrary and cruel
It is certain that none of the 31,825 people returned in the third quarter of 2022 chose to leave the EU: returns are by definition forced, since there is no option to stay. Those who claim to leave voluntarily do so out of resignation or fear of violent expulsion. We also know that most of the people staying illegally in the EU arrived here legally with a visa. These are the visa overstayers, who find themselves facing a wall of bureaucracy just as shameful as a physical one, with little chance of regularising their residency even after years or decades.
To claim that they have no right to stay might seem to be an impartial position, but in fact it is arbitrary and cruel. Seeking to imprison and then expel a part of the European population for an administrative offence – because they cannot get paperwork – is brutal and irrational, an attempt to deny that the European Union is also the product of spontaneous migration, and will remain so.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is often mentioned as a happy symbol of a Europe without walls. This is to forget that the hostility we feel today towards “barbarians” already existed back then, but was directed towards people arriving from Central and Eastern European countries (some of whom are now praising the walls). One only has to read the report – as amusing as it is damning – of the Berlin conference of 30 and 31 October 1991, signed by the correspondent of the Italian daily L’Unità Paolo Soldini. Already, the aim was to combat “illegal” immigration and the “abuse” of the asylum system. Already, the measures proposed revolved around repatriation and readmission agreements, tackling traffickers and blackmailing the countries of origin and transit.
The institution that could and should have tried to steer European governments towards less dangerously obtuse ideas was the Commission. In 1994, in a Communication to the European Parliament and the Council on immigration and asylum policies, it devoted only seven out of thirty-two proposals to irregular immigration. An entire section, with fifteen propositions, was devoted to “strengthening initiatives for the integration of legal immigrants”, including measures to “combat racial discrimination and fight racism and xenophobia”. But the Commission has adapted over time to the priorities of governments, and such statements would be unthinkable today.
Centralisation of power
The repatriation fad reinforces xenophobia by portraying hundreds of thousands of people already on EU territory as undesirables. Another of its consequences is to further centralise power and resources in the hands of Frontex, the EU’s border and coast-guard agency. In a 2022 paper, the researcher Mariana Gkliati traced the expansion of the agency’s powers and autonomy in the area of repatriation, an activity that now covers about 10% of its budget.
For example, the agency can launch repatriation operations on its own initiative using its own armed personnel. On the basis of the data at its disposal, it can propose an individual’s repatriation, which then only needs to be validated by the relevant national authorities. The risk, denounces the EuroMed Rights network, is that the latter “approves by default the return decision prepared informally by Frontex”.
The geographical expansion of Frontex – which has long operated in the Balkans and is now moving into Africa – is linked to another deleterious effect of returns centralisation: the distortion of relations with third countries. For more than thirty years, European governments have been foisting readmission agreements on countries of origin and transit. In December 2022, for example, the EU Council increased the cost of visas for Gambians to punish the country for not cooperating “on repatriation and readmission”. The Gambia was allegedly guilty of not fulfilling its obligation to readmit its own citizens.
But is this really the case? According to the lawyer Kay Hailbronner, “the right to expel, which results from territorial sovereignty, is linked to the obligation of readmission by the country of origin”. Governments and European institutions repeat that no state can evade this obligation, which is based on customary international law. However, Hailbronner recalls that at the 1930 Hague Conference on the codification of international law, “the representatives of certain states expressed reservations about an absolute obligation of readmission”. Sweden, for example, argued that “the state of origin could be exempted from the obligation of readmission in the case of a long stay abroad”. More recently, as the lawyer Mariagiulia Giuffré observes, the legal service of the EU Council of Ministers, in an opinion delivered in 2000, questioned “the existence of an international legal obligation to readmit a person who has been involuntarily returned”.
Beyond legal considerations, a repatriation policy conceived as an end in itself looks like a debasement of a state’s right to control its own territory. Forcibly expelling tens of thousands of people every year, rather than considering them as part of a community, is in nobody’s interest. It represents an abuse of power on the part of governments unable to accept the reality in which we live.
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