Fortress Europe? - The Real Side of Europe's Anti-Migrant Regime

There are over 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. 21.3 million are refugees, over half are children. The emotional, harrowing stories, of people’s journeys and lives lost, told through media and popular culture remind us of the reality of the desperate situation facing these people. The approach to dealing with displacement crises are wholly ineffective. The traditional UN definition of a refugee focuses on ‘persecution’ and fails to consider the three main underlying factors which contribute to displacement today; intrastate conflict, poor governance and political instability, and environmental factors.  Migrants fleeing war are no more human than those migrants seeking to escape economic inequality, they are no more deserving of safety and sanctuary. To even try and comprehend the scale of suffering is impossible. Mental health and suicide, the struggle to assimilate, humiliation by the authorities, and dreadful experiences of refugee camps are all symptomatic of the displaced persons experience. 

Contrary to what we are told, this crisis is not new, and Europe is not overwhelmed with refugees. The world’s poorest countries have been bearing the brunt of refugee crisis for decades, it was only in 2014 when the most recent wave of refugees began arriving in Europe, and public pressure grew, did the governments of Europe acknowledge this long standing global issue. 

Powerful and emotive speeches made by European leaders reaffirmed commitment to the international legal protections inspired by the horrors of WWII, creating a rhetoric of welcome, tolerance, and moral superiority. At the same time Europe strengthened its peripheral borders; Ceuta and Melilla to the south, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine to the east, using advanced, expensive and high-tech equipment to do so. In 2004, to cope with the widening of the EU and Schengen area, Frontex was created to provide additional technical support to EU countries facing increased migratory pressure. In addition, Frontex works with several ‘third country partners’. The EU has struck deals with Greece, Turkey, and north African countries to prevent migrants accessing the continent. In exchange these countries get financial and development aid or visas for their own residents to enter Europe. These deals have created a bottle neck; they have forced migrants into overcrowded refugee camps and detention centres where they remain incarcerated indeterminately in horrendous conditions facing serious human rights abuses. Due to lack of legal routes, migrants are forced to try and access Europe by sea. They rely on smugglers and human traffickers who have no regard for their safety, many drowning in the process. They are forced, often at gunpoint, onto overcrowded dinghies wearing lifejackets which do not float, bought and sold on the black market. The criminals who the EU claims their harsh border policies punish, are profiting from the vulnerability and desperation of displaced people trapped by the same policies. 

The EU is often accused of being a fortress. However, the phrase Fortress Europe is misleading, it ignores the myriad of internal borders and stressors designed to manage migrants who enter without permission, it also ignores the permeability of the fortress to migrants deemed ‘desirable’. 

In Calais, displaced people have been on the move for months or even years with the hope of finding sanctuary. I’ve been travelling back and forward to Calais for over a year to research and volunteer. Volunteers on the ground work tirelessly to the detriment of their own health and wellbeing to support hundreds of destitute displaced people. By order of the French State, there is no access to clean drinking water, food is provided only by NGOs, there are no showers; the local swimming pool requires you to present a passport to use their facilities – even if you have money to pay the entrance fee. The level of state violence is incomprehensible and relentless. Almost daily, riot police raid people’s sleeping areas confiscating sleeping bags, coats, even gloves, using excessive force when doing so. Children are not excused from this treatment. I’ve washed tear gas from children’s eyes at the side of the motorway, how un-phased they were by yet another attack like this was truly disturbing. I’ve driven children with broken bones to hospital, injuries sustained trying to jump in the back of moving lorries with the hope of reaching Britain. These horrors are just what lays on the surface dig a little deeper and an underworld of smuggling, black market trading, substance abuse, self-harm, and sexual exploitation is exposed, on occasion involving people posing as volunteers. This entire situation has been created in the name of defending borders and ‘remaining tough’ on immigration. The absence of support for refugees in Calais from state actors is not accidental, it is part of a series of deliberate tactics of exhaustion whereby people are forced into destitution and their being destitute is criminalised and anyone providing aid to refugees is also criminalised. The point where humanitarian actors, the volunteers running NGOs and supporting migrants in Calais, become activists is blurred. However, as their humanitarian actions are increasingly and more violently disrupted and criminalised, the delivery of aid becomes inherently a political act of resistance and defiance. Volunteers on the ground transition not only deliver aid, but they monitor and report human rights violations. They in turn disrupt the wishes of the French state to disperse and remove refugees who pose a threat to the sanctity of the Calais-Dover border. Through social media, these humanitarians turned activists publically share and document human rights violations in a raw and unedited way, meaning we as activists, don’t have to be on the ground to understand and act on what is happening. 

The treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants across Europe has led me to conclude that whilst hard borders exist at the peripheries, the fortress moves with the ‘undesirable’ migrants. It creates a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It constricts their freedom to live as part of our society. When displaced people reach their country of ‘asylum’ the controls and stressors manifest themselves in the form of; dispersal, substandard housing, enforced destitution, enforced poverty, denial of working rights, limited access to health care, and the ongoing threat of detention and deportation seek to manage and control the behaviour of unwanted migrants. 

At the external borders, we have a tangible enemy, a point of opposition. At the internal borders our target becomes more blurred, the sites of control are varied and intertwined. Unexpected actors become part of the immigration control regime; doctors pass information to immigration officials, employers report undocumented workers, private contractors become responsible for managing immigration detention centres, racism and fear become the method of control. On the one hand, the complexity and sheer size and power of the immigration estate is terrifying, particularly in places like Calais where violent actions by state police go relatively unchallenged. However, as activists we can take hope from the fact that because immigration control is so intertwined with our everyday lives, so too is our ability to resist it. Where the immigration control regime is operated by everyday people; estate agents, bank tellers, and teachers, grassroots resistance can more easily target and disrupt it. In cases like Calais, where people are still ‘in-flight’ as it were, we can work with humanitarian activists on the ground to monitor human rights abuses and take upon a responsibility ourselves to disseminate this information, bypassing and resisting mass media sources and the narratives created by European Governments and the far right. 


Contributed to An Spréach ISSSUE 2 by comrade Aylisha Hogan