Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent

Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent

Author: Matthew Carr
Publisher: New York: New Press, 2012. 304p.
Reviewer: Otwin Marenin | July 2014

Matthew Carr, following over two years of travel to border sites, interviews and talks with immigrants, officials, human rights activists and citizens, and documentary research, presents a devastating indictment of the impact on irregular (non-documented) immigrants of anti-immigration policies pursued by the European Union. These policies undermine the basic principles on which the EU was supposedly founded and threaten the prospect and promise of a free, democratic, fair, secure and human rights oriented Europe . “Anti-immigrant politics,” he concludes, “are dragging the continent toward a bleak and dangerous future,” (p. 253), and “panoptic police states” (p. 249). The foundational achievement of the EU to do away with interior borders amongst 27 member states (with some allowed and negotiated exceptions) will have been gained at the cost of erecting walls against immigrants seeking work and mistreating those who dare to challenge exterior border control by indeterminate detentions, deportation to their home or last transited countries, and general mistreatment and deprivation (“enforced destitution” ) of resources and rights enjoyed by legal immigrants and citizens. The goal of the anti-immigrant policy apparatus seems to be to make life so miserable that immigrants will be deterred from coming to Europe in the first place, or ‘self-deporting’ if they manage to enter the EU’s interior space.

Carr presents a quick overview of the history of border controls requiring requisite paper (passports, visas) in chapter one; comments on the creation of Schengenland (the borderless interior space in the EU) and the compensating need to fortify the external boarder in chapter 2; describes the panoply of border controls in place in Spain, Ceuta and Melilla, and the Straits of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean with a focus on Malta and Lampedusa, Greece, and the France-UK channel crossing; analyzes conditions facing immigrants in the borderless interior space; discusses how immigrants arrange their journeys; deals with human trafficking; describes civic society efforts to protect immigrants; gives short descriptions of other Western border controls, specifically by the USA and Australia; and suggests what could and should be done in the Epilogue chapter 13.

As he shows convincingly, none of the immigration policies employed by the EU and member states have worked. Irregular immigrants keep coming — across the Mediterranean in rickety boats or anything which floats, wading across dangerous rivers at the Turkey-Greece border, climbing razor-wire topped fences at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, or wading through deep snows and bitter cold in the Carpathian mountains between Ukraine and the Slovak Republic — even as they have little idea of what awaits them. Carr effectively translates the dry language of EU documents and the soothing rhetoric of security and protection used by political leaders into their human consequences, both for immigrants and for citizens and NGOs who help immigrants survive the deprivations inflicted upon them by the state, by border guards, regular police, technological surveillance systems, and joint operations organized under the policy umbrella of Integrated Border Management (IBM). He reveals the human face of irregular migration in the narratives told him by migrants he interviewed about how they managed to cross a border, again and again, often with the assistance of ‘travel agents‘ who, for a fee, can get them to and across a border; how they survive with the help of others once paperless and illegally in France, Italy or Greece; how they are convinced they will succeed and are willing to take serious risks to get to their final country, which often exists as a ‘utopian’ image in their minds.

Carr shows how border controls and policies are implemented by local officials, often in contravention or neglect of stated norms and regulations. Rhetoric and policy language matter, but of greater importance is implementation. For example, on the Greek islands which lie close to Turkey, applications for asylum are processed by local police who have no training, knowledge or skills in how to evaluate applications in accord with EU standards. Practically all applications are turned down, with little recourse against the decision. Immigrants who are caught by the Greek police crossing on land from Turkey are unceremoniously dumped back on the Turkish side to avoid doing the required assessments and paperwork.

The best parts in the book depict the lives and misfortunes of irregular immigrants at various border crossings, detention centers, or just ‘sleeping rough’ and scrounging for food once they have managed to cross the borders (hiding and sleeping where the local police and border control personnel cannot find them easily). Carr is offended by what he sees as he travels and talks with people, and by what he sees as a betrayal of internationally accepted human rights and the foundational claims and values of the EU. The view he presents is from the bottom up, and it is difficult to think of being further down the social and political ‘totem pole’; that perspective is a needed and balancing corrective in discussions of immigrant policies in the EU, and elsewhere as well. The similarities between the EU and the USA and Australia (which he portrays briefly) — of political language, the depiction of irregular immigrants as criminal and security threats, as a wedge in the border which will open the floodgates to terrorists, transnational crime, human trafficking, and illegitimate and fake asylum seekers — is not hard to discern.

His discussion of NGOs and human rights organizations and citizen activists, some transnational (such as Doctors without Borders) and some local chapters and efforts, is an important contribution (Chapter 9). There clearly is a disconnect among some members of the public, though one would have to acknowledge that mostly the public supports the official policies, their government, and the EU security apparatus. There does exist some disagreement and lack of consensus among the public and even officials on how strongly border control needs to be enforced, given the reality, by all projections, that the EU will run short of people to do the work which keeps its economy humming at the bottom and at mid and higher levels.

There are some weaknesses in Carr’s analysis and advocacy. For one, his depictions of the lives of immigrants are more snapshots than a systematic discussion of the larger strategic and political vision and framework by which the EU has tried to balance opening internal borders with strengthening the external frontier. There is little analysis of the internal politics of member states (except for Great Britain) which sustain anti-immigrant sentiments and policies. He does recommend, in his conclusion, that key transit countries (e.g., Ukraine, Turkey, Tunisia, Libya should be encouraged to treat migrants well. But there is little incentive for them to do so. There is no real discussion of that question.

Related to the absence of a more encompassing analysis is his depiction of FRONTEX. He never gives the official title of the agency which was created in 2005, namely the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, which was set up to facilitate Integrated Border Management in 2004. His mentions of Frontex imply that Frontex officials have executive border management authority — that they work as border guards. He mentions seeing Frontex officials in his travels at border crossings a number of times. In fact, no matter where, the borders are controlled by local border forces alone or in cooperative arrangements with other state border guards. As its name suggests, FRONTEX seeks to enhance cooperation and consistency in how borders are controlled by the about 420,000 border guards of the member states. Most of its money (about 75%) is spent on helping create and manage Joint Operations — the major ways in which borders are controlled at land, sea and airport borders, but especially in the Mediterranean. Carr’s assertion that “much of its activity consists of gathering intelligence and statistical information” (p. 166), is not supported by the allocation of funds to this purpose.

Occasionally, the author does mention that, of course, the EU and member states have to protect their borders, but not in the way it is done now. The last chapter, which any reader hopes for, states his prescriptions, which really amount to saying that even irregular immigrants should be treated humanely as they really are not a security threat but are just seeking a better life. First of all, he says, we should disconnect the political language on the “issue of irregular migration from questions of security and criminality” (p. 249). Also needed is r eform of the Dublin Convention and creation of a fair and effective asylum evaluation process. The EU in its policies should recognize the phenomena of seasonal ‘circular migration‘ among workers in agriculture and offer accommodations to that cycle; “offer coherent pathways to citizenship or legality”; sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their families; and do more to help improve “conditions that drive migrants to leave their country” (p. 250). In short, all migrants should be treated as potential contributing members of the EU’s economy ( the same as are all citizens and legal migrants), and seek agreements with other countries beyond the EU’s borders on how to enable migration and soften border control — that is, turn walls into gates.

The book is important reading if one wants to know what it is like to be an irregular migrant into the EU. The language is impassioned, and the commitment to helping immigrants is obvious. T he specific examples and depictions of how immigrants are treated offends common sensibilities, and the travels and travails immigrants undergo are presented with a clear eye and an impassioned heart. But, and because it is committed to changing policies, the book is less successful if the reader wants to understand the basic goals and policies that are now pursued by the EU under the label of Integrated Border Management. The latter is the strategic and conceptual framework for protecting the external border at the border itself, as well as away from the border, in countries from which immigrants come , the countries they transit, and ultimately within the EU itself, where once caught, they are detained and deported, or simply ignored.

Otwin Marenin, Professor, Washington State University

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