Despite increasing evidence of European states violating international law and employing violence against migrants at their borders, rather than a drawback of these violent border externalisation and securitisation policies, we are seeing their expansion.
Human rights groups, the international media, politicians and the European Court of Human Rights have all documented illegal pushbacks of migrants and the increasingly dangerous routes they are forced to take. We, the public, have seen these images, as have our leaders, yet the situation has only worsened. The deaths in Libya have received minimal media attention and the massacre in Melilla has been extensively covered in Spain, but less so in the rest of Europe.
Will coverage of the recent deaths in Melilla and Libya, the UK-Rwanda deal, and the revelation that British athlete Mo Farah was trafficked to the UK as a child push the European public and our leaders to re-examine the violence embedded in our immigration policies, or will we continue to see the current high-frequency of massacres of migrants?
The Melilla massacre
A six-metre high barbed wire fence equipped with video cameras and watchtowers separates Morocco and Melilla, one of the two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. Early Friday morning, on 24 June, as many as 2,000 people attempted to enter Spain by climbing these fences – leaving 23 African migrants dead and many injured, according to official figures. Most were Sudanese and South Sudanese, aiming to escape armed conflict in their regions.
There is conflicting information about what caused these migrants' deaths, with a state-backed group claiming it was ‘mechanical asphyxiation’. However, this conclusion has been disputed by the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, who state that the report is incomplete and are demanding an impartial investigation. Videos show Moroccan security forces using excessive force, including beatings, as well as violent action from the Guardia Civil on the Spanish side. The real number of victims is probably higher.
In an infamous initial declaration that he later nuanced, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez blamed the tragedy on the “mafias” and congratulated Morocco for a “well resolved” episode. A few days later, he admitted to not having seen the video footage.
Thirst in the desert of Libya
Just four days after the massacre in Melilla, the bodies of 20 migrants, two Libyan and the rest Chadian, were found dead in the Libyan desert. Their last phone call was made two weeks prior to the discovery of their bodies. Their deaths were tragically avoidable, they died simply from thirst. Kidane from Eritrea described his own journey from Sudan to Libya and the thirst which accompanied it:
There is thirst. We travelled for three days in the Sahara to get to Libya…Our brothers would fall and die of thirst. You just leave them there. There are times when you don’t even bury them properly…The Sahara is difficult. You would lose a brother because of thirst, nothing you can do for him when he is asking for water. Even when you tell them someone is dying because of thirst, they don’t listen…And having been through all this, you saw how much fear we had of the sea. Yet, you would be so eager to touch the sea because that would mean you are getting out of that life.
Externalisation and securitisation: violence and riches
Two tragedies in North Africa, only four days apart. Unfortunately, this is not a coincidence, but an example of the growing danger and violence that migrants face on their journeys to Europe. Over the years, the EU has imposed a model of ‘vertical borders’ which operate across origin, transit, and destination countries to stop migrants crossing borders and entering the EU. Both cases are an extreme manifestation of a system conceived to deter people at all costs. The borders of Ceuta and Melilla are among the most dangerous and heavily fortified in Europe. Despite the danger embodied in attempting to cross these borders - the risks of the desert, and exploitation at the hands of traffickers – migrants still see them as preferable in comparison to the grim circumstances at home.
Both tragedies are victims of a policy rooted in creating chaos and violence at the border through securitisation and externalisation policies. The chaos that ensues is used to justify further securitisation and externalisation in a never-ending cycle of violence. Human trafficking rings as well as a well-orchestrated legal “industry” are generating massive wealth from this model. EU leaders and private corporations are investing significant resources to ensure this narrative remains unchallenged.
EU states are paying third-party countries, such as Libya, Niger and Turkey, to take responsibility for migrants and migration pathways. It is alleged that Niger officials sent ‘shopping lists’ that included cars and helicopters, to the EU, in exchange for tougher immigration policies. The UK’s recent deal with Rwanda and its initial £120 million payment to the Rwandan government, is yet another example of this.
The EU and Italy have provided extensive funding and support to the Libyan Coast Guard to enable them to intercept and return boats carrying migrants. 32,425 refugees and migrants at sea were returned to Libya in 2021, despite the Secretary-General of the UN declaring that “Libya is not a safe port of disembarkation for refugees and migrants”.
The 2016 EU-Turkey agreement legislated for migrants, crossing from Turkey to the Greek Islands, to be returned to Turkey, despite Turkey excluding non-Europeans qualifying for refugee status. This is yet another example of the EU orchestrating policies which violate international law. Externalisation and securitisation policies have been in place for years, but the increasingly violent policies advocated for by EU states is new.
Illegal pushbacks: state-sponsored violence
Illegal pushbacks of migrants across Europe have become systematic. Amnesty International have said that “violent pushbacks have become the de facto Greek border control policy in the Evros region.” These pushbacks often violate the international prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment, and some amount to torture. The European Commission described these pushbacks as “violent and illegal deportations of migrants” and declared that they must end. These pushbacks are being orchestrated by Greek Security forces and unidentified men, believed to be migrants themselves, who are forced by security officials to push migrants back to Turkey. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, have been found by the European Parliament and multiple human rights groups, to have failed to address reports of migrant pushbacks from Greece. Frontex is central to the EU’s securitisation of migration policy and its members often act without transparency and assume the executive functions of member states. Investigative journalism, like the work done by Lighthouse Reports, has played a critical role in exposing Frontex and forcing its leader to resign in April of this year.
There is nothing new in this modus operandi. It was already implemented by Spain in 2004-06 during the Cayucos’ crisis on the Canary Islands route. It was then scaled up by other EU countries in the so-called “Refugee Crisis” (2014-16).
Ukraine has taught us a better way out
Governments, institutions, NGOs and much of the public see migration either as a threat or as a humanitarian tragedy. This binary narrative perpetuates the idea that migration is a problem that needs to be solved – a problem that ignores migrants’ economic and political agency and stifles the creation of alternative policies.
The way out of this hole is not impossible. The response seen across Europe in welcoming Ukrainian refugees is a shining beacon of hope which should guide the creation of new migration policies, benefitting all asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. This period has shown us that cooperation and the creation of safe and legal migration pathways in a very short period of time and on a huge scale is possible. European leaders can come together instead of turning to bilateral deals, which are lucrative for a small elite and devastating for international human rights. It has demonstrated that the current chaos and violence on Europe’s borders for those who are not Ukrainian is unnecessary and resolvable.
However, it is important to note that not everyone fleeing Ukraine received the same welcome, with African students trapped at the border and prevented from leaving. Even if European leaders are not willing to extend the same sense of solidarity to non-Ukrainian refugees, it is surprising that they continue to enforce border policies which prevent the economic prosperity which comes with migration. Ageing populations are common amongst European states, states which will suffer greatly without the skills and labour force that immigration can provide. Migration is a natural phenomenon which won’t, and shouldn’t stop.
Great generosity has been shown to Ukrainians. European leaders and their citizens stood up and took responsibility for those in desperate need. It is time for us to stop other-ing those on the other side of Europe’s borders and treat all migrants, regardless of their nationality and origin, the way we have treated Ukrainians.
This insight piece has also been translated and published in Spanish for El Pais newspaper - Masacres en Melilla y Libia: nada nuevo en las fronteras europeas.