Migreurop at the Istanbul crossroads

Author, Matt Carr, describes a recent conference to coordinate pan-European campaigning on migration and detention.


On 27-29 May more than sixty researchers, human rights activists and NGO representatives attended an international meeting of the Migreurop network at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fina Arts University to share experiences of local campaigns and initiatives and coordinate future strategies for countering Europe’s ’migration police management’ policies. In the course of three days of debates and discussions, the conference discussed a range of issues affecting the lives of migrants in Europe and beyond, including access rights to migrant detention centres, the outsourcing of border controls to neighbouring countries, the role of the European Border Agency Frontex and the readmission (deportation) agreements signed between the EU and other countries.

Greece and Turkey : the background

The choice of location had a special political significance in a country that appears increasingly disposed to accept a new role as the guardian of Europe’s frontier with Asia and the Middle East. Since 2005 the intensified policing of the Mediterranean has transformed the Greek-Turkish border into the most porous of the EU’s borders and Turkey has become a primary conduit for undocumented migrants and refugees seeking to enter Europe through Greece, particularly those coming from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. In the last two years some 59 per cent of all migrants coming into Europe have crossed the Aegean from the Turkish coast or entered Greece via the heavily-militarised land border between Greece and Turkey along the Evros river. These borders have been marked by drownings, accusations of brutality by the Greek coastguard and police and allegations of secret and illegal deportations at sea and across the Evros river.

In the past, the Greek government has accused Turkey of not doing enough to prevent such migration and failing to observe the conditions of a 2001 readmission agreement between the two countries and accept migrants deported from Greece. Today there are signs of increased cooperation between the two countries, and between Turkey and the EU. Last month Greece and Turkey renewed the 2001 Readmission Protocol and the Turkish government is currently negotiating a readmission agreement with the EU which may result in the deportation of large numbers of detained migrants to Turkey, despite repeated criticism from human rights associations of the inhuman conditions prevailing in Turkish detention centres.

Formerly known under the euphemistic designation of ’guest houses’, conditions inside these detention centres have been condemned by various organisations, including the UNHCR and the Refugee Council. These centres have recently been renamed ’removal centres’ in a more explicit indication of Turkey’s willingness to meet the EU’s expectations. Like Morocco and Libya, Turkey appears to be using migration control as a bargaining chip in its political and diplomatic relations with Europe and an instrument for facilitating its European aspirations. The Turkish government recently announced the forthcoming opening of a new detention centre for ’illegal refugees’ in the coastal city of Izmir as an indication of its willingness to cooperate with Europe’s anti-migrant policies, even though the situation on the Greek-Turkish border appears to be undergoing another transformation.

Since January the numbers of migrants attempting to reach Greece from Turkey across the Aegean have fallen dramatically, while the numbers crossing the Evros border have risen. The reasons for this shift are not clear, and may be due to the rising costs of sea voyages and also to the operations carried out by the Greek coastguard and police in collaboration with Frontex in the Dodecanese islands. For the last two years Frontex has conducted joint maritime patrols at the island of Samos alongside the Greek coastguard. In addition Frontex officials are assisting Greek police in screening asylum seekers detained at the border in order to determine their national origin and facilitate their deportation - in a country that already has the lowest rate of acceptance of asylum applications in Europe.

All these developments were analysed in detail by the Greek and Turkish solidarity groups who attended the conference. But the ongoing readmission negotiations between the EU and Turkey are part of a broader attempt by the EU to involve non-European countries in its border control arrangements, and this agenda was discussed by delegates from other countries. Youssouf Niane from the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH) described the impact of the EU’s ’capacity building’ measures in Mauritania, where fishermen from Mali and Senegal who have lived in Mauritania for generations are now being arrested and deported to their respective countries of origin on suspicion of planning to go to Spain. A representative from the French organisation ANAFÉ (National Association of Border Assistance for Foreigners) examined the carrot-and-stick measures being exerted by the Sarkozy government on a reluctant Mali to sign a ’laissez passé’ agreement that would make it possible to deport thousands of Malians from France - and enable the French government to fulfil its new target of 28,000 deportations per year.

Detention : the big issue

In addition to readmissions and deportations, the conference was dominated by the issue of detention. Europe’s ’camps for foreigners’ have always been one of Migreurop’s primary concerns, and the organisation is currently lobbying for greater transparency and increased right of access to Europe’s secretive detention system. Discussions focussed on the need to pursue access and improve conditions within the detention centres without losing Migreurop’s ultimate objective of dismantling the entire system. These discussions unfolded in the course of a broader analysis of Europe’s migrant detention procedures in various countries. Turkish delegates described the grim conditions in removal centres to which even the UNHCR only has sporadic access. Other organisations and individuals described detention centres in Greece, Mauritania, Italy and Spain where the access of civil society organisations is curtailed or prevented.

Doros Polycarpou from the Cypriot NGO KISA (Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism) described the indeterminate detentions of ’prohibited migrants’ practised in Cyprus under the provisions of a British colonial law enacted in the 1930s. A representative from a newly-formed Lebanese NGO, Frontiers - Lebanon, described the extra-legal detention procedures practised by the government in Lebanon, where refugees and asylum seekers are likely to be detained in police stations for more than a year.

These presentations painted a grim picture of the extra-legal zones generated by the European detention system, whose essential features are being reproduced both within and beyond the EU’s territorial borders. But the presence of organisations and individuals from so many countries also demonstrated the transnational culture of solidarity and resistance that Migreurop embodies. The conference heard reports of a range of pan-European campaigns currently being undertaken by the organisation, from Migreurop’s ’Border Observatory’ that monitors human rights abuses and deaths at the EU’s ’murderous borders’ and a recently-established legal action group to support right of access to detention centres and challenge readmission agreements through the EU’s own legal mechanisms, to the creation of a ’Voix Off’ website in which witness statements by migrant detainees are posted online. In addition to raising public awareness of the conditions inside the camps, Voix Off also aims to mobilise more direct support, by publicising hunger strikes, disturbances and protests and posting cell phone numbers of detainees so that local media can make contact with those inside.

Strategies and initiatives

The aim of Migreurop is to combine actions on the local and European level, and representatives from various NGOs compared local campaigns, strategies and initiatives. Marta Martinez Sierra from the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDH) described local mobilisations against some of Spain’s notorious CIEs (Immigrant Internment Centres). Presentations from older Greek organisations such as the Athens-based campaigning group Diktio and more recent Turkish organisations such as the Izmir-based Multeci Der (Solidarity Association for Refugees) and the Migrant Solidarity Group in Istanbul revealed a common agenda and modus operandi, whether it was campaigns against deportations, raising awareness amongst civil society of the human rights abuses and deaths on the border, legal interventions to uphold the rights of refugees and a political critique of the policies of repression and migration control pursued by both countries.

Ayse Parla of the Migrant Solidarity Network described a recent demonstration against the Kumkapi Removal Centre in the city’s Sultan Ahmet district, where riot police were called in and the director threatened to ’wreak havoc’ on the detainees themselves unless the demonstrators dispersed. Migreurop is a network of activists, and its presence in Istanbul was not restricted to the conference chamber. Earlier this year, a delegation comprising of Turkish and European parliamentarians and Migreurop members attempted to visit Kumkapi. In the event, only a few MEPs were granted limited access to the women’s section on the third floor.

On the second day of the conference delegates accepted en masse an invitation from the Migrants Solidarity Network to join another demonstration outside the centre. Carrying banners proclaiming ’You are not alone’ and watched closely by Turkish police and television cameras, demonstrators drew a strong reaction from inside the centre, as detainees pushed burning paper through the bars and shouted back from their barred windows and local Turkish residents applauded the demonstrators. It was a moving and powerful expression of solidarity from an organisation that has become an indispensable point of reference for local and international opposition to Europe’s hard borders which looks set to remain a thorn in the EU’s side for some time to come.