"Controlling" migration: between letting people die and licence to kill

At a time when the European Council is meeting in Brussels on 26 and 27 October 2023 to discuss the strengthening of Europe’s borders in a world in upheaval, the Migreurop network points out the exorbitant cost of this escalation in security and the overwhelming responsibility of European States in the constant endangerment of migrants, who are trying to exercise their right to mobility at the cost of their lives.

For more than 30 years, the fight against so-called "illegal" immigration has been a priority for European states, which have adopted various strategies over the years aimed at tightening migration controls and making the borders of destination, transit and departure countries more secure. Whatever the cost. Even at the cost of human lives, with deaths in migration perceived by the authorities as a harmful consequence of this same "fight".

As Migreurop already denounced in 2009, "dozens of migrants have fallen at many borders, sometimes killed by the forces of law and order: Egyptian soldiers shooting Sudanese and Eritreans on sight at the Israeli border; Turkish soldiers shooting Iranians and Afghans; the Moroccan navy sinking 36 people off the coast of Al Hoceima on their way to Spain (? ) by piercing their zodiac with knives; French police officers in Mayotte deliberately beaching boats (Kwassa-kwassa) to arrest migrants, causing several of them to drown. In Algeria and Morocco, African migrants are turned back and abandoned in the desert, sometimes mined, without any means of subsistence" [1].

While the security objective of surveillance and militarisation of Europe’s borders remains the same, the strategy implemented by European states to avoid responding to the need to welcome exiled populations has evolved over the years.

For decades, there have been repeated "tragedies" along the migration route. They are in no way the result of fate, the irresponsibility of people on the move (or their families [2]),the climate or environment, the state of the sea, or even the abuse of weakness by any traffickers, but of a state policy hostile to people on the move, developed consciously at European level, resulting in legislation and practices that violate rights and are deadly: systematisation of pushbacks at Europe’s gates [3], deployment of "anti-migrant" measures along borders and coastlines (walls and fences [4], sound cannons [5], floating barriers [6],razor wire [7], etc.), conditioning development aid to the fight against migration [8], criminalising civil rescue [9]... A strategy described, with reference to the concept created by Achille Mbembe [10], as "necro-policy" during the sentence handed down by the Permanent Peoples’ Court in France in 2018 [11].

Already in August 2017, the report on "the unlawful killing of refugees and migrants" by the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, highlighted "multiple failures by States to respect and protect the right to life of refugees and migrants, such as unlawful killings, including through the excessive use of force and as a result of deterrence policies and practices that increase the danger of death" [12].

Implementing a real strategy of letting people die, the European States have encouraged people to wander at sea by prohibiting disembarkation of boats in distress (Italy 2018 [13]),have withdrawn naval patrols from the Mediterranean Sea in favour of aerial surveillance (2019 [14]), a sign of the abandonment of rescue at sea, or by suddenly considering themselves "unsafe ports" (Italy and Malta 2020 [15]). Migreurop has also highlighted the direct responsibility of the authorities and/or the forces of law and order guilty of abuses against people on the move (Balkans 2021 [16]), or their outright complicity (EU/Libya 2019 [17]).

The shipwreck of at least 27 people in the English Channel on 24 November 2021 [18],the result of failure to assist people in danger on both sides of the Franco-British border, is an illustration of this policy of deterrence and letting people die. The sinking of Pylos on 14 June 2023 in the Ionian Sea [19], is an example of direct action resulting in the death of exiles. The late manoeuvre by the Greek coastguards to "tow" the trawler carrying around 700 exiles from Libya to the European coast (hooking a rope and then pulling the boat along at high speed) probably caused the boat in distress to capsize and at least 80 people to drown, as the sea swallowed up the hundreds of missing passengers.

The 2017 UN report [20] also points to the consequences of the externalisation of European migration policies and states that "other violations of the right to life result from policies of extraterritoriality amounting to providing aid and assistance to the arbitrary deprivation of life, the failure to prevent avoidable and foreseeable deaths and the low number of investigations into these unlawful deaths". The massacre on 24 June 2022 at the Nador/Melilla borders [21], , which claimed the lives of at least 23 exiles heading to Spain from Morocco, designated as "assailants", 17 years after the first documented massacre at the gates of Ceuta and Melilla [22], is a clear example of this pernicious externalisation resulting in the deaths of civilians. Just like the abuses suffered with impunity in recent months by Black exiles in Tunisia, in the midst of an authoritarian drift, the fruit of structural racism and European bargaining over border control [23].

In recent years, we have witnessed a social and legal process legitimising legislation and illegal state practices aimed at blocking migration movements, whatever the cost, resulting in a lowering of standards in terms of respect for rights. A considerable erosion of the right to asylum, a stunning legitimisation of pushbacks - "legalised" by Spain (2015 [24]), Poland (2021 [25]) and Lithuania (2023 [26]) –,a constant violation of the obligation to rescue people at sea, and finally, a licence to kill made possible by the progressive dehumanisation of racialised exiles, criminalised for what they are and what they represent [27].

Borders are murderous [28] but states also kill, with impunity. In recent years, it has become clear that those involved in migration control have oscillated between inaction and guilty action, between letting people on the move die ("let them drown, this is a good deterrence" [29]) and giving a licence to kill to those involved in border control, in the name of the war on migrants, who are seen as a threat to be protected from.

The arguments long put forward by national and European authorities to excuse themselves from the large number of migrant deaths are always the same: the defence of a border, of a territory or the public order. The deaths that occur on the migration route are thus merely the "collateral damage" of a strategy of dissuasion in which violence, as a means correlated with the objective of not welcoming and keeping people at a distance, is set up as the norm. Frontex, the European border surveillance agency, contributes to putting exiles at risk [30]. It is an essential security component of this violent and unpunished migration policy [31], and of Europe’s strategy of "organised irresponsibility" [32].

In this apartheid of mobility [33], where the hierarchy of rights in the name of protecting European borders is the rule, the deaths of people on the move are risks assumed by both sides, the responsibility for these deaths being transferred to the people primarily concerned and their families, guilty of having wanted to defy the ban on movement, of having exercised their right to mobility... At their peril.

Basically, the hindsight we have gained over the last few decades highlights the fact that these migration-related deaths, which have gone from being "avoidable" to being "tolerable" and then to being "necessary" in the name of protecting Europe’s borders, are not isolated cases, but the logical consequence of the extraordinary latitude given to border control officials in the name of the war on migrants 2.0. This abuse is becoming commonplace with staggering indifference, and remains unpunished to this day...

The Migreurop network will continue to work for freedom of movement and settlement for all [34], as the only alternative to this criminal logic, which has been documented by our organisations for far too long.

Photo © Forensis 2023 - counter-investigation Pylos shipwreck