Tag Archives: Border control

Europe’s new border guards

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Gunnar M. Sørbø is a social anthropologist, former director of the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), and former Chair of the Board of the NCHS.

This text is based on an op-ed which was first published in Norwegian in Bergens Tidende, 5 May 2019: Europas nye grensevakter.

Are we supporting a development which ultimately sends even more refugees towards Europe?

DOUBLE-DEALING: To a large extent, militia groups allied with the regime in Khartoum have exercised migration control in Sudan. They patrol the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from traveling north, while simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the other side of the border, writes Gunnar M. Sørbø. Photo by Physicians for Human Rights, USA

More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe during the 2015 refugee crisis, the vast majority arriving either in Greece or Italy. The following year the European Union entered the so-called “EU-Turkey Deal”, a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government. The agreement was meant to ensure that migrants and refugees arriving in Turkey, most of whom were fleeing Syria, would remain there, and that migrants making it to Greece would be returned to Turkey.

From a European perspective, the agreement with Turkey has been successful. Only about 360.000 migrants and refugees arrived by sea in 2016. The arrivals were distributed quite evenly between Greece and Italy, the two European countries that received most of the migrants leaving Northern Africa. To ensure that the flow of people would be further reduced, the EU as well as several singular European countries made similar bilateral agreements with Libya, and later with countries in the Sahel region south of Libya: Sudan, Niger and Chad.

Norway is among the European countries which has intensified its focus on the region over the past few years. As with other countries, the motivation behind the increased support has not been limited to stopping large-scale migration, but also to stop the spread of Islamic terrorism. This type of terrorism affected Norwegians directly in 2013 when an attack on the Norwegian energy company Statoil’s gas facility in Algeria resulted in the loss of Norwegian lives.

In Libya, the EU made an agreement with the government in Tripoli. At the time, the Libyan authorities had limited territorial control and depended on various militias for survival. Presently, they are fighting the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the eastern part of Libya and is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Libya has faced political destabilization since the former head of state Gaddafi lost power and was killed in 2011.

Thus, Italy suggested to create checkpoints along the border in southern Libya, an area controlled by militias often in conflict with each other. The countries south of Libya also tend to have problems controlling their border regions, yet authoritarian heads of state have promised to exercise migration control in exchange for much needed financial support from Europe.

This type of “outsourcing” means that Europe has become entangled with some unusual border guards that are difficult to control.

In Sudan, the task of controlling migration has to a large extent been handed to militias allied with the regime in Khartoum. These are the same armed groups that were responsible for excessive use of force displacing large groups of people from their homes during the Darfur crisis of 2003-2004. They patrol the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from travelling north, while simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the other side of the border.

The same armed forces (Rapid Support Forces – RSF) have also been active at the border between Sudan and Eritrea. Studies conducted through a joint effort by universities in Sudan and the Chr. Michelsen’s Institute/The University of Bergen show that migrants from Eritrea, Syria and other countries continue to journey through Sudan. However, the migrants are paying a higher price than before, taking new routes, and doing so at a greater risk.

While Sudan has received support from the EU for “managing” migration, the regime’s brutal policies and the country’s wrecked economy are contributing to a steady flow of Sudanese people wanting to leave their own country. In 2014-2016, 9,300 Sudanese arrived in Italy, and in 2017, twenty per cent of those granted political asylum in France came from Sudan.

A report from the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands (“Multilateral Damage”, 2018) confirms some of the tendencies we have observed in Sudan. Firstly, new migration routes have emerged, more dangerous and secretive than before, and therefore also more expensive and criminalized. The total number of migrants making the journey has decreased, but evidence suggests that the number of migrant deaths has increased.

Secondly, the overall stability in these countries is threatened as the number of ungovernable militia groups grow. Some of these armed groups profit from stopping migrants, others from smuggling migrants northwards, and a considerable number practice both. In Niger, the ban on migration has disturbed the fragile balance that was established when the Tuareg and Tubu rebels in the northern part of the country entered a peace accord with the government.

The local economy has deteriorated, and new militias have emerged in the border regions. A common denominator for all these countries is that armed groups outside of the state’s control are becoming more powerful and constituting a security threat.

Political developments in Sudan during April and May 2019 have led the RSF leader Hemetti to power as second-in-command in the Transitional Military Council (TMC), now participating in talks with the protesters about a new government. In Libya, both parties in the war for the capital Tripoli are depending on alliances with militias. Many of them are keeping migrants and refugees in custody and subjecting them to torture and extortion, before a small number – barely 500 in the first three months of this year – gets transported en route to Europe.

In a desperate plea for help from the EU, the Libyan Prime Minister is threatening that up to 800,000 people will cross the Mediterranean if Libya were to face political collapse. This is most likely an overstatement, as there are probably not that many refugees and migrants wishing to reach Europe from Libya right now, and because transportation by sea is arranged by mafia-like organizations that may be dissolved if the political chaos in the country is amplified. Nevertheless, the prime minister’s statement speaks volumes about the vulnerability of the agreements that have been made.

Most European countries are aware of the risks associated with “externalizing” border control, but across Europe the field of migration is characterized by realpolitik. Lowering the number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching Europe has become the overarching objective.

We are seemingly becoming less concerned with the policies’ unintended consequences. This is probably caused by European migration policies claiming to answer all our concerns: not just migration, but also security, political stability and terrorism – based on the assumption that human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms dealings and terrorism are driven by a conglomerate of mafia-like organizations and that these are hurting local communities in the affected regions.

However, most people involved in migrant smuggling do not view themselves as criminals, and their activities may also create positive ripple effects in many local communities across border regions. 

Before the overthrow of Gaddafi, when many migrants from other African countries went to work in Libya, assisting migrants was part of the formal economy. Now, the practice is considered criminal. This may result in participants formerly engaged with assisting migrants moving their affairs elsewhere, for instance into activities eroding the state’s control such as revolt and terrorism.

Many European politicians probably recognize that the agreements that are being made strengthen forces we would rather not be associated with, whether this is an increasingly authoritarian president in Turkey or militia groups in the Sahel region. Yet, the question we must ask ourselves is whether this policy is sustainable in the long run. I am here thinking not only of the immense human suffering caused by such policies, but also whether we are supporting a development which will ultimately push even more people in the direction of Europe.

Penal Humanitarianism: Moral Discomfort at the Border (Part III)

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This is the third post in a six-part series on ‘Penal Humanitarianism’, edited by Kjersti Lohne. The posts center around Mary Bosworth’s concept and Kjersti Lohne’s development of penal humanitarianism, and how penal power is justified and extended through the invocation of humanitarian reason. The blog posts were first posted on the “Border Criminologies” blog, and are re-posted here. This post delves into how individuals tasked with carrying out state policies on border control react to direct encounters with human suffering, and the implications such interpersonal encounters may have on border studies as a whole.

Moral Discomfort at the Border: Understanding Penal Humanitarianism in Practice

A growing body of recent scholarship has pointed out the intricate connections between the exercise of penal power and humanitarianism in general, as well humanitarianism at the border (see e.g. Fassin; Bosworth; Lohne). This research has shown the centrality of humanitarian ideals and language within different penal sites and programs such as prison building programs abroad, the International Criminal Court and various border control practices. Humanitarian ideals are exposed as central to governmental discourses, disembedding penal power from the nation state, and often used to legitimize highly controversial border practices as matters of saving and protecting lives or promoting human rights.

Catania, Sicily, April 23 2015. Over 220 people arrived at 8am by ship at the Sicilian port. Catania RC set up a clinic to offer medical treatment, psychosocial support and counseling along with fresh water and shoes for migrants.
Image by IFRC.

Mary Bosworth, for example, observes that ‘human rights rhetoric and practices can justify the exercise of coercive state powers, even if their supporters wish it were otherwise’. In these contexts, humanitarianism is understood to function as a smokescreen and a technique for glossing over the ethically problematic and messy realities of border control. As Didier Fassin suggests: ‘Humanitarianism has this remarkable capacity: it fugaciously and illusorily bridges the contradictions of our world, and makes the intolerableness of its injustices somewhat bearable. Hence, its consensual force.’ In this post, we wish to contribute to the debate by drawing attention to the somewhat neglected aspects of humanitarianism in practice.

In our own work, we have analysed the deployment of humanitarian language and the discourse of human rights in Frontex operations. The precarious situation at Europe’s external borders is creating an irresolvable tension between the interests of European states to seal off their borders and the respect for fundamental human rights. The paradox of the centrality of ‘saving lives at sea’ in EU policy documents illuminates the disconnection between the performative aspects of humanitarianism and its operational use. The study revealed obvious contradictions and disjunctions between the objectives of state security and a lack of concern for migrants’ vulnerability, transferred into member states’ national risk assessments indicators.

However, we also uncovered the centrality of humanitarian sentiments in the narratives of police officers tasked with performing everyday border control. Indeed, the interviews with Frontex officers revealed a rather complex picture. While the humanitarian discourse clearly does a certain kind of performative ‘work’, it also seems to be to some extent internalized and appropriated by actors on the ground. Many officers talked with deeply felt seriousness and compassion about providing clothing and medicine for cold, wet and sick migrants. Some experienced the situation to be so serious that they drew analogies to the WW2. As one experienced officer described the situation in Greek detention centres: ‘It was like watching, it is terrible to say that, but it was like watching a war movie from 1943. Simply like that. Coming close to concentration camps.’ The controversial concentration camp analogy is, therefore, not only used by impassioned outside critics, but also by people within the system.

Although these stories of compassion and concern can be understood as a form of narrative self-legitimation work in a system which suffers from acute deficits in legitimacy (Bosworth; Ugelvik ), we would like to suggest that they also do a more complex work which may merit further analytical attention. In our study, compassion was often expressed as a result of having a more direct and closer contact with human suffering, which led the officers not only to sympathize with migrants, but also to see them in a more positive way and as more trustworthy. One officer described:

You get a slightly different understanding, because you get so much closer to the person, the credibility of the person standing before you is much stronger. I have registered asylum seekers [in Norway] until I’m exhausted (…) All of them are saying the same. (…) While here, you do have real people standing in front of you, telling a trustworthy story (Police Officer, de-briefer, PU6).

Here, compassion may still have performative and self-legitimating aspects (not least in relation to the interviewers), yet it is also an emotion which arises due to the physical closeness to suffering, resembling ‘the living presence’ of the Other described by Emmanuel Levinas. This presence is experienced and is different from, and not reducible to, words and ideas. As one officer said: ‘you see the hopelessness in it. I have in a sense understood it for several years, but now I can see the reality of what they are talking about’ (PU4).

We would like to suggest that such sentiments of understanding, compassion and a wish to help, which arise from direct, on the ground human encounters (although related) should be distinguished from the performative aspects of humanitarianism visible particularly in political discourse and policy documents. They demand a more nuanced understanding of the meaning of humanitarianism within border studies and an acknowledgement of the ambivalent feelings and moral discomfort inherent in  doing border work. This discomfort is dealt quite differently by individuals performing border control and is felt more acutely by some than others. Nevertheless, amplified by intense public critique, moral discomfort seems to be an inherent part of doing border control and can in some cases lead to outright resistance.

For example, our interviews with police officers performing border control in Norway demonstrated clear disagreement in how the police should use their newly acquired right to conduct border checks. Random territorial control of foreign citizens in the city center and targeted controls of families in detention centers were criticised for being immoral and inhumane. There was also a resentment of using deportation numbers as official performance targets for police work. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions, which are frequently talked about in relation to migrants, were thus also created within the police force. As one officer from Oslo Police District described:

Well, it can be said that internally, within the police, there are different understandings of how to apply immigration law. It is just as well if this came out. Some look at this from an ethical perspective – that is us – while others are more concerned with performance targets and such. And the ethical side thinks that performance targets are a wrong way of doing the work, and admits that this is a sensitive field to work in, while it seems to me that the others, the other side, have not reflected on this well enough. I know that within the Police Immigration Unit there are disagreements as well.

Border studies have, so far, paid relatively scarce attention to such internal resistance and the moral and ethical discomfort of performing border control (see Bosworth for valuable exception). By seeing humanitarian rationalities primarily as a way of cementing and legitimizing the status quo, we may be operating with a rather one-dimensional understanding of humanitarianism and failing to differentiate between different aspects and actors. While one of the main strengths of studies of humanitarianism has been to connect broad policy issues to questions of morality and emotion, this slippage may be also one of its main drawbacks due to the obscuring of on the ground inter-personal dynamics. Moreover, the field may be slow in recognizing resistance, and potential for it, coming from within the system. Consequently, a question can be asked whether border studies may be poorly equipped to fully understand the dialectics of change arising from the moral discomfort of doing border work, as well as liable to reproduce its own ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions.