Paris, refugees, and Europe’s hard borders

Fortress Europe opened its gates last summer. The tragedy in Paris has threatened to slam them shut again.

[This article was originally posted at and is republished here with their permission.]


Last year was already set to go down as a turning point in the history of Europe’s undeclared war against illegal immigration. The 13 November attacks in Paris have since thrown fuel on an already incendiary debate.

The unprecedented collective disobedience of migrants crossing borders en masse subjected the ‘fortress’ model of border enforcement the EU so painstakingly constructed over the last three decades to unprecedented moral and political pressure. The chaotic and tragic consequences of Europe’s ‘managed migration’ policies have called into question the effectiveness — and the morality — of the European model, and revealed deep divisions within the European Union over how the continent should respond to what NGOs and refugee organizations have called the most serious humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Recently, as a result of Islamic State’s vicious assault on the French capital, there is a real danger that these tentative openings in the ‘fortress’ model of border enforcement are being closed once again, as renewed concern with border security becomes another justification for the exclusion of people who had nothing to do with November’s horrific events.

Since Germany took the decision to open its borders and receive 800,000 refugees — a gesture at odds with the entire direction of European immigration policy over the last three decades — Angela Merkel’s ‘moral imperialism’ has come under increasing criticism from Eastern European governments and from within her own party. Though other countries refused to follow Germany’s call to accept quotas of refugees, even anti-immigrant governments came under pressure this summer as solidarity with Europe’s migrants became increasingly vocal and widespread.

To understand the potential repercussions of the current crisis, we need to go back 30 years to the village of Schengen, in Luxembourg, where the interior ministers of France, Germany, and the Benelux countries gathered on 14 June 14 1985, and signed a treaty to abolish their mutual border controls. The signatories thought of the Schengen Agreement as a giant, even utopian, step towards European unity.

Today the free movement zone that they created has expanded to include 26 countries and enables some 420 million Europeans to live and work anywhere in this common space of ‘freedom, security, and justice.’ It also allows non-European nationals with the three-month Schengen Visa to travel across the continent with the same ease.

There was always another, less utopian dimension to Schengen. Dismantling national borders within was contingent on the reinforcement of the EU’s ‘external’ borders. Bureaucratic restrictions on legal entry were accompanied by a host of measures to prevent illegal immigration: the deployment of quasi-military forces and surveillance technologies on land and sea; the construction of physical barriers at key border hotspots; a new emphasis on immigrant detention; conveyor belt deportations; the outsourcing of Europe’s immigration controls to neighbouring countries like Libya, Morocco and Ukraine — all these measures formed what would become one of the most extensive and sustained immigration enforcement programs in history.

* * *

The new Schengen borders came under political pressure as Eastern European states baulked at the EU’s attempts to resettle some 160,000 refugees across the continent, and erected new fences and barriers at their nominally open borders. Now this cornerstone of the European project has begun to crumble, as governments and rightwing populists across the continent have seized on the attacks as a justification for the re-imposition of national border controls, and the strengthening or even the closing of Europe’s external borders.

Within hours of the attacks in Paris the tone was set by Poland’s European Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski, who declared: ‘The European Council’s decisions, which we criticized, on the relocation of refugees and immigrants to all EU countries are part of European law. After the tragic events of Paris we do not see the political possibility of respecting them.’ In Holland, Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders has called on the government to ‘close the Dutch borders’ in order to ‘protect the Dutch people.’ In France Marine Le Pen has similarly called upon the French government to ‘take back’ control of its borders and stop accepting refugees.

The eagerness with which Europe’s populist and nationalist right and the right-wing media seized upon the Paris attacks as a justification for dismantling Schengen and excluding refugees was unedifying, if not exactly surprising. In his address to the joint houses of Parliament at Versailles, François Hollande warned of the dangers of a return to nationalism and ‘the dismantling of the European Union,’ should Europe prove unable to control its external borders.

Coming from the leader of one of the principal architects of the European Union, Hollande’s attempt to link border control and security to the wider question of immigration enforcement had troubling implications for Europe’s refugees, and for the future of Europe itself. From its earliest stages, the hardening of Europe’s external borders against undocumented migration was seen as an essential barrier against an array of security threats that included drugs, terrorism, sexual trafficking or disease.

These tendencies were intensified by the post 9/11 emergency, as European governments routinely linked border control to wider questions of terrorism and counter-terrorism. That borders can perform an important role in law enforcement and protecting the public is undeniable, but the notion of ‘strong’ or ‘controlled’ borders raises expectations for security that cannot be met at the border itself. Terrorists do not generally enter the countries they want to attack as asylum seekers on boats or dinghies — they are likely to cross borders legally with forged identities, their intentions well concealed.

This should be obvious, yet too often governments present their electorates with a notion of ‘control’ that would be difficult even for a totalitarian state to achieve. Too often politicians conflate security with the prevention of undocumented migration, to the point when ‘economic migrants’ and refugees are regarded as dangerous and harmful people and another form of contraband. This tendency to see immigration through the prism of security is widespread, and has frequently called Europe’s commitment to refugee protection into question.

The European Union and its member states may have been committed to refugee protection in principle, but new physical barriers, such as the towering border fences in the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, and bureaucratic ‘paper walls’ that prevent refugees from getting on planes have made it difficult, if not impossible, for refugees to reach European territory and access this right in practice.

The grim consequences of this border regime have been evident for many years, in the horrific journeys of ‘boat-people’ across the Mediterranean and the Aegean that produced a string of appalling tragedies; in the spectacular growth of the smuggling industry and sexual trafficking networks; in the proliferation of shantytowns and camps in Calais, Italy, Greece and other countries where migrants live in legal limbo.

The past 12 months have exposed the moral and political contradictions at the heart of Europe’s migration policies. We all have heard the staggering numbers: 740,000 migrants seeking refuge in Europe; 218,000 new arrivals in October alone; and more than 2,600 people drowned in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. A majority of arrivals are Syrians and should automatically qualify for refugee protection, yet many are subjected to systematic police violence and repression in a number of European countries.

Across the continent, refugees are herded onto trains and buses, held in internment camps and left stranded at border ‘hot spots’ and migrant choke points, as borders closed and others opened. It is difficult to see how Europe’s borders can be tightened even further, without perpetuating the deaths, drownings and other tragic events that we have already seen too many of this year. A number of right-wing politicians and newspapers have cited the Syrian passport found near one of the Paris suicide bombers as a vindication of their previous reluctance to take in refugees, and a justification for excluding Syrian refugees in the future.

Such arguments are at best misguided and at worst entirely spurious and opportunistic. Not only is the authenticity of this document questionable, but it is also to some extent irrelevant. In today’s world, passports are easily bought and forged, and no amount of ‘control’ at the border can prevent that, unless certain nationalities are to be excluded completely.

It remains to be seen whether Europe is frightened enough to succumb to the populist notion of security that would exclude all Syrian refugees. Needless to say, such a course of action would have terrible consequences for a refugee population that includes many victims of ISIL.

Most refugees who manage to scale the hurdles of Europe’s borders and enter the Schengen won’t find a ‘space of freedom, security, and justice.’ Instead, they’ll live in the permanent insecurity of camps and shelters in Calais, Lesvos and other border ‘hot spots.’

We cannot allow our security fears to become a pretext to perpetuate the permanent insecurity of the men, women and children who risk and too often lose their lives while trying to cross these European borders. If we are vulnerable, they are too. ISIL knows this very well and would like nothing better than to see them turned back towards its dismal ‘caliphate’ by a cold, vengeful and paranoid Europe.

Last summer the gates of Fortress Europe opened briefly. We must not compound the tragedy in Paris and allow them to be slammed shut again. If that happens, then Europe would effectively renounce the political identity that its more idealistic founders once imagined, and revert back to a handful of walled fortresses whose inhabitants were as fearful of each other as they were of the outside world. The restoration of these old borders might protect us from real and imagined threats, but if that happens, the mass murderers who wrought such havoc on the streets of a peaceful city that Friday in November will have achieved a far greater victory than they could ever have imagined.

Matt Carr is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times and on BBC Radio. He is the author of The Infernal Machine: An Alternative History of Terrorism; Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain, 1492-1614 and most recently, Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration. His widely followed blog can be found at Matt Carr’s Infernal Machine

On Twitter: @MattCarr55

Matt Carr will be in conversation with Jeremy Harding, author of Border Vigils, on ‘Fortress Europe’ at the London Review Bookshop on 25 February 2016. Tickets are available here

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