Fortress Europe: The EU’s deadly 'stop the boats' migration policies will lead to more deaths
As I write, Spanish authorities are searching waters near the Canary Islands for a ship that left Senegal over a week ago carrying over 200 people. As that boat launched, 51 people died at sea on route to the same Islands from Morocco. Their deaths, from dehydration and drowning, were reported on 1 July by Alarm Phone, a hotline for vessels lost or in distress at sea, and Camiando Fronteras (Walking Borders), a campaign group defending the rights of people on the move.
A few days later, on 7 July, monitoring body Sea-Watch shared images of a ship carrying 250 passengers drifting near Malta. It was towed back to Libya, its departure point – a move that Sea-Watch cites as illegal under maritime law. Two days later, Tunisian officials confirmed at least ten people were missing after their boat, headed for Italy, sank. They will be added to a list of over 600 people reported dead or missing off the coast of Tunisia so far this year.
Similar stories have hit reporters desks every day, for a decade. They cause barely a ripple in the international press. Outside of activist and migration specialist circles, they slip largely under social media radars. Officially, “the crisis” is over. Very occasionally, a remarkable fact will capture global attention for a fleeting moment – a triple-figure death toll or a coincidence of timing with other newsworthy events.
''For people on the move, the only “deterrent” to a dangerous crossing are the options of a safer route, or of safety back home. European leaders reject this obvious truth in pursuit of increasingly violent border regimes. Their publics must do more than lament the rising death toll such immigration policies cause. They must care about people from beyond their own borders.''
On 14 June, a ship carrying up to 750 people capsized approximately 50 miles from the Greek coastal town of Pylos, following contact with the Hellenic Coastguard. An estimated 500-650 people drowned, including many trapped in the hold. Only 104 people survived, helped by the crews of the private ships that, like the Coastguard, had arrived at the ship hours before it sank. Nine accused smugglers face trial. Investigations into the Hellenic Coastguard’s likely fatal actions – and inactions – are also underway, forced by dogged NGOs’ evidence and Greek public pressure.
FRONTEX, the European Union Border Force, did not initially question the Coastguard’s version of events.
Wherever responsibility is placed for this particular catastrophic loss of life, fatal shipwrecks in or near European waters will continue. The next predictable, preventable “tragedy” is all but guaranteed by the deadly migration policies of the EU and its individual member states.
Their “Fortress Europe” stance mandates delayed or non-response to distress calls, the halting of potentially lifesaving interceptions, criminalisations of civil rescue boat crews, and the use of “pushbacks” and “pullbacks” to force ships out of their jurisdiction – but not beyond their international legal obligation to save lives. Deals have been struck with Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, facilitating widespread human rights abuses as European leaders sign cheques and avert their gaze.
Proponents of such methods say they act as “deterrents” to those tempted to reach Europe. Over a thousand undeterred people drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year. Another 778 people have died along the less monitored, increasingly popular Northwest Africa–Canary Islands route. These are the official figures. Countless more people have perished, trapped under water or lost at sea, absent from the record books until – if – evidence washes ashore, traumatising the fisherman or playing child who finds it. Every single one is a person who once had a future and who is still missed by family and friends.
Whose lives matter?
Following Pylos, Julia Black of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) told the BBC: “The problem… seems to be worsening and there's no responses in place to prevent these deaths, that I have seen. The Mediterranean at this point is a mass graveyard”.
A Sea-Watch campaign better captures reality: “[It] is not a graveyard. It’s a crime scene.”
These are deaths by design, not accident. They are not unforeseen consequences of irresponsible state policies. Scholars, lawyers, activists, migrants and other experts have raised alarm bells, time and again. “Deterrents” do not work. “Pushbacks” only force people into repeated or more dangerous journeys.
The IOM, United Nations, and other international bodies have called on EU states to redress their harmful policies. They miss a crucial point. For European politicians posturing “tough” on immigration, the suffering of “others” is fine exchange for votes. History guides them to understand that the deaths of citizens of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, especially if they are poor, will not overly concern their majority white constituents.
Pylos was not even the biggest “lost at sea” story in June. In Europe, far more attention was paid to five men – billionaires among them – killed in the “experimental” submersible Titan during an ill-advised descent to the ocean floor near Canadian waters. Before debris confirmed their death, a multi-agency, four-day search and rescue mission commanded 24-hour live updates.
Amid the scramble for news, some journalists and commentators lamented the gulf in apparent public concern for five wealthy “adventurers” and for five hundred people seeking better lives. The New York Times said the coincidental events reflected “the new inequality of the seas”.
The disparities are not surprising, however, or new. Racialised people have for centuries been systematically dehumanised such that black and brown people can be considered worth less, and therefore less deserving of grief, than their white counterparts. It is a constructed hierarchy that has justified slavery, colonialism, and genocide. It is a worldview that broadly persists.
Billionaires and celebrities are exceptions that prove the rule. Titan did not steal attention from Pylos. Without its starkly contrasting case, yet another “migrant boat” wreck would likely have only faded faster from the news – as they have done before, and do again now.
In 2019, reflecting on disproportionate coverage of one missing white footballer and 354 “missing migrants”, Tanzil Chowdhury and Remi Joseph-Salisbury concluded: “reportage of travel, migration and loss of life are informed by intersections of race and class. These intersections reflect how we understand human life and worthiness. In a global society underpinned by white supremacy and a global [neoliberal] economic system… economically poor Black and Brown bodies are seen as a dispensable.”
In Europe today, the mantra of “stop the boats” is another way of saying: “Let them die.”
From grief to action
As long as global inequalities persist, boats carrying people otherwise prevented from reaching Europe will continue to launch. Most will be overcrowded, unseaworthy or both. Many will sink. This week, next month, a year from now. People will keep talking the risk of travelling towards Europe without papers because the alternative is an unlivable life. The conditions they seek to escape – extreme poverty and inequality; climate catastrophe; militia rule; persecution of faith, race, sexuality and more – are intertwined with European “strategic interests”, loans and investments, military interventions, and colonial pasts.
For people on the move, the only “deterrent” to a dangerous crossing are the options of a safer route, or of safety back home. European leaders reject this obvious truth in pursuit of increasingly violent border regimes. Their publics must do more than lament the rising death toll such immigration policies cause. They must care about people from beyond their own borders.
Greek protesters have already demonstrated their power, by demanding accountability for Hellenic Coastguard actions. NGOs, academics, lawyers and activist collectives continue to scrutinise the actions of state and EU actors, often while filling gaps in provision to save lives at sea and defending the right of civilians to aid people in distress.
Alarm Phone, Walking Borders, Sea-Watch, Missing Migrants, Forensis, the crews of the Iuventa, the Luis Michel and many more collectives are collaborating across borders to challenge the status quo. All need public support and visibility to safely and effectively continue their work.
The reckless makers of the Titan will be held responsible for five deaths. The architects of deadly border policies can be similarly brought to account for causing tens of thousands more.
Siobhán McGuirk is a lecturer in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-editor of Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry (PM Press, 2020).
Follow her on Twitter: @s_mcguirk
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.