Death at Europe’s frontiers: foreseeable result of state policy?

Death at Europe’s frontiers: foreseeable result of state policy?


Written by: Alicia de la Cour Venning

European states are morally responsible for deaths at the EU’s borders, argues the International State Crime Initiative.

This is the main feature of contemporary border politics. It exposes the border transgressors to death rather than directly using its power to kill.’

Khosravi (2010), ‘Illegal’ Traveller: an auto-ethnography of borders (p. 27)

On 6 February, fifteen sub-Saharan Africans died whilst attempting to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta from neighbouring Morocco. Survivors accused the Spanish civil guard of using tear gas and firing rubber bullets directly at individuals in its attempt to drive migrants back.

Credit: Marcos Moreno

Ten years ago Spain spent over €30m building barriers around its territories Melilla and Ceuta, described as ‘the only land borders between the promise of Europe and the despair of Africa’. Spain’s leaders have appealed to the EU for an additional €45m to assist with policing its borders in response to what it claims is an ‘emergency situation’, announcing plans to spend €800,000 on new fences with anti-climb netting designed to prevent ‘illegal intrusions’. It has also announced that the civil guard’s presence at Ceuta and Melilla’s borders will now be permanent. Spanish officials reproached human traffickers as being a probable cause of the surge in migrants in recent years.

On 20 January, a boat carrying twenty-five Afghans and a Syrian family capsized near the Greek island of Farmakonisi while being towed by the Greek coastguard. Two drowned and ten people remain missing, presumed dead. Whilst expressing ‘deepest aggravation’ for the lives lost at sea during the ‘tragic incident’, the Greek government denies survivors’ accusations that officials tried to illegally return them to Turkish waters and botched the rescue effort, authorities attributing the deaths to ‘illegal migratory flows’.[1] Meanwhile, a Greek judge has banned the airing of a report into the deaths, claiming it would compromise the secrecy of the ongoing official investigation. On numerous occasions international organisations have condemned Greece’s refoulement policy against migrants entering without papers.

Manipulating the facts

These governmental responses come in stark contrast to comments from the UN refugee agency, which has emphasised concern ‘that people who need international protection and are risking their lives to get to safe countries, are losing their lives trying to enter the countries of the European Union’. The watchdog notes the need to further strengthen rescue operations at sea and create channels for legal migration in order to avoid dangerous, irregular movements.

Governments routinely refer to deaths at their borders as tragedies or disasters, consistently denying moral responsibility for their occurrence and manipulating incidents to encourage popular support for strengthening borders.[2]

Credit: Marcos Moreno

Blame is attributed to illegal migratory flows, including individuals themselves for embarking on hazardous journeys facilitated by smugglers and traffickers. Migrants are portrayed as ‘invaders’, ‘bogus asylum seekers’, and ‘threats to national security’, playing on xenophobic and racist ideologies. Facilitators are accused of orchestrating a ‘profoundly evil trade’ and of having ‘no regard for human life’. By labelling the refugee and his or her ‘facilitators’ as criminal, receiving governments assert their own legitimacy.[3] Through a myriad of policies and bureaucratic structures, governments are able to distance themselves from deaths at the border. Complex and exclusionary visa regimes, increasing border militarisation, and the development of new laws to allow interception at sea and even land form a process which allows democratic regimes to deflect responsibility.

Global social and economic inequality, exacerbated by the financial crisis and new wars in which an increasing number of civilian lives are lost, means that forced migration has become a matter of survival for millions. Confronted with the increasingly strict immigration policies of Fortress Europe and other western nations, individuals seeking protection have little choice but to risk their lives by crossing borders illegally. Between 1993 and 2010 almost 14,000 people are known to have died either trying to enter Europe, whilst in detention or during forcible deportation.[4] Drowning was the most frequent cause of death. Government strategies of non-arrival at the border, including intensified maritime surveillance only serve to heighten the risks of death for those seeking asylum.

Border deaths as state crimes

The approach of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) is to locate border deaths as state crimes, i.e., forms of state organisational deviance resulting in human rights violations. State crime includes all crimes committed, instigated, or condoned by state agencies. We focus on victims as being key actors in defining, exposing and challenging state violence and corruption. Implicit in our definition is the inclusion not only of active violations of human rights, but also of passive failures to protect individuals against violations by other individuals or corporations.[5]

Situating border deaths within a state crime framework allows us to challenge receiving state responses. By unravelling the chain of events which lead to border deaths being labeled as ‘tragic accidents’, we are able to understand how the harmful actions of democratic nations are masked not only by anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric demonising the asylum seeker, but by their very status as liberal democracies. This status, which implies compliance with humanitarian principles, makes it easier for receiving states of the global north to escape censure or challenge, despite their oppressive policies.[6] Identifying the processes which lead to border deaths as state criminality, or at the very least, state negligence in the protection of vulnerable individuals, helps us to attribute responsibility for deaths at Europe’s borders.[7] Given that states themselves define who and what is criminal, a state can only be criminal on those rare occasions when it denounces itself for breaking its own laws.[8] As such, civil society plays an important role in censuring state behaviour and questioning its legitimacy.[9]

The argument that states have the right to control ‘illegal immigration’ within their territories is certainly to be acknowledged. However this should not mean that states are allowed to construct domestic law and policy that fails to safeguard the rights of individuals seeking asylum under international law, and worse, facilitates death and injury to those who do.[10] Receiving governments would have us believe that border deaths are ‘unforeseeable tragedies’. In reality they are the predictable consequence of restrictive immigration policies and securitised borders – state-controlled practices which are exposing individuals escaping crisis, terror, discrimination and war to death at Europe’s frontiers.

Alicia de la Cour Venning is research and policy manager at ISCI.

Related links

International State Crime Initiative

Caminando Fronteras

References: [1] Letter from Greek Minister, Militiadis Varvitsiotis, to the European Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, dated 28 January 2014, Council of Europe, Strasbourg. [2] Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering, Globalization and Borders (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 119. [3] Sharon Pickering, 'Crimes of the state: The persecution and protection of refugees' in Critical Criminology (Vol. 13, no. 2, 2005), p. 159. [4] Leanne Weber and  Sharon Pickering, op. cit., p. 1. [5] Penny Green and Tony Ward, ‘State crime, human rights and the limits of criminology’ in Social Justice (Vol. 27, no. 1), p. 101-105. See also Penny Green and Tony Ward, State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption (London, Pluto Press, 2004). [6] Sharon Pickering, ‘Crimes of the state', op. cit., p. 155. [7] Sharon Pickering, Refugees and state crime (Annandale, The Federation Press, 2005), p. 12; Sharon Pickering, ‘Crimes of the state’, op. cit., p. 155. [8] Penny Green and Tony Ward, State crime, op. cit., p. 1. [9] See footnote 5. [10] Penny Green and Mike Grewcock, ‘The war against illegal immigration: state crime and the construction of a European identity’ in Current Issues in Criminal Justice (Vol. 14, no. 1, 2002).  

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.