Death at the border – who is to blame?

Death at the border – who is to blame?


Written by: Liz Fekete

The EU Border Control Programme, introduced with scant regard to refugee protection and human rights, is leading to an increasing number of deaths on the borders of Europe – and beyond.

The measure of desperation

Over the last eighteen months, our research has identified 742 people who have died attempting to reach Europe[1]. In order to gain entry, the desperate have gambled with their lives. They have attempted to reach Europe by hiding in the wheel-bays of aeroplanes and shipping containers on ferries; they have trekked overland over hazardous routes; they have chanced perilous sea-crossings. The majority of those who died are sub-Saharan Africans, but also included in the grim tally of death are other Africans, Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans, Albanians, eastern Europeans and people from the Indian sub-continent.

The most perilous way to get into Europe is to be smuggled in by sea. In all, 670 people met their deaths while travelling on rickety and overcrowded fishing boats, flimsy rubber dinghies or other sub-standard vessels, which sank, or crashed against the rocks, in rough seas. These people were attempting to reach Greece from Turkey via the Mediterranean and then the Aegean ot Ionian Seas; Italy from Libya or Tunisia via the Mediterranean; the Spanish mainland from Morocco via the 9-mile crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar; the Spanish Canary Islands via the 60-mile sea voyage from the Saharan coast. A few, whose decomposing corpses washed ashore on Europe’s southern coasts, were in sight of their final destination. Traffickers, determined to avoid detection, would have forced them overboard; those who could not swim, drowned. Still others died because they lost their way on the high seas; they drifted for days, even weeks, before finally succumbing to hunger, exposure and thirst.

A further fifty people died between May 2002 and June 2003 after attempting to trek across the Turkish/Greek border or cross the frontier that separates Ukraine from Slovakia. The news that their frozen corpses had been discovered, merited just a few lines in the newspapers, as did the fact that four migrants were blown apart after stepping on the landmines which litter the Turkish-Greek border near the river Evros (Meric in Turkish). A group of French tourists ensured that the fact that sixteen sub-Saharan Africans had died of hunger, thirst and exhaustion in the no-man’s land between the Moroccan and Mauritanian frontiers was more fully explored, by contacting Radio France Internationale.

“There’s a sort of desperation in them. If you haven’t seen it, you can’t understand.” – Luigi Tenaglia, medical worker in Lampedusa

In addition to those who died after attempting overland and sea routes, twenty-one people, died in the period under review, having attempted entry to Europe as stowaways in air or sea carriers, or on coaches or lorries. Hypothermia, lack of oxygen, carbon monoxide poisoning, suffocation due to the terrible heat in containers packed with fruit, are among the causes of their deaths.

Those who seek to enter Europe clandestinely nearly always do so with the aid of traffickers or smugglers. Aware of the risks, and most often pooling the life savings of families to pay the traffickers’ charges, they decide that the circumstances in their country of origin are so bleak that they have no option but to become part of the ‘human cargo’ smuggled into Europe. That they ‘choose’ to be dehumanised and commodified in this way, is the most glaring measure of their desperation. But this desperation is not acknowledged by politicians, who respond to the emotionally-charged media-generated hysteria over asylum by demonising the desperate as an ‘invading army’ of ‘illegal immigrants’.

Managed Migration and anti-trafficking initiatives

It was the laws introduced by politicians throughout Europe, North America and Australia from the 1980s onwards that have set the tone for the ill-informed media debate. Intelligent discussion on the reasons for forced migration and refugee flight is curtailed and compassion for the desperate derided. Until the 1980s, refugee policy was still regarded as a human rights issue. But this changed in the 1990s. As the number of asylum claims rose, immigration control and not human rights began to be prioritised by western governments[2]. Common visa policies (that denied visas to those coming from refugee-producing countries) and carriers’ liability fines (which penalised airlines and sea carriers that brought in those without papers) were introduced; airline liaison officers were installed in refugee-producing countries and readmission treaties negotiated. With the introduction of such barriers, the vast majority of asylum seekers, attempting to reach the EU, turned to human smugglers and trafficking networks. Independent research shows that now most asylum seekers need to engage the assistance of smugglers or traffickers at some point in their journey[3].

The detrimental impact of European policies on asylum rights was never acknowledged during the 1990s. Instead, new asylum policies were formulated within a criminological perspective which prioritised the need to combat transnational organised crime over the rights of refugees. In this, the framers of European asylum law were informed by the new strategy of ‘global migration management'[4] which the richer nations of North America, Europe and Australia were fleshing out in supranational bodies and intergovernmental agencies such as the International Centre for Migration Policy and Development and the Budapest Process. In identifying trafficking and smuggling networks as the main obstacle to managed migration, their framework blurred the legal distinctions between trafficking and smuggling. For trafficking, which involves exploitation that goes on after the arrival in the country of destination, such as bonded labour or prostitution, is clearly a facet of international organised crime. But smuggling, which involves an assisted illegal border crossing with no ongoing exploitation, is not – as acknowledged by the drafters of the 1951 Geneva Convention[5].

Undermining the Geneva Convention

The drafters of the 1951 Geneva Convention, in recognition of the human smuggling networks that had aided Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, had stipulated in Article 31 that those who used illegal methods to enter a country should not be penalised if their purpose in so doing was to seek asylum. Today, Article 31 has been totally undermined by laws which criminalise smuggling. The year 2000 was designated by the EU, the Group of 8 Industrialised Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (which includes Canada and the US) as the year of the Anti-Trafficking Plan. Subsequently, the 2000 UN Convention on Transnational Crime initiated separate trafficking and smuggling protocols. The smuggling protocol makes it an international offence to assist any person in an illegal border crossing, regardless of whether he or she is a refugee in need of protection. It also states that a migrant, who engages the help of smugglers, is not a blameless victim but complicit in the criminal act of illegal migration.

By conflating trafficking networks with smuggling, by treating all those who seek the aid of traffickers or smugglers as complicit in criminal activity, the UN Convention has absolved policy-makers in the richer developed nations of any blame in the mounting toll of deaths at its borders. Blame for the deaths (when they are acknowledged at all) is placed at the door of ruthless trafficking networks, although those who seek the services of smugglers or traffickers are regarded by the UN as complicit in their own victimisation.

What is not being acknowledged, is the way that immigration and asylum policies of North Africa, Australia and Europe have, since the early 1990s, created the market for traffickers and smugglers to flourish.

The death funnel

Each time smugglers or traffickers seek to exploit a new route, the EU attempts to seal it off. But EU policies to not work. They do not deter people from coming. People just choose more circuitous and hazardous routes. EU policy is, quite literally, funnelling people to their deaths.

“In the [Lampedusa] town cemetery, beside the opulent crypts that many southern Italians favour, is a weed-strewn plot of dirt for the bodies of immigrants, buried under wooden crosses with numbers, not names.” [6]

In the 1980s, for instance, sub-Saharan Africans would trek across the Sahara, heading for Morocco and then on to the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Spain, aided by the EU, responded with a £24.5 million programme designed to make the crossing from Morocco to Spanish territory ‘impassable’. But still the desperate come, only today they come to Ceuta in the boots of cars, or togged out in scuba diving suits tied to a life-raft and dragged along the coast by Moroccan swimmers; or they clamber down into the narrow pipes and drains that carry waste into the Bomba gully, the natural frontier between Spain and Morocco. But more often than not, the displaced and desperate seek to enter mainland Spain through the Strait of Gibraltar, or from the Saharan coast to the Canary Islands, across the Mediterranean Sea. But with the introduction of the Surveillance System for the Strait (now extended from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Canaries), and with the permanent military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, the desperate are being forced to take other routes, from Libya and Tunisia to Italy via the Mediterranean, for instance. And the death toll rises – only now the ‘nautical graveyards’ are increasingly in African territorial waters ensuring that the problem is hidden even further from the European gaze.

Our next report will look at how NGOs and human rights activists are overcoming official indifference and exposing EU and governmental culpability in these deaths.

Related links

Read the full report, including Return at the frontier, interception at sea, an update on the EU’s Border Control Programme and Appendices A-C, with detailed data on recorded deaths (July 2003).

[1] Our statistics, gleaned from newspaper accounts, press releases of NGOs, the noborder network and UNITED for Intercultural Action, are certainly a gross under-estimation, as we only include officially-verified deaths. Despite the fact that the EU has a common asylum and immigration policy, no EU body takes responsibility for monitoring these deaths; nor do member states collate statistics in any meaningful fashion. As our figures include all those known to have died attempting to reach Europe, we also include deaths in African and Turkish waters, and on the African mainland.
[2] See John Morrison, 'Refugees: "The dark side of globalisation": the criminalisation of refugees' in Race & Class (Vol. 43, no.1, July-September 2001).
[3] See John Morrison, The Smuggling and Trafficking of Refugees: the endgame in European asylum policy (UNHCR, 2000); Sharone Backers, 'Risking it all: the implications of refugee smuggling' in Race & Class (Vol. 43, no. 1, July-September 2001); Professor Roger Zetter et al, An assessment of the Impact of asylum policies in Europe 1990-2000, Home Office Research Study 259, 2003.
[4] See Liz Fekete 'The emergence of xeno-racism' in Race & Class (Vol. 43, no. 2, October-December 2001).
[5] John Morrison, Refugees: the dark side of globalisation, op.cit.
[6] New York Times, 11.7.03.

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

2 thoughts on “Death at the border – who is to blame?

    1. Hello Jane, apologies – we’ve now fixed the link so you should be able to access. Thanks for flagging this and let us know if you happen to come across any more. Best wishes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.