From refugee protection to managed migration: the EU’s border control programme

From refugee protection to managed migration: the EU’s border control programme


Written by: Liz Fekete

Since the Seville Summit of June 2002, European heads of state are increasingly questioning the continuing relevance of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

In this – the first in a series of reports examining various aspects of the EU’s new focus on ‘managed migration’ – we examine the EU Council’s new Border Control Programme in relation to the EU’s obligations to asylum seekers under international law. We also explore the ways in which the EU’s commitment to the ‘War Against Terrorism’ is fashioning its approach to refugees.

The EU Council’s Border Control Programme, instigated following the Seville Summit of June 2002,[1] erects a series of obstacles to prevent asylum seekers reaching EU countries. All those asylum seekers who, with the aid of traffickers or smugglers, somehow manage to circumvent these obstacles are treated, under the Programme, as suspected illegal entrants. Yet breaking immigration laws to seek asylum in another country is not a crime under article 31 of the Geneva Convention. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also sets out the right to claim asylum in another country.

The Geneva Convention states that refugees should not be penalised (ie sent to prison) for illegal entry. This principle, however, had, even prior to the Border Control Programme, been steadily undermined through a series of anti-trafficking initiatives which effectively criminalised illegal entry, by eliding the difference between traffickers and trafficked and treating them as partners in a criminal enterprise. Hence, article 31 of the Geneva Convention, which states that to break immigration laws to seek asylum in another country is not a crime, has now been superseded by the Smuggling Protocol of the 2000 UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime which states unequivocally that the ‘migrant’ should not be viewed as a blameless victim but, rather, as partly complicit in the act of ‘illegal migration’.

Having effectively equated asylum seekers with immigrants, and criminalised such migration as ‘illegal’, the European Council (which is the body representing the EU heads of state and government) is now stepping up the defence of its borders (although where Europe’s borders begin is a moot point).

Australia and the US: pioneers in border defence

The EU Council’s Border Control Programme draws heavily on Australian and US models where the debate around security of borders is routinely linked to the need for enhanced security against terrorism. In 1995, the Clinton administration broadened the US military’s role on the 2,000-mile Mexican border from that of a ‘war on drugs’ to a ‘war on illegal immigration’. And, to conduct this war, the US border patrol was issued with military equipment used during the Vietnam War – blackhawk helicopters, heat sensors, night vision telescopes and electronic intrusion detection devices.[2]

More recently, in Australia, after the Tampa incident, in which capsized asylum seekers were rescued by a Norwegian cargo vessel, which was then refused entry to Australian waters, the Howard government brought in the Border Protection Act. Under this, a permanent naval blockade ensures that any boatload of asylum seekers is escorted back to the high seas, even after entering Australia’s territorial waters. Spy planes have been deployed to scour coastal waters for immigrants, and warships despatched to the Indian Ocean to drive back fragile Indonesian fishing boats crammed with refugees; it was, warned Human Rights Watch, ‘a poor example for all coastal states’.

The EU Council has indeed absorbed the lessons of the Border Protection Act, and studied the US’s military approach to its border with Mexico. The Council has moved to ensure that the piecemeal approaches to border control of the various member states are consolidated into one overarching paramilitary system which involves increasing reliance on military technology and equipment. It is a strategy that needs to be seen in the wider context of decreasing spending on European welfare and social security, and increasing spending on defence. The ultimate objective of such border control is to stop the victims of persecution, civil war and forced migration from reaching Europe. But, of course, this is not openly acknowledged. Instead, a system of ‘integrated border management’ based on ‘common control mechanisms’ is justified as vital for the maintainance of Europe’s security against the dual threat posed by traffickers and terrorists. The long-term goal is the creation of a European Border Guard.[3] But as such a force, under one central command, is politically contentious, it is being brought in incrementally and by stealth. From now on, border guards from one member state may be deployed in another, and not just at the frontier, but internally as well. How this will work in practice is a developing process with a system of common cooperation mechanisms being piloted through sixteen projects, based in sixteen ad hoc centres, to which particular member states bring their own expertise.

Border protection: objectives and outcomes

The EU Council’s border control programme is not solely an EU affair. In fact, it is a programme that, if it is to be effective, requires substantial external support. To this end, a whole list of non-EU countries are being brought into the managed migration process. At the European Council Seville Summit, heads of state and government endorsed the Council’s border protection programme and commited the EU to the integration of immigration policies into the Union’s relations with third countries, through a targeted approach which makes use of all appropriate EU external relation instruments, including development policy, to address the underlying causes of migratory flows. A Spanish and UK proposal to punish those non-EU countries which fail to take back ‘illegal immigrants’ with a loss of development aid, was quickly rejected as counterproductive, unworkable and possibly illegal. But this does not mean that the Council’s long-term strategy of subordinating EU development policy to the immigration and security agenda has been abandoned.[4] In December 2002, the European Commission, warning that migration was a ‘major strategic policy for the European Union’ which needed to be ‘carefully managed’, issued a communication to both the Council and European Parliament which outlined a more deliberated and diplomatic approach.[5] The Commission spoke of ‘strengthening third countries capacity to manage migratory flows’ through EU-backed schemes aimed at the ‘management of external borders’ and the creation of migration projects in third countries. But European Commissioner for External Affairs, Chris Patten, added that ‘the struggle against illegal immigration is now a strategic priority of the EU and aid programmes should be reviewed towards the aim of adjusting them to those new priorities.[6] However, such an approach, according to the European Commission, ‘necessitated coaxing third countries to cooperate before penalising those resistant to or incapable of cooperating.’

The EU Council Border Control Programme, which is complemented by the ‘Comprehensive Action plan to combat illegal immigration and trafficking’, will operate within the forum of the Council’s Strategic Committee on Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum (SCIFA).[7] The Council’s overall strategy is aimed at ensuring that the new NATO countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Hungary Romania, Bulgaria) as well as existing NATO member Turkey, form a bulwark around the existing EU countries. This will protect the wealthy EU from refugees, principally from Asia, seeking to reach it via the former Soviet Union. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are expected to perform a similar function in preventing any migratory movement into southern Europe from the Mahgreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

This strategy will be enforced through programmes and policies aimed at:

  • Exporting border controls to eastern Europe: This is to be done by making the introduction of border controls a condition of entry for accession states and candidate countries; those countries which fail to comply will face visa restrictions.
  • Coopting Morocco and Turkey into EU border protection programmes: This will be done through financial inducements, including increased development aid. To the same end, negotiations have already started with other countries, such as Algeria and Tunisia.
  • Massive investment – pioneered by the defence industry, in new technology and research in order to protect the inner core of EU nations from migratory movements. This will entail increased funding for border protection services, including the creation of elite squads, and use of warships and navy vessels to intercept boats at sea.
  • Formulation of a new policy towards countries deemed to be the source of migratory flows: Albania, China, Morocco, Russia and Turkey and other countries are to be forced to adopt a series of measures to prevent people entering and leaving at pain of economic and political sanctions.
Predicting refugee movement

The overall idea of the programme is to create as many barriers to refugee movement, in as many different countries and regions, as possible and, in the process, extend the EU’s zone of influence over border controls. Of course, these barriers to refugee movement were already in operation prior to September 11. But the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and later Bali and Mombassa, have given previous policies a new legitimacy. And such border policies are no longer the responsibility of individual EU member states; rather each member state is under direction from the EU to comply. Hence carrier sanctions (fines for carriers of undocumented or falsely documented travellers) have, post-September 11, become obligatory for all EU member states and accession states. And the use of EU airport liaison officers at international airports is to be further extended under the Council’s Border Programme with two new centres of excellence for developing strategies and programmes on precisely this theme.

Resources are also being ploughed into developing surveillance and detection programmes capable of predicting refugee movement, profiling potential ‘illegal immigrants’and ‘averting refugee flows’. A system of common risk assessment, whereby attempts are made to determine the type of person likely to be an illegal immigrant and the likely method used to enter the EU, has been introduced. Surveillance of refugee movement and averting refugee flows are deemed to be vital components of Europe’s post-September 11 security needs. Philippe Busquin, EU Commissioner for Research, argues that the ‘Global Monitoring for Environment and Security’ project, in which the use of satellites, originally designed for tracking coastal erosion, air pollution and climate change, will be used to support military peace-keeping missions and to track refugees outside the EU’s borders, is essential if Europe’s security needs are to be met.[8] The UK government, which has set up, in the coastal town of Dover, a ‘centre of excellence in the field of search and technology’ aimed at combating ‘clandestine immigration’ believes that ‘clandestine immigration’ has ‘security implications regarding potential terrorist threats’. A Mobile Detection Unit, based at the Dover centre, will be available to other EU states so that the EU can move quickly to the ‘vulnerable points’ when there is a ‘threat to the integrity of the external EU frontier’.[9]

Focus on the EU’s new eastern border

A specific focus of the Council’s Border Programme is ‘eastern land frontiers’. The added benefit to the EU of the entry of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Slovenia into the EU in 2004 is the shift of the EU’s borders eastwards. This new eastern border will immunise central European countries from the east-west overland migration path along which migrants and asylum seekers move from China, South East and South West Asia, the Middle East and even Africa into the Russian Federation and then on to Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. One condition attached to the ten accession states is that they militarise their border controls (a venture partially paid for by the EU) and professionalise border police forces. Thus, the new border being constructed on the eastern periphery of the enlarged EU, with the applicant candidate states on the western side and Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova on the other, will be more than 5,000km long. The biggest crossing into Central Europe will be via the Ukrainian border, particularly the Transcapathian district which borders Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Romania.

Developments in eastern European and Russian border controls

In order to meet requirements for entry into the EU by 2004, the government has agreed to tighten controls on its eastern border and promised that controls on the western border with Germany will not disappear until EU accession. Visas will be required for Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians by Summer 2003. (Reuters 24.7.02)
Romania, which hopes to join the EU by 2007, is to spend around 50 million euros to secure its border with Moldova – which is a key transit route for migrants – by 2003. (The EU is to meet the other fifty per cent of the costs.) It is also holding talks with Bulgaria and Hungary on deploying joint border units. A cooperation agreement with Ukranian border police was signed in June 2002.
In January 2002, Bulgaria boosted its police force on the border with Turkey. The head of border police at the southern town of Svilengrad said,’We have recently seen an unusual rise in the number of migrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan’ at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Bulgaria has also signed an agreement to take back migrants who enter Serbia, via its borders. After controls were tightened on the Bulgarian border, migration has shifted towards the Pirot area and the Danube River. (Reuters 22.10.02)
In May 2002, the EU sent an 80-member delegation to the Hungary-Ukrainian border region to develop ways to tighten security and reduce ‘migrant traffic’. A Hungarian Ukrainian deportation agreement made it possible for the authorities in Lonya, North East Hungary to send back 48 African and Asian migrants apprehended near Lonya. (Hungarian News Agency 10.1.02)
In October, Russian Federation Council members, meeting in Vladivostok, discussed the setting up of a single immigration control system in Russia and signing intergovernmental agreements with China, North Korea and Vietnam on measures to prevent illegal migration and on transit visa restrictions. Meanwhile, the head of the Arctic Department of the Federal Border Guard Service, Lt-Gen Anatoliy Koretskiy welcomed a delegation of military and police attaches from Scandinavian countries to observe border controls in Murmansk and promised urgent action. Last year, several hundred Pakistanis were caught in an attempt to move illegally to Norway.
Following talks between the Swedish minister for immigration Jan Carlsson and counterparts in Russia the deputy chief of the Russian Migration Service, Igor Yunash, visited Sweden in November to discuss the specific problem of the influx of asylum seekers from Russia and CIS countries. An agreement was reached to exchange information and strengthen law enforcement cooperation in order to simplify the procedure of returning those who commit crimes while their asylum application is being considered. (TASS, 5.11.02)

Meanwhile, Russia, is in the process of erecting its own national security-inspired border fortifications. Designed to protect its internal borders from the displacement of people in the poverty-stricken former Soviet Republics and further afield, this border actually benefits the EU by adding one more eastern bulwark against refugee movement. In addition, the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland are in the process of negotiating their own bilateral immigration accords with Russia.

Whereas Communism erected an Iron Curtain to keep the citizens of eastern Europe within the Soviet system, the EU sponsors the new ‘Hi Tech Curtain’, this time at Europe’s eastern borders, with the new EU central European states now obliged to abolish visa free travel to their countries from all points East. Bulgaria and Romania, which have applied to join the EU in 2007, are, meanwhile, rushing to satisfy their richer neighbours’ demands for militarised borders as they are constantly threatened with visa restrictions and other sanctions unless they do more to limit the movement of their poor and persecuted (i.e. the Roma).

EU accession and candidate states threatened with visa controls

In August, the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited Bucharest in order to pressurise the Romanian government to seal its borders, or risk the reintroduction of visa controls. Sarkozy said that many beggars and prostitutes were coming to France after the EU lifted visa requirements for Romanian nationals in January. A new accord was drawn up providing for tougher security controls at borders. Romania was also expected to take back deportees from France, train them and help them re-enter society. At a press conference, Sarkozy said that he and the Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase had agreed ‘that Romanian delinquents in France will be arrested and will have their goods (in Romania) confiscated’. (Agence France Presse 19.6.02, Reuters 29.8.02, Associated Press 26.9.02)
The head of the Spanish tourist body, Aedave, has written to the director general for immigration asking for visas to be required for Romanians entering Spain. And authorised postal and passenger carriers have met with government officials to demand a crackdown on illegal traffic in minibuses and coaches between the Spanish capital and Romania. (El Pais 8.10.02)
In October, the Bulgarian government, under threat from the EU of renewed visa restrictions, announced a raft of new measures designed to stop Bulgarians leaving the country for the West. In future, Bulgarians expelled from the West will not be allowed to apply for passports for two years and tighter controls on legal applications for name changes will also be imposed. It is alleged that Bulgarians, expelled from the EU, apply to the courts for new names and then head back to EU countries. (Reuters 22.10.02)
The Slovak prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, has described the movement of around 100 Roma to Belgium, which lifted a visa requirement, as an ‘abuse of Belgian social institutions’. Announcing close cooperation with Hungary, so that the two countries could ‘avoid such ‘inconvenient situations’ in the future, Dzurinda made his comments because he feared that Belgium would reimpose visa requirements on Slovaks unless the Roma outflow was stopped. (Associated Press 23.4.01)

Just how all-embracing the EU’s border regime will be for the countries of Europe can be seen by considering Poland, the 1,140km-long eastern border of which, is probably the most difficult EU border to police and Hungary, whose 170km border with Federal Yugoslavia is one of the most popular transit routes for migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Afghanis, Iraqis and Somalians. (Hungary has a frontier of 2,224km bordering seven countries.) The EU’s Phare programme has, from 1997 to 2001, spent $30.6m equipping Hungary’s 11,900 border guards (the EU wants a further 2,100 border staff to be recruited) with everything from uniforms to mobile thermal imaging cameras, linked to a global satellite positioning system, which can spot people at up to 5km at night. (Apparently, not even a rabbit can pass by unnoticed.) Meanwhile, Germany has provided training for a new rapid response commando unit within the Hungarian guard. Where once the Artand frontier, which separates Hungary from Romania and will eventually be the gateway to the Schengen zone and visa free travel across Europe to the Atlantic, was protected by minefields and barbed wire, today, the very latest technology is deployed. A computerised van, dubbed the ‘Schengen Bus’ and described as a mobile border crossing, comprises an electron microscope and ultra-violet light scanner to scrutinise documents, a carbon dioxide detector to sense breath emissions, and a fibre-optic camera to check suspected concealed compartments. There is also a computer link to the interior ministry.[10] In Poland, some 5,300 extra border guards will be hired by 2006 (a fifty per cent increase), as the Polish guard, which at present relies heavily on conscripts, becomes fully professional within four years. (EU inspectors will monitor its work after accession.) During the Cold War, Poland’s eastern border was lined with a system of Russian-built fences, guard towers and ditches designed to prevent Soviet citizens from fleeing. Until 1993 there was no border crossing at Bobrowniki but now, a new state-of-the-art border facility has been constructed there as Poland pledges to erect ten more border stations and buy new equipment, such as helicopters and infra-red detection devices.[11]


The UK is pressing for a specific EU border programme to be set up inside Serbia and Montenegro. According to BLIC News, the eastern borders of Serbia are ‘awash in a river of immigrants’ from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan, rolling on towards western Europe. And Ilija Matic, chief of the SUP Interior Secretariat police in Zajecar, says that the ‘river will swell in the coming months’. He is particularly concerned that a US attack on Iraq will launch an ‘avalanche hurtling towards the West’. He points out that while Serbia is once again protecting the interests of Europe it cannot be ruled out that amongst these economic migrants will be terrorists. (BLIC News, 19.9.02)

“Surveillance of refugee movement and averting refugee flows are deemed to be vital components of Europe’s post-September 11 security needs.”

In this way, the EU’s border shifts to its new eastern frontier. But will it stop there, or will the promise of partnerships be extended further into central Asia and the Balkans? Already, the Stabilisation and Associated Process (SAP), for the western Balkans promises Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, support in the development of state border services to tackle illegal immigration and crime. The new TACIS Regional Programme for Central Europe promises to help in the ‘improvement of border management capacities’ through ‘comprehensive border management strategies’ to ‘reduce illegal migration flows’.

“When the Hungarian border becomes a Schengen border, it will be responsible not just for itself and its own frontiers, but it will also be the frontier into all of Europe. So these criminals and illegal migrants need to be stopped.” – Sandor Orodan, spokesperson for the Hungarian Border Guard.

Cooption of non-EU countries

The European Council is also pushing out its ‘integrated border management’ policies into non-EU countries, principally Turkey and Morocco. Just as with eastern Europe, integration into EU border control programmes will have a profound effect on countries which have not developed their own border control mechanisms, and now must do so, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of their richer European neighbours.

In September 2002, ministers of the member states of the Council of Europe, met with representatives of the governments of Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria to discuss ‘the orderly management of migration flows’. The Council of Europe had to undo the damage caused, particularly in relation to Morocco, by the southern European countries which, through their belligerance, had soured relations with non-EU countries, thereby threatening the whole managed migration project. The governments of Italy and Spain in particular had been denouncing their counterparts in Turkey and Morocco for failing to stem irregular immigration. The Greek authorities, too, were adding to the perception that the EU was treating its neighbours with contempt. It had launched vociferous attacks on Turkey for failing to prevent the movement of thousands of people from Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East, crossing from the western Turkish coast to the Aegean islands, or through Greece’s northeastern borders with Turkey, many sailing across to Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast.

“In February 2002, Italian Northern League leader Bossi accused Turkey of being an ‘accomplice of traffickers in human beings’.”

The Parsley Islands

The Parsley Islands (known as Perejil in Spain and Tourah or Leila in Morocco) is located 800 metres off the Moroccan coast and 10kms west of Cueta. When, on 11 July 2002, a dozen poorly armed frontier guards occupied the island (which is roughly the size of a football pitch and populated solely by lizards and bugs), a major dispute erupted which was only resolved through the intervention of US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Throughout, Morocco claimed that it had moved its frontier guards onto the Parsley Islands in order to set up an observation post against illegal immigration and terrorism because it had information that Al Qaeda was preparing attacks in the Straits against US and British warships.

Following the breakdown of Spanish/Moroccan relations following the Parsley Islands dispute (see box), calmer heads from the European Commission stepped in with a more conciliatory approach based on the idea of partnership with the Maghrebian countries.[12] Police inquiry teams among Mediterranean partners, and, if possible, between member states and Mediterranean countries, would be set up under the umbrella of the MEDA, a justice and home affairs programme for the Mediterranean region. In order to explore this potential, the EU awarded Morocco 40 million ecus from the Mediterranean cooperation funds (the MEDA fund) to help combat ‘illegal immigration’. Following a visit of ten European experts to Morocco in July, the European Commission proposed joint patrols of EU and Moroccan police officers in the Straits of Gibraltar. The experts’ report concluded that the temptation to blame Morocco for the avalanche of clandestines heading towards Europe should be dropped, as Morocco lacked the means to deal with it, and in particular did not have the capabilities to deal with mass movements from the sub-Saharan African countries of Nigeria, Mali and Liberia. The answer was more cash incentives and the promise of a less belligerent relationship through the creation of an EU-Moroccan monitoring commission to examine problems as equals. The September meeting with North African countries, mentioned above, also held out the possibility that ‘cooperative management’ of migration might lead to benefits for these countries’ own nationals in terms of migration possibilities. A Euro-med network of data collection and pluridiciplinary research on migratory phenomena would be established and there was the possibility, too, of a network between southern Mediterrranean ports in order to ‘facilitate the exchange of information concerning suspect boats and illegal migration’. An additional proposal was for negotiations with Algeria, through which the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africans travel to reach the West, due to the fact that Algeria does not exercise controls with any border in the terrain across the Sahara. A similar agreement could be on the cards with Tunisia. (Italy reached its own agreement with Tunisia in October 2002, whereby, Tunisia would receive cash incentives and training in border control management. A permanent Italian liaison officer for clandestine immigration will be based in Tunis.)[13]

Morocco TV campaign

As part of the EU’s campaign to stop irregular migration from Morocco, TV stations in Morocco broadcast adverts showing a small boat close to a score of corpses. The adverts bore a close resemblance to a video made by the Australian department of immigration, which argued that boat people were at peril from crocodiles, snakes and spiders.

In this way, the EU and the member states seek to push their influence over border policies ever further into Africa. Similar programmes are planned for Asia. The so-called Lanzarote Declaration, following the ASEM Ministerial Conference on Cooperation for the Management of Migratory flows in April 2002, opened up dialogue and Spain and the UK are pressurising the European Commission to fast-track discussions. The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are also being brought into the loop. At the EU-Latin America and the Caribbean Summit, held in Madrid in May 2002, the states of the two regions committed themselves to carrying out an ‘integrated analysis of the different issues of migration between our regions’.

EU: militarised coastlines

The next step in border control management is to make sure that those who somehow manage to penetrate the cordon sanitaire surrounding the EU are met with a militarised response. This means ensuring that those arriving on Europe’s southern coastline, are intercepted by the navy and dealt with. Italy has already responded to the fact, that in 2002 there was a thirty-three per cent increase in the number of refugees coming to Italy by sea, by giving the navy increased powers to stop boatloads of refugees from reaching its coast. Greece, for its part, has enhanced its coastal surveillance programme, Poseidon, with the navy joining in the watch of its 18,000km coastline. And Spain has responded with massive investment in new technology to fortify coastline surveillance.

“The Canaries have western roots and culture, even though we are only 40 miles from Africa. We can’t lose this European identity. We have to avoid the Africanisation of the Canaries.” – Jose Manuel Soria, mayor of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.

The background to these measures is the EU’s concern about the increasing movement of sub-Saharan Africans, in the Maghreb. Research by the International Labour Organisation suggests that, each year, some 80,000 people from various African countries, notably those beset by civil war or dictatorships, find their way to the Maghreb. Some 80 per cent of these remain in Libya. Of around 16,000 who manage to reach Europe each year, some enter from the eastern side, via Cyprus and Turkey, some in small boats to Italy from Tunisia, and the rest by the Straits of Gibraltar or the Canaries from the coast of Morocco. Many of these desperate Africans, travel to Laayoune, the capital of the disputed Western Sahara, where traffickers hold them in tented camps in the rolling dunes of the deserts before taking them on the final stage of their journey to Spain. Previously, this final voyage was via the 9-mile crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar. But with the introduction of the high-tech Integral System for the Surveillance of the Straits (SIVE), which allows the frontier police to watch any vessel, however small, at any time of the night or day (see box), traffickers are attempting the far-more perilous 60-mile sea voyage to the Canary Islands from the Saharan coast. It was anticipated that by the beginning of 2003 SIVE would be extended to the Canary Islands, with three fixed stations permanently scanning a 150km coastline at an estimated cost of 6 million euros.

From now on, thanks to the EU Council’s Border Programme, which places a strong emphasis on maritime borders, the southern European countries will not bear the cost of this alone. Nor will they be solely responsible for patrolling their own coastlines. An EU coastal police force is already in existence in embryonic form via the maritime border project ‘Ulysses’. Since January 25 joint coastal patrols of the Mediterranean between Algeciras and Palermo have been launched. Ships from Spain, Britain, France, Italy and Portugal patrolled sections of Europe’s Mediterranean coastline with the aim of detaining and deterring the hundreds of small, overloaded boats that head north from the African coast. It was the first time that the EU member states had acted in this way – and the result was an unqualified flop! While the operation overspent its 1.2 million euro budget, it failed to stop one single ‘illegal’ boat.[14] Undeterred, a second phase of the project was launched under which six ships form five EU countries (France, Portugal, Spain, Italy and the UK) will extend surveillance to Atlantic waters between the western Sahara and the Canary Isles.

The creation of a maritime border force is not solely a southern concern. The UK is intimately involved, as demonstrated by the UK Spanish joint declaration on combating illegal immigration of February 2003 (which emphasised the importance of the control of external maritime borders, especially in the Mediterranean area) and the announcement, also in February, that Spain and the UK are collaborating in the creation of a European coordination centre in Algeciras to control maritime frontiers. And, under a little-known initiative, the army, senior police and immigration officials, concerned that the closure of the French refugee camp at Sangatte, Calais, will lead to more crossings by sea, have launched ‘Operation Zombie’ aimed at detecting speedboats and trawlers suspected of bringing in ‘illegal immigrants’ before they reach English territorial waters, 12 miles out from Dover.[15] But the UK’s involvement in the EU’s maritime border project, goes well beyond protecting its own borders to merge with its post-September 11 counter-terrorism strategy of reviewing port and coastal water security and ensuring, through negotiations with the International Maritime Organisation, new anti-terrorism measures to protect the shipping industry. In future, British passenger ships, oil tankers and freighters will be offered armed troops and military escorts when passing close to rogue states or through regions where intelligence suggests a heightened risk of attack (the Mediterranean region being one).[16]

The Surveillance System for the Straits (SIVE)

SIVE comprises a high-tech surveillance system capable of monitoring a 115-km stretch of coastline. Three large towers, containing Israeli-manufactured radar systems, infra-red cameras and powerful video cameras have been erected near Algeciras, Tarifa and Zahara de los Atunes. The control centre in Algeciras is dominated by a huge screen which shows every vessel in the Straits. Other screens allow those monitoring the traffic to zoom in to survey individual vessels. More buildings will eventually be built along the southern coast, to cover all the beaches facing Morocco.
SIVE is also being extended to Ceuta and the Canary Islands. The Canary Island authorities have been allotted £735 million of government money to stem ‘illegal immigration’. It was anticipated that by the beginning of 2003, SIVE would be extended to the Canary Islands, with three fixed stations, valued at 6 million euros, permanently scanning 150km of coastline east of Fuerteventura. In Ceuta, a special radar system has already been installed on the top of Mount Hacho, next to the base of the 6th Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery squadron. It is equipped with highly sophisticated instruments, and will carry out surveillance over movements from Alcazarsequer (Morocco) to Tarifa and the entire bay of Algeciras, in the province of Cadiz.

Development of ‘multi-stage systems of control’

Like their southern counterparts, the inland western European states, as well as the northern states of Ireland and the UK, are combining to launch joint border protection operations which involve the deployment of immigration officials and border police from one country within another, and the development, both at the physical border and within the border hinterland, of multi-staged systems of controls. Belgium, France and the UK comprise one axis of this joint enterprise (Ireland has its own arrangements with the UK and France). Germany, France and Switzerland (not an EU country but now part of Schengen) comprise another.

Such mutually-beneficial border systems involve some degree of loss of national sovereignty over immigration controls – not an approach that necessarily proves popular with the nationalist tabloids. But those countries which attempt to go it alone face hard lessons. In September, the Swiss Federal Refugee Office complained that an agreement reached between Paris and Bucharest on combating irregular migration was leading to an organised influx of Romanian asylum seekers into western Switzerland. And the head of the Federal Refugee Office, Jean-Daniel Gerber declared, ‘One asylum seeker less in the EU is one potential asylum seeker more for Switzerland’.

Channel ports

Increased security at Eurotunnel’s Coquelles terminal at Calais led those living in Sangatte to attempt to cross into the UK via the SNCF freight terminal at Frethun. But now this is to be secured in a military-style fashion, and at a cost of £4.9 million – the bulk of which will be financed by the British government. A double perimeter fence, supplemented by alarm systems, infrared barriers, lighting and video surveillance equipment is to be installed. A joint French/UK intelligence operation will also be launched to monitor any buildup of migrants in the surrounding area.
Belgian police spokesperson, Dirk Calemijn says that the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais has led to a higher number of illegal immigrants entering Belgium. In December, 250 police officers shut down access to several Belgian harbours, as they carried out searches of freight vehicles, and empty buildings in harbour areas in Jabbeke, Zeebrugge, Oostend, Burgge and Knokke-Heist.
Three permanent Garda National Immigration Bureau officers are stationed at Cherbourg in northern France while another three gardai travel back and forth on Irish Ferries sailing between Cherbourg and Rosslare in C. Wexford.

In order, therefore, for new systems to be effective, old animosities and the constant haggling over who is responsible for asylum seekers need to be transcended. Nowhere were such hostilities more evident than between Britain and France over the Sangatte Red Cross refugee camp at Calais. Much-publicised disagreements were even dubbed a ‘modern border dispute’. Whereas the UK argued that the location of the camp close to the entry to the Eurotunnel was, in itself, a provocation for traffickers to smuggle ‘illegal immigrants’ into Britain. The French blamed lax British immigration controls and the lack of a national identity card system for acting as a magnet for ‘illegal immigrants’ to congregate at Sangatte. But, throughout the summer of 2002, the French interior minister and his British counterpart held a series of meetings to thrash out a deal under which the Sangatte refugee camp would close by April 2003 (no new residents have been allowed since November 2002), with Britain paying for the installation, at the port of Calais, of a high-tech ‘heartbeat’ scanner to detect ‘illegals’ travelling in vehicles. In future, British immigration officials will be authorised to carry out full passport checks on all passengers from Calais to Britain, whether arriving by train or ship. Similar measures are to be put in place in other French channel ports, including Dieppe, Dunkirk and Cherbourg. (Irish ferry staff operate their own immigration controls at Cherbourg.)

However the closure of Sangatte and new collaborative measures at other French ports, solves nothing. It simply makes the whole smuggling enterprise more dangerous, as traffickers look for new points of entry. The UK government, anticipating that the problems of Calais will now shift to Ostend and Zeebrugge, sought urgent meetings with the Belgian authorities. Hence, in September 2002, final arrangements for a joint Belgian, British, French integrated border management system were agreed. Under the deal, the three signatories agreed to exchange intelligence and information in order to anticipate illegal entry points and track down traffickers; to act ‘jointly and effectively’ whenever a new crossing point emerges; to share all immigration statistics; and to establish joint controls systems at Zeebrugge. (British immigration officials have established the right to operate at the Eurostar terminal in Brussels.)

German Federal Border Guard

A review of the post-German reunification role of the Federal Border Guard (BGS) justifies the BGS’ enhanced role in policing EU borders as necessary to maintain security, to counter the internal threat posed by terrorism, and new forms of criminality, such as trafficking. Since German reunification, BGS staff have been transferred from the internal GDR/FRG border to other duties, many travelling far to the east, to the new exterior border of the EU. Others have, since the Schengen Agreement, been deployed elsewhere as railway police officers and at international airports. While spending on BGS personnel is set to increase steadily over the next ten years, much of increased manpower spending will finance the upper ranks of the service which will increase from 20 per cent to 40 per cent of the total staff. (Junge Welt 4.7.02)

In central Europe, a new three-country refugee rights alliance has formed to contest the effects of a similar programme of ‘integrated border management’ in the area surrounding the southwest German border. For the South Baden Action Alliance Against Deportations, Solidarity Without Borders in Bern and the League of Human Rights in Mulhouse, border controls between Switzerland, Germany and France, constitute a series of ‘insuperable hurdles’ linked in a ‘multi-stage system of controls’ which penetrate from the borders into the surrounding hinterland. Such controls range from an intensified police presence in South Baden, to the introduction, in Baden-Wuerttemberg, of dragnet controls, comprising checks on individuals in accordance with personal characteristics, to new three-country police agreements to establish a ‘security cooperation system’. Video systems and infrared apparatuses have been set up along the border, and joint patrols and data systems established.

As with eastern Europe, these new border projects necessitate an escalation of military involvement in domestic law; increases in the size of border protection forces (the Irish Garda Immigration Bureau is set to triple in size; the Greek government has promised an extra 1,800 border guards over the next two years); increased public spending on border defences (the Spanish government is spending 740 million euros on the militarisation of the Canary Isles coastlines, a 56 per cent increase over funding for the previous year); and massive investment in new detection technologies and related research projects (the UK Mobile Detection Unit at Dover is set to be an expert in this field).

At the same time as government spending on the welfare state decreases, government spending on the ‘security state’ advances. And this reallocation of public spending for defence purposes is justified as a necessary measure to enhance ‘national security’ in an age of terrorism.

Related links


[1] EU presidency conclusions at the Seville European Council 21/22 June, see Statewatch.
[2] Jose Palafox, 'Militarising the Border', Covert Action (Spring 1996, No. 56).
[3] On 7 May 2002, the European Commission produced a communication entitled 'Towards integrated management of the external borders of the Member States of the EU'. It followed the instruction given by the European Council (the 15 EU governments) meeting in Laeken on 14-15 December 2001 to put forward proposals (See Statewatch News Online). See also 'The European border guard: developing by stealth?' (Statewatch, August-October 2002, vol 12 no 5.)
[4] See 'Tackling poverty in Asia' (BOND, September 2002).
[5] European Commission Communication on 'Integrating migration issues in the EU's relations with third countries'. Communication (COM 2002). See Statewatch News Online.
[6] La Vanguardia 4.12.02.
[7] Roadmap for the follow-up to the conclusions of the European Council in Seville, document number 0623/1/03, (4.2.03).
[8] Independent on Sunday 21.2.02.
[9] Centre of excellence at Dover - Mobile Detection Unit, doc number 11994/02 (13.0.02). See Statewatch News Online 'EU: UK setting up 'mobile detection unit' for external border controls.
[10] Financial Times 10.12.02, Times 14.12.02.
[11] Reuters 24.7.02, Boston Globe 23.9.02, Agence France Presse 18.10.02, Deutsche Presse Agentur 5.11.02.
[12] El Pais 6.10.02.
[13] La Repubblica 3.10.02.
[14] Independent 11.3.03.
[15] Sunday Express 13.10.02.
[16] Observer 8.12.02.

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

One thought on “From refugee protection to managed migration: the EU’s border control programme

  1. Hi there, I found your web site by way of Google while searching for a comparable subject, your web site got here up, it appears great. I’ve bookmarked to favourites|added to bookmarks.

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.