The border crises loop: reflections on the pointless cruelty of the EU migration governance

While news on the pandemic monopolizes media and political attention, another humanitarian emergency is unfolding at the external frontier of the EU. Since the end of 2019, the death toll along an almost forgotten route of unauthorized migration into Europe began increasing significantly. In December of 2019, about 60 people lost their lives a few miles off the coast of Mauritania after leaving the shores of Gambia to try reaching the Canary Islands. Since then, boat migrants did not stop landing in the Spanish archipelago or perishing at sea in their attempts to reach Europe.

This is no novelty for those seawaters. In fact, they had already been the scene of some of the first “migration emergencies” of this sort in Europe. Across 2006 and 2008, major “crises” took place in the archipelago as thousands left from Morocco first, and from the more distant Senegalese or Mauritanian shores later. Due to the exponential media and political attention – and the mobilization of national and international civil society groups – authorities’ response articulated into tough (mis)management of reception on land and enhanced border control at sea and across it – i.e. in Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania.

Young boat migrant sitting on one of the peers of Lampedus’s old port during the 2011 “emergency” on the island. Photo donated to Giacomo Orsini from the Archivio Storico Lampedusa for dissemination.

Under the aegis of FRONTEX, border guards and law enforcement were sent to the islands to support their Spanish colleagues. At the same time, new agreements were established with the countries of departure to tackle unauthorized migration directly in their territories. All of this, at the same time when new border surveillance technologies were installed on the archipelago. A response which significantly reduced arrivals, making Spanish and European authorities claim “victory” against undocumented migrants and the smuggling/trafficking networks eventually allowing them to reach Europe.

Yet, a package of securitarian policies which did not decrease unauthorized migration to the EU: it just shifted unauthorized border crossings elsewhere. It was 2008 when I conducted my first field research at the external frontier of Europe. As a postgraduate student, I moved for five months in the Spanish enclave of Melilla and its surrounding Moroccan province of Nador. The tiny (post)colonial territory had just become one of the most controversial items of Europe’s fight against undocumented migration.

Following the arrivals of several asylum seekers in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, authorities installed a triple net to mark and close the previously invisible and permeable border surrounding the enclave – and separating it from the rest of Morocco. Following the 2006 “crisis” in the Canary Islands and the consequent reduction of arrivals from Morocco/Western Sahara, Melilla experienced a substantial increase of attempted crossings of its fence. A growth that attracted media, political and societal attention, to be responded by Spanish and European authorities with the installation of a new and reinforced net and the tightening of cooperation with Morocco.

Somehow following the trajectory of Europe’s border crises, less than one year later I went to Malta as a freelance researcher. In 2008 the tiny island state witnessed a significant increase of boat migrants’ arrivals, which generated (the staging of a) reception emergency. The institutional response this time was to find an agreement first with the Libyan coastguard and then an informal one with Italy to delegate the management of Search and Rescue operations so that people detected at sea were landed either on the Italian or Libyan soil.

Intrigued by the task of disentangling the unfolding of these recurrent “crises”, for my doctoral studies I went to what is possibly the quintessential location of the permanent/prolonged “migration emergency” in Europe: Lampedusa. As I went there for about 10 months between 2012 and 2013, the island had just overcome 2011 – in fact, a very complicated year for Lampedusa. Consequent to the Arab Springs, previous border and migration management agreements ceased to operate and/or had to be renegotiated so that thousands left from the coast of Tunisia first, and Libya later. On the island, authorities’ response concentrated on reestablishing previous or new cooperation agreements with the countries of departure, while providing very tough reception condition to the tens of thousands forced to remain on the island.

Melilla’s golf course and the triple fence separating it from Morocco. Photo was taken by Giacomo Orsini in 2008

During the first months of my stay, arrivals decreased to increase again in the summer of 2013. A trend that did not stop despite, on the third of October of that year, over 300 people lost their lives as their boat capsized at less than two nautical miles from Lampedusa. If the first institutional reaction was to expand Search and Rescue capabilities with the Mare Nostrum operation, soon European and national policymakers moved back to more “traditional” and securitized options. A trend which culminated in 2017 with the criminalization of NGOs operating in the Sicilian Channel, and with the signing of new cooperation agreements on border and migration management with a constellation of Libyan militias.

In fact, an extremely tough choice which is been deemed illegal by a variety of national and international bodies, and that translates on the ground into the systematic violations of migrants most fundamental rights. Something which emerges vividly in the narratives of the unaccompanied refugee minors interviewed within the ChildMove project, a project which I joined as the new postdoctoral coordinator in October 2020.

A cruel approach to the governance of migration which translates into violence for people on the move, as they became the target of more or less corrupted law enforcement agencies funded by the EU and its member states to deter them from trying to reach Europe undocumented. This is even more controversial if we consider how many are de facto entitled to international protection within the EU.

Yet, this is also an extremely inefficient approach with respect to Europe’s declared attempt to tackle unauthorized migration. The “closure” of the so-called “Central Mediterranean route” is most likely the cause of the “re-opening” of the tremendously dangerous Atlantic option to reach the Canary Islands. With the tightening of border and migration control in one section of the EU external border, people will just cross from somewhere else – regardless of the dangers involved.

dr. Giacomo Orsini concluded his doctoral studies at the Department of Sociology of the University of Essex in 2016. Since then, he worked as a Senior Research Officer of the same department and, later on, as a postdoctoral researcher of the Université Catholique de Louvain. His studies concentrate on the everyday governance of migration and the multiplication of physical and non-physical boundaries of exclusion/inclusion, governmentality, and the social (re)production of ‘otherness’. He assists Ilse in the coordination of the ChildMove project and within this research, he focuses on various aspects related to the psychosocial wellbeing of unaccompanied refugee minors.