The European Union Is Stepping Up Its War on Refugees

A special EU summit in Brussels last week committed to increasing funds for border surveillance and the deportation of refugees. It’s the latest in Europe’s ongoing project of hardening its borders in flagrant disregard for human life.

Migrants get off a bus at the Tariq al-Matar reception center before being deported to their home countries, in Tripoli, Libya, on April 24, 2022. (Hamza Turkia / Xinhua via Getty Images)

For both its centrist supporters and conservative opponents, the European Union has for the most part represented a liberal face on the world stage, the antithesis of Trumpian brash nationalism. And yet it’s now Europe crying “build the wall,” as last week, the special EU Council pledged “substantial” new funds for weapons, surveillance, and speeding up deportations.

The debate leading up to the special council was as fractious as ever. Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni spent the previous week on tour acting as shop steward to Europe’s nativists, demanding even more funding for border fences and sharper controls. She was joined by her Swedish conservative counterpart Ulf Kristersson; the fact that Sweden now holds the EU Council presidency was never going to bode well for the summit.

Meloni’s government has attempted to ban foreign search-and-rescue vessels from docking in Italy altogether, alongside pledging a naval blockade. Both of these things have proved difficult to deliver in practice, but her policies — such as forcing rescue vessels to land in ever-more inconvenient locations and banning them from carrying out multiple rescues in one voyage — continue to harass humanitarians. More deaths in the central Mediterranean are a certain result.

Italy is not alone. Eight member states published a letter ahead of the crunch summit demanding tougher border control and more deportations, while Bulgaria and others demanded cash for fences.

The hard right is accusing Europe’s mainstream of inaction and negligence, and in turn the center is presenting itself as being forced into a position of compromise with hard-liners for the sake of the bloc’s integrity. In fact, Europe is far more unified than it might appear. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen may have resisted funding for fences, but on practically her first day on the job, she pledged ten thousand new border guards and the new department for “protecting our European way of life.”

United Front

The EU’s border agency, Frontex, has been in a drawn-out scandal since last April over collusion in hundreds of forced strandings and deaths at sea on the Greek coast, with one victim currently suing the agency. And yet the EU Home Affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, a social democrat, has refused to ask the agency to withdraw from the Aegean. Greece, meanwhile, is boasting about preventing some 260,000 crossings while demanding more “solidarity” from the rest of Europe. And it was Frontex’s eager talking up of a supposed new migration wave in January that has poured fuel on the fire of Meloni and her peers’ demands.

Meanwhile the Artificial Intelligence Act, which aims to regulate Big Tech and the use of AI, is gaining ground in EU institutions, promising to be a landmark piece of legislation on the scale of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The act, however, has nothing to say about regulating the technologies that prey on migrants, including sinister predictive technologies, unreliable lie detectors, and surveillance-driven human rights abuses currently in use or being commissioned at the border.

In December, Lighthouse Reports released footage of Bulgarian border guards shooting at a Syrian refugee. It came as part of a wider report into “Europe’s black sites,” which refers to an archipelago of clandestine detention centers where people are denied the right to seek asylum and held prior to being forced back, often violently. These revelations will not stop more EU funding for border control going to such states. Nor has a similar investigation, including painstaking forensic reconstruction into last year’s horrific massacre at the Melilla border in North Africa, stopped the EU’s use of Morocco as its surrogate border guard.

In a particularly grim moment, two days before the summit, the EU handed over five new patrol boats to the Libyan Coast Guard, an agency almost entirely created by external funding. The agency, with its record of dragging people behind boats, callous disregard for life and safety, and even threats to shoot down search-and-rescue aircraft, is the spear tip of the EU-Libya deal. This is a deal that outsources the bloc’s violence to North Africa, without concern for the torture or even slave markets in which refugees can find themselves for sale. Such deals are referred to euphemistically in the post-summit document as “third country agreements” to be built on and strengthened.

That post-summit document engages in some careful hedging. For instance, the EU will not fund border fences directly (principally because they are wildly ineffective, as Donald Trump’s administration discovered), but it will fund a host of other forms of violence and surveillance, freeing up the budgets of individual member-states for building fences instead.

Besides, the intrastate clash over who receives asylum seekers remains basically unsolved. (Currently, the increasingly unworkable Dublin framework obliges states that first receive asylum seekers to process their applications — essentially a mechanism by which Northern Europe forces Southern European states to pick up the slack.) And there are some disagreements on state cooperation, such as on plans to ensure each EU member provides Frontex with relevant data on deportations by the end of each year.

Doubling Down

When one zooms out from the detail of the documents, the message is clear. Europe is doubling down on policies that kill thousands of people every year. Whether there is or is not a substantial rise in people moving is a matter for debate. There have indeed been an increased number of irregular crossings in the last year or so, but the receding of COVID lockdowns is probably in part responsible for this. Moreover, it appears many recorded crossings are in fact multiple attempts by the same people.

Most disturbing, recent EU policy reflects the attitude that increased numbers of refugees are automatic justification for increased violence; seemingly, there is no other policy option on the table. This week’s summit was dominated by a visit from Volodymyr Zelensky. Europe could have taken that moment to draw some wider lessons from its brief and specific moment of solidarity with Ukrainian refugees. Instead, it took the force-first approach that is now typical of the bloc’s thinking.

I have written at length about the multibillion-euro ballooning of Frontex and what it represents. The border army sits at the heart of a darkening Europe that is remilitarizing, increasingly impervious to human rights concerns, and shaped not just by the hard right but by the growing power of a corporate border-and-surveillance lobby in European policy.

If one of the most powerful bodies in the bloc can casually wave through a suite of policies it knows will lead to yet more death at its frontier this year, one has to ask: What else will it be capable of in the future?