Bolts drawn on Fortress Europe


Sarah Stephen

On May 1, the European Union will expand from 15 countries to 25, incorporating Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

While there will be unprecedented freedom of movement for people living within the European Union, it will be harder than ever before for asylum seekers to enter the EU. From May, the walls of Fortress Europe will go up even higher.

The initial five-year timetable to enlarge the EU dragged into 15 years, partly because of concerns about the volume of migrants that would move from east to west.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees predicted in 1989 that 25 million people from former communist countries would move to the west in the 1990s. By 1997, the University of Kent found that net immigration from the 10 countries in central and eastern Europe to the European Union was less than 14,000.

At least at first, most countries have restricted access to welfare and work rights. France, Germany and Greece will restrict the entry of workers for two years after enlargement. Spain, Austria and Portugal will issue a limited number of work permits.

Britain and Ireland, with a high demand for labour, had not initially planned any work restrictions. After a media campaign led by the British tabloid newspapers and the conservative opposition, however, new migrant workers will not be eligible for housing benefit, income support or council housing until they have been in continuous employment for at least 12 months.

Those who fail to find jobs will not be able to claim benefits for two years. Workers will be required to register the name of their employer, and will have to provide evidence that they are being paid at least the minimum wage.

Ireland announced in March that welfare claimants would have to prove they have been living in the country for two years before they are eligible for benefits. It will apply to migrants from all EU states, not just the 10 countries due to join the 15-member bloc in May.

Ten percent of the population of the new member states are Roma gypsies, who have a long history of marginalisation and persecution. In the months leading up to EU enlargement, Britain's tabloid media has mounted a hysterical campaign about the potential influx of Roma into Britain.

Arun Kundnani from the Institute for Race Relations described in a January article how the Daily Express sported a front-page headline "1.6 million gypsies ready to flood in". An editorial comment begins by stating that gypsies are " heading to Britain to leech on us".

The newspapers have chosen to focus exclusively on Roma. "That no mention is made of other groups, such as impoverished Polish farmers, who might with equal reason come to Britain from the new member-states, indicates the racial bias of this latest press onslaught", Kundnani concludes.

For all the hysteria and speculation, the hard evidence suggests there will be little movement of workers from the new member states. Western Europe could throw open its borders, because not many want to move there. That's the conclusion of a book published in February by Britain's National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Integration, Accession and Expansion, by Ray Barrell, Dawn Holland and Olga Pomerantz, looks at the record of past enlargements of the EU. "The experience of southern enlargements and German unification ... suggests that migration flows will be in the order of a 0.5-2% increase in the population of the current EU", say the book's authors.

The main historical precedents for the May 1 expansion are the entry of Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986 and German reunification in 1990. In each case, there turned out to be fewer migrants than many expected. Over the first eight years of Greek membership, only 135,200 Greeks emigrated, about 1.3% of the population.

A survey in February indicated that total migration into existing member states after the EU's biggest ever enlargement is likely to be about 1% over the next five years. If correct, the figures mean there will be about 220,000 immigrants a year into all 15 current members.

There are three reasons that a low level of migration is expected:

* Language and culture make it a tough move, even if wages are better.

* Unemployment is still high in most of Western Europe.

* The standard of living in Eastern Europe might not be as high, but the majority of people feel good about their home country and want to live there. A Eurobarometer survey in 2001 found that 60% of young people in Eastern Europe felt optimistic about their future.

With a rapidly falling birth-rate, European countries need to boost their population through migration. The UN Population Division claims that 13.5 million new migrants are needed each year to keep Europe's ratio of workers and pensioners steady.

The hysteria over a potential flood of new migrants is entirely misplaced — Western European governments should actually be thinking about how they can encourage more people from the new member states to migrate, and they should be a lot more generous in accepting refugees.

Yet running in tandem with preparations for EU enlargement are plans to control the EU's new borders even more strictly, and uniform measures to keep out asylum seekers and "economic migrants".

EU countries have spent the past four years negotiating an agreement on how to deal with asylum claims. In a March 22 letter to the European Commission, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the withdrawal of the proposals, noting that the gap between the draft proposals and international law was continuing to widen. It expressed disappointment that issues of detention and the right to legal assistance will be left to member states' discretion.

In a March 29 media release, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers echoed HRW's concerns, saying: "As the text stands, 'the vast majority' of rejected asylum seekers who lodge an appeal will not be permitted to remain in the EU until their appeals are decided — despite the fact that in several European countries 30-60 percent of initial negative decisions are subsequently overturned on appeal."

Lubbers said that some EU states seemed intent on forcing their own most restrictive and controversial practices on to the books of all 25 future members of the EU. "In some cases", Lubbers said, "these practices have not even been passed into their own national legislation, or are under domestic legal challenge, yet they are pushing them at the EU level."

There is a proposal to use the "safe third country" concept, which deems that an asylum seeker can be sent back to a country they have travelled through on their way to claiming asylum. This is in violation of international law which states that primary responsibility remains with the country where the asylum claim is lodged. It is a mechanism to shift responsibility to another country, regardless of whether that country can offer a durable solution, including protection from deportation and access to a fair asylum procedure.

HRW expressed concern at a proposal for the exceptional application of the safe third country concept to countries in the European region, arguing that no country can be labeled as a safe third country for all asylum seekers.

HRW's letter stated: "under the current proposal, a border guard ... could be given the sole power to decide on the removal of an asylum applicant even before the competent authority has had a chance to look into the claim."

The UNHCR also criticised a "sweeping exemption" that would deny certain asylum seekers access to a procedure altogether, disregarding the possibility that a country generally considered safe "might nonetheless not be safe for particular individuals".

The proposals also look at using the "safe country of origin" concept to restrict access to the regular asylum procedure. This is already used by a number of countries to deny asylum to people based on where they come from, rather than on the specifics of their claim.

British law, for example, stipulates that asylum applicants from 24 countries have no right of appeal against return to the country they fled from, if it is what the British government considers a "safe country". They can also be returned to a "safe third country" through which the asylum seeker travelled en route to Britain, even if that country is likely to return them to the country they originally fled from.

Since November 2002, the British government has considered the 10 countries soon to become EU member states as "safe" countries that don't produce refugees. In April 2003, the British government added Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania and Serbia & Montenegro (previously the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) to the list. The latest countries to be added to the list, in June 2003, are Brazil, Equador, Bolivia, South Africa, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

There is widespread outrage at the implications of this policy for returning genuine refugees to danger. In the first three months of 2003, there were 170 successful appeals by Sri Lankan asylum seekers against flawed Home Office decisions. Under the new legislation, they would have been sent back to Sri Lanka without the opportunity to prove their case for refugee status.

A series of EU summits over the past few years have adopted measures which make it increasingly difficult and dangerous for refugees and asylum seekers to gain entry to the EU, and which increase cooperation on the surveillance, harassment and deportation of "illegal" immigrants. The summits have pushed for the development of biometric identifiers in visas, residence permits and passports.

It is EU policy to treat asylum seekers and refugees as criminals. Fingerprinting and registration under the Eurodac system, which became operational in 2003, mean asylum seekers can now be more easily identified if they move from state to state. Information about rejected asylum seekers is kept in the database for a period of 10 years. Under the "Dublin II" regulation — which also entered into force in 2003 — asylum seekers can then be sent back to the first state they entered.

Increased security at external borders will be enforced by a Border Management Agency and an EU police force, drawn from all member states, with its own uniform and badge.

EU policy is directed toward the containment of refugees and migrants within their home regions, regardless of the human cost. One of the strategies to achieve this has been to target migrants' country of origin and force their governments to cooperate in "migrant management". For example, at the EU summit in Seville in 2002 it was agreed that in future all EU agreements with non-EU states are to "include a clause on joint management of migration flows and on compulsory readmission in the event of illegal immigration".

According to the IRR's Liz Fekete, writing in a March 2003 article, a whole list of non-EU countries are being brought into the "managed migration" process, coerced and cajoled into adopting measures to prevent people entering and leaving. Development aid is increasingly being tied to agreements to take back "illegal immigrants".

"The purpose of these measures is to ensure that eastern European countries and Turkey form a bulwark around the EU's existing eastern border", Fekete explains. "Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are expected to perform a similar function on Europe's southern flank. The idea is to create as many barriers to refugee movement, in as many different countries and regions as possible and, in the process, expand the EU's authority over poorer neighbours."

The May 1 changes are just the latest in a long line of doors Eurpoean countries have slammed in asylum seekers' faces.

The Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985 by France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to eliminate border control between those countries and to establish a common visa policy.

In a 2002 article titled "Building Fortress Europe", Deirdre Hogan wrote: "The agreement was said to be about the freedom of movement over the internal borders between the Schengen countries, however in order to 'compensate' for increased freedom of movement within the Schengen area, much of the agreement was about increased control of travellers coming in. Common rules regarding visas, asylum rights and checks at external borders were adopted and coordination of the police, customs and the judiciary was increased. In fact while just four articles in the convention are about open borders, 138 are about increased control." The Schengen area has been extended to include almost every EU member state.

The Schengen Information System was set up as part of the agreement. This vast database system, housed in Strasbourg, is comprised of records on people's identities as well as lost or stolen objects. A large number of the people listed in the SIS files so far have been asylum seekers.

In May 1999, the Schengen agreement was incorporated within the legal and institutional framework of the EU in the Treaty of Amsterdam. This treaty sought to regularise the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees trying to gain entry to all European states and required the European Council to adopt legislation in several key asylum and immigration related areas by May, 2004.

"Increasingly draconian measures are being taken to increase police powers of surveillance", Hogan explained. "Since S11 there has been a drive to extend the Schengen Information System and set up two new databases, one dealing specifically with protesters and the other dealing with 'foreigners'. The aim is to facilitate the removal of third country nationals who have not left the EU with the 'prescribed time frame'. This database would be in effect a register of all third country nationals in the EU who will be tagged with an 'alert' if they overstay their visa or residence permit."

In November, the British government floated the idea of a national ID card linked to a high-tech database that would be able to authenticate identities. The set-up would include iris scanning and fingerprinting of 60 million people. While the card will initially be offered as a voluntary piece of ID, the country's 4.6 million foreign nationals will be required to have the card.

Between 1997 and 2001, the EU spent 30 million euros to equip Hungary's border guards with everything from uniforms to thermal imaging cameras to lock up the border to former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine. The most famous high-tech border control project was started to control the Spanish south coast and especially the Straits of Gibraltar, where Africa almost touches Europe. The Surveillance System for the Straits monitors a 115km stretch of coastline containing radar systems and infra-red cameras.

Border militarisation, asylum laws, detention policies, deportations and carrier sanctions have led many tens of thousands of asylum seekers trying to enter Europe clandestinely to seek even more dangerous avenues — crossing in small boats from Morocco or Turkey or by hiding in lorries and under trains crossing from Britain to France. Forced to resort to methods which often prove fatal, thousands have died in the process.

Many would remember the press coverage of the 58 Chinese asylum seekers who suffocated inside a truck trying to get to England in June 2000. It is just one example of many tragic incidents in recent years. Eight refugees, thought to be Romanian, were found dead inside a shipping container at the Irish port of Waterford in December 2001. It is believed they were locked in the container for at least nine days. A refugee hiding on top of a train bound to Britain from France was electrocuted and killed in January 2002. A small wooden ship trying to smuggle 70 people to Greece sank off the Turkish coast in December 2003. Only one person survived.

In the 10 years between 1993 and 2002, approximately one person has died every day as a result of the policies of Fortress Europe.

Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece deported between 10,000 and 20,000 people between 1998 and 2001, Ten deportees died in this time from strangulation, suffocation, beatings, tranquilisers or medical neglect at the hands of police and security services.

No matter how draconian the laws become, Europe is not capable of shutting its borders. But it is shutting its eyes to the realities of the global situation, where the number of refugees and asylum seekers remains at around 20 million, and migrants are compelled to escape the poverty and desperation caused by imperialist economic exploitation.

From Green Left Weekly, April 29, 2004.
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