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May 10, 2015
May 10, 2015

Search and rescue in the Mediterranean… or the militarisation of migration

Author: Anna Papoutsi
Categories: Borders, Dialogues
This article is also available in: eles
Search and rescue in the Mediterranean… or the militarisation of migration

Cartoon by Rainer Hachfeld, 2011

An interview with Apostolis Fotiadis, freelance journalist and author of the book “Border Merchants”, @Balkanizator

In only one week more than 1,200 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, thus bringing the total number of the officially registered deaths from the beginning of the year to 1,750. In other words, within four months the number of casualties is already half of that of 2014, which was a record year so far. How do you explain this rapid growth?

Statistically speaking, this can be explained by the political developments of the last year or even less, of the last nine months, particularly since Italy and the EU made an agreement replacing an operation aimed to rescue in the Mediterranean region with another, whose priority is to control the external borders. The absence of forces that previously made a difference by saving loads of people has been the main reason for this statistical increase. Overall, this is a manifested dynamic within the EU and its institutions which is trying to block the expansion of search and rescue, with the argument that it functions as a pull factor for migratory flows to Europe.

In the book, you explore this turn of the European migration policy from search and rescue towards the security doctrine. On the occasion of the latest deadly shipwreck off the coast of Libya, this shift is clearly reflected in the joint statement of the emergency summit of April 23. Can you summarise the published action plan in this context?

The image of the last summit pertains to something that has happened again in the past, following the first big shipwreck south of Lampedusa in October 2013. The European leaders then addressed the tragedy with the same humanitarian discourse, whereas, behind the scenes, they promoted a policy that could be described as security doctrine and whose result is the militarisation of the region. The recent summit has similar characteristics. While originally and during the time leading up to the summit, the EU leaders spoke about human tragedies and EU responsibilities, in the 10 points of the Action Plan that resulted from the Summit, as it was published by the European Commission, one sees that neither rescue operations nor any other measure, such as the opening of legal crossings to Europe for those who want to get here and ask for protection, were adopted. Conversely, one sees that measures pushing towards the opposite direction are regularly introduced. It is impressive, for example, that the word ‘rescue’ does not appear anywhere in the text of the Commission, as published following the summit, while various measures related to the externalisation doctrine, ie the tendency to push migration flows outside the EU limits of liability –key project of the conservative forces this moment– are strongly present in the action plan.

As you have just described, it is now clear that the EU’s target is to externalise its border control. Indisputably, in practice this is already happening: essentially through bilateral agreements, in exchange for funds and other incentives, usually under the guise of education and technology transfer, our neighbouring countries exert border control on behalf of Europe, doing effectively the ‘dirty work’. What is the rationale behind the externalisation of borders and what are the risks that this implies?

The logic of externalisation exists also in an intra-European level, ie between the member-states, and it is manifested mainly through the philosophy of the Dublin Regulation – not so much the Regulation itself. It is a regulation which would ideally externalise the responsibility for the management of asylum-seekers to the country of entry, ie to the countries of the south. On a second level, externalisation exists between the EU and third countries. This is a word which has often become pertinent during the last 15 years. So, there is the historical precedent. Currently, it becomes very relevant again because, in the minds of those making policy –conservative policy– for the external borders and migration, it gradually becomes evident something very specific: that the entire infrastructure of the European migration policy, which has been based on the European Pact for Migration and Asylum from 2008 onwards, is virtually unable to follow the developments. That Pact created an infrastructure that would manage mixed flows and would return populations outside the EU, leaving only a small proportion of those entitled to protection inside to be managed. But condition have changed since 2008, when there was no Arab Spring, there was no Middle East crisis, nor the Syrian war– and, thus, the system now is faced with almost purely refugee flows. Therefore, the externalisation rationale, as it has been incorporated in the Pact, cannot function very efficiently towards a conservative direction. And that’s why the conservative agenda in the EU has started again to search for a new paradigm which will substantially restrict all this reality outside the EU so as to become manageable again. This is the fundamental contradiction of the period on which the externalisation doctrine is emerging.

You have extensively researched the operation ‘Mare Nostrum’ and its shadow side. How do such operations contribute to the militarisation of border control? What can you tell us about the parallel-to-the-rescue goals of such operations, their hidden sides and the cooperation of civilian and military personnel that these operations often bring about?

The positive effect of ‘Mare Nostrum’ was that it literally catapulted the number of people rescued in international waters. The downside that I identified during my research is that it simultaneously created a framework in which the distinction of responsibility between the political field and the military field is tempered to such an extent that the military got diffused into the political. There was, namely, a passive militarisation, even though the targets may have been positive in this case. All these descriptions of civilian personnel offering services on board military vessels are substantially in this direction, trying to explain this trend. The result of this trend, I believe, is that nowadays the debate on what measures will be taken for the security and the control of the region, is basically conducted by sources of a purely military background; this means that military people are talking about the management of migration, which is not a military issue, we are not at war. It is also evident from the use of jargon that originates from people who have that kind of mindset, a militarised approach and philosophy on the subject, as well as from the fact that the means proposed, without any criticism, may be purely military. For example, during last week, Germany through a nebulous mandate framework, decided and committed two military vessels to assist the rescue operations that informally occur following the last tragedy in Lampedusa, because there is a need for political management. This means that, in this moment, Europe implements policy with purely military means on the issue of migration. This happened because, I believe, operations bringing together these two characteristics, such as ‘Mare Nostrum’, have paved the way to get there. This is essentially a passive militarisation.

What exactly do we mean by militarisation of the European migration policy?

By militarisation we mean many things. What we have been talking about so far is the militarisation of policy-making and its implementation. There is another level of militarisation which concerns the relationship of the military industry with the policy-making centres.

Which brings us to the relationship between the borders industry and the European Commission. Following the money in the book you persistently end up in the European Commission. How did the burgeoning of this industry come about? Who decides on European R&D? What has the role of the former Commissioner Cecilia Malmström (currently Commissioner for Trade) been in the intensification of the militarisation of migration? Which are the lobbies, companies, entrepreneurs and countries who are pushing towards the militarisation of migration? Who enriches the security industry?

The relations between the military industry and the European policy-making centres are another level of the same process and are perhaps the foundation upon which the image that we see in the Mediterranean is being built. It is a relationship that is created over time, a decade ago, it is a relationship of discourse and collusion between, on the one side, the vested financial interests and their representatives, and, on the other, the European leaders who implement policy in a space which is far away from the regular control of European societies. This is a problem described by the term ‘democracy deficit’ used by many when talking about the EU. The winners in this process are two: politicians and the industry. Politicians promote their careers essentially siding with vested economic interests, co-shaping reality. This relationship is clearly seen in how, for example, the EC’s framework for research and innovation on security is organised; according to research done by the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament (LIBE), a relationship of interlinkages between industry and policy is fostered, and all the critical voices that could considerably raise counterarguments have not been invited and have not received any space in this process. It is a research conducted by academics and published last year by this committee of the European Parliament, which concludes as follows: “the security research places research at the service of the industry instead of the society”. This becomes even more evident if we look at the support enjoyed by the industry because many politicians believe that, in this way, they will create jobs and growth in many sectors of the economy. However, the issue of the protection of basic freedoms and democratic guarantees is reduced to a matter touched upon through talks on economic issues and is usually treated as an obstacle to market development and product improvement. Essentially, it describes a relationship in which, whenever an issue of democratic guarantees and political freedoms emerges in the conversation, it is viewed as a problem that needs to be addressed.

You have researched the role of Frontex, which is the main European agency in border security and is expected not to depart from the acquis communautaire. How is it then that Frontex manages, while playing such an important coordinating role between member-states, to avoid control and to remain unscrutinised?

The issue with Frontex is that it is a complex mechanism, which many mistake for a European border police, when in fact it is an agency that analyses data and feeds the policy-making centres with information. It is rather an intelligence agency that is actually also active in the field. It is protected from being exposed to liability -as described very well in the investigation of the European Ombudsman- by existing in a legal limbo, calling itself and always regarded as an institution that advises member-states on how to act in the field and does not accept responsibility for human rights abuses and the wrong-doings that constantly occur in the field. There are many cases in which this particular institution seems to be exposed in relation to these issues, but, unfortunately, the political support through the EC and the European institutions in general, as well as the support of the vested interests of the military industry is so strong that nobody is bothered to look into the legal vacuum and to seek responsibilities about it.

Within this context, what are the possibilities and options for a small country like Greece and the coalition government of Sy.Riz.A-ANEL? In the case of Italy, as you explain in the book, ‘Mare Nostrum’ demonstrated that it is possible for a large member-state, if it invests political capital and financial resources, to make policy, even in issues normally regulated at the European level and even overturn the balance of forces.

In the case of Greece, in a period in which a new government is trying to change the terms under which migration policy is being implemented, it is clear that we are talking about a rather limited capacity both in terms of influencing policy at the central lever and in terms of applying a radically different model of migration management. On the one hand, the government is to a large extent alone in its effort to promote the humanitarian side against the security issues. And this is a balance that will not change. Obviously it t is important that there is a landmark on which any counter-proposal can be built. However, one must understand the limitations in relation to the potential of this government to influence the central political scene offering a successful alternative management model. It is very difficult to know how this effort will develop now at a local level because this year there is a burst of refugee flows and there is no sufficient infrastructure that works. Administratively and bureaucratically, the change of model and its coordination with the European centres and the new European funds is a lengthy process and something that will delay the process. The lack of cooperation between the authorities in the country is another issue that should be addressed, and, of course, the organisation of a new ministry and new political infrastructure is another challenge still to be overcome. Thus, generally speaking, it is very difficult to create tangible results which will then be promoted as something which will provoke the central planning by showing that there is an alternative. However, the better it goes and the more successful it is, then the more important it will be for the overall conversation conducted in Europe. However, things are not easy and one cannot be very optimistic in this regard.

In October 2013, after the shipwreck in Lampedusa, the European Parliament voted in favour of the implementation of EUROSUR as the ultimate rescue tool. As you show in the book, EUROSUR has nothing to do with search and rescue; on the contrary, it is an expensive centralised panopticon for border surveillance and policing that is being silently planned since 2006. What is the role of EUROSUR in the development and use of drones and the militarisation of migration?

EUROSUR is a tool, a mechanism to collect data from the European external border and to process it locally before it becomes available to the central administrator, which is Frontex in Warsaw, and to the other member-states. The objective is to create a live image to monitor the Mediterranean basin and beyond, almost in real-time. However, as a system it is still underdeveloped in relation to this goal. The politics around EUROSUR and the ways in which this, as a project, has been the justification for the Commission to develop drone acquisition programmes for the countries of the European South or to promote other surveillance systems and to deepen its relations with the military industry and so forth is a much more interesting topic in terms of politics. I say this because the tool can be presented as a politician wants; it is just a system, anyone who wants will use it for the reasons they want. Nobody condemns technological innovation per se, the goal is not to demonise it. The question is in which regulatory framework and with what political objectives these systems are developed, and here, it is clear that the Commission has made a choice to essentially adopt the militarisation agenda, as is has been contemplated by the industry, and EUROSUR is a key objective within that process. The then Commissioner for Home Affairs and Immigration, Cecilia Malmström, had presented it as a system -and there are plenty of articles recently published on the website of Frontex- that will help search and rescue, which may even be partly true but the whole reality behind it says it was a key argument for the EC to rapidly promote and handsomely fund the whole security doctrine and the militarisation of migration and external border policy.

Tell us a little about your book and your research: how easy or difficult was the access to information?

The two main issues in relation to this work is that a big chunk of these developments and information is dispersed within the products of the European bureaucracy, which is a real maze in which, quite often, deliberate or not, many things disappear; thus, searching is really tedious and it is an exercise of mental endurance. The second issue is the access and cooperation with people who are near or within the information centres. Usually, it is said, when you are not given information, you are on the right track and, when you are actively prevented from having it, you in an even better track. In the course of this investigation, the trickiest point was somewhere between the two. Unfortunately, representatives of political ideas, who would be expected to be allies in this process, were not allies, either because of indifference or lack of understanding of the subject, or sometimes because political thought is far more complicated than the clear-cut journalistic approach of simply disclosing the information. Generally speaking, it was cumbersome. Many times, it was surprising that people, who would expected to be qualitatively worse interlocutors, because of disagreements and disputes, proved to be better during this investigation than others who were expected to be allies.

Would you like to add anything else?

In the coming days, it will be crucial to see the new strategy on migration as this will be articulated by the Commissioner for Home Affairs and Immigration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and which will express the direction to which the Juncker Commission wants to take things. Generally speaking, a huge political game is being played all this time, with centres pushing this externalisation doctrine and striving to set a precedent for Europe to further close its borders. This is something that is important to monitor and on which, if it happens, this whole complex of vested financial interests described before will take its next step for further militarisation. So it is a crucial period; even though we only see the humanitarian part and the corpses in the Mediterranean, in the backstage in Brussels and behind closed doors in the capitals, there is a lot of talk about where this whole thing will go. The more we do to expose it the better.

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About the book: The official European migration policy is increasingly interpreted as a matter of security and is being rapidly militarised. This is a doctrine that the EU technocrats have digested fully and its practical implementation is co-shaped with the vested interests of the industrial complex that produces products and security services. On this basis, EU’s R&D framework adapts to the needs of this industrial security complex, ignoring the institutional separation and the control of powers at the national and the EU level. The lack of political and democratic control of the plans of this post-democratic elite is certainly troubling. What is shocking, however, is the ignorance of Europeans about the developments at the confines of their societies, at the borders of Europe. For this reason, this book is an invitation to every European to be informed and take part in the discussion.

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Search and rescue in the Mediterranean… or the militarisation of migration by Anna Papoutsi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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