It started with a news item I came across a few days ago: Two deaths in three weeks in Spain’s notorious detention centers.
On 19 December 2011, an unnamed woman, aged 41, believed to be from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, died of meningitis hours after her admission to hospital from the Aluche detention centre, in the suburbs of Madrid. A ruling on the death from the Madrid court which monitors the centre was highly critical of the ‘manifest overcrowding’ suffered by inmates, who are held six or eight to a cell, the lack of washing and toilet facilities or an infirmary, all of which facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. The court, which described conditions at Aluche as ‘particularly serious’, ordered the centre staff to segregate those who had had contact with the deceased and to ensure appropriate hospital treatment for anyone needing it. A month earlier, the court had to order centre staff to put a stop to the practice of locking cells and denying access to toilets (which are in the corridors), which was forcing women to relieve themselves in plastic bags, bottles or the small sinks in the cells.
Unnamed. Alone and in conditions that go beyond those most Europeans reserve for their house pets. I searched frantically for her name. I believe in the politics of names, of naming, of subjects, of people who have faces and feelings, lives and dreams. I thought of the dreams of this woman who traveled half the world to die of a preventable disease in the “land of civilization”. Samba M. That’s all I could find. A final act of dehumanization, her family name reduced to just an initial, stripped of her singularity and her personhood. She traveled following what I can assume to be dreams of a better future only to become an unnamed body in a Spanish detention center.
And then I went down the rabbit hole of the European Union’s policies on the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. This is not the first time it happens. Last year I wrote quite extensively about the corporate profits behind the detention of undocumented immigrants. This time, however, I was interested in the policies and enforcement that lead to the abuses. People die. We forget. More often than not, we are not even aware of these deaths. Each of these immigrants, a person, a human being killed by State policies and the arm that executes them. I desperately wanted to understand why.
I keep insisting on our responsibility as legal residents or citizens of the EU for the ill treatment of migrants. I do not make friends when I stress that all of this is done in our names and for our sake. Most people tend to think of the State as an abstract, a body that is beyond individual responsibility and they do not see how we are the ones who give the State the mandate to act in our supposedly best interest. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Mission Statement of Frontex, the European Union agency in charge of border control:
Frontex strengthens the freedom and the security of the citizens of the EU by complementing the national border management systems of the Member States.
Frontex exists to “protect” us. Their motto is “Libertas, Securitas, Justitia” (Freedom, Safety, Justice) And under that pretense, the agency allows deaths like those of Samba M. to happen. For me, for my neighbors, for my friends, for the girl who works at the supermarket check out. For you, if you are reading this from one of the countries that are part of the Schengen agreement.
Like many administrative, legislative or judicial bodies that operate and run the European Union, Frontex is a rather obscure initiative. It is rarely mentioned in mainstream media and it is certainly not in the minds of European people, even though it is one of the most important agencies in the continent, in charge of border security of the EU with regards to non EU countries. Frontex’ mission is to help EU Member States implement EU rules on external border controls and to coordinate operational cooperation between Member States in the field of external border management. While it remains the task of each member state to control its own borders, the Agency is vested with the function to ensure that they all do so with the same high standard of efficiency. It started operating in 2005 and from that point onwards, the Agency has been increasing its power and reach every year. In October of 2011, the Council of the European Union acknowledged this need for increased power and logistics by adopting new rules for Frontex. Namely, from that moment on, the agency was at liberty to:
- buy or lease its own equipment (cars, vessels, helicopters etc.) or to buy such equipment in co-ownership with a member state;
- a co-leading role for the agency regarding joint operations and pilot projects;
- the creation of “European Border Guard Teams” as the common name for teams deployed during Frontex operations (be it joint operations, pilot projects or rapid border interventions);
Here’s where things get even more obscure and less accessible for the average European. Who is this Council of the European Union and what is their mandate? At this point, it should be noted that there are three prominent European Union institutions, each with distinctive and different tasks, but all bearing similarly confusing names:
Each of these are not related to one another and have completely different purposes. However, this is hardly ever clarified for average Europeans. I suspect even well educated people would be at odds to identify each. I know it took me a good amount of intentional research to realize these differences.
In the case of Frontex, their mandate comes from the first of these three: The Council of the European Union. The Council of the European Union (sometimes just called the Council and sometimes still referred to as the Council of Ministers) is the institution in the essentially bicameral legislature of the European Union (EU) representing the executives of member states, the other legislative body being the European Parliament. The Council is composed of several configurations of twenty-seven national ministers (one per state). Basically, the Council of the European Union is the executive arm that represents the different countries’ executive, elected, democratic governments.
Coincidentally, a day after I came across the death of the Congolese woman in a Spanish internment camp, I received via email, through a newsletter I am subscribed to, Frontex’ Program of Work for 2012, which has just been released. (Link goes to PDF). From the manual:
Activities carried out by Frontex have been identified as ongoing and recurring delivery of products and services. For the next years those activities will remain within Frontex’ operational portfolio. During this time some of them will remain unchanged whereas others will see slight adjustments, dependent on the stage of the life cycle they have reached. Aligned with the internal security strategy the focus of Frontex’ operational activities also includes targeting organized crime at external borders.
Notice the language of corporate administration? We’ll get back to that later, but it is worth noting that even though this is a multi State operated Agency, the entire operation is seeped in corporate speak. There are no references to immigrants’ humanity, their rights as subjects or their freedom. The text does make vague statements about “upholding human rights” and “the values of human rights” but it is in such hazy and ambiguous terms that they might as well ditch the pretension altogether.
Strengthening freedom and security, one battered body at a time
In September 2011, Human Rights Watch released a report that certainly didn’t mince words: The EU’s Dirty Hands. Frontex Involvement in Ill-Treatment of Migrant Detainees in Greece (link to PDF).
Europe’s fledgling border police force has been knowingly aiding and abetting the serial abuse of migrants during its first major deployment on EU frontiers, Human Rights Watch said.
In a 62-page report on conditions in Greek asylum and detention centres, widely known to be disastrously dysfunctional, the organisation on Wednesday accused Frontex, the EU’s external borders agency, of turning a blind eye to the torture, beating, and systematic degradation of illegal migrants detained after crossing the border from Turkey.[…]
The European Commission confirmed on Wednesday that the Frontex guards were turning over arrested migrants to the Greek authorities, but denied all responsibility for what happened to the detainees.
“Frontex should not be held responsible for the failings of a member state, in this case Greece,” said Michele Cercone, the commission spokesman for internal affairs.
Around 200 Frontex officers were deployed on the Greek-Turkish border late last year because the EU felt the Greek authorities had lost control – it is thought 90% of people entering Europe illegally were arriving though this channel.
Of course the EU commission found no wrong doing. However, Human Rights Watch was adamant in their report. They held Frontex accountable for turning a blind eye on the abuses and for refusing to address the complaints and grievances expressed by the interviewed immigrants. From the report:
In December 2010, during the Rapid Border Intervention Teams deployment, Human Rights Watch visited detention centers in the Evros region of Greece and found that the Greek authorities were holding migrants, including members of vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied children, for weeks or months in conditions that amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.
We found overcrowding to be a common problem in detention facilities in the Evros region. In Tychero, Feres, and Soufli, women were held in the same cells with men. The Feres police station held 97 detainees at the time of our visit, though the police said its capacity was 30. A 50-year-old Georgian woman detainee said, “You cannot imagine how dirty and difficult it is for me here….It’s not appropriate to be with these men. I don’t sleep at night. I just sit on a mattress.”
In Fylakio, by contrast, the authorities separated men from single women but detained unaccompanied children together with unrelated adults in large, overcrowded cells. Sewage was running on the floors, and the smell was hard to bear. Greek guards wore surgical masks when they entered the passageway between the large barred cells.
and then this:
Soufli is a municipality in the Evros region very close to the Evros River. In our visit to the Soufli police station, we once again found an extremely overcrowded, filthy and poorly lit facility, in which men and women were not separated. One of the Greek policemen there mentioned to the Human Rights Watch interpreter that two days previously a woman was raped in a cell by another detainee.
Human Rights Watch inquired if Frontex knew about the allegation. We received the following answer:
Frontex had got the information from the field about a case of alleged rape around 5/6 November 2010; Frontex immediately approached the Hellenic Police and asked them for internal investigation which was agreed. Frontex received a report stating that the alleged rape case was not confirmed by the investigation.[…]
At times, women were placed in the detention facility together with the men. Similar conditions existed at almost all the police premises visited by the [EU’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture] delegation. In the purpose-built Fylakio special holding facility for foreigners in the Evros region, irregular migrants, including juveniles and families with young children, were kept locked up for weeks and months in filthy, overcrowded, unhygienic cage-like conditions, with no daily access to outdoor exercise.
This operation, which lasted for more than four years, was dubbed Operation Poseidon. And for those interested, there are more press releases and technical information at Frontex’ site.
Each of these women, these children, these men… each of this people has a name. But just like Samba M., we will never know anything about them. Just unnamed stories in a report by one of the very few organizations who documented these cases. To give some more perspective into the numbers of nameless people who are part of this systematic policy of detentions and abuses of undocumented immigrants across the EU, I turned to the Global Detention Project. The data is, once again, scarce and the figures are not up to date. Moreover, I contend the disperse nature of this information is intentional. If we could group all these figures together, if we could present them in a comprehensive way, we would be witness to a human rights violation of catastrophic proportions. Just some examples:
- In 2005, a total of 12,485 were detained;
- In 2006, 12,480;
- In 2007, 9,595;
- In 2008, 8,585
The increase in the rise of deportations has led to a concomitant rise in detention capacity, which was 1,724 in 2007, up from 739 in 2003—an increase of 133 percent. The number of persons detained per annum rose from 28,220 in 2003 to 35,008 in 2007. The legal maximum length of detention was raised from 12 days to 32 days in 2003, albeit the average length of detention in 2007 was 10.17 days
In 2009, Spanish authorities authorized the detention of 11,573 persons on immigration-related grounds (Ministerio de Justicia 2010, p. 888). 55 percent of these were apprehended and detained while attempting to enter the country. An additional 1,930 migrants were held in detention centers in order to facilitate their expulsion from the country, in lieu of fulfilling a penal sentence of less than six years (Ministerio del Justicia 2010, p. 888). The total number of immigration-related detainees registered in Spain during 2009 was 16,590, down from 26,032 in 2008. 90 percent of these were male, and 53 percent were expelled from the country (Ministerio de Justicia 2010, p. 889).
A total of 6,902 persons were detained in Belgium in 2008, down somewhat from 9,101 in 2003 (OE 2009, p.122). This amounted to an average of 520 persons being held in detention on any given day in 2008
According to the 2007 De Mistura Commission report, some 25,000 non-citizens were detained in immigration detention centres between 2005-2006[…] In the year 2005, the Interior Ministry registered the deportation of some 26,985 undocumented migrants from Italy
The number of irregular immigrants apprehended in Greece was reportedly very high at the turn of the century, peaking at 259,403 in 2000. The numbers then purportedly fell dramatically to 66,351 in 2005. However, apprehensions appear to be on the rise once more, as 146,337 immigrants were reportedly taken into custody in 2008. In 2005, the Greek government issued 40,649 expulsion decisions and removed 21,219 persons from the territory
Overwhelming data, right? Are you drowned in numbers already? And these are the figures of only six EU countries. To give a further idea of the magnitude of the detentions, I searched for a detailed map of internment camps and detention centers across the EU. I could not find an up to date one. The most recent one I could find, courtesy of Migregroup, a French NGO that documents issues of immigration across the EU, is from 2009 (click on the image for full size):
[Image description: A map of the European continent and surrounding areas across the Mediterranean Sea. The map portrays the number of detention centers and internment camps for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers]
The number of such detention places in Switzerland was so high that Migregroup could not mark them all, as they would exceed the borders of the country in the map. It is also worth noting that several of these centers are outside the EU, in places like Morocco or Libya as part of what in the EU is known as “European Neighborhood Policy”, to prevent people from reaching EU borders altogether and imprison them before they are able to reach the continent.
The official position of the EU regarding the internment camps in Africa is that they are not part of EU policy. However, as we will later see, an official delegation of Frontex visited them in Libya to strengthen cooperation. From the history behind these camps outside the EU:
In 2003, given the growing number of asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced a “new vision for refugees”. This consisted of two key points: the establishment of reception centres for refugees outside EU territory, and military intervention into crisis areas to nip in the bud refugee movements in the direction of Europe.
Although EU interior ministers and the European Parliament officially rejected such plans, the EU summit of European leaders in June 2003 in Greece quietly gave the green light to Blair’s plan to establish refugee camps. Within 12 months, the first pilot projects were begun.
In 2003, EU officials claim to have rejected these plans. However, during my research of Frontex and the scope of their authority and initiatives, I came across a document that suggests otherwise. In “External Processing – conditions applying to the processing of asylum applications outside the European Union”, dated december 2010, The Dutch Advisory Committee on Migration Affairs (ACVZ) actually offers two conclusions that are in line with the 2003 proposal by Blair (moreover, Blair’s cabinet proposal is cited in the document as prior works on the subject). This advisory committee consists of ten experts on migration affairs and it is an independent consultative council that was established by law in The Netherlands. The committee offers recommendations to the government and parliament on migration issues. Their recommendations were:
- If the decision is taken to develop external processing, it should be done at EU level.
- Until there is clarity concerning the legal basis for EU action in the area of external processing, focus on achieving the conditions for external processing, including harmonisation of European asylum policy and a quota arrangement for the distribution of persons in need of international protection.
“Distribution of persons”, an euphemism to mean that asylum seekers should be assigned to countries within the European Union on a “quota” basis (i.e. 20 for Spain, 28 for France, etc.).
Hermes, the god of migrants and travelers
As part of the 2008 Italy and Libya “Friendship Pact”—the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya—Italy agreed to provide Libya $5 billion in infrastructure projects over 25 years to compensate for abuses committed during its rule over the country. It calls for “intensifying cooperation in fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration,” and includes an agreement to strengthen Libyan border controls, 50 percent of which is to be funded by Italy, and 50 percent by the EU. […]
Human rights organisations and media reports have alleged that Italy provides significant funding to Libya for the construction of immigration detention facilities (Brothers 2007), and that “once the Italian government has expelled foreigners back to Libya, it also pays for charter flights for Libya to send the people home,” including some fifty charter flights that transported 5,668 people between August 2003 and December 2004.
And about the abuses that transpired in these camps, I revert to the World Socialist Website for some more details:
As early as 2000, racist pogroms claimed the lives of some 150 black Africans. Conditions are appalling in the 15 refugee camps in the country, in which up to 60,000 refugees are crammed. There are not enough beds or food for the inmates. Migrants are subjected to torture and ill treatment and expulsions are carried out regardless of the legal situation of those affected.
Living conditions in the camps were so catastrophic that in some cases inmates gave their last belongings to the guards to be able to escape. For many, the journey to Niger ended with death in the desert. Human rights groups say there have been more than 1,600 deaths in the Sahara.
Despite this, since 2003 Italy has regularly flown refugees who were stranded on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa back to Libya. Between 2003 and 2005 it also provided finance for the Libyan authorities for an additional 60 deportation flights. The close collaboration at an economic level and in stemming the flow of refugees led Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to praise Gaddafi in October 2004 as “a good friend and freedom-loving prime minister” at the inauguration of a gas pipeline from Libya to Italy.
In 2007, a delegation from the European border agency Frontex visited Libya. Its report once again documents massive human rights violations. Nevertheless, Frontex recommended the supply of command posts, radar surveillance, patrol boats and other equipment to Libya.
Once the uprisings across the Middle East popularly known as “the Arab Spring” started, thousands of people flee in an attempt to reach the EU. That is when Frontex started what is known as “Operation Hermes”. As a continuation of the “outsourcing” and “externalization” of the administration of European Borders, the EU deployed a massive operation to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers could never pass the “fortress” around Europe. This operation was a natural continuation of the policies I mentioned above, to keep migrants in internment camps around North Africa. Moreover, Frontex guards were in charge of delivering the detainees to such camps, just like in the case of the Greek abuses documented by Human Rights Watch. From State Watch:
Operation Hermes involves ‘focusing on organising return operations to the countries of origin’. This will be organised jointly between Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Malta and Spain (who are providing the naval and aerial aspects for Operation Hermes).
I could not find an end date for Operation Hermes and some sources suggest that this is still ongoing. The NGO Boats4People states on a press release from last week:
Every single day, small boats are getting lost and sink in the Strait of Sicily, off the Apulian coast or in the Tunisian, Maltese and Italian waters. The migrants on board are sometimes being rescued in tragic circumstances. They continue to leave the African continent, in spite of the political stabilization in the Maghreb-Mashrek area. Each shipwreck and each tragedy adds to the more than 2000 migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since early 2011, as recorded by the UNHCR.
It is also noticeable that the Search And Rescue operations (SAR) are often taking place too late. They demonstrate a lack of will from the EU to welcome and assist the exiles, whereas it has a wide range of means available to do so. Frontex, in particular through its Hermes operation in the Strait of Sicily, along with to the NATO, the navy and air forces, as well as fix and mobile radars are controlling everything that happens in the Mediterranean Sea.
A recent news release from Frontex points to the success of these border controls (and incidentally, leads to an unintentionally hilarious example of “proactivity” on their behalf on another news release from the next day). On January 19th, Frontex released their Analysis of Migratory Trends at the EU External Borders for Q3, 2011:
Following the fall of the Khadafy’s regime migrants came mostly from Tunisia and Egypt. Migrants from Tunisia remain the most significant nationality with 3370 detections, followed by some 3000 Nigerians. The growing number of Nigerians detected at the European borders suggests that Nigerian facilitation networks are becoming more sophisticated and the numbers of migrants are likely to increase.
And then, the next day, on January 19th, we are treated with this item, Frontex signs Working Arrangement with Nigeria:
Specific exchanges between Frontex and the Nigerian authorities are foreseen with Frontex’s Risk Analysis Unit, with the participation of the competent Nigerian authorities in relevant meetings. Capacity-building measures may also be undertaken with the aim of enhancing integrated border management, including in the areas of training as well as research and development activities.
The language of corporations and the administration of human beings
I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that all operations manuals related to Frontex are marred with corporate speak. I was puzzled by this rhetoric, mostly because it is not usually part of the bureaucratic tone of government agencies or different governing bodies. More often than not, those adopt a tone closer to legalese than to corporate utterances of “growth”, “service”, “stakeholders” and “customer focus”. And then I came across this document, from December 2009, which dispelled all my doubts. From Study on the feasibility of establishing specialised branches of Frontex. Final Report:
Frontex invited external consultants to take part in a competitive tender procedure to award the contract for the study on the feasibility of establishing specialized branches of Frontex.
And the coup de grace:
As a result of the tender procedure, Deloitte has been awarded the contract to perform the study.
Because nothing says democratic governance than outsourcing the treatment of people to a New York based corporation involved in accusations of fraud and lack of transparency. A company that some point as partially responsible for the collapse of the financial system in the US, showing a total disregard for the consequences of said collapse in the lives of every day Americans also serves in an advisory/ consulting role on topics of the administration of European borders and the treatment of immigrants. This outlandish, exasperating mixture of corporate affairs already suspect of unethical behaviors, with the very concrete lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world is what passes for European democracy?
It is not clear how many of the recommendations in Deloitte’s report have been implemented, however, I have noted a few notable coincidences. In the 2009 report, Deloitte recommends the creation of a Mobile Operations Project Teams (MOPT), to act during temporary assignments. From the document:
Mobile Operations Project Teams (MOPT) would be specialised branches created in the areas of planned operations only for the period of the operation. The main purpose of these branches would be to support planning and execution of operations. MOPTs would be a pool of experts – Frontex employees and experts from Member States (MS) having broad experience in planning and coordinating of operations as well as in gathering information for risk analysis and situation monitoring purposes during operations. MOPTs would be fully responsible for delivering detailed operations plan to HQ (as a final deliverable of planning stage). During operations, tasks performed would involve bringing local authorities to work together, supporting hosting officers in managing all officers taking part in operations (briefing, making sure all officers are assigned to tasks according to their field of expertise), assuring proper allocation and use of equipment in the most effective way according to planning assumptions.
Cue in 2010, and the border operation in Greece that I mentioned above regarding the damning report from Human Rights Watch. From Frontex press kit:
The basic idea of Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) was to create such a mechanism that could allow, in case of urgent and exceptional migratory pressure, rapid deployment of border guards on a European level. Rapid Border Intervention Teams are intended to provide short‐term assistance. The responsibility for the control and surveillance of the external borders remains to lie with the Member States.
In Frontex we trust
I do not have enough words to convey the gravity of this situation. I am overcome by impotence and by grief. All I can do is offer these disjointed ideas with the intention of raising the alarm. I insist, people die under our watch. Women are raped, beaten, abused because we have given the State the power to do so on our behalf. If you read this far, you might be perplexed, bewildered that this is happening in a continent that praises itself for representing “human civilization”, “dignity” and the upholding of human rights. I shall remind you of this from one of the opening paragraphs:
… authorities separated men from single women but detained unaccompanied children together with unrelated adults in large, overcrowded cells. Sewage was running on the floors, and the smell was hard to bear. Greek guards wore surgical masks when they entered the passageway between the large barred cells.
This is why we must care. Children in such conditions that the guards who are supposedly watching over them have to enter the space wearing surgical masks. And we do this because we need to “protect” our standard of living, “protect” our jobs, our access to lives worth living. However, when protecting our well being comes at the expense of others, whose lives are as worthy as ours, every bit as deserving of human dignity and respect, then we have become monsters. This upholding of values only in nominal terms is not “civilization” neither does it represent respect for humanity. This is outrageous and we should be ashamed.