Europe's far from splendid isolation

Five years after hundreds of migrants besieged the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla remain symbols of the EU’s closed borders and closed minds, even of a global system of apartheid, say two academics.

Published on 19 October 2010 at 09:47
Who are the barbarians at the gate? Spanish soldiers at the fenced perimeter around the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, September 2005.

It has been five years since the immigration flare-up that put the borders of Ceuta and Melilla on the world map. In late September of 2005, hundreds of men from sub-Saharan Africa tried to reach EU soil by crossing the land borders of the two North African cities. Five of the men were shot dead by [Moroccan] border patrols. A total of 11 died in this event, many more were injured by the barbed wire on top of the fences.

It is now clear, with five years’ hindsight, that the incident marked a turning-point in EU immigration policy. What occurred in 2005 threw into painful relief that the migration issue had to be shunted to the top of Europe’s political agenda.

Anti-immigrant sentiment spreading across Europe

What happened ushered in a new stage in EU external border policy. Ceuta and Melilla are now the most heavily guarded border posts in the EU. And ironically enough, Morocco is doing its best to help guard borders it considers illegitimate and colonialist. Over the past five years, rapid progress has been made towards creating a European Corps of Border Guards, and the budget for Frontex (European External Borders Agency) has grown exponentially. The EU’s external borders definitely won’t be what they once were.

The fact is the EU border regime discriminates on the basis of country of origin. Look at the list of countries whose nationals need a visa to enter the EU – which they often don’t get – and lo and behold: you’ll see a remarkably large number of Muslim and/or developing countries. So clearly, if implicitly, migrants are not seen as individuals but are filtered according to the dominant religion and average wealth of the country where they are born in. In other words, the border regime is based on the lottery of birth.. Certain contingents are thrown onto the “undocumented aliens” heap, a burden that then has to be divided up among the EU member states. But nobody is born undocumented – or a “burden”, for that matter. It is governments that define and construct these categories.

Closing down the access roads to the EU generates a vicious circle by artificially increasing the number of undocumented immigrants, which sows panic in the resident psyche. That in turn supplies electioneering fodder to populist politicians. The upshot: a cloud of anti-immigrant sentiment spreading across Europe.

Europe - less a fortress than a gated community

Meanwhile, the closing of the Ceuta and Melilla passage has given rise to a perverse game of cat and mouse between border patrols and would-be immigrants, channelling the latter towards new and more dangerous routes. The EU has been silent about the deaths of undocumented immigrants attempting to reach its shores. Out of protest, alternative organisations like United Against Racism or No Borders try to count the casualties: they estimate roughly 13,000 have died since the external borders of the Schengen Area were sealed off in 1993.

In the meantime, a wholly different territorial reality is taking shape in Ceuta and Melilla, one of vigorous and intensifying cross-border interaction. Witness the swelling ranks of workers and shoppers plying between the two Spanish cities and the Moroccan provinces of Tetuan and Nador. Daily life around the EU borders in África now verges on a flying trapeze act, swinging back and forth between efforts to reinforce the perimeter ordained by the EU and implemented by Spain, on the one hand, and autonomous cities keen on interacting with the country of Morocco that surrounds them, and whose economy is ready to take off.

And yet, in spite of the changes taking place on the ground, there is no prospect of even slightly demilitarising the border, given the anti-immigrant sentiment taking hold of the EU. Even as it liberalises worker mobility within the Union, the EU border regime is cherry-picking immigrants from outside the EU with a view to admitting only those with economic value to add. So Europe is beginning to look less like a fortress than a gated community: a residential complex in which, driven by fear of crime and of the projected loss of welfare and cultural identity, the wealthy are digging themselves in, cutting themselves off from the rest of society. And by doing that, the EU is widening the development gap – which in turn fuels what it defined as a problem, namely illegal immigration – and cementing a global system of apartheid.

Translated from the Spanish by Eric Rosencrantz

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