Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Treating the world's poor as Europe's enemy

José Manuel Barroso has little time for his critics, judging by a recent speech he gave in Berlin. The European Commission president used his soapbox to rant against “something I often call the ‘intellectual glamour of pessimism’”. Emphasising the EU’s shortcomings, he argued, overlooks how “we have established on this continent, here in our Europe, the most decent societies known to mankind.”

To his disgrace, Barroso heads an institution that is actively unravelling the decency he tried to celebrate. After forcing merciless cutbacks in the public services on which millions of Europeans rely, the Commission will this week demonstrate its cruelty towards the poor and oppressed of the wider world. It will do so by formally recommending the establishment of a new border surveillance system, designed to keep people with dark and yellow skin out of the Union.

Of course, the proposal for Eurosur, as the system is called, will not be so blunt in its use of language. Yet once you examine the preparatory work for it, the conclusion that foreigners are being treated as Europe’s enemy becomes unavoidable.

Weapons-producers, the very people whose business depends on violence and human rights abuses, have been centrally involved in the system’s planning. It is closely related to a 42 million euro research project – largely funded by the EU – named PERSEUS (Protection of European Seas and Borders through the Intelligent Use of Surveillance). In a conflict of interests, that project is being coordinated by the Spanish arms firm Indra, which stands to benefit directly from the sale of the surveillance equipment to be used by Eurosur.

Thales, the French “defence” firm, is leading a similar EU research project known as OPERAMAR, which is supposed to address the “insufficient interoperability” between the Union’s “maritime security” facilities and those held by the national authorities of its member countries.

More perilous routes

I would not be surprised if Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, predicts this week that the system will help rescue boats that are in danger of sinking. Any such claim will be misleading; the experience of these kind of surveillance systems is that they push asylum-seekers to take increasingly perilous routes in the hope of giving the authorities the slip.

Spain introduced a 300 million euro system called SIVE to monitor the Strait of Gibraltar in 2002. The effect was that boats carrying asylum-seekers tried to enter Spanish territory via the Canary Islands instead. When SIVE was extended to the Canaries, it emerged that saving lives was not a priority for those operating it. In 2004, a number of small boats sank, causing numerous deaths, in areas where surveillance equipment had been installed. During parliamentary discussions the following year, the Spanish Civil Guard admitted that the system was of a “security” nature; search and rescue was not the primary concern.

The European Defence Agency (EDA), that official body set up at the request of Thales and other arms companies, is also taking an active part in the discussions about Eurosur.

A 2010 report written for the agency by a “wise pen” group comprised of five vice-admirals from different navies advocated that warships should be used for patrolling the EU’s external borders. The same report gave a positive assessment of operations in which boats carrying asylum-seekers were boarded by armed personnel, while still at sea.

It is telling that the vice-admirals did not appear to have any problem with measures that would inevitably increase the anxiety of people who are already frightened. In September 2008, the French naval vessel Arrago intercepted two boats with asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean. The boats were then escorted to the Sicilian port of Lampedusa with the asylum-seekers having guns pointed at them the whole time.

That operation was directed by Frontex, the EU’s border management agency which is also set to be involved in Eurosur. Frontex is legally bound to respect fundamental rights; in practice, it does not.

EU approved child abuse

A few months ago, Human Rights Watch published the results of its investigation into the detention of almost 12,000 migrants who entered Greece at its land border with Turkey between November 2010 and March this year. During that time, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued a judgment, which found that Greece’s asylum system was dysfunctional. The country’s detention facilities were found to be so shabby that they violated human rights laws prohibiting ill-treatment and torture. Guards deployed by Frontex regularly apprehended migrants and brought them to the detention centres, frequently in buses provided by the agency. In some of these centres, unaccompanied children were held for long periods.

This means that an official EU agency helped flout international law. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, all signatories are supposed to guarantee the protection of minors, in particular children who are not accompanied by a parent or another adult.

The Frontex chief Ilkka Laitinen last month made a distinction between “irregular migration” and “bona fide border crossings”. Reading between the lines, it appears that the only difference between the “irregular” and “bona fide” travellers he referred to is that the second group is lucky enough to have documents that immigration officers will accept.

Laitinen should read a passage from Barroso’s Berlin speech: “we believe that if someone is poor, it is not necessarily because it is his fault.”

Trying to enter Europe in order to flee persecution or poverty is not a crime. How dare the EU treat such people as criminal.

●First published by New Europe, 5 December 2011.

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