This story is over 5 years old.


The Building Blocks of Fortress Europe: How EU Policy Is Failing Record Numbers of Migrants

Unprecedented numbers of migrants are attempting to reach Europe and 3,500 people died in the Mediterranean in 2014. VICE News examines some questionable EU responses to this reality that are endangering fundamental human rights.
Imagen por Devin Yuceil

Milène Larsson is the producer and reporter of the VICE News series Europe or Die. Here she looks back at migration into Europe as it reached record numbers last year, how we got here, and what lies ahead.

In June 2014, the UN's Refugee Agency (UNHRC) announced that, for the first time since World War II, more than 50 million people are displaced around the globe. This number is only likely to increase, however, as war, poverty, persecution, and climate change continue to wreak havoc and force people to flee their homes.


The growing refugee crisis from conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, has resulted in record numbers risking their lives to seek refuge or better opportunities in nearby Europe. According to Frontex, EU's external border management agency, an unprecedented 278,000 illegal border crossings were detected in 2014, two and a half times more than the year before (107,000).

Another statistic that peaked was the numbers of people who die on the way — an estimated 3,500 last year. At least 27,000 migrants and refugees have died trying to reach Europe since 2000.

Related: Storming Spain's razor-wire fence: Europe or die (Episode 1). Watch here.

Rather than saving lives, in today's Europe, where a growing far-right sentiment plagues the migration debate and fear is growing in light of heightened terrorist threats and the recent shootings in Paris and Copenhagen, the continent's main priority remains border security. Between 2007-2013, southern European countries with high migratory pressure spent more than a billion dollars on border protection, while almost three times less was invested in refugee reception and integration.

While the fortification of its frontiers helps the monitoring of who comes in and out, Europe struggles to protect its borders without compromising the fundamental human rights of migrants and refugees. Here are some of the questionable policies and practices that people refer to when they discuss Fortress Europe.


A Frontex officer in the Elhovo region of Bulgaria. Photo by Devin Yuceil.

In a makeshift Moroccan migrant camp overlooking the Spanish enclave of Melilla, a remnant of Spain's colonial empire, a couple of Ivorian migrants told VICE News: "We came because things weren't good, we couldn't support our families." The camp's inhabitants were waiting for a chance to storm Melilla's razor wire-clad border fences that separate Africa from Europe.

Pointing towards Melilla they said: "Once we both managed to get in [to Spain] but they sent us back." Many of their friends had similar stories, and others, with visible injuries, hadn't even touched the barrier before being beaten back by Moroccan border police, who target their arms and legs so that they can no longer climb the fence.

European human rights law states that once migrants and refugees reach Europe, they have the right to legal assistance and an interpreter. This means that sending people back without processing them first — referred to as a "pushback" or "summary return" — is illegal. Still, pushbacks are routine practice.

Related: In the wake of more migrant deaths, Europe says it will speed up migration reform. Read more here.

According to German NGO Pro-Asyl, more than 2,000 people were illegally pushed back to Turkey from Greece between 2012 and 2013, often by masked men in unmarked black uniforms. Numerous human rights organizations have also reported that these unlawful returns are happening in Bulgaria and Spain's two North African territories of Ceuta and Melilla.


José Palazón, who runs the Prodein NGO in Melilla, has filmed and reported numerous pushbacks. In October 2014, he recorded the Guardia Civil beating a 23-year-old Cameroonian as he climbed down the Melilla border fence. They then carried him, apparently unconscious, through doors in the fence back to Morocco, without processing him or providing medical attention.

After much pressure from NGOs, the European Commission stated that it was in dialogue with Spain and "would not hesitate to take appropriate measures when there is evidence that a member state is violating EU law." Yet it wasn't deemed an urgent matter, as the October 20 statement added that the commission was nonetheless not considering a mission to the enclaves.

On December 11, 2014, claiming the existing immigration laws weren't designed for "stampedes into Ceuta and Melilla," Spain's ruling Popular Party passed a heavily criticized amendment to the country's Public Security Bill, which was approved by the lower house of the Spanish parliament. This would officially enable the Guardia Civil to carry on sending migrants and refugees straight back to Morocco without being processed, effectively legalizing pushbacks.

The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, reacted by saying: "The proposal to legalize automatic collective expulsions of migrants arriving in Ceuta and Melilla is wrong and unlawful under international law. Such a move would inevitably erode fundamental human-rights protections that the international community has fought hard to establish since World War II."


On January 16, Muiznieks said the amendments would put Spain in "clear breach of human rights law."

The European Commission has also stated that they're in dialogue with Spain and "will not hesitate to take the appropriate steps if a member state is violating EU law."

Related: Death boats to Greece (Part 1): Europe or die (Episode 2). Watch here.

If Europe allows Spain to change its legislation in a way that breaches the union's legislation, more countries could follow this example. The values of Europe's Charter of Fundamental rights rely on the EU's willingness to do what's necessary to defend them.

"Europe has set very high standards in its Charter of Fundamental Rights but doesn't put enough effort into enforcing them," Michael Diedring, the Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), told VICE News.

ECRE is an umbrella organization of 85 NGOs that advises the EU on migration. I asked Diedring what happens, in his experience, when a member state is accused of violating EU law. He replied: "Once the issue is raised in the European Commission, a decision needs to be made based on whether there is enough evidence of a violation, then a letter is sent to the accused member state, opening a preliminary investigation.

"Then diplomatic negotiations begin, which can go on for a long time. If at some point the Commission is not satisfied, they will institute a formal enforcement procedure. The problem is that these procedures are rarely implemented."


Diedring carefully agreed when I suggested that it would be helpful if the European Commission acted more robustly: "We don't want to live in the Soviet Union, we don't want to have perfect laws but laws that no one puts into practice."

The border fence between the Spanish enclave of Melilla and Morocco. Photo by Devin Yuceil.

Third Country Collaborations
One of Europe's routine border practices when tackling migration is collaborating with neighboring countries, like Turkey and Morocco, to stop migrants before they reach the continent's border, as once they've set foot on European soil, it's illegal to push them back. This practice is called third country collaborations and is agreed upon in so-called bilateral agreements.

"Often the conditions in these agreements are not made completely public, so it's hard to say exactly what's taking place," Diedring told VICE News when asked about the legality of these partnerships. He added: "When you look at this from a human rights perspective, the right to asylum is stated under chapter 18 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. There is international law as well, which talks about the right of refugees to move and to seek protection, even irregularly. A practice that does not allow access to Europe is not a policy that's in line with international and EU law."

Diedring stressed that the big question is creating legal ways for asylum seekers to get to Europe, "Without safe and legal routes, it means somebody is going to be given protection only if they put their lives into the hands of criminals and smugglers, if they take a journey that might cost them their lives, and if they're not stopped before, or pushed back after, they've touched European soil."


Frontex Deputy Executive Director Gil Arias told VICE News that border control is not the solution for irregular migration, it's just a piece of the puzzle: "To tackle migratory flows, you need to work on development in the countries of origin and the countries of transit, among many other things." He believes that third country collaborations would play an even bigger role in the future of European border management.

However, NGOs warn that it's hard to safeguard that fundamental human rights of migrants are respected when in the hands of non-EU countries partaking in these agreements. For example, migrants have suffered excessive violence at the hands of Moroccan border police when trying to enter Ceuta and Melilla. Still, more than $100 million have been rewarded to Morocco in financial and technical aid for its help in tackling migration to Europe.

A border fence in the Evros region of Greece. Photo by Devin Yuceil.

In July 2014, Bulgaria completed a 21-mile, barbed wire-clad, fence along the part of its border with Turkey where most migrants cross. Yet this is just the latest addition to Europe's border fence collection. Spain started the trend in the 1990s and 2000s, by fortifying Ceuta and Melilla.

Then Greece sealed off its seven-mile land border with Turkey in 2012, once a main gateway into the EU from Asia, and referred to by Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner as, "open like a barn door." The total length of fences along the continent's border hotspots — usually placed where there are no natural obstacles, such as the deadly Mediterranean Sea and Greece's Evros River — is now around 40 miles.


However, the EU also keeps condemning border fences. When you plug one border, rather than the migration flow stopping, it seems to trickle along the frontier until it finds another, often more dangerous, way in. For example, when the Greek fence was completed, the migratory route that used to go from Turkey into Greece changed course and moved further east to Bulgaria. Then, in response to the increase in irregular migration, Bulgaria built its own fence.

When Bulgaria's fence was completed, the Greek islands received record numbers of migrants and refugees, crossing from Turkey on overpacked boats across the perilous Aegean Sea. Bulgaria, having realized its new fence merely pushed migrants to where the barrier ends, is now planning to build an additional 80 miles, which would fence off the entirety of its land border with Turkey.

Related: Death boats to Greece (Part 2): Europe or die (Episode 2). Watch here.

A migrant cemetery in Lesbos, Greece. Photo by Giorgos Moutafis.

Deadly Natural Obstacles
While many have died crossing the Evros River along the Greek land border with Turkey, and on boats capsizing in the Aegean, by far the deadliest route into Europe is crossing the Mediterranean Sea on unsafe and overcrowded boats departing from Libya to Italy.

In response to the tragic boat disaster off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, killing 368 people, Italy launched Mare Nostrum, the only extensive rescue mission to operate in these waters. In less than a year, Mare Nostrum saved more than 150,000 lives. But crippled by financial crisis and unable to shoulder the 9 million euros ($10.2m) a month it cost to run the operation, Italy announced the end of Mare Nostrum in October 2014. This was declared not long after 500 people died off the coast of Malta on September 6.


Instead of offering to share the cost of running the mission, EU politicians accused it of creating a "pull factor" — essentially arguing that migrants and refugees get on what they often call "death boats" to Europe because Mare Nostrum will ferry them to safety. "Let's take that statement to its logical conclusion," Diedring told VICE News. "If the position of the European Union is that, to deter people from attempting the journey to Europe is to allow greater numbers to die in the Mediterranean, that's morally reprehensible and not a European policy we can be proud of."

Related: Trapped in Bulgaria: Europe or die (Episode 3). Watch here.

Buba, a young Gambian migrant who had just arrived in Sicily's port of Messina after being rescued by a merchant ship in early November, shook his head when I asked if he knew about Mare Nostrum. At least a dozen other migrants who had just made the boat journey from Libya looked equally confounded when asked about an Italian rescue mission. "We had to leave Libya because there were bombs and shootings," Buba told me. He had only just managed to escape one Libya's notorious migrant jails.

In November 2014, Mare Nostrum was replaced with a smaller and cheaper (3 million euros a month) border surveillance operation called Triton, run by Frontex. At its launch on Lampedusa, Frontex spokesperson Izabella Cooper told VICE News that although saving lives is an important part of their mission, their main priority is border surveillance, and that they can "only do what's in their mandate." This week, the Italian coastguards made seven rescue operations in 24 hours, saving 941 migrants. For the time being, however, extensive search and rescue missions are not part of the Triton mandate.


In 2014, 3,500 people died in the Mediterranean. These are, to quote the president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini: "disquieting and terrible figures, reminiscent of war."

One of the last Mare Nostrum rescue boats landing in Sicily. By Flaminia Giambalvo.

Europe also makes extensive use of forced detention, essentially welcoming traumatized people with an indefinite jail sentence. In Greece, NGOs have reported inhumane, substandard conditions in the centers, and that even minors and asylum seekers are detained with insufficient access to legal aid. In some cases, the conditions are so bad that some agree to sign voluntary return forms, despite being in need of international protection.

In September, VICE News visited the detention center of Fylakio near Greece's land border with Turkey. We weren't allowed in and had to stand at a distance, but when spotting us with the camera, a crowd of detainees came out to the yard frantically chanting "Yazidi, Yazidi" and "Sinjar!" One of the younger men spoke English and explained that they were from the Yazidi minority and had fled the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) offensive on Mount Sinjar, Syria

"ISIS killed every family!" he exclaimed and told VICE News: "We are not good here, we have big problems. We need medicine, we are sick and we have a child with a heart problem. They don't give us hot water and the water is not clean."

Gabriella Guida, from the Italian NGO LasciateCIEntrare, took us to Italy's biggest detention center, Ponte Galeria, in Rome. In past years the detainees there have gone on hunger strikes, rioted, and sewed their lips together in protest against the conditions. When we visited, none of them had been informed about how long they would be incarcerated.


Gabriella told VICE News that her NGO is striving to stop the use of detention: "For me, these centers should be closed. They are a clear violation of human rights. People are being deprived of their freedom for an administrative, and not criminal, offense."

Italy's biggest detention center, Ponte Galeria, in Rome. Photo by Flaminia Giambalvo.

The Dublin Regulation
For migrants and refugees, the EU's Dublin Regulation is effectively a bureaucratic wall inside Europe, as it forces people to apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter and prevent them from moving freely inside the continent. Most refugees hope to settle in European countries where there are better prospects for migrants, like Germany or Sweden. But if your fingerprints were taken in, say, Bulgaria, the EU's poorest country, and you then try to reside in other EU states, you'll be deported back to Bulgaria.

The only exception to the Dublin rule is if the country you first entered doesn't meet the minimum standards for migrant reception, which has been the case for Greece. Some countries also don't send people back to Bulgaria after reports of bad conditions. The Harmanli refugee camp near the Bulgarian border with Turkey was the focus of much criticism in 2013, as Syrian refugees were housed in unfinished buildings or rotting tents without heating or hot water in the middle of the winter. There was also a shortage of both food and staff.

When VICE News visited this Bulgarian camp in August 2014, however, brand-new facilities in line with European standards were being built to accommodate thousands of people, much of it financed by the EU. When completed, countries like Germany will once again return people to Bulgaria.

Related: Italy's Mediterranean mass grave: Europe or die (Episode 4). Watch here.

No matter how many billions of euros are invested in building Fortress Europe, it won't change the fact that instability and conflicts at its periphery will continue to force people to seek refuge. On February 9, at least 300 died when smugglers in Libya sent hundreds of migrants out on dinghies into a violent storm. People traffickers don't hesitate to send people to possible death and they keep finding new, bolder, and often more dangerous ways of overcoming the obstacles set up by the EU. Their latest tactic is sending "ghost ships" — abandoned merchant vessels packed with Syrian refugees — on a crash course with European shores.

So Syrian families keep dying on their way to refuge in Europe. Not by a bullet or shrapnel in Syria, not at the hands of President Assad or the Islamic State, but on unsafe, overcrowded boats for which they had to pay extortionate amounts to criminals, because, so far, there are no efficient legal ways to enter.

The European Commission has finally begun talks about opening up legal routes, and the commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has set a goal of creating legal migration to the EU. At a meeting on Wednesday the European Commission said it would focus on four key areas over the next few months: improving legal migration channels, cracking down on illegal immigration and people-smuggling, securing Europe's external borders, and investing in a strong common asylum system.

Yet while the bureaucrats in Brussels engage in lengthy discussions people are dying — and the toll will keep rising.

Follow Milène Larsson on Twitter: @milenelarsson