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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The New European Refugee Rules
    Exporting Borders, Importing People

    The refugee crisis is nothing new, even if the civil war in Syria is currently driving it towards a new extreme. But people are reluctant to acknowledge the background and history of the policies being employed in the EU refugee crisis. Migration researcher and activist Bernhard Schmid provides an explanation, against the backdrop of the most recent political developments.

    If you don’t want things to be the way I want them, I’ll send you those migrants who’ve been forced to ‘park’ themselves here with us, but who dream only of reaching your state.

    This is more or less the message that many heads of state and ministers add to their repertoire when they enter into negotiations with various powers in the European Union. Libya’s former head of state from 1969 to 2011, Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi (or Gaddafi, to the English-speaking world), said it in 2010 – the year before he was toppled and killed – when he addressed the European member states: ‘In order for Libya to stop immigration, Europe must pay five billion dollars a year. Otherwise the future of Europe will be black, and not white and Christian. We should stop this illegal immigration, otherwise Europe will become black, [...] it will change.’ This wording was more geared towards the mentality of a section of the EU’s political class and population than it was representative of his own viewpoint. At that time, the Libyan regime regarded immigration from sub-Saharan Africa as something to be exploited for financial gain rather than prevented. By 2010, the oil-rich state’s population of five million Libyans had been joined by up to two million migrants, who provided the bulk of the manual labour there.

    Turkey’s former prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, invoked a similar vision when, in February 2016, he once again demanded three billion euros a year to keep Syrian refugees on Turkish soil. However, he also tried to demand political concessions, such as Europe tolerating the Turkish government’s attacks on Kurds or on the freedom of the press. If his interests were not sufficiently satisfied, Erdogan warned on 16th February this year, Europeans would soon see that ‘we do not have the word “stupid” written on our foreheads. Don’t think that the planes and buses are sitting here for no reason. There is a limit to our patience. We will do what is necessary’. And the ‘necessary’ thing in this case clearly consisted of the refugees from the Syrian civil war, two million of whom were in Turkey, being allowed, or even instructed, to cross the borders.

    The states that some Europeans dismissively class as ‘less civilised’ are not the only ones to have mastered this game. Within the EU, high-ranking representatives of member states are well acquainted with its rules – and float similar threats on the EU’s political waters. On 3rd March 2016, for example, the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron informed Great Britain that if it should vote to leave the EU in a ‘Brexit’ on 23rd June this year, France would stop holding back the thousands of migrants living in huge slum-like camps in Calais and La Grande-Synthe on the French side of the Channel. These people are just waiting for a chance to reach the British Isles, by boat, hidden in a lorry, or on foot through the Eurotunnel, the underground rail tunnel between France and England. The French authorities are preventing them, and their British colleagues pay them to do so: 70 million euros in 2016, an amount which has just been increased by an additional 22 million euros.

    The history of the outsourced border regime

    These threats only ‘work’ because some of the richer states routinely treat other countries – geographically situated between their own territory and the main arrival countries for migrants or refugees – as ‘buffers’ or ‘holding centres’ for unwanted migrants. This border regime, outsourced to the outskirts of Europe, in which other states act as shields for the countries wanting to reject these people, has been systematised and refined over the past decade.

    On 10th and 11th July 2006, a ministerial conference in Morocco’s capital Rabat (the ‘Euro African Ministerial Conference on Migration and Development’) started the ‘Rabat process’. Fifty or so states in West and North Africa took part, in addition to EU member countries. The states involved have more or less regular joint conferences to debate the causes of flight and migration, and advise on how ‘improved collaboration on development’ can prevent emigration at its source (in cases where it is unwanted by the metropolitan states). In practice, this has proved to be nothing more than a fig leaf: generally speaking, living conditions ‘in the South’ have not improved. In fact, the opposite is true: even in a relatively stable country like Senegal, people’s opportunities in life have been cut off, as in the case of the fisheries agreement with the EU. This has seen the sea emptied of fish, meaning that the inhabitants of the coastal regions can no longer make a living. All the same, verbal declarations of intent have always served to legitimise a (one-sided) policy of isolation for the states in the North, in the name of their supposed ‘efforts to provide better living conditions for people in their own countries’.

    With more than fifty participating states, the ‘Rabat process’ may also be too ponderous to yield concrete results. At the follow-up conferences on 25th November 2008 in Paris (when France held the presidency of the European Council) and 23rd November 2011 in Dakar, attempts were made to intensify cooperation. However, fundamental decisions about the transnational migration regime were made not so much within this collective framework as in bilateral agreements between states, or between the EU and individual states in the South. In 2015, the major newspapers in France (which plays a key role due to its status as former protectorate or colonial power in Morocco and most states of West Africa) described the ‘Rabat process’ as having ‘fallen asleep’. At the same time, the driving forces of the EU are currently trying to reactivate this process, by placing a further concentric circle around the participating countries and involving even more African states in the regime of migration control.

    For this reason, 2014 saw the launch of the ‘Khartoum process’ (named after the Sudanese capital), which is an attempt to extend migration control to the North East of the continent and the Horn of Africa. This not only means trying to work with the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea – ‘Africa’s North Korea’, one of the principal countries of origin for refugees; in particular, the Islamist-based military regime in Sudan is also being strengthened. Which is ironic, as Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s current head of state (since 1989), is limited in the extent to which he can travel outside his country by the fact that the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest. In June 2015, the major powers reproached the government of South Africa under Jacob Zuma for allowing him to enter the country and, more importantly, to depart again.

    On 21st October 2015, the heads of the British, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Swedish embassies in Sudan visited a refugee camp in Wad Charifaie. The head of the EU Delegation in Khartoum, Ambassador Tomas Ulicny, took this opportunity to say that ‘more cooperation between Sudan and the EU is needed’. Supposedly, this is in order ‘better to protect’ those genuinely suffering political persecution, but the aim is also to improve border control, and to ‘offer alternatives to migrants’ – as opposed to ‘refugees’ – i.e. to those people whose onward journey towards Europe is seen as undesirable, and who are not accepted as ‘political refugees’ in the sense of the Geneva Convention. Which means nothing more than keeping them away from the Mediterranean, and thus Europe, at all costs.

    Case study: Morocco

    One of the European Union’s external borders, which was the cause of deaths and discussion even before the shipwrecks in the Mediterranean started to make headlines, runs through Morocco. Note: not between Morocco and..., but through Morocco: two enclaves of Spanish territory, which are therefore part of the EU, lie on Moroccan soil. For historical reasons, which of course have their roots in the colonial period, the cities of Ceuta and Melilla (with around 170,000 inhabitants between them) are still under Spanish (and therefore EU) administration. On the night of 28th September 2005, and again on 5th October 2005, migrants attempted mass border crossings, the first on the outer border of Ceuta, the second at Melilla. Several hundred migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, stormed the guarded border fence in an attempt to bring it down under their combined weight (or to climb over it while the guards were hopelessly overwhelmed). These techniques have been used repeatedly ever since. Fourteen people were killed in the suppression of this collective border-crossing. So far, nobody has been convicted for their deaths: Moroccan and Spanish border officials blamed each other for years.

    The deaths at Ceuta and Melilla, on an external border of the EU on the Mediterranean coast, led to a cross-border discussion on the subject among several EU countries. Demonstrations took place in several EU countries; there were campaigns, public discussions and books on the topic, creating increased sensitivity – in those circles open to it – to the problems around the occasionally lethal system operating on the EU’s external borders. In Morocco itself, however, the incidents had very different consequences. Not long afterwards, large-scale police raids began, with the arrests of black Africans (or Sub-Saharans, as they are called in Morocco’s political circles, a term greatly preferred since it refers to geographical origins rather than skin colour), who were staying in the region in order to attempt to cross into Europe. 3,000 were forced onto buses that transported them away from the border zone. At least 1,000 of them are presumed to have been set down in the desert in southern Morocco, near the border with Algeria or Mauritania – though the Moroccan authorities have officially denied this information. Nonetheless, under international pressure, these same authorities sent out search parties to find the people who had been stranded there, before they died of thirst... Observers agree that it is likely there were deaths, though of course the Moroccan authorities categorically deny this.

    Legalising the illegals

    One peculiarity of the Moroccan development is that in autumn 2013, parallel to their repressive course of action, the country’s government introduced a more or less broad ‘policy of legalisation’ for migrants living on Moroccan soil. An announcement from the palace in September of that year was confirmed and fleshed out in November 2014. The decision took account of the fact that tens of thousands of migrants – an estimated 30,000 people had been living in Morocco over an extended period as sans papiers (people without leave to remain) – had had their main place of residence in the North African country for years. They were working there, getting medical treatment there, and sending their children to school there.

    During the first few months of the ‘operation’, 6,000 people had their residency ‘legalised’. In total, over the roughly eighteen months of this policy’s duration, around 14,000 residency permits were granted. The majority of these went to ‘sub-Saharan’ Africans, although the palace included Europeans living illegally in Morocco in the measures. In particular, over the past few years more than a few people have emigrated to northern Morocco from the south of crisis-hit Spain to try their luck as artists, earning a living by performing for tourists or well-off native families. As a rule, these migrants of a different sort didn’t think to apply for residency permits, though in the eyes of the law they were just as ‘illegal’ as people from countries to the south.

    But right from the start, this policy was hugely ambivalent. On the one hand, it brought great relief for people who had in many cases been living in Morocco for years and had regular work there – those, for example, who had originally intended to go to Europe, but had got stuck in the Maghreb state long-term. At the same time, though, the EU – which usually exerts significant pressure on Morocco to make it achieve its own migration policy targets – was also on board with this policy from the start: its aim here was that it would be better able to bar the door to people wanting to travel or continue travelling to Europe, as they would be offered an alternative en route.

    On 9th February 2015, without warning, the Moroccan regime put a sudden, brutal end to its ‘legalisation policy’. The end was announced at a press conference given by Secretary of the Interior Charki Draiss. Two hours later, large police raids began in migrant camps, and arrests were made in the forests around the city of Nador. Between 1,200 and 1,250 people were arrested and redistributed in towns a long way from the border, often in the south of the country. Ten days later, 450 of them were still in police custody or being detained prior to deportation. The authorities attempted to deport groups of migrants to ten countries of origin, not always successfully.

    Dealing with people smugglers

    So-called ‘smugglers’ of migrants, active in and around Libya, are currently getting the worst possible press in Europe. Speaking on the privately-owned channel Canal + in April 2015, the French president François Hollande flatly described them as ‘terrorists’ – a term that seems to legitimise almost any action against them.

    The second phase of the EU operation EU Navfor Med began in October 2015, off the coast of Libya. Its aim is to destroy boats being used to transport refugees across the Mediterranean. A later phase of the operation intends to block overland routes leading to harbours that are used for this purpose.

    However, there is still the great question of who wants to combat the ‘people smugglers’, why, and on what charges. The figure of the businessman who operates as a migrant smuggler has two faces. On the one hand, he is providing a service for people in desperate need, which they could not access by any other means – transport across the guarded outer borders of the EU, which in places are secured by military or quasi-military means – but on the other, he is doing this for his own benefit. On Günter Jauch’s show on German television in mid-April 2015, the Syrian exile Maya Alkhechen explained that she was grateful to the smugglers: ‘This damned route was the only one left to me. And now you want to close that, too?’

    As with any structure that creates ‘access to a market’ under conditions of general prohibition, this group of entrepreneurs is trying to secure a monopoly while at the same time making the greatest possible profit. In the Eighties and Nineties, the ‘people smuggling’ business was often still run in a more or less amateurish fashion, by people who knew their way around a certain area. Since then, however, it has become industrialised and is to some extent subject to the processes of market concentration.

    Libya plays a key role here, and not only for geographical reasons. In 2014, for example, a total of 220,000 people took the sea route across the Mediterranean ‘illegally’, a good 170,000 of them arriving in Italy. Of these, around 110,000 are thought to have started their journey from the coast of Libya. The largest groups here are refugees from the Syrian civil war, and people fleeing from the Horn of Africa: from Eritrea, the hyper-militarised ‘North Korea of Africa’, and war-torn Somalia.

    The fact that many migrants’ journeys to the EU take them via Libya also has something to do with the blocking of other migration routes. Until mid-2013, Syrian war refugees travelled predominantly via Egypt, from where a sea crossing took them to the EU, landing in Cyprus or on the Greek coast. However, following the regime change in July 2013, when Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power, the tolerance shown by the Egyptian state for Syrian opponents of Assad – due to its sympathy with sections of the Syrian opposition – was savagely brought to an end. Today, Syrian refugees live in fear of being extradited from Egypt and handed over to the henchmen of the Assad regime. Furthermore, three Eritrean refugees executed in a video released on 19th April 2015 by the Libyan branch of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) terrorist group had previously been living as asylum seekers in Israel. This was reported two days later by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Since the start of April that year, the Israeli authorities had been deporting huge numbers of African refugees to Rwanda and Uganda, after these two English-speaking states in East Africa pledged to take them – and even to take non-citizens, such as Sudanese and Eritrean migrants. The three had set off to try their luck again, travelling through Sudan and Libya.


    Today it is the would-be ‘sultan’, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sitting on the south-eastern flank of Europe and facing the scene of Syria’s civil war, who is trying to take a leading role. The suggestions tabled at a summit between the EU and Turkey on 7th March 2016 all indicated a significant toughening of the policy on both sides. The Turkish government declared itself ready to commit to taking back migrants stranded in Greece as a result of an ‘illegal border crossing’ – including Syrian refugees from the civil war. Until this point, the view had been that Syrians should be afforded special protection, while other nationalities (like Iranians) were to be generally classified as ‘economic migrants’ and sent back. Angela Merkel’s suggestions at the summit included Turkey also taking back Syrian refugees from Greece, on the principle of ‘one Syrian in, one out’ – though in a second step the EU would then select those Syrian migrants it was prepared to take from refugee camps on Turkish soil. However, vocal right-wing fundamental opposition to this immediately began to build around the Hungarian head of state Viktor Orban, who does not want to take in any refugees at all and regards even this suggestion as ‘too much’.

    At the same time, the human rights organisation Amnesty International spoke of these suggestions dealing a ‘death blow to the right to seek asylum’ (even though they were ‘mild’ in comparison to Orban’s position). Amnesty claims that the Turkish authorities have also used force to deport Syrians back to Syria, and that since 2014 shots have been fired at those trying to cross the Syrian-Turkish border ‘illegally’ – currently two or three times a day, the human rights organisation says.

    Erdogan, the great political leader, who counts the strong man Adolf Hitler among the role models for the presidential system he is striving for, has also brought to the table new, exotic suggestions created in his own workshop. Thus, as he announced at the start of March 2016, he wants to create a new town specifically for refugees from the Syrian civil war – but within Syria, under the protection of foreign troops. For him, of course, this would have the advantage that he could finally justify increased military intervention in Turkey’s neighbouring country using his own troops. The people fleeing Syria are, once more, masses to be shunted about and used as bargaining chips. ‘The great leader gives the refugees a town’ – just a grotesque vision, or the announcement of an evil future?
    Bernhard Schmid was born in southern Germany in 1971, and has been a permanent resident of Paris since 1995. He is principally a lawyer (Dr. iur.), who also works as a freelance journalist and author. His specialist subjects are francophone Africa and the Maghreb, migration, far-right activities in France and Europe, and trade unions. He has written books on the Arab revolutions and on French interventions in Africa. His next publication is Front(ex)linie Mittelmeer. This article was written at the start of March 2016, and was thus unable to take later developments into consideration.

    Translated by Ruth Martin

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016
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