Protecting Europe’s borders

Protecting Europe’s borders

From Jeremy Landor in London, Middle East international online, October 12th, 2005

At least 11 refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa died in late September and early October after being shot or crushed during a number of mass attempts to enter Europe by breaching the fences which encircle the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in northern Morocco.

Five men were shot dead while attempting to penetrate the fence around Ceuta on 29 September, leading to rioting among the large community of homeless migrants camped on the Moroccan side of the fence. It remains unclear whether Moroccan or Spanish forces did the shooting. The dawn attempt to enter Europe over a wall of cement and steel 8-10 metres high using homemade ladders was the second in as many days by the growing number of desperate refugees. A number of attempts to break into both Spanish enclaves had taken place during the summer.

The attempts intensified in the following days, despite both Rabat and Madrid despatching additional security forces to the scene. Some 700 people stormed the barrier outside Melilla on 3 October, 200 of them getting through, and another 500 made the attempt two days later. Clashes the following day between migrants and Moroccan troops led to six Africans being shot dead as another thousand or so people tried to breach the perimeter fence.

For those who make it into Spain, subsequent arrest usually means being sent back to Morocco, whatever their nationality, according to the terms of an agreement the two countries signed in 1992 but which was only implemented in early October.

As the crisis has intensified in recent days, both the EU and UN have announced they will send teams to the area to evaluate the situation. But the truth is that Europe is using Maghreb states to keep African refugees out of Europe. The authorities in Libya and Morocco bully and expel them, often sending them to face the death, torture and hunger that they are trying to escape.

Ceuta and Melilla

In a forest near Morocco’s border with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, encampments have been set up by destitute Africans, some of them with children, at Bel Younech — as close to Europe as they can get. The Moroccan police launch regular attacks on the camp, making arrests, taking food, destroying huts and conducting beatings.

Those who are arrested are taken to the Algerian border, from where most of them arrived in Morocco. Medecins sans Frontières reported on 7 October that 500 migrants had been recently abandoned by Moroccan police in the Sahara with neither food nor water.

There are estimated to be as many as 600,000 sub-Saharan refugees in Algeria, most of them from west and central Africa.

A group of European NGOs has launched a campaign calling on Moroccans and Europeans to condemn this treatment of African refugees. A French activist told MEI: “The Moroccan authorities are responsible for these attacks, these expulsions, but Europe is also to blame. People are injured, starved, others drown off the Spanish coast or under the axles of a lorry. It is a choice that European leaders have made.”

Roland, a refugee from West Africa, is, like many of those in Bel Younech camp, well educated. He used to work as a civil servant. “We are ordinary people,” he said. “All we are asking is for a normal life, to work, to have a family.” Like many others, he was forced to leave home because his life was in danger; others say they fled because they and their families could no longer find the means to survive.

Research earlier this year found some 2,000 people living in forests near the border with Melilla. Mostly young men, 38% of them had finished secondary school, 24% had been to university. Some had spent years in the camp. Some met the criteria for political asylum, the majority were trying to find jobs so their families could survive back home. Many of their companions had died in the desert on the way through Mali and Algeria.

Last January, just before a visit by Spain’s King Juan Carlos, the authorities destroyed the entire settlement and expelled the residents towards the Algerian border. This allowed the Moroccan government to claim they were doing their bit. The refugees returned and rebuilt their camp in Gourougou or walked 500km to Bel Younech.

In 2003, for the first time, the number of sub-Saharan African clandestine migrants crossing the Straights of Gibraltar exceeded the number of Moroccans — 23,851 to 12,400. But since 2004, the number of refugees caught attempting the crossing has fallen because patrolling and electronic monitoring have become more effective. But reinforcing security around Europe’s borders simply pushes the problem further south, say campaigners.

Morocco chartered five planes between November 2004 and March 2005 to deport African refugees to Nigeria, and new measures have been proposed to increase penalties for those who try to enter, or leave, the country illegally.

Libya leads the way

Libya has also been heavily involved in this endeavour. It signed an agreement with Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi last June to hold African refugees in detention camps to prevent them trying to cross into Europe. The policy was first mooted by British Prime Minister Blair, who suggested “transit centres” be established outside Europe’s borders in 2003. It was then discussed at the EU summit in The Hague at the end of 2004.

The head of France’s Information and Support Group for Immigrants (GISTI) called the policy “the most symbolic example of European cynicism… externalizing its asylum and immigration policy by getting third countries to take responsibility for the flow of migrants before they arrive at its borders”.

Critics say that the EU has no formal basis on which to engage with Libya on migration. There is no political partnership between the EU and Libya, nor is Libya part of the Barcelona process. There is no way to hold Libya to “the common values of the rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights” on which political dialogue is based.

GISTI considers the real cause of the tragedy which trans-Saharan migration has become to be “the higher and higher barriers built by the rich countries to obstruct those who are fleeing poverty and conflict”.

The unpublished report of the visit of an EU delegation to Libya in December 2004 has fallen into GISTI’s hands. It points out that Libya has not signed the Geneva Convention on refugees and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has no official status there. Non-Libyans, including refugees, are likely to be picked up by police, thrown into camps and expelled en masse, the delegation found.

In spite of this damning report of violations of natural justice and basic human rights, EU governments decided to “continue to intensify cooperation with Libya”. Amnesty International has warned about the lack of human rights protection in Libya and UNHCR says that the country is “not safe” for asylum-seekers. The European Parliament warned in a resolution in April that Libya “practises arbitrary arrest and detention… the detention, massive repatriation of foreigners in conditions which do not guarantee their dignity or survival”.

All this has been ignored. Libyan frontier guards are to benefit from a €2m training programme and will then be integrated into European sea patrols. But, ask human rights activists, what will happen to those captured as they attempt to enter Europe across the Mediterranean? Will they be sent to Libya, then be deported to countries where they are in danger?

For the EU, the rights of refugees are secondary to this policy, says GISTI. “These serious obstacles to human rights exist far from the gaze of European citizens.”