Since the EU was established, the borders between its member states have been dissolving. Yet at the same time, its external borders have hardened – an approach widely known as ‘Fortress Europe’. Even for those fleeing persecution, entering the EU has become increasingly impossible for most refugees. As a result, many have been forced to take more dangerous routes, with a corresponding rise in the number of dead or missing people as desperation leads them to seek out smugglers and puts them at risk of human trafficking. Fortress Europe does not stop at its actual borders, but goes deep into neighbouring countries or even further in some cases in an attempt to create a buffer zone through a web of agreements, funding, detention centres and naval patrols.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right (1948)
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
This is what is written in the founding document of the modern international human rights framework. But do countries follow these words? Not really.
Across the world, for instance by the EU, the US and in Australia this human right is breached for people coming in search of better opportunities or sanctuary. Or both.
Recently also the motivation to plug the borders has been transformed. While before it was as much about minimizing the number of people illegally living or working in respective countries, nowadays many countries including the EU, USA or Australia, are more concerned with avoiding being obliged to take in more people as refugees, fulfilling their commitments based on conventions, protocols and other documents they are signatory of (Geneva convention 1951, the UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees 1967, the Treaty on European Union, Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights).
Since the establishment of the European Communities (later evolving into the EU), the borders between its member countries have steadily dissolved and under the current Schengen system – an arrangement challenged by the travel restrictions set up between countries to contain spread of the coronavirus, but still holding – many young Europeans have never had to experience border restrictions as such. Such a luxury to have a strong passport.
At the same time, the EU has been hardening its external borders, particularly since the so-called refugee crisis in 2015/16 – a strategy known as ‘Fortress Europe’.
For people in search of better opportunities or seeking sanctuary, Europe – wealthy, relatively free, with many job opportunities and settled diasporas – was a common and logical destination. But while it is not a new phenomenon, the crisis in 2015/16 made the issue much more visible and presented a picture of migration as a largely unmanaged process. While the number of people put in place then to prevent entry are still in place.
As a result, it is now even harder for migrants to enter the EU, irrespective of their motives, including the need to apply for asylum. Despite the fact that the EU as well as its member states have committed to allowing people to exercise this human right. This harsh approach has led to refugees taking more dangerous routes to reach Europe and consequently a rise in the number of dead or missing en route.
A little known fact about Fortress Europe is that it actually does not stop at the physical borders of the EU but goes deep into neighbouring countries or even further (Sudan is one example). Increasingly, the EU and its member states have attempted to build buffer zones in countries upstream of migration routes, such as Libya and Turkey, to ensure that irregular migrants wishing to reach Europe are not even able to approach its borders.
These approaches can take various forms, often in the form of agreements between countries: for instance, Morocco is paid by Spain to do much of the dirty work of militarizing its border, including naval pushbacks of boats heading towards the Spanish mainland and periodic raids on migrant camps near the Spanish enclaves on Ceuta and Melilla. Other measures include building reception and detention centres for migrants and refugees beyond the EU borders without proper access to asylum procedures, funding and training coast guards as ‘development assistance’ and so-called ‘readmission agreements’ with neighbours or countries of origin to enable European states to easily send back those who managed to reach the EU.
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, more commonly known as Frontex, is based in Warsaw, Poland and oversees the implementation of EU-wide migration policy. It provides up-to-date data on migration patterns to and within Europe that is useful for journalists. You can, for instance, look at the common routes taken by irregular migrants in its migratory map.