From the Moroccan coast to Poland, from Cyprus to The Canaries, every day thousands of people attempt to abandon their countries of origin and reach the European continent. The whole way along their route they are confronted with the same repressive strategy: the same barriers and persecution, the same racism and violence.
One might think that these people who cross oceans, deserts and mountains, hostile territories and foreign countries, are victims of misunderstandings or police excesses: but this is not the case. The immigrants who try and reach Europe are held back by practices, objectives and measures ingrained at the very heart of European institutions and approved by individuals elected by European citizens. They are confronted with a type of inhumane violence and repression which we would tend to associate with dictatorial states, but all this has been decided “democratically”.
It is called “Frontex”, the combination of measures of control over migration movements towards Europe. It includes the military ships who patrol the coastline, the frontier at Melila and Ceuta [Spanish enclaves in North Africa], the detention centres which stretch across Europe, and the deportation charter flights on the planes of companies like Iberia and Lufthansa. But it also includes the persecution of immigrants across the continent, from those who seek schooling for their children, to those shot by police in the surburbs of the big cities, and to quarrels with the border services and the imposition of DNA tests to identify family members. This also includes – now, and ever more so – the use of diplomatic relations with states bordering with the EU, so that they might assume the most odious of repressive roles against immigrants, with the multiplication of detention centres in the Maghreb [north-west Africa] and the killings in Morocco these last few years.
Migration control of this amplitude could never be put into effect purely using legal and institutional methods, meaning that state repression has to tolerate – if not more or less secretly co-operating with – organised crime in such a manner as to guarantee that those immigrants who manage to slip through the net of these controls nonetheless remain invisible in the destination country, illegal, dependent and obedient, always at risk of deportation or reprisals against their families.
Far-right xenophobic propaganda, the more subtle racism of institutions (from school to government departments) and media sensationalism set the tone and orientate people’s thinking towards legitimising all sorts of repressive measures against immigrants. All of this, which is taking place in Europe and within our own borders, deserves, without exaggeration, to be described as a war going on. It is a war in which the enemy is constantly built-up as much as possible as a threat to social harmony, a source of disruption, characterised by some irrationality which distinguishes it from European citizens.
“The border” has always been, at the same time, a line drawn on paper; a tool of military and repressive power; a discourse legitimising violence based on the superiority of the colonisers over the colonised; and a constant means of constructing collective identities able to support profoundly unjust social relations.
Historical episodes can illustrate the nature of “the border”, but they are insufficient to explain the processes currently at work. Through its very dimension, today’s migration phenomenon assumes new and until-now unknown characteristics. On the other hand, the techniques of control, conditioning and repression are more sophisticated than ever previously, lending the border a material reality which it had never had before. This material reality seems impossible to bypass, since its ‘arm’ stretches as long as necessary, it can see everything that might be seen, and its legitimacy is unquestionable.
Indeed discourses on immigration which seek to combat xenophobia and racism tend to incorporate the language of the adversary and accept borders as something more and more necessary. They speak of rights to negotiate, of the promotion of integration, and of excesses to be corrected. Of the need for “Europe” to have “immigrants to do the jobs Europeans do not want to do anymore” and to “solve the demographic imbalance”. Of respect for their “identity and difference”. Of the need for “an immigration policy”, able to associate the needs of the state with care and respect for immigrants. These well intentioned arguments, by honest and generally fairly courageous people, however conflict ever more untenably with the reality of an open war against immigrants. In each struggle they take a defensive and grovelling position, by which they hope to win rights, calling on government to recognise the need and convenience of introducing a touch of “Christian spirit” in the treatment of immigrants.
The development of the combination of repressive measures under the name “the border” starkly displays the wide political consensus in the European Union concerning the need to control the flow of immigration and to make illegal the movements of the overwhelming majority of people trying to enter the continent. The border is an instrument allowing them to regulate the flow of migration consonant to the needs for manpower for industry and services, but also an argument allowing them to widen police powers and proliferate “exceptional circumstances” creating areas where legality is suspended and the relations of force are a given. The “war on terror” and the proliferation of possible “threats to domestic security” is a calculated exploitation of fear and xenophobia against Muslims, and even reinforces this development, sanctioning the militarization of the southern European border and turning the waves of the Mediterranean sea into a graveyard.
But with the strengthening of borders and state powers, the whole of society is militarised. The border is not only the limit of the national territory, but also a police force specialised in controlling immigrants and a special bureaucracy to deal with foreigners. This is its logical development: the banalisation of the separation, within each country, between citizens and those excluded from citizenship, the banalisation of the granting of different rights depending on where one is from, and the banalisation of an “apartheid” whose nature becomes totally explicit with the denial of nationality to the children of immigrants now being born in the “welcoming” country. The border is a whole programme whose functioning pervades, and vests the authority of, the combination of social relations. Without this it is impossible to understand the nature of racism, xenophobia, police repression and the nature of the state.
The destruction this September of a camp situated in Calais, where immigrants from the Middle East and Central Asia heading for Great Britain were staying, was a sad episode revealing the cynicism behind the pious discourse of exporting democracy to Afghanistan and the legitimacy of the NATO military presence.
The camp, known as “the Jungle” was put up as the consequence of the shutting-down of a Red Cross reception centre. Having ordered the closure of the centre in 2002 – it supposedly served as a “magnet” for illegal immigrants – the French government via its Interior Ministry now justified itself with the argument that it was not a humanitarian camp but the fiefdom of people traffickers. The logic is crystal-clear: telling people who have nowhere to go that they cannot stay where they are, effectively criminalising their very existence. “The Jungle” was what we might call a “no-man’s-land”, like so many other temporary camps erected secretly by clandestine immigrants along the borders they hope to cross.
In destroying it (at the request of the British government) the French government attempted to make its residents non-people, undesirables forced to go one way or the other, not granted the right to stay where they are, even temporarily or in order to decide where to go next. They persecute them like wild animals, conscious that concentration in numbers could lead to communication and co-operation, or that the force of events would produce a community, and, with that, the risk of resistance. Once more it reveals the plasticity of what have come to be known as “borders”, which openly and increasingly assume the character of a repressive tool operating throughout the territory.
Those who take such decisions do not believe they can – in spite of what they say – stop migratory movements and still less combat the intermediaries who profit from their prohibition.
It is not as if there is some gate to shut to keep out the crowd camped around the walls of the city. This image, which structures the conservative and xenophobic agenda of the forces governing Europe, is just as false as the arguments used by the French government. The pretence of transforming the continent into a fortress – a dystopian fiction which drives the political debate on immigration – limits itself to clocking up tragedies and corpses, in an endless war no-one will draw the curtain on.
It is not the migrants who cross the borders: it is the borders which cross them. “There will be other Jungles”, a 16-year-old Afghan boy said to The Times journalists. He may well be right, as long as this cruel state of affairs continues. Surely it will not be Karzai’s democracy which makes it desist.
In this context the struggle against this process cannot limit itself to denouncing this or that abuse, or demanding this or that right, or defending this or that group of immigrants. We must reject the logic at the core of “the border”: the separation between individuals according to the sovereignty of states. Combating the oppression of immigrants demands realising that this separation is desired and constantly constructed by those in power. Promoting, in the opposite sense, communication and cooperation between those who the borders separate means rejecting the defensive position of appealing to government, and assuming an offensive stance by which we collectively set out our own terrain, imposing its presence independent of the needs of institutions. Collectively disarming the state, dismantling the logic by which it acts, invading the public space, taking the streets and making visible what “the border” intends to keep in the dark. There is a war going on against immigrants in the European Union. In this we are all potential targets, but also irregular combatants. In this, we are all ‘illegals’.