management by abandonment

Nic Beuret writes on the economic and political pressures behind border controls and the EU’s ‘Fortress Europe’ anti-migrant measures.

Each year thousands of migrants die trying to make the perilous sea crossing from North Africa to the southern shores of the EU

Countries in the EU’s Schengen open border zone will be able to reimpose restrictions to prevent an influx of migrants, EU leaders have agreed. The measure is a response to pressure from France and Italy, who have been wrangling over thousands of illegal migrants from strife-torn North Africa. The EU will now create a new mechanism for the 25-nation Schengen zone, to allow for temporary border controls.

BBC, 24th June 2011

The last few years seem to have conjured forth a rush of changes to migration control in Europe. From the return of so-called ‘temporary’ border checks to harsher frontier policing, more money and greater powers for Frontex (the European border control agency), greater border surveillance as well as tougher ID checks, new entry requirements and greater limits on total non-EU numbers. It all speaks to the fact that borders are always in constant flux. They are less city walls and more Google-like algorithms, mutating to match changes in migratory movements and capital flows.

But there are tipping points between different economic regimes, where changes double up on changes, and shifts accumulate to create new modulations in the border: new channels are created to organise the flow of people across territory, and to try to exercise control over the populations existing on either side and those caught in the middle.

This year press headlines highlighted a tipping point: headlines that say Europe is turning. Escalating xenophobia, a shift to far-right policies and harsher ‘anti-migrant’ regimes, all scream the rise of hate and a kind of ‘paranoid nationalism’. The ‘hinge’ moment was the decision by the EU to reintroduce internal border checks in “exceptional circumstances” as official EU policy. For many this seeming “end of the Schengen ‘open borders’ era” seems to mark little more than the use of hate by cynical politicians and fearful governments, a hate rising from the streets bursting through into policy. Hate alone seems to be the rational, explained as the result of the dark days of recession and fear.

But if there is a rising hatred in Europe, it is the expression of a deeper crisis, not a reaction to those who arrive without visas on Europe’s shores. This hate is the everyday expression of crisis – a crisis of hope.

We live in an age of scarcity of hope. Hope, as a material force that organises the direction of our lives and sketches the possibilities of our futures, is being restructured, becoming neo-liberal. Hope is increasingly restricted to an ever-smaller circle of people: people above the buffer of the ‘squeezed middle’. This in turn leads to a scarcity of hope and an increasing number of people subject to a life without future and by consequence without meaning. A life trapped with nowhere to go. We are living through the birth pangs of a truly neo-liberal age where meaning, hope and even the future are scarce and out of reach for most of us. But this scarcity of hope is itself an effect, and not the cause. It explains the rise in xenophobia but not the change in border regimes. For that we have to look elsewhere.

The other common explanation is the breakdown of the European Union project. As debts mount, and imbalances throw out unforeseen yet obvious consequences, Europe is being said to be descending into protectionism, beggar-thy-neighbour policies and slowly breaking apart. The punishing austerity budgets being imposed by the European Central Bank, EU and IMF on Southern European countries seem to make the case for this interpretation. But is this proof that the European project is failing? The EU states are trying to shrug off different aspects of the crisis onto their neighbors, but not as much as one might think. And not enough to warrant a reading of the current changes in border regimes as proof of it. The changes have been made too easily, with too much complicity, for them to be read as anything other than a collective project.

It was the Italian government’s granting of six month visas to the 25,000 refugees from North Africa, contained on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, that triggered the ‘reform’ of the Schengen agreement. As the French government blocked a trainload of Tunisians from crossing the border, and Danish, German, Austrian and British governments took their public stands, saying “the borders are closed”, it is this event above all that signals the possibility of the return of competing states. But this headline hides another one, speaking to the processes and events that gave birth to the reorganisation of the border in Europe.


Dozens of African migrants were left to die in the Mediterranean after a number of European military units apparently ignored their cries for help. Two of the nine survivors claim this included a Nato ship.
Guardian, 8th May 2011

Abandoning migrants to the waves of the Mediterranean has always been part of European border policing. 1,500 people have died attempting the crossing this year alone. But this deliberate policy of exposure to death has intensified in recent years, recently reaching another public apex with the deaths of dozens of migrants, apparently in front of both Italian and French state agents in May 2011.

Until recently these practices of abandonment acted to make the crossing riskier and more precarious, reflecting the lives that migrants would be expected to live once they arrived in Europe. But these deaths are no longer just a matter of shaping and disciplining a migrant subject – a process of conflict between ever-proliferating series of governmental institutions and migrants contesting the border regime – but halting the flow of ‘illegal’ migrants altogether. Less a filtration process and more of an application of the ‘Australian’ model that seeks to deter so-called ‘on-shore’ migration entirely.

One could say that this was the meaning of the ‘return’ of internal border checks in the EU, as a shift from the management of migrant flows and the shaping of them as economic subjects to the deterrence of ‘illegal’ migration – migration not managed through the targeted visa application processes (which, themselves, are becoming more restrictive) but born from the desires and needs of migrants themselves.

To understand this change, we have to remember that borders rarely aim to entirely stop the movement of people that cross them; they modulate the flows, filter them and shape them to the needs of the economy making people more or less precarious, more or less illegal, more or less dependent. Borders, like the world of high finance and international banking, both tolerate and need a certain level of illegality, a certain shade of grey to operate.

Like the movement of speculative capital, the flow of bodies without papers into the EU during the boom years helped generate spectacular profits and rising affluence for a section of the European professional classes by creating a cheap workforce that both reduced the cost of production through lower wages and increasingly took on the task of reproducing the ‘local’ population through care work, health and beauty services, sex work and industries like the cleaning and food processing industries.

This is not to say that everyone benefited – clearly they did not. ‘Illegal’ migrants are specifically used to hold down wages and undermine established working conditions. But, as has been amply catalogued elsewhere, without the tolerated illegality represented by these migrants, the boom would not have occurred (at least not in anything like the same way).


With the financial crisis all this changed. The end of the neo-liberal boom in 2008 caused both temporary and permanent unemployment to rise. Not just in Europe but globally, as the cost of basic goods like fuel and food skyrocket and national economies collapsed. It is this increasing surplus humanity that can be seen not just in the geography of the world’s slums and refugee camps, but can be traced in the figures of higher unemployment, changes to the social wage that eject people from the labour market and the rise of increasing numbers of ‘NEETs’ in Europe ‘not in education, employment or training’

Europe now has to contend with a surplus humanity within its own borders – a humanity surplus to its economic needs. There is not sufficient work to control these people, let alone those who cross into Europe looking for work. It is this that is at the heart of the transformation of the border regime. From the refugee camps and slums of the global South, a surplus humanity is moving. They are joined now by a rising surplus population within Europe – from the ghost towns of 80s, the marginal suburbs of the cities and the swelling ranks of the young without hope. Europe, as a project, cannot manage both. And so it chooses to sacrifice those ‘without’ Europe in the waves of the Mediterranean as they ultimately are less of a threat. Greece looms over Europe as an example of a population enraged, as an image of collapse both of the economic processes of Europe and its governance. So Europe exports the problem of ‘being surplus’ to places of lower social cost.

We can see then that this surplus humanity – inside and out – is the real threat to Europe; as much a threat as stuttering financial flows and bad debts. At the same time, the rise in hate can be seen as a violent recognition of the coming end of economic security and social mobility, and a retreat to those imaginary collectives and solidarities that offer some hope for security, however false. There can be no fair migration regime in this moment. Nor will there be a return to hope. For many their life has become superfluous to the needs of capital, and only containment or death awaits the ever-growing number of  people left behind. Abandonment has become a general condition of life in Europe. On both sides of the border, people are already being managed by being cast aside. But abandoned by economics, all that is left is politics. The very question of life itself has become central – what is a life worth living, where, with whom and who has the right to grant or deny it? Or, more importantly, who has the power to deny it and what sort of struggle is required to create such a right?