On the Frontline: Vulnerable Borders – Thinking ‘The Arab Spring’ and the European border management together

On the Frontline: Vulnerable Borders – Thinking ‘The Arab Spring’ and the European border management together

Amade M’charek

On the 5th of March 2011 I flew to Tunisia to get a sense of what had happened in the past months. In the company of my young daughter and my best friend we went to visit my father in the south of the country. Upon arriving, in the morning, and being curious about the changes that had taken place, I suggested to drive to the city. My father came running, urging us to take blankets, matrasses, water and bread with us. I frowned. “Well, you see, we have all these refugees from Libya and they need help” [1]. Together we started filling our small van with stuff from our house. At the next store we bought bread and water.

Arriving in the city center, we first visited a school where hundreds of men, guest workers from Egypt who had had to leave Libya, were hanging around waiting to hear whether there would be a flight home. Outside local Tunisians were carrying huge pots with the lunch meal inside the school. After delivering half of the goods, we drove further to a cultural center nearby. Many more people were hanging around. Apparently tired, dreaded or restless. We entered the center and we found ourselves in the main theater room. Filled with men: sleeping, walking about or having conversations in a dim voice.

Something must have been said. For before I knew it, I found myself in an animated discussion with a growing group of men, first discussing the situation in Libya, then in Tunisia, but pretty soon addressing me in a harsh tone, asking me: where is the international community? How come, said a local Tunisian, are we the local people the sole caregiver for these people? Why don’t you go and report on that? It might have been my western habitus, but somehow they took me for a journalist. I indicated that I was not a journalist, but simply there to bring some food and blankets. We went on debating the political situation. As we walked out of the center I was baffled precisely by the fact that we just had an open and engaged political conversation! Something has indeed changed.

But how did the international community respond? How did Europe respond? Obviously Europe is not one and I do not wish to singularise or essentialize it. Indeed the responses varied. From sheer disbelief, to enthusiasm or fear. But here I want to focus on one instance of formal European policy and practice: its border management regime. I will do so by attending to the concept of vulnerability. Contrasting the revolution and associated events in the Arab world to the European border management regime, many different in/vulnerabilities are at stake and enacted. Here I will restrict my self to one exemplary version.

In the context of what is now called ‘the refugee crisis’ and in the aftermath of Paris and Cologne, vulnerability has been a recurrent theme. In fact it figures prominently in European policy. It does not come as a surprise that it is not the vulnerability of the refugees or even that of European citizens that is central, but rather that of Europe’s borders.

When in January 2011 the people of Tunisia took the streets: “Ben Ali, degage!”, and when streams of people started to flee the country, Europe responded swiftly. In February the European external border control agency, FRONTEX, sent out a press release headed “Hermes 2011 starts tomorrow in Lampedusa”. While the revolution was going on in Tunisia and was spreading to other Arab countries, it was the security of Europe that was on top of the EU’s agenda. Couched in a language of haste and emergency, the European border management regime was to be reassessed at high speed. Herme-2011 was specially designed to protect the southern Mediterranean border against irregular migrants. While one of the tasks of FRONTEX was to control vessels carrying migrants on open seas, and to pre-screen intercepted migrants, Europol was also active as to help Italian authorities to identify possible criminals among those who reached the Italian coasts (Carrera et al 2012). The refugees were thus criminalized and made into illegitimate border-crossers. An Italian governor agued that they were “illegal clandestine, wearing brand-name sneakers and Western looking jackets and holding mobile phones in their hands”, and thus cannot be considered eligible for international protection” (Campsi 2011: 6).

This makes clear that whereas the refugees were articulated as invulnerable, “bogus asylum seekers”, or criminals, Europe and in particular the European borders are the vulnerable entities here. The “Lampedusa crisis” has initiated a change in the mode of border management. A change that has taken even more radical forms in the last two years in response to the streams of Syrian refugees. Last December the European Commission has proposed a far-reaching “Border Package”, a “truly integrated system of border management”, in the form of the European Border and Coast Guard, also called “the Agency”. The tasks of “the Agency”, in which a prominent role for FRONTEX is secured, go beyond the management of the external borders. “The Agency” will have its own equipment, huge resources, including a 1000 permanent staff-members (more than doubling the numbers of FRONTEX), and a “monitoring and risk assessment center” that will conduct mandatory “vulnerability assessments” to identify and address weak spots in the borders. “The Agency” as, it is conceived by the Commission, has a dazzling broad mandate, jeopardizing the sovereignty of member states. And this is the very reason that many member states (especially in the southern and eastern areas of Schengen) are blocking the proposal. This means that the proposal will be watered-down in some ways. But the direction and the current public debates do not suggest that its future is that uncertain.

As has been observed the proposal is protecting borders rather than people. It is paramount, however, to see that borders do not separate worlds. The impact of the Arab revolutions is not out there but also in here. The border management regimes are not simply about excluding those who we consider other or not belonging here but they implicate us, European citizens. We are included in many different ways, but here is a crude example. One of the mandates of “the Agency” is the intensification of the systematic surveillance on European citizens entering and exciting the Schengen Area. At the border the biometric passport data should be compared to various databases (“Schengen Information System, the Interpol Stolen and Lost Travel Documents Database and relevant national systems”). The rationale for this: “It is estimated that 5,000 EU citizens have travelled to conflict zones and joined terrorist groups like ISIS. When they have come back to Europe, some of these returning foreign fighters have been involved in recent terrorist attacks.”

While the proposal concerns all European citizens its focus in our days is on the ethnic other. So much is explicit in the press release announcing the proposal for “the Agency”: “In response to the recent tragic attacks in Paris and the growing threat from foreign terrorist fighters, the Commission has swiftly taken action to accelerate work and implementation of measures under the European Security Agenda. Today’s proposal responds to the need to reinforce security controls at the EU’s external borders.”

This measure will inevitably lead to ethnic profiling. Because whereas the checks at airport will be comprehensive, it is advised that: “If, however, systematic checks at certain land or sea borders would have a disproportionate impact on the flow of traffic […m]ember States can, based on risk assessments, decide to carry out only targeted checks.”

Casting the borders as vulnerable leads to a particular framing of the problems that are surfacing in the Arab world and Europe since the early 2011. As a result of this the border has become the matter of concern: the prime locus to manage the people wanting to enter Europe as well as those who are already in it, including European citizens. This focus on the border has taken a perverse bend in the recently implemented deal between the EU and Turkey. Turkey has been allotted 3 billion euro’s provided that they keep the border to the EU shut.  While the policy language is about “providing better care for the refugees and improving the management of the stream of people”, it is common knowledge that on the ground in Turkey the situation for refugees from Syria has been devastating.

Rather than a concerted effort to improve the shelter and lives of refugees, the deal can be seen as an externalization of the problem, that is, the problem of leaky European borders. Ironically the UNHCR refugee camp Choucha in the south of Tunisia that was opened late February 2011 to provide shelter for refugees from Libya was shut in 2013. Despite pleads from various organization to keep it open, it did not receive support from Europe. The metaphor of ‘spring’ suggests a clear temporal beginning and ending, yet the effects of the Arab revolution are more durable. While the focus on borders seems to suggest a separation between worlds, acknowledging its entwinement may provide better options to act in the exceedingly complicated reality of the day.


Notes and References:

[1] More than 1 million refugees left Libya of which 400,000 were Libyans. Tunisia admitted approximately 250,000 refugees (Carrera et 2012: 3).

Campesi, G. (2011). The Arab Spring and the Crisis of the European Border Regime: Manufacturing Emergency in the Lampedusa Crisis. Fiesole: EUI Working Paper.

Carrera S., Den Hertog L., Parkin J. (2012), EU migration policy in the wake of the Arab Spring. What prospects for EU-Southern Mediterranean Relations?, MEDPRO Technical Report No. 15/August 2012.

Amade M’charek is Professor of Anthropology of Science in the Department of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam.