Europe's Deadly Borders An Inside Look at EU's Shameful Immigration Policy
Along the frontiers between Spain and Morocco, Greece and Turkey and Hungary and Serbia, the EU is deploying brutal methods to keep out undesired refugees. Many risk everything for a future in Europe and their odysseys too often end in death.
Green dots and lines document the course of the border on wall monitors in the situation room of Fortress Europe, on the 23rd floor of a skyscraper in Warsaw. Klaus Rösler, 59, a German police officer and 40-year civil service veteran, is in command. He uses terms like "storm on the borders," "risk regions" and "overcoming crises." Rösler is the director of the operations division at the European border agency, Frontex, and he makes it sound as though his agency is defending Europe against an enemy.
The green dots identify refugees who have been apprehended. The dots are small and sparse between the coast of West Africa and the Canary Islands. They become more dense in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. The sea route between Libya and Italy is almost entirely green.
Rösler has worked as a senior official with the German Federal Police in Macedonia, at the German-Czech border and at the Munich Airport. He took the position at Frontex in Warsaw in September 2008.
For a long time, there were only a handful of politicians in Brussels with an interest in the work at Frontex. The agency has been beefing up Europe's external borders against an influx of refugees since 2005. But now the civil war in Syria is creating millions of new refugees, and the next exodus is beginning in Iraq, as the terrorist group Islamic State continues to make inroads into the country.
In the Mediterranean, the Italian coast guard picks up desperate people from rickety vessels almost daily. In Germany, close to 20,000 people applied for asylum in July, the greatest number in 20 years. Some 200,000 refugees are expected to arrive in Germany this year.
A Question of Europe's Values
Given such numbers -- given the images of over-filled boats in the Mediterranean, border fences and overcrowded intake centers in cities across Europe, the question of the European Union's border policy is becoming a question of the EU's character and values. When 387 people drowned last October in a disaster off the Italian island of Lampedusa, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström called it a "horrible tragedy." The coffins lined up in a hanger at the Lampedusa airport were incompatible with the image "we Europeans have of ourselves," German President Joachim Gauck said in Berlin in late June, as he urged the EU to accept more refugees. Many citizens feel compassion for those who embark on the dangerous journey to Europe.
Nevertheless, the policies of European leaders have not changed since the Lampedusa calamity. The Italian coast guard and navy have frequently rescued boats in distress since last October, when operation Mare Nostrum began, bringing about 70,000 people onto Italian soil. But there was another disaster in late August, when 200 refugees died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean in a decrepit wooden boat. Italy has also announced that it will end its rescue operations, which cost the country 9 million ($11.7 million) a month, saying it wants Frontex to take over. A division of the border agency called Frontex Plus will now assume at least a portion of the Italians' duties, although funding remains unclear.
Rösler coordinates Europe's defenses against migrants. His agency's annual budget has skyrocketed from roughly 6 million in 2005 to almost 90 million today. On Frontex's recommendation, EU countries send police officers and equipment to border regions. Under the Frontex mandate, officers from Germany, France and Romania jointly patrol Europe's external borders.
According to Rösler, Frontex's job is to control migration rather than prevent it. But the agency's success is based on how effectively it defends Europe against irregular immigrants -- and, therefore, potential asylum seekers.
The organization analyzes data from national border agencies including Spain's Guardia Civil and the Greek coast guard. They count illegal border crossings and collect information about traffickers and migration routes. Under Frontex leadership, the EU launched a new 340-million program last December to monitor its borders with the aid of drones and satellites.
A Staggering Death Toll
One number that Frontex does not record, however, is how many people die on Europe's external borders.
A consortium of European journalists found that more than 23,000 people have lost their lives while attempting to reach Europe in the last 14 years.
In Greece, refugees report abuse by coast guard officers. Hungarian prison doctors systematically administer sedatives to keep refugee camp inmates calm. Moroccan soldiers mistreat migrants camping out on the border with Spain. Aid organizations have documented these incidents.
Frontex is almost never involved in such human rights violations, and yet almost all of these incidents of brutality occur within the agency's sphere of influence -- and involve methods that make a mockery of what Europe represents.