As European Border Agency Grows,|So Does Concern for Human Rights

     BONN, Germany (CN) – The European Union announced plans to stem illegal immigration with increased border controls and high-tech advances, despite growing concerns that this focus is dehumanizing.

     In recently adopted conclusions, the European Council affirmed that external borders should be strengthened to counteract illegal immigration. The council also welcomed regulations granting Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, enhanced powers.
     Formed in 2005, Frontex coordinates efforts of EU member states, and some non-EU countries, to control Europe’s approximately 26,000 miles of external sea borders and 5,000 miles of terrestrial borders.
     The agency has been gaining a higher profile recently. Politicians criticize it for allowing too much illegal immigration, and civil society activists denounce it for “doing the dirty work,” Francesco Ragazzi, an expert in migration at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told the Courthouse News Service.
     Established in 2005, Frontex started out with a nearly $9 million budget. In 2007, that fund shot up to around $60 million, and, by last year, the agency had approximately $126 million from European countries at its disposal.
     Frontex describes itself as driven by intelligence. The agency is increasingly turning to technological solutions, such as use of sensors, drone airplanes and databases with biometric information on immigrants, Ragazzi said.
     But this presents a problem: “They’re putting millions of euros into this without proof that it’s effective,” Ragazzi said.
     An editor for the El Paso, Texas, Spanish-language daily El Diario, compared the issue to the one that the United States confronts at its borders.
     “These programs have failed in the United States,” editor Gerardo Rodríguez Jiménez told the Courthouse News Service, adding that politicians and corporations behind such high-tech programs may be motivated above all by profit.

     Refugee Crisis and Growing Xenophobia
     The EU conclusions on immigration come in the context of a likely uptick in asylum seekers from North African countries, where popular uprisings have created difficult conditions.
     Some North Africans attempt to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in boats, which are often makeshift affairs and can sink into the watery depths.
     A European commissioner for human rights estimated that so far this year, 1,400 people have lost their lives attempting to flee Libya to Europe via the Mediterranean.
     As refugees from the “Arab spring” reach European shores, a majority of EU interior ministers voted this past May to revise the passport-free Shengen system, and reintroduce border controls between some EU countries. Any such decision would still have to make it through the European Parliament.
     Italy and France are among the countries spearheading the reforms. With thousands of miles of Mediterranean shores, these nations – along with island states such as Malta – bear the brunt of dealing with the waves of immigrants.
     Under a get-tough immigration law introduced by the Berlusconi government in 2009, Italy criminalized illegal overstays and granted national courts the power to imprison immigrants who remained in the country after being ordered to leave. The European high court shot down the policy last month.
     According to figures presented by the Global Detention Project, 20,000 undocumented migrants reached Italy by sea in 2007. The next year, that number was 36,000.
     Italy, for its part, claims the EU hasn’t helped it enough in dealing with the immigration crisis.

     Political Manipulation
     Some insiders, including António Guterres of the United Nations Commission for Refugees, say that the humanitarian issue is becoming overly politicized.
     “Fears about supposed floods of refugees in industrialized countries are being vastly overblown or mistakenly conflated with issues of migration,” Guterres said.
     Rodríguez Jiménez, the El Diario editor, agreed.
     “When the economy is bad, people become afraid – and the political right uses this fear,” Rodríguez Jiménez said, adding that crises generate votes.
     Ragazzi, the migration expert, said asylum seekers especially are considered a threat. Since they often come from countries that “breed terrorism,” they’re conflated with terrorists, Ragazzi said. And because they’re at high risk for staying illegally, they’re also pigeonholed as criminals.
     “Asylum is essentially a humanitarian problem, but we’re dealing with it in a military fashion, with big boats, big guns, big helicopters,” Ragazzi said.

     Moving Toward Accountability
     Frontex needs to be made more transparent, Ragazzi thinks. In light of increased surveillance – including use of biometrics – special consideration must be given to privacy rights, he said. And EU governments need to make sure they’re upholding human-rights treaties.
     Practices such as “push-back” agreements between Italy and North African countries have come under increasing scrutiny.
     A report by the Middle East Institute described how Italy signed an accord with Libya for the North African nation to intercept migrants on the high seas and return them directly to Libyan shores.
     Libya, unlike Italy, is not a party to binding human-rights treaties. Thus, the practice could lead to rights violations, Ragazzi said.
     According to a UN report, the returned people include asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors.
     Throughout the immigration crisis, Ragazzi sees an increasing role for Frontex. “But there’s progressively more regulation,” he said, which, he added, is a good thing.

     Increasing Border Tensions
     Rodríguez Jiménez said border tensions will become the main human rights problem in the future. He sees it as a resource issue.
     As one example, he pointed to El Paso’s neighbor across the border, Ciudad Juárez, in Mexico’s Chihuahua state. “We have the most violent city on one side of the border, and one of the safest cities on the other side,” he explained. The wealth stays in El Paso, while Ciudad Juárez remains poor.
     “Industrialized countries are militarizing themselves for crises to come,” he said, citing the continually pressing need for energy, food and other resources. “These international problems will have to be solved multilaterally.”

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