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Stop the War on Migrants: The Role of Society in Reversing the EU's Unsustainable Migration Policy

Last week, PanDam brought to you an investigation into FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. FRONTEX has been forging a worrying friendship with arm and technology companies, a friendship which has led to the establishment of an European migration policy which fails to respect human and migrant rights. This week we bring to you Stop the War on Migrants, a Netherlands-based collective working to expose and reverse this worrisome relationship.

Stop the War on Migrants started at the end of 2017, when a group of people gathered to discuss possible actions against the migration cooperation between the EU and Libya: a cooperation which saw the EU closing an eye to the atrocities happening in Libya’s detention centers. As Mark, a member of the collective, tells me: “after some deliberation we identified the militarisation of the European borders (and beyond) as one of the main problems of European migration policies, for which there was not much attention at the time”. Indeed, Europe’s failure to develop a respectful and sustainable migration policy, one with human rights at its core, boils down to FRONTEX’s love affair with the arm lobby, which is pushing for ever-more militarized, wide-spread and macabrely technological borders. The Netherlands is also home to two of the largest, European arm companies -Thales and Airbus- which are major profiteers of border militarisation, and important players in the industrial lobby pushing for this process. “Thales and Airbus became our primary targets,” explains Mark.

“We believe in a world without borders, with freedom of movement for everyone, and we hope that we will contribute in changing the course of Europe’s current migrant policies, thus bringing about a freer, fairer and more humane world,” says Mark. Stop the War on Migrants has no connections with any state organizations or funding: they voluntarily and independently spread information, run campaigns and take direct action against the main actors involved in Europe’s border militarisation. It is through their Instagram page that I came to learn about FRONTEX’s doings: a disheartening reality which puts at stake the whole value system of my much beloved European Union.

The border-free utopia we enjoy in the Schengen Area is in very sharp contrast with what is happening at the edges of this fairy-tale world. ‘Fortress-Europe’, they call it, referring to the “extensive infrastructure the EU has built to keep or get refugees out, with its pillars of border security, border control, migrant detention and deportations”.

As we demonstrated in the data-driven investigation published last week, FRONTEX is making use of border control technologies which pose serious human rights concerns. In support of the Dublin Treaty, for example, FRONTEX established Eurodac, the European fingerprint system. Collecting migrants’ fingerprints is a huge breach of privacy, a concern which was never discussed, and serves only to ensure that these individuals cannot move freely throughout the European Union, forcing many of them to remain stuck in countries like Italy, where documents take years and years to be issued. FRONTEX is only looking to expand its use of biometric technology, for example by installing facial recognition equipment, while continuing to refuse to address the ethical and privacy concerns brought about by these machines. They are also looking into new, controversial strategies aimed at predicting migration flows, such as using social media to catch groups and individuals who intend to migrate to Europe.

FRONTEX’s mandate and powers are furthermore expanding: the FRONTEX personnel is now allowed to carry hand-guns, and the Agency will be buying its own vessels, vehicles, airplanes, drones and radars, thereby breaking free of its dependency from Member States’ equipment. Once again, these enhanced powers are not being questioned from an ethical and human rights perspective.

Mark clarifies that we are also seeing the emergence of a new pillar in Europe’s border policy: expansion. “It is important to note that the expansion of the fortress has become another pillar of these policies: the EU tries to externalise its borders to pressure third countries into becoming outpost border guards, preventing refugees from reaching the external EU borders in the first place”. To this end, the EU is looking to include more third-countries in its Eurosur platform: a surveillance system that enables Member States to share information regarding what is happening at their borders. This information will allow them to stop migrants before they even reach the borders of the EU. FRONTEX is furthermore offering non-EU countries increasing border control training -for example in the detection of new immigration routes, or the use of false documentation- and equipping them with new technologies.

I asked Mark what, in his opinion, Fortress Europe tells us about the value and nature of the European Union: “The EU is a capitalist union, with ‘Fortress Europe’ as one of its means to maintain and expand its power and wealth, at the expense of the rest of the world. The values the EU ritually says it honors and follows, such as the respect of fundamental rights are, in the area of migration, merely window dressing. You can hardly read any official document on migration in which the passage ‘in full respect of fundamental rights’ doesn’t pop up, but it means nothing. This becomes even more clear when it comes to the EU partnerships with third countries: the Union has no problem giving border security and surveillance equipment, money and training to authoritarian regimes and human rights violators, which often do not only target migrants with the equipment and support of the EU, but also their own populations. In the long run, the EU is legitimizing and strengthening such regimes, and fueling the reasons people are forced to flee in the first place”.

The policies that the EU is implementing to suppress and limit migration are counterproductive and unsustainable. If anything, they will only increase the number of people forced to flee. However, in the opinion of Mark, “we will have to see a lot more repressive migration policies and practices, and it's horrible consequences” before we learn this lesson and develop a new approach to migration, one which is truly respectful of human rights.

The European Commission, the European Council and national governments are most directly responsible for these policies. Despite the increasing proof that is being collected against FRONTEX, and the rising skepticism towards this Agency’s integrity, the European Union has awarded FRONTEX the highest budget for 2021-27: €5.6 billion. However, in the words of Mark, “fundamental change won’t come through governments, parliaments, court, or even large institutionalized NGOs. Fundamental change can only come through pressure and action from civil society”.

To this end, Stop the War on Migrants has organized a rich variety of actions and protests. Many of them targeted Thales, one of Europe’s largest arms companies, responsible both for arms exports worldwide -including to countries at war or with internal conflicts and authoritarian regimes- and for supplying the equipment for Europe’s border militarisation and externalisation. It is also involved in producing biometric identification equipment, even more after its acquisition of Gemalto, a market leader in this area, a few years ago.

Against Thales, Stop the War on Migrants has already engaged in many activities. When the company signed up to present itself to the students of the Technical University of Delft, on occasion of a career day, STWOM stood outside the event, holding banners and handing out fliers. They wrote a variety of letters to organizations and events being sponsored by Thales, requesting them to end their relationship with the company immediately. The Stadsschouwburg theatre in Hengelo was the most high profile organisation sponsored by Thales, which no longer renewed its sponsorship agreement with the company. When the government issued an arms export license allowing Thales to export €114 million worth of radar, command and fire control systems for new military vessels to Egypt, STWOM joined forces with Stop Wapenhandel to organize actions at various Thales locations. In Huizen for example, together with the Anarchist Anti-deportation Group Utrecht (AAGU) and the Vrije Bond Utrecht, a picket line -joined also by Egyptian migrants- was set up.

Most recently, when the Thales-produced OV-chipcard readers in Amsterdam’s public transport were replaced with newer ones, STWOM replaced posters in bus stops with their own posters about Thales and its role in border militarisation. This action got a lot of support, with people voluntarily printing more copies and hanging them up in their own neighbourhood.

“We think everyone should take their own responsibility, based on their own possibilities and limitations, to work for change. We don’t like to tell others what to do, but there is a broad range of activities to choose from, from writing letters and talking to your neighbours, to organising demonstrations, from putting up posters to blockading government and company buildings, to handing out leaflets against deportations to regular passengers travelling on the same flights,” tells me Mark.

The institutions and member states of the European Union seem to have forgotten the values by which they stand, their duty to put human rights at the core of everything they do. But perhaps we, European citizens, can come together and remind them.

Photo Credits: Stop the War on Migrants Instagram

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