Something vital is missing from EU’s 10-point plan to stop deaths at sea

A refugee displays an image of one of his three children who drowned when the boat on which the family fled the war in Syria sank in the Mediterranean. EPA/Pete Muller

The unprecedented loss of life in the Mediterranean in recent weeks has forced European leaders to confront the crisis of deaths at sea. But will they take a fresh look at their governments’ own role in producing these fatalities? Or will they persist with a failed approach that projects responsibility for deaths exclusively onto people smugglers?

Announcing the European Union’s emergency 10-point plan, foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that avoiding migrant deaths in the Mediterranean was a moral obligation of the EU. However, this moral awakening seems not to have prompted any genuine soul searching that could provide new thinking about the ongoing calamity.

Consistently defining the problem of deaths at sea in terms of people smuggling, and its more sinister counterpart of human trafficking, is politically expedient for governments. It provides an analysis that seems self-evident. It supplies a visible and easily reviled culprit.

Most of all, this approach deflects attention away from earlier stages of the migratory process where offshore border controls established by these same governments have already done their work by denying access to regulated modes of travel for those who need it most.

People in need of help left with few options

Missing from the 10-point plan is any indication that European governments will reflect critically on how their own policies are fuelling demand for unsafe modes of travel. These are effectively channelling people to their deaths.

If European leaders were serious about preventing deaths they would insert an 11th point in their plan: “Reduce the demand for irregular modes of travel by dismantling the invisible barriers we have created to accessing safe, legally regulated cross-border transport.”

The world’s attention is understandably focused on the dramatic endgame of these migratory struggles through the visible spectacle of sinkings, rescues, military interdictions, detentions and arrests. However, the real work of border control is carried on in ways that are relatively invisible and seemingly innocuous.

The advent of information technology has enabled technologically advanced governments to extend their border controls beyond their own territories. They have created a virtual border of risk-based visas and electronic pre-boarding checks. This prevents many “high risk” (aka desperate) people from boarding commercial flights and ferries that are heading their way.

An asylum seeker arriving in Europe in the 1970s or ’80s would have encountered European border officials for the first time when they stepped off a ship or plane, with or without a visa. Today, the virtual border immobilises or redirects most of them long before they get that far. This often has serious consequences for both their immediate safety and their search for long-term security.

Due to the relative invisibility of these pre-emptive measures, sovereignty is effectively being exercised by stealth. This invisible border is therefore an extraordinarily efficient and unaccountable form of power.

By shifting the locations at which travellers are selected for entry or exclusion, the virtual border shapes travel opportunities in powerful ways that may be difficult to track. This has significant implications for people seeking international protection.

Virtual borders: dehumanised and unaccountable

The virtual border is an example of new forms of governance that are emerging in the digital age. These operate through networks of information exchange with devastating efficiency and impact. Social theorist Pat O’Malley has dubbed these technology-mediated filtering mechanisms “telemetric policing”, as they are emptied of human content and operate at a distance.

Despite protests such as this one in London on April 25, European leaders face little political resistance to closing off many avenues of escape to asylum seekers. AAP/Newzulu/See Li

He notes that systems of telemetric policing are likely to generate relatively little political resistance. They therefore evade traditional forms of democratic accountability, since the exclusions they enforce are largely invisible, being “buried in the transactions of everyday life”.

In relation to border control, telemetric policing operates through transnational digital networks. These effectively impose a system of global apartheid in relation to mobility. The effects become visible only when individuals seek to challenge their exclusion by evading these controls, often with fatal consequences.

Still, the virtual border is rarely exposed to scrutiny and condemned for the over-reach of sovereignty it represents. This is because the spectre of people smuggling can be invoked to provide a simpler explanation and a more obvious and immediate villain.

Human rights and root causes neglected

European NGOs have implored the European Council to show leadership by opening safe and legal channels of movement. They have expressed their dismay at the persistence of EU governments in maintaining their people-smuggling rhetoric. The EU human rights commissioner has added his voice to calls for the urgent creation of safe migration routes.

The resulting resolution of the European Council has reiterated the “managed migration” message of strong action against people smuggling alongside burden sharing and attention to root causes. Although it acknowledges that safe routes are needed, it has once again left unexamined the damaging effects of the invisible border and the presumed right of European states to express their sovereignty offshore.

If lives are going to be saved, all factors leading to deaths at sea need to be openly scrutinised. This includes the largely unseen virtual border that fuels the visible problem of irregular travel and sinkings, for which the war on people smugglers is then invoked as the solution.