By Elisabetta Deidda
In 2019, the European Commission approved Croatia’s entry in the Schengen area, despite the allegations – acknowledged by the Commission itself – of violence and pushbacks happening at the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)[i]. I asked “why” to a Commission representative during an online event recently hosted by RRE. His answer was quite elusive, but I did not expect to receive a different one, because it would have entailed an admission that the respect of fundamental rights is not a priority for the European Union when it comes to enacting border control.
The external borders of the EU are bloody, and the evidence sustaining this statement never-ending; it is collected on a daily basis by activists[ii], volunteers, and people on the move themselves stubbornly holding on to the belief that fundamental rights of all should be respected. When violence happens at the borders, there is the risk of mistakenly regarding it as a “marginal” phenomenon, and to attribute it to the people living at those margins . In this short article, I will try to counter this tendency by tracing this violence from the periphery where it happens, back to the centre where it stems from: the very heart of the EU.
The context is that of border management, aimed at stopping unwanted people from entering the EU after they have been increasingly framed, in recent years, as a threat to the security of the communities residing within the border. This depiction is extremely misguided but is nevertheless often accepted within the wider public opinion and the political class, including by so-called “progressives”. In turn, this widespread acceptance increasingly legitimises the use of violent instruments and methods against a perceived “threat”, aimed to stop, exclude, and reject human beings.
What makes things easier for the “excluders” is the fact that border management takes place, indeed, at the borders: a periphery where things unfold “out of sight”, and thus out of mind, of most Europeans. However, the EU, in the Balkans, has managed to push border management and the dirty job it entails even further than its borders, through a process called externalisation.Through externalisation states or other entities, like the EU, dislocate the implementation of a certain policy outside of their own territory.
As for the “how”, it can be explained with an unequal power relation between the two parties (that which externalises, and that in which externalisation takes place), or with the existence of an agreement for which the externalisation is rewarded and repaid with something else. In the case of BiH and other Balkan countries, to which the EU has externalised its border management since the start of the so-called refugee crisis, both explanations are valid[iii].
In relation to these countries, the EU has enormous bargaining power, tied to the promise of future inclusion in the Union. BiH, for instance, is currently a “potential candidate”. The path towards full membership is still long and depends on the steps taken to conform the legislation to EU standards. Many of these steps are described in the 2015 Stabilisation and Association Agreement; needless to say, they include “cooperating” with the EU in the areas of migration, asylum and border management.[iv]
This Agreement paved the way for turning BiH into a buffer zone where people moving towards the EU could be obstructed from reaching it. Outsourcing the management of migrants and refugees to BiH has had dramatic consequences: from Vučjak camp to Lipa, the latter built to isolate people on the move during the coronavirus pandemic. And where at this very moment, refugees are subjected to extremely dire conditions.[v]
The EU looks at all this with false indignation,[vi] while underestimating its role in generating this situation. People are stuck in BiH because the frontier with Croatia (and with the EU) is closed, and they are kept there with EU funds, that crucially are not entrusted to the Bosnian government but to IOM, a non-state organisation which as such cannot be held accountable by the public for the way in which it operates.[vii]
Besides the actual implementation of border management, the EU has managed to externalise the responsibility for the violence that comes with it. It is important to not fall into the trap of thinking that violence at the borders and in the regions across them does not concern the EU simply because it happens outside of its territory. Paying someone else to do the dirty job the EU does not want to do itself, does not erase its responsibility – it is rather a sign of hypocrisy.
Does it still make sense to talk about “fundamental rights”? If this situation showed anything, is that fundamental rights for how they are commonly conceived – undeniable and shared by all human beings – do not exist in practice. Their existence is denied daily at the EU border and in the places charged with implementing border management on its behalf.
Human rights cannot be respected in the current system because this would mean contradict the externalisation regime itself and its main goal: to keep unwanted people out. What needs to change is the whole EU approach to migration, something that neither BiH, Serbia, nor Libya can do. A responsibility that cannot be outsourced.
[i] See the “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the verification of the full application of the Schengen acquis by Croatia”, especially pp. 13-14 at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/docs_autres_institutions/commission_europeenne/com/2019/0497/COM_COM(2019)0497_EN.pdf
[ii] For the Balkan region crucial is the work carried out, among others, by the Border Violence Monitoring Network: https://www.borderviolence.eu/ and by the independent activists of Transbalkanska solidarnost: https://transbalkanskasolidarnost.home.blog/
[iii] I here take BiH as an example because it is the country on which I focused in my Master’s thesis, where the issues treated in this article are discussed more in-depth. The thesis is available here: http://liu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A1445745&dswid=501
[vii] See Mlinarević and Ahmetašević contribution on this at https://ba.boell.org/sites/default/files/people_on_the_move_in_bosnia_and_herzegovina_-_21-02-2019_-_web.pdf especially pp. 40-46
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.