Two incidents that occurred in the past couple of weeks have gotten me thinking about borders. On the fifth of February, fifteen men from sub-Saharan Africa lost their lives attempting to gain landfall at Tarajal beach, near Ceuta. Spain’s Civil Guards have a serious case to answer in regard to these deaths: the men were coming under fire from plastic bullets as they tried to swim ashore. Then, on the ninth of February the Swiss people decided in a referendum to limit the number of immigrants from European Union countries entering their country.
So, in southern Europe we see the employment of brutal methods to repel the tidal wave of immigrants arriving from Africa and the Middle East, while in central Europe, the richest of the rich are closing their borders to their neighbours. Is this lockdown to be the theme of the twenty-first century?
In a way, one would not blame the citizens of Ceuta from feeling under siege. The city, along with Melilla and some other small parcels of land, form a series of “sovereign territories (plazas de soberanía)” belonging to Spain and located on the African mainland. These territories have been Spanish since the Reconquista, the centuries-long period during which the Christian Spanish reconquered the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic Moors, who had invaded in 711. The territories were strategically important during the times of the Barbary pirates and more recently when Spain decided to have its own piece of Africa and seized control over a slice of Morocco and the Western Sahara. Now the territories are in the eye of a storm of immigration and I have heard quiet rumblings along the lines of “Why don’t we give Ceuta and Melilla back?” But how do you give something back that has been part of your country for 500 years? And who do you give it back to? Morocco as a state didn’t exist 500 years ago.
Both Ceuta and Melilla have kilometer-long, six-meter-high fences separating them from Morocco. In spite of these structures being topped by razor wire — a source of controversy in the Spanish press — and round-the-clock patrols by troops of armed Civil Guards, 4,235 people managed to climb over them in 2013. As well as individual illegal crossings, there were 41 large-scale “assaults” on the fences. It was during one of these mass onslaughts, carried out via the sea rather than overland, that the fifteen men were drowned.
What happens to the men (for they are mostly young men) who manage to reach Spanish soil? They are kept in detention centres in Ceuta or Melilla until attempts are made to repatriate them. As one can imagine, these centres are working well beyond capacity. It has been amid an atmosphere of “something must be done” about the increasing numbers of mass onslaughts upon the borders of Ceuta and Melilla that the Civil Guard opened fire on the large group of men swimming towards Tarajal beach. While the intention of whoever gave the order to fire rounds of plastic bullets at people swimming towards the shore was undoubtedly just to repel them, surely the men’s safety, regardless of them being illegal immigrants, should have been paramount to the authorities. For the moment, the Spanish government is standing full-square behind the actions of the Civil Guards in Ceuta. Territorial integrity is winning the battle against human rights and duty of care.
To the north, in the heart of Europe, the Swiss (or at least the 50.3 percent of voters who voted Yes in the referendum) are starting to worry about the increase in numbers of fellow Europeans wanting to live in their country. With high levels of unemployment in the European Union’s southern states, Switzerland has become an attractive destination for Portuguese, Spanish, Italians and Greeks. There will now be quotas on how many of these may enter the country. While every nation must decide upon its own immigration policies and no-one would deny Switzerland the right to formulate a rational policy for the benefit of its citizens, the referendum might ultimately land the small country in hot water with its neighbours.
Switzerland is an island of neutrality and non-European Union membership in the middle of the continent. Going back several decades, Switzerland has signed a number of accords with the EU which give it EU membership in all but name. It has access to the single market (or rather its cheeses, clocks and pen-knives do!). Its citizens also have freedom of movement within the EU. Post referendum, there is now a sense of the Swiss wanting to have their cake and eat it. When the referendum makes it onto the law books in a couple of years and Switzerland begins refusing EU citizens entry, what will be the latter’s response? What will happen to the 450,000 Swiss that live and work in EU countries. Will the referendum turn out to be a cuckoo decision?
There is a sense that all over Europe the Right and Far-right are beginning to make political capital from anti-immigration policies. According to Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch populist, the Swiss result is “fantastic” and he has urged his country to implement a similar policy. Joining the queue to board the bandwagon are Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, Germany’s new anti-single currency party, Alternative for Germany and Austria’s, Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom party. Even in Britain, a country that has seen brisk but relatively harmonious immigration for more than six decades, David Cameron has been proposing very similar measures to those given the nod by the Swiss. The question is: how packed could the anti-immigration bandwagon become and how much under siege could the heretofore defining EU principle of freedom of movement between member states become?