KNOCKING HOLES IN FORTRESS EUROPE
The wind blows in from the sea. It sweeps huge waves onto the beach and over the flat sand dunes, attempting the impossible climb up the steep-sided mountains. Along the mountains’ ridge, a line of turbines spin as if greeting the gusts of air. This tall forest of hi-tech forms a canopy over the dry undergrowth of the mountain slope, olive groves and cork woods.
Tarifa is called the capital of the wind. The small town sits on the last spur of the Spanish mainland, jutting out into the straits of Gibraltar. Everything here is in movement. And this is not only due to Poniente and Levante, the two winds from the west and the south-east that are whipped up into a funnel between the mountains. It’s because of the two different types of travellers who are equally dependent on the wind.
Since the mid ‘80s windsurfers from all over the world have been coming to Tarifa, and tourism has become the main industry of the former fishing town. At around the same time, the first illegal immigrants also started coming ashore in their small wooden boats known as ‘pateras.’ In the beginning, the inhabitants of Tarifa thought that the poor Africans just couldn’t afford the expensive ferry trip. Nowadays, in July, the high-season of illegal border crossings, up to a thousand people a night make the risky ten-mile trip from Tangiers, in Morocco, to Tarifa.
Depending on your point of view, the area around Tarifa is either an open door to Europe, or one of the many holes in the walls of ‘fortress Europe’. In early July 2001, a couple of hundred activists from all over Spain and Europe pitched their tents at Rio Jara, a campsite in the far south of Spain, for one of the summer’s five ‘noborder camps’. Each camp consisted of a week of workshops and debates, raves and demonstrations, spontaneous actions and networking.
Alongside Tarifa, noborder camps also took place at the Polish-Belorussian and Slovenian-Croatian borders, in front of the G8 meeting in Genoa, at the Frankfurt International airport, in Tijuana at the US-Mexican border, and recently in Woomera in front of a refugee camp in the Australian desert.
The overall goal of the noborder camps is as literal as it is metaphorical. Borders are hacked using all available tools and media, permanently shifting perspectives, with a heterogeneity of approaches, serious motivations and an illegitimate portion of humour.
This year, from July 19–28, Strasbourg will be the scene of the first Europe-wide noborder camp. Planned last December by delegates from activist groups in 17 countries, Strasbourg was chosen because it is home to the central headquarters of the Schengen Information System (SIS) – not for its reputation as the capital of European unity.
The database, situated in one of Strasbourg’s unimposing middle class suburbs, is clearly one of the key instruments in the implementation of a postmodern, electronic border regime. It contains masses of person-specific data, partly on criminals alone, but mostly on refugees and migrants who were rejected at various borders or who are threatened by deportation. After the protests of Genoa and Göthenburg, it has been subsequently extended to notorious political activists.
Above all, the SIS represents the way in which governments and EU-officials are envisioning the process of unification. The more the harmonisation of migration laws, planned after the 1999 Summit on Justice and Home Affairs in Tampere, fails or happens only on paper, the more the transnational and post-governmental control systems proliferate, apparently without constraint.
THE APPARATUS OF BORDER CONTROL
These days the EU authorities have given up on the harmonisation plans which, for a long time, seemed to be the last hope of NGOs, lateral think-tanks and a handful of far-sighted politicians: indeed a Europe-wide harmonisation would entail abolishing some of the most disgusting laws like the German ‘Residenzpflicht’, which forbids asylum seekers from leaving the district where they have been registered with an immigration office. The tremendous growth of the repressive machinery of surveillance and control correlates to an increasingly apathetic form of politics that responds to the non-isolatable effects of global capitalism with short-term measures born of panic management.
The European migration regime remains true to the doctrine of exclusion, based on the fiction of its development into a zero-immigration territory. New migration laws in Germany and France rest upon the principle of preventing immigration, although a certain number of privileged immigrants (experts and labourers in various growth areas) are also admitted. The main instrument used to implement this regime remains the systematic and general illegalisation of migrants entering the territory for whatever reason. But the law itself can do nothing but regulate and legalise it’s own transgression, either temporarily – in the asylum system – or, after the fact, in legislation used to legalise hundreds of thousands of undocumented inhabitants.
Only two years ago, even the EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, António Vitorino, acknowledged that Europe had lost its battle against clandestine migration. ‘Europe must avoid repeating the zero immigration mistakes of the past,’ he said, concluding with surprising precision, ‘Restrictive laws have done nothing to halt the flow of clandestine migrants.’
Indeed, the estimated number of at least half a million illegal border crossings into the EU each year proves the autonomy of a migration movement which overcomes fences and barbed wire, ignores infrared cameras, defies plastic handcuffs and dragnet controls. It spans oceans, continents and skies.
VICTIMS VS AUTONOMOUS MOVERS
Yann Moulier Boutang is a Paris based researcher and theorist. In contrast to the beliefs of neoliberals and their adversaries, who both see migration as a logical result of the movement of capital, as its unsavoury after-effect or appendix, Boutang stresses the autonomy of migrants: ‘Migration does not mean the action of an isolated, a-social, expelled individual. Its social and subjective dimensions appear in its independence from the political measures that try to control it.’
That notion of autonomy and independence constitutes what the authorities, who tend to stubbornly ignore the realities of labour mobility, persistently denounce as ‘organised crime’. Of course migrants have to get organised in order to cross ever more patrolled borders and ever tighter controls. Of course they have to make use of the expensive and increasingly risky services of traffickers. But the subjectivity of migrants and their right to have rights is systematically denied by both.
Either migrants are hypocritically seen as victims – a naïve, humanitarian view displayed by the European authorities on the occasion of the Dover tragedy in August 2001, and repeated each time a large number are detected in a truck or on a boat. Or, alternatively, the fear of migrants is invoked as the pretext for the institutional refusal to deal with the political facts. The underlying economic logic is simple: migrant labour has to be cheap and is therefore illegalised – not vice versa.
But, the price people have to pay to offer their labour on a globalised labour market, remains high. Every year hundreds or thousands lose their lives on the way to a better future. These uncountable deaths are not only senseless, but also remain unreported and invisible, unless they can be used by the authorities to assist in criminalisation campaigns.
‘WHERE IS MARCUS OMOFUMA?’
A report by the Council of Europe states that at least ten people have died since 1998 in EU countries in the course of forcible deportation. Between 1998 and 1999 Semira Adamou, Marcus Omofuma, and Aamir Ageeb died aboard aircrafts while being forcibly deported from Europe. All three were killed by police officers who suffocated them in order to prevent any last possible resistance to their systematic denial of the right for freedom of movement and settlement.
Three years later, the killers are starting to appear in court. In Brussels, lawyers of the relatives of Semira Adamou – who died after a pillow was pressed to her face for over half an hour – and the human rights association Ligue de la Droits de l’Homme were able to gain a small victory. The judges decided to send five of the policemen involved in the deportation of the asylum seeker back to the court of arbitration.
In Austria, three deportation police officers stand accused of torturing a prisoner with fatal consequences. Marcus Omofuma was bound and gagged with tape for the flight from Vienna to Sofia in one of Balkan Air’s planes. Austrian activists who are currently observing the trial, report: ‘In order to carry out the deportation, the officers concerned had a so-called set consisting of a roll of sticking plaster, a roll of adhesive tape and Velcro fasteners. Colleagues had bought it privately because it was not an item in the official budget. No one thought of claiming reimbursement for the expense, they were handed down from one deportation officer to the next. According to the statements of the accused, the practice was never mentioned in official reports even though it was common practice amongst the deportation officers.’
‘Where is Marcus Omofuma?’ is the rhetorical question artists and activists from Vienna have been posing at political demonstrations and performances all over Austria this spring. They see the trial characterised by a denial of responsibility, reversing the roles of victim and perpetrator: ‘Whenever Marcus Omofuma was mentioned it was as a berserk, aggressive, screaming, resistant person making bestial noises. He became the culprit, inflicting himself on the poor, unknowing police officers who were only doing their duty.’
Consequently, the penalty remained lenient. This April, a district court found the three policemen guilty in the death of the Nigerian immigrant during his deportation, and gave them suspended eight-month sentences. The court in Korneuburg found the policemen guilty of negligent homicide but acquitted them of torture leading to death, punishable by a maximum of ten years in prison. Omofuma was also found to have a share in the guilt since he resisted his own extradition. Judge Alexander Fiala said that none of the defendants had a criminal record.
Since 1999, activist groups from all over Europe have been responding to the series of killings on aircrafts with a broad campaign under the umbrella of the counter-brand Deportation-Alliance. The related project Deportation.Class assembles image pollution against the major European airlines – such as Lufthansa, British Airways, Iberia and KLM – that are also the main expeditors of deportations, and has become a role model for a new human rights activism.
The specific tactic of the campaign entails finding the weakest link in the deportation chain. It initially set its sights on the Lufthansa corporation, whose worldwide network of routes enables them to deport people to any country on earth.
The activists merely played the role of communications guerrillas, conserving their strength so as always to appear where the enemy least suspected them. In actions that were more like performances than traditional political demonstrations, the activists took every opportunity, from simple pickets to an online-demonstration at the annual shareholders’ meeting, to denounce the practice of transporting deportees on commercial flights. Such collaborations, in which activists from more than twenty European countries have been linked together in order to discuss and reflect campaigns like ‘Deportation-Alliance’ or the noborder-camps, have as little to do with mere exchange of information as with claims of representation. This co-operation takes place on the basis of the enormous differences that persist, despite all harmonising efforts, within EU policies on migration and asylum.
Instead of enforcing unification, the activists networking on a European level are trying to create multiplicity: experiences should be shared, talents represented, and knowledge exchanged. Those who work together quickly notice how fruitful it can be to share capacities and resources in order to solve problems, carry out joint actions, begin collective processes, coordinate with other networks, and constantly re-coordinate one’s own activities.
Borders establish personality and create or alter subjectivity. Illegal border crossings create brutal breaks with the past: professors are turned into cleaners, people with countless talents and enormous experience become refugees and migrants, compelled to tell stories to the authorities of flight, torture, persecution, starvation, and misery which conspires to pigeonhole them – even in the rhetoric of well-intentioned supporters – into the role of the victim.
EVERYONE IS AN EXPERT
At the February 2000 computer convention CEBIT in Hanover, after a quarter-century-long, loudly-trumpeted policy of zero migration, and with an increasingly brutal regime arrayed along EU borders, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared that an acute shortage in qualified personnel in the IT sector demanded a liberalisation of Germany’s complicated laws on foreigners.
The call for ‘Indian IT experts’ made the rounds throughout Europe in a matter of weeks, and soon other sectors of the economy joined the protest against institutionalised hostility towards immigration, which until then had only been whispered hands. Politicians and administrators reacted with confusion to the new situation. The results in Germany were a host of new policies that added to the chaos of already existing laws, and a number of election campaigns featuring despicable wordplays such as ‘foreigners we can use not foreigners who use us.’
The effect of the debate has been merely symbolic. Only a few thousand foreign IT experts have been hired in Germany in the past two years. Instead, other industries made claims for equal treatment, demanding the privilege of hiring temporary, low-wage employees from abroad. Early this year in Germany, another exemption was made for nursing staff, while in most European countries the use of migrant labour in the domestic, restaurant, construction and agricultural industries is already a matter of course. As much as the situation may vary between the over-exploitation of Maghrebian farm workers in the south of Spain and janitors from Eastern Europe, these kinds of employment all suffer from a systematic denial of basic labour rights – a denial sustained merely on the basis of workers’ precarious residency status. This situation sheds a relatively favourable light on the ‘guestworker’ status granted to immigrants in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
‘Everyone is an Expert’ is the slogan of a new campaign which is trying to update the double negation ‘no one is illegal’ – the title of the German network started in 1997 at Documenta X’s Hybrid Workspace. It’s turning the latter’s simplicity, redundancy, and necessary understatement into a political tactic of over-affirmation. Everyone is an Expert may seem at first glance to be a tactical exaggeration, one which also plays upon Joseph Beuys’s proposition that ‘everyone is an artist’. In the first instance, the project is attempting to establish a database, allowing people who have been legally excluded from the official labour market to publicise their knowledge and skills and thus to achieve a social respect systematically denied to them by institutions and the economy.
The Everyone is an Expert project is characterised by voluntary, self-determined associations, blurred relations, rich diversity, and a multiplicity of tactical and strategic contexts, all of which draw attention to the incalculable differences and holisms of all productive practice. The plan is to develop a kind of open source job centre, comprising of various ‘splice areas’ that are open, mobile and universally accessible, in order to link people who possess or are looking for a wide variety of skills. In the meantime, the intrinsically connected issues of freedom of movement and informational self-determination have emerged at the forefront. Anyone wishing to use the database Everyone is an Expert has the opportunity to input multimedia or digital self-portraits into the system without regard for profitability, usefulness, identity, or confirmation. Every expert gets a free email address ‘@expertbase.net’ and a limited amount of free ‘expertspace’. The project is presently running as a test-version, which was designed and presented in cooperation with the artist Shu Lea Cheang at the Make World festival in Munich last October. In the forthcoming version, the ‘expertbase’ will be hosted in a van equipped as a mobile device for further field trials and test runs.
Khalil is one of the thousands of experts who made it across the sea from Tangiers to Tarifa. He points to a spot on the beach where the mile-long sandy beach turns into rocks, while the sun sinks behind some bushes. The last windsurfers are lowering their sails and a runner is jogging on the wet sand. Two lovers are meandering in the shallow water. Out of shot, Khalil voices over this idyllic scene: he talks about the feelings he had the night before, when he was the last of 53 passengers to jump from a boat into the water; about people’s fear of capsizing during the dangerous crossing; about his misgivings over not arriving in Europe at all, but in some other part of the Moroccan coast; about his wet clothes, which made him freeze and hindered every movement; about how he fell into the water while he was helping to heave up the side-board motor before they set out from a small bay near Tangiers.
Khalil comes from Casablanca where he was studying at high school. That’s how he learned English – apart from which there was nothing to offer him a future. Khalil is a football player and has devoted his life to sports. Just before graduating he packed in school, somehow organised $1,000 for the border crossing, and started towards Europe. He is thin and weak, but this can hardly subdue his relief. ‘Today I am the happiest person all over the world,’ he says. He is lucky, because he was helped – without counting on it and without paying for it. It was his great fortune, when he had just arrived and was hiding in between the shrubs, to meet a man called Nieves. Nieves is a local teacher and initiator of a large network of local inhabitants who support illegal immigrants, however and whenever it is possible.
First published in Mute magazine, May, 2002, online version at www.metamute.com.
about Florian Schneider >>