Report from ‘Fortress Europe’: the annulment of the right to asylum by the European Union and its Member States

The latest accusations against Frontex for human rights abuses are the culmination of a process of dehumanisation, also with pushbacks, Lipa and Moria as its manifestations – as well as the little known EU Migration Pact presented by the Commission in September.

What remains to be said about this? All those with an interest in the subject know about the situation in the camps in Greece and Bosnia. They know about those deliberately abandoned to their deaths in the Mediterranean – and they know the Croatian border police continually carry out pushbacks towards Bosnia. All those with an interest in the subject know that both the Geneva Refugee Convention and the Declaration of Human Rights are largely dead law in the EU. While all those who don’t want to know will continue to reject any knowledge of it. And those who know all this and defend it invoke undefined European values and culture – values that clearly do not include human rights and the general rule of law.

There are, though, a few facts that are less well known. The key features of the EU Migration Pact, for instance. The Commission finally presented its suggestion in September and there is no appearance of agreement yet. On the one hand, this shows that a common EU asylum and migration policy is unlikely to come about in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, this is good news.

A Pact against asylum and migration

This is because what the Pact ostensibly includes is, for the most part, a considerable worsening of the already atrocious conditions. Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President of the European Commission, chose the extremely apposite metaphor of a "three-storey house" when referring to the Migration Pact. [1] The aim of this constructional analogy is that as few people as possible end up on the uppermost floor.

The first floor consists of partnerships with non-EU countries that aim to encourage people to stay where they are. Previous activities in this regard suggest that it is a matter of protecting borders and preventing movement rather than of improving living conditions long-term, which is the only way to achieve the single aim of this Pact in the short term – keeping people away from the EU. Improving living conditions is not brought about through development aid – even if this is better financed and organised than previously – but only by an end to the exploitation of the global south. Clear and easily enforceable interests of capital oppose this.

The second floor consists of even more heavily reinforced external EU borders, with extensive checks in terms of health and security, including registering fingerprints. A fast-track procedure at the border lasting a maximum of 12 weeks is envisaged for people from countries with a low rate of recognition. Anyone who is aware of the flaws even in asylum procedures that last significantly longer than this can imagine just how completely this type of fast-track procedure will deal with asylum claims. It will doubtless achieve its goal, however.

Nonetheless, should refugees manage to get to the third floor, solidarity between the Member States will be invoked. It goes without saying that mention is made once again of the introduction of common standards for asylum, which has failed spectacularly for decades and has led to the asylum lottery for which refugees risk their lives. Given the current conditions, it may be that this lottery is still better than a shared system whereby everyone loses out. Since distributing refugees across Member States is simply unenforceable, the issue is supposedly solved by means of financial transfers: countries that take on refugees receive money; those who do not, pay. Countries that do not allow entry to any refugees but instead finance the deportation of asylum seekers from other countries – a system the EU Commission terms ‘return sponsorship’, a ‘new form of solidarity contribution‘ – are especially cynical. At the same time, Member States are called to act in line with their bilateral relationships and support other Member States with deportations. Here, too, a change is planned from an unworthy lottery to a system where everyone loses out – except for Fortress Europe. For the sake of orderliness, the single benefit that the Migration Pact provides should also be mentioned: the totally absurd Dublin Regulation – which stipulates in the first sentence that refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they enter and thereby enjoins considerable inequalities in the asylum system on the basis of geography – has been modified. If refugees have family in a Member State or were already legally resident there the procedure shall then take place in that location.

Frontex: more money for human rights abuses

The Pact also provides for Frontex to be upgraded. This took place before the Pact was even concluded, however. In December 2020, a new regulation stated that Frontex is building a "permanent reserve" of 10,000 uniformed personnel for which it plans to procure its own equipment – including aircraft, ships, vehicles and drones. The latter are to be used first and foremost in the Mediterranean and will be equipped with

"cameras, thermal imaging cameras and daylight spotters that can independently detect moving targets and keep them in focus. Additional equipment will include systems for locating mobile and satellite telephones. The drones are also designed to receive distress call signals from devices sewn into modern life jackets."[2]

Six billion euros have been set aside for this purpose.

This costly equipping of Frontex is taking place at the same time as the publication of numerous instances of human rights abuses and corruption by Frontex via documents known as the ‘Frontex files’.[3] Among other things, Frontex is accused of inciting human rights abuses with relatively clear evidence – e.g. in the case of a boat of refugees in the Aegean, where the Frontex pilots were instructed to leave and the boat was then pushed back by the Greek coastguard into Turkish water. Frontex Director Leggeri points the finger at misunderstandings in this instance. The fact that, to date, Frontex has not even started to recruit the 40 human rights observers the agency is committed to, however, speaks volumes about its lack of interest in elucidating these types of "misunderstandings" [4].

It appears highly improbable, therefore, that new, expensive equipment for saving refugees will be installed; rather, it is still about repelling refugees – no matter how high the cost, whether financial or in terms of human life. Those profiteering from this situation are the weapon producers, with whom, according to the Frontex Files, Frontex continues to meet. They provide the funds to prevent refugees entering the EU. The regulation also provides for the information gathered by Frontex to be made available to neighbouring states such as North Africa. This facilitates illegal pushbacks or pullbacks (preventing travel outside a country) and, increasingly, further impedes the work of NGOs in supporting refugees in the Mediterranean, such as the Watch The Med Alarm Phone.

No right to an asylum procedure

These pushbacks are not only taking place in the Mediterranean but also on land, especially along the Balkans route. Pushbacks by the Croatian police are documented at length – in their full brutality that leads to refugees often landing back in Bosnia with severe injuries and without their clothes and mobile phones. In one of the poorest countries in Europe, with overcrowded camps lacking sufficient supplies and a number of "wild" camps. The weak state of Bosnia-Herzegovina is as incapable of looking after the refugees within the country as its numerous subnational entities with their partially overlapping and unclear competencies. IOM (International Organization for Migration) and UNHCR run camps like prisons and evidently invest more money in safeguarding than in provision of necessities. Without the continued support of numerous Bosnians, as well as international NGOs such as SOS Balkanroute, the situation would be even more desperate than it already is. Despite these civil society initiatives, however, hundreds of people are spending the winter in tents in the fire-ravaged camp of Lipa in the Bosnian mountains.

Bosnia finds itself in the unfortunate situation of being a non-EU state located at the gates to the EU. Thus, the country not only has to cope with the consequences of Fortress Europe’s policy, but is also rendered responsible for the refugees’ poverty: in a statement published recently, even Amnesty International criticised Bosnia’s refugee policy almost exclusively and only mentioned the necessity of setting up secure escape routes to the EU as an aside.[5]

Exclusion and inclusion

This demand has a long history – and has been fruitless for a long time. The EU and its Member States are going the opposite way: instead of more secure escape routes they are blocking off the perilous routes with illegal pushbacks. Border Violence Monitoring Network has so far documented 892 pushbacks affecting 12,654 people along the Balkan route.[6] In January 2020, a chain deportation from Italy to Bosnia was heard in a Roman court and declared illegal.[7] The Serbian Constitutional Court and the Ljubljana Administrative Court have also condemned pushbacks as unlawful [8]. Apropos of the situation in the Mediterranean, those representing the European Union were sued before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Individual cases and names of the defendants are due to be published shortly [9].

However, even when refugees succeed in penetrating within the EU, their chances of being treated humanely or even lawfully are not especially high. When locking refugees out fails, they get locked up instead in places like Camp Moria, for instance, under conditions so wretched that nobody denies the fact anymore. Despite this, Austria, for example, categorically refuses to accept anyone from Moria. Other Member States have taken a more conciliatory approach and are ready to accept families or unaccompanied minors. Moria is quite simply a totally unsuitable place for people to live, however – irrespective of their age or gender.

Where refugees succeed in reaching Austria, Germany or other such countries few refugees manage to get to and that are better places for asylum procedures, then the camps are somewhat better equipped. Here, too, though, it is a camp that awaits refugees – together with all manner of restrictions and a barely foreseeable wait for a decision that depends on a wide variety of factors and where the stories of the refugees’ lives are often last in order of importance.

The centre of Europe

What remains to be said about this and what still remains to be done? In 2012, the Mayor of Lampedusa appealed to the EU for help, since the island’s cemetery had already become too full to hold more refugees’ bodies. In 2013, a boat accident off the coast of Lampedusa that resulted in the deaths of 366 refugees raised public concern further. In 2015, the image of a drowned toddler, Alan Kurdi, spread around the world. Nowadays, the public pays barely any attention to the numbers of the dead and their pictures.

Despite this, though, and in spite of everything: throughout Europe and beyond its borders people are fighting for the human right to dignity and a safe life, putting their own lives at risk of denunciation and criminalisation. In doing so, they are fighting for the much-vaunted European values – human rights and the rule of law. This is what Europe and the European Union must be measured against. The future of Europe will be decided by the situation of the migrants and refugees. In the words of the Swedish author Henning Mankell (in which Moria or Lipa can be substituted for Lampedusa):

"Lampedusa is the symbolic centre of Europe. Because it is this island that will decide what kind of Europe we want to have."


  1. European Commission: Speech by Vice-President Schinas on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Speech
  2. Le Monde diplomatique, Matthias Monroy: Drohnen für Frontex
  3. See, for example: FragDenStaat, Arne Semsrott: Frontex Files: Wie die EU-Grenzpolizei das Parlament belügt
  4. Zeit Online, Jakob Pontius: "Die schlechteste Grenzschutzbehörde der Welt". Frontex Files
  5. Anesty International: Bosnia and Herzegovina: Systemic Solutions and Meaningful EU Support, Including Safe Pathways, Could Prevent Recurring Humanitarian Emergencies
  6. Border Violence Monitoring Network: Launch Event: The Black Book of Pushbacks
  7. ReliefWeb: Rome Court decision against Italy’s illegal migrant pushbacks is a significant step. News and Press Release
  8. Deutsche Welle, Nemanja Rujević: Serbien schiebt Asylbewerber ab – in die EU. Balkanroute
  9. Le Monde diplomatique, Matthias Monroy: Drohnen für Frontex

We recommend:

 – New Release: Limits to Access to Asylum Along the Balkan Route
 – Katerina Anastasiou, A Catastrophe About to Happen
 – Webinar transform! europe, Sea Rescue in the Mediterranean in Times of the Covid-19 Pandemic