Fortress Europe: Our New Ancestral Customs

By Peter Williamson

Imagine you are living your life in one of the current conflict zones around the planet. Take your pick, there are dozens. You see people dying of preventable diseases; you can no longer live as a fisherman because European trawlers have driven fish populations in your area near to extinction. People being rounded up, beaten and executed by government forces and militias. Perhaps, some might argue, you feel a strong desire to leave your ancestral birthplace, and look for a place where your chances of dying of hunger or war in the near future are somewhere below 100 percent. This would make you one of more than 50 million people around the globe who have been displaced. Congratulations, you are now a citizen of second class, regardless of where you go.

The latter has been made clear by the Europe-wide joint police action “Mos Maiorum” (Latin: Our Ancestral Customs), which started on Monday, the 13th of October. The stated goal of this operation is to find and bust human trafficking rings in Europe and find migration routes. The reality of this however, is that there is now a coordinated police hunt for ‘illegal immigrants’, who – upon discovery – will be detained.

They will find themselves in concrete-blocked, razor-wire surrounded detention centers in Germany or the Netherlands, and then possibly be deported– either to the European country the first arrived at, such as Greece, or Italy with its splendid record of migrant and refugee treatment, or to their home country, where an even worse fate may await them.

Italy, under whose EU presidency this current operation was launched, has – not without irony – recently been threatened by the Commission with an infringement procedure, following evidence of migrant abuse in Italian migrant centers. Infringement procedures can result in court-mandated damage payments. However, cases can take a long while to be processed, and by that time many will have been grounded through the mill that is bureaucratic state power.

It is not just me that feels that this treatment of immigrants is horrible, luckily many human rights and refugee help groups across Europe have called out the European Presidency on this anti-immigrant operation. This happens in the face of the recent tragic events at Lampedusa, where once again scores of refugees have drowned and suffocated on cramped boats filled until bursting, just off the coast of Italy. The Italian government knows this, but instead of actively helping people make the last, dangerous bit across the Mediterranean, they seldom act. One could therefore say that many of the people now being hunted down for deportation are actually just the ‘lucky few’ of thousands of people on the run, many of which do not make the torturous journey into the what some call the “Fortress Europe” – after having survived the brutal human smugglers in their home country and here, they are now once again at the mercy of other people dictating whether or not they will be able to feed and clothe themselves.

Bleri Leshi, a political philosopher and author, remarks in his article on that the money spent on these operations almost never results in the busting of any human trafficking rings and is only to the detriment of the refugees. Instead of wasting money in such a harmful way, he proposes that “legal trajectories” into Europe should be established, which will save many lives in the long run by making it easier for refugees to make the journey into our “Fortress”.

However, it is also important to examine the wider framework in which such policies and operations as Mos Maiorum are implemented. According to testimonies from many refugees, once they have been granted asylum in Europe, they are extremely limited in what they can do. There is little possibility to study or to work, and few means of making a living, both as an immigrant with or without legal status. Therefore, we, the citizens of the EU should take a long hard look at how we treat migrants, and what chances refugees are offered, as well as examining our own role in creating such streams of people – for example, in the case of Senegalese fishermen whose livelihood has been destroyed by European trawlers, which seek to satisfy the European demand for fish (in a community which wastes 100 million tons of food each year).

The refugees therefore often find themselves at an intersection of discrimination – no education, unemployed, few possibilities of learning the local language, and on top of that, the usual racist attitudes which can be found amongst Europe’s proud inhabitants. Hell, why not throw in some police hunts and detention centers as well? It is not like it can get much worse for many, bar a forceful deportation to their home countries. The EU continues to be the champion of human rights, at least in theory. What does that say about our government’s perception of refugees, whose rights are denied again and again?


Peter Williamson, class of 2015, is a Sociology and Politics major, from Hamburg, Germany.

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