Death by wall but largely by water

My work occasionally has me in Berlin talking about the Berlin wall.  While standing in front of the remains on Niederkirchnerstrasse I tell of the closing of the border between east and west Berlin (along the demarcation line between the old Soviet zone on one side and the British, French and American zones on the other) and how the wall was built to stop people migrating to west Berlin.  I tell of how people tried to cross, some successfully but many unsuccessfully, including an estimated 136 people who died while trying (the figure includes people who committed suicide upon being unsuccessful as well as border guards who died on duty), the deaths being caused by shooting or through injuries received through the attempted crossing of the wall area.

Groups get all serious at this news, and rightfully so.  For my generation and older people the fall of the Berlin wall was one of the key events in our collective memory.  For younger people the Berlin wall has become a terrible symbol of a lack of freedom.

I wish now to look at the issue of borders and the “maintaining” of them.  It is not my intention to analyse or compare state systems (communist or social-capitalist), rather to look at the wider picture of what borders mean.

The excellent blog “Fortress Europe” by Gabriele Del Grande details what happens on the borders of the European Union.  The posts are mainly in Italian, but this page is in English and includes the following:

The history that will be studied by our children who will read on the school text books that in 21st century thousands died at sea around Italy and thousands were arrested and deported from our cities. Whilst everybody pretended not to see. At least 18,244 people have died since 1988 along the european borders. Here are the proofs.

Among them 8,479 were reported to be missing in the sea. The majority of them, 13,417 people, lost their life trying to cross the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic Ocean towards Europe. And 2011 was the worst year ever, considering that during the year at least 2,352 people have died at the gates of Europe.

Travelling stowaways in the trucks 372 people were found dead. And 408 migrants drowned crossing border rivers, the majority in the Oder-Neisse, between Poland and Germany; in the Evros, between Turkey and Greece; in the Sava, between Croatia and Bosnia; and the Morava between Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Then other 114 people froze to death while crossing on foot the icy mountain frontiers, especially in Turkey and Greece. Along the Greek border with Turkey there are still mine-fields  long the Evros river. Here at least 92 people were killed by the mines while trying to enter Greece.

292 migrants were shot dead by border police: 37 of them were killed in Ceuta and Melilla , the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, 50 in The Gambia, 131 in Egypt and 32 in the eastern side of Turkey, along the Iranian and Iraqi borders. But few people were also killed by French, German, Spanish and Swiss policemen . Others died in Morocco and Libya. Ultimately 41 men were found dead hidden in the undercarriage of the aeroplanes, 33 people died in Calais, and under the trains in The Channel Tunnel trying to reach England (sic. Of course, Great Britain is meant – Czarny kapture), while other 12 people died under other trains in different borders, and 2 drowned crossing the Channel.

Who to blame?

In the media and on social platforms blame for this is placed on border smugglers, on Frontex (the organisation who organise the “ensuring the security of the EU’s borders”, an organisation incidentally based in Warsaw here in Poland) or the migrants themselves.  Certainly, NATO was blamed for the deaths of 61 Libyan refugees on a ship off the coast of Italy.  Fingers can certainly be pointed at Frontex or the few smugglers who organise transport without care for safety.  Regarding the migrants themselves, I would question the difference between Germans who were looking for a better life, a more stabile political situation and escaping repression and those from outside the EU.  With the Germans however we had in the GDR and the Soviet Union a common enemy figure.  Therefore we identify with those who died.

About 300 Tunisian refugees drowned off the coast of Kerkennah island.

While the time period for measuring those who died trying to enter the EU (or its previous incarnation) of 24 years is similar to that of the existence of the Berlin wall (28 years), a comparison is difficult due to the sheer size of the EU borders.  That it is not clear whether those who died in the river Spree along the border in Berlin died due to attempted crossings, let’s take out those who have died by drowning trying to enter the EU and concentrate on people being shot.  Even there more people (292 people) have died trying to enter the EU than west Berlin.  As one can see here, French, German, Spanish, Swiss, Cypriot, Greek, Macedonian, Turkish and Yugoslavian border guards have killed migrants through shooting.

This is happening in our name

Frontex and pre-2004 border guards are certainly to blame for the deaths of migrants.  However, they are, like the Berlin border guards taking orders from above.  Those who die trying to enter the EU are doing so because of decisions taken by EU leaders.  I’ll take this further, and say that deaths happen because of the fact that the EU exists, and indeed, that nation states exist.  “What are you saying then, Czarny?  That you want to let anyone into the EU?  That you want to get rid of nation states?  To get rid of borders?  That would have massive social consequences and could stir up racism”.  Maybe so, the right-wing media and some on the left would go hysterical about the “invasion of the uncivilised“, though I believe that the opening of borders doesn’t always lead to big numbers of migrants (as this example in Germany shows).

I’m simply stating the price of the closed borders we have.  While one can theorise that the ending of EU borders would lead to massive increase of migration, we know that people are dying each year because of the borders we have.  Defining who we are (our nationality, our membership of the EU) defines who are are not, and excludes those who are not us.  As long as nation states exist, we shall have borders.  As long as borders are closed, people will die trying to cross them.  The perceived “security” we have comes at a price, and this is a a price that we don’t pay and hardly see.  The Berlin wall is seen as bad, but the death of at least 18,244 is not part of our collective consciousness.

Let’s get personal

For myself, as a white-skinned person of British nationality, I have power.  I can live and work across the EU.  I’ve known people, tough, who haven’t had this power.  Someone from a A8 country found it difficult to find legal work in one country of the EU and had to take low-paid short-term work and faced all manner of stress.  That person considered being an illegal cleaner for someone much older who may or may not have wanted “favours”.  Our migration laws forces people into such demeaning conditions (by the way, I totally understand and have nothing against people doing illegal work).  Another person I knew came from outside the EU, was abused by border guards as soon as she disembarked from a plane and found it difficult to find work.  While I myself have faced state discrimination abroad that has cost me money, my life has been fairly easy abroad to the the luck I have to be born in Britain.  Others are not so lucky.

I am not ashamed of having the power I have.  I don’t feel guilty.  I am angry that others don’t share my power.  Discrimination and death happen in my name.  In Berlin, of course, people rose up against the government.  They said “we are the people!”, or to interpret that, “not in my name!”.  They were however people who faced hardships themselves.

Most of us don’t face such hardships, so we’re quite happy with the present situation.


2 comments on “Death by wall but largely by water

  1. Me says:

    Good to see you took up this topic.

    As you rightly say, in the public discourse one can often discern three sorts of scapegoats: Frontex, blamed usually by the activists, the networks of smugglers and the migrants themselves, pointed out most often by the EU policymakers and populist politicians.

    I’d however push the analysis a bit further than the mainstream media and the social platforms.

    Perhaps the question should not (or not only) be who to blame, but what are the mechanisms that allow for this to happen. I am refering here not so much to the actual geographical EU border control, but to the so called “external dimension” of EU migration and asylum policies. How to see through the core of the regional cooperaration and the “mobility partnerships” with the Southern Mediterranean? What are the EU MS – North African bilateral agreements really about? How to assure at least the basic human rights standards are kept when the migrants are not only kept within (Gaddafi’s infamous ” EU gatekeeper” aspirations), but also returned to countires which till recently have been, and in some cases still are dictatorships? What are the most effective lobbying/ policy monitoring strategies that can influence migration policymaking at a highest level?

    On the other hand, how to better the quality of the debate and the public discourse on migration? How to make societies more aware of the consequences of their voting or non-voting decisions for other people?

    I guess there are no straightforward answers.

    By the way, I happen to be living in Berlin. Considering the role of Germany in the EU, I am surprised how few events/ debates are centred on the EU migration and asylum policy here.

  2. Thanks for the reply. Regarding your questions, I’m trying to point out that matters such as agreements on migration or public debates on migration lack the perspective that (as I believe) nation states are fairly modern, discriminatory institutions. I wish to challenge the sense that they “naturally” occur, something assumed in any public debate about those migrants. Of course, here in Poland like anywhere this view is a minority one; indeed, such a few can be seen as an attack on Poland by some here. Nevertheless I take the view that such a perspective is needed in the public debate on migration, something deeper than any agreements between countries (such as the current British government policy of taking the “best” migrants, something used in Germany regarding Poles a few years ago).

    Of course, attempts to better the debate on migration tends to centre on the taxes they pay or skills and food styles they bring. While this is understandable in the climate of seeing nation states as “natural” things as well as that of commodification, I am against the determining of people’s worth according to what “worth” they may have. In any case, I gather that work against racism among Nazis is successful when they become aware of how their egalitarian views contradict their racist ones. If that works with Nazis, it can certainly work in the general public.

    May be somewhat simplistic, though. Regarding Germany, I was inspired to write this article due to an article in konkret magazine. I guess though that a worsening of the German economy would bring about more attention to migration and asylum policy.

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