Care as counteraction: Addressing border deaths at the European Union’s periphery
The myth of safe, orderly and regular migration
In the 2018 Global Compact for Migration (GCM) as well as the European Commission’s 2020 New Pact for Migration and Asylum, the European Union (EU) committed itself to facilitating ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’. However, migration routes toward the EU remain the deadliest worldwide. While most attention has been on the Mediterranean crossings, we want to re-route the gaze towards two irregular migration regimes at the peripheries of the EU: the Croatian border regime as well as the Afro-Spanish borders.
In both of these very different borderlands, a common phenomenon plays out: the externalisation of European migration and border control. Externalisation includes measures ‘taken by states beyond their borders to obstruct or deter the arrival of foreign nationals lacking permission to enter their intended destination country’. These interventions are being justified with humanitarian claims of ‘protecting migrants and refugees’ and ‘saving lives’. In practice, this often means the capturing or pushing back of migrants and refugees, as well as preventing them from undertaking migration journeys. In effect, this has made journeys more dangerous and more clandestine, rather than safe and regular.
While this direct and structural violence at the external borders of the EU and beyond is receiving more attention in wider society, the analysis of such rights violations often depends upon the people affected to tell their stories. But what about the thousands of dead and missing migrants who cannot do so anymore? How is knowledge about border deaths being produced, and does it perpetuate epistemic violence? Inspired by feminist approaches to security, we draw attention to practices of care that emerged at the margins of the EU, acting as opposition to a migration management that dissembles the EU’s responsibility for migrant deaths.
Different types of border violence: the cases of the Spanish and the Croatian borderlands
In Objective 8 of the GCM, states committed to ‘save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants. However, research has highlighted that there are no specific measures to address missing migrants in the New Pact while saving lives is tackled only in the context of preventing irregular arrivals. These policy and implementation gaps become viscerally evident at the EU’s periphery.
With an estimated average of twelve people dying every day to reach Spanish shores, there has also been an increase in ‘invisible shipwrecks’ on the Atlantic route towards Spain’s Canary Islands. This means that a boat is reported missing, often by family members of those on board, but no survivors are found. Persistent search and rescue gaps make cases difficult to verify and several organisations criticise that the collection of data regarding mortality on the Canary route by the Spanish, Moroccan, and West African administrations is very limited. Furthermore, there are no effective procedures in place by law enforcement agencies to identify these victims, let alone notify family members.
The situation is similar when it comes to migrant deaths on the ‘Balkan route’. Not long after the closure of the Balkan corridor in 2016, the route shifted to Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Croatian authorities unofficially introducing a more restrictive policy in the form of mass violent pushbacks. Also known as the ‘game’, crossing the Croatian border became one of the riskiest journeys within the global migration regime leading, directly or indirectly, to at least 62 migrant deaths in Croatia. According to publicly available data, 259 migrants died in the Balkan countries since 2017, with an estimation that the real number of deaths is much higher.
Transnational (knowledge) practices of care
Various civil society organisations fill the aforementioned protection and knowledge gaps by way of counter-mapping and micro-practices of care. We illustrate this with the example of two initiatives active in Spain and Croatia, which problematise and commemorate the immense unreported number of deaths at the external borders of Europe.
For example, the Spanish NGO and activist group Caminando Fronteras has direct contact with the survivors of boats that have sunk and with migrants’ families in Africa. Their guide for the families of border victims facilitates the search for missing persons and supports the right to memory. By including not only recovered bodies but also reports of departures from the African coast, the estimated number of deaths on the Atlantic route in their monitoring report ‘Right to Life 2021’ was 4016, which is four times that of UN statistics.
After the closure of the Balkan corridor, a group of international activists and researchers created a map of border deaths at the Balkan migratory trail based on media reports. Besides its role as a counter-mapping mechanism, documenting these deaths in Croatia served as a basis for a counter-memorialisation practice initiated by artist selma banich and the collective Women to Women. Using the transformative potential of care invested by its members, this collective created a piece of art called The Passage, a memorial cloth depicting the portraits of migrants who died trying to reach the EU.
These practices of mapping and memorialisation ‘from below’ act as a form of resistance not only to the unwillingness of migration authorities to properly document border deaths, but to their compliance with the logic behind migration governance that allows these deaths to happen in the first place.
Why ‘radical care’ matters
Although not all strategies of care and resistance actively provide safety for migrants, they nevertheless represent an important practice for the families of missing migrants as well as for raising attention about the extent of border deaths. While the loss of life should not be reduced to a number, each bit of information gathered, each individual identified, and each family notified is an important step, ‘not only in the healing process but also in the quest for change’.
This type of data collection counters what Lisa Marie Cacho has termed ‘social death’, with reference to the ways that bodies are policed, categorised and excluded through the racial apparatus of the state. This counteraction opposes the framing of drownings and border deaths as singular, disconnected tragedies. It shifts our focus on the structural factors that have led to these largely preventable fatalities as well as the social conditions that have allowed for certain deaths, such as those of undocumented migrants, to become ‘ungrievable’.
The vast number of people dying or going missing without a trace when trying to reach the EU puts a responsibility on member states to fulfil the promises made in the Global Compact and the New Pact in terms of saving lives. Currently, the securitisation of migration policies and the criminalisation of aid undermine the searches for missing migrants. This highlights the importance of civil society and feminist initiatives that use care as counteraction to the international migration management that is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths and suffering in borderlands at the EU’s periphery and beyond.
This work has been supported in part by Croatian Science Foundation under the project The European Irregularized Migration Regime at the Periphery of the EU: from Ethnography to Keywords (IP-2019-04-6642).
Zina Weisner is a PhD researcher at the Department for Migration and Globalisation of Danube University Krems, Austria. She holds an MA in International Relations and Development Studies from the University of Passau and has worked in the development sector in Germany and Ethiopia. Her research interests include the practices and effects of externalisation of EU migration and border governance in Africa, feminist and critical security studies, as well as migrant and refugee rights.
Contact: @ZinaWeisner, email@example.com
Romana Pozniak is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb. Prior to academia, she worked with local and international humanitarian organisations in the area of migration and child protection. Her research interests include humanitarianism, critical refugee and migration studies, and anthropology of labour.