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Desperation and Death- The Human Cost Of Border Control

Why do migrants only have their humanity recognised in death and extreme suffering?

The image of a dead man and child lying face down in the murky waters of the Rio Grande confronts us with a reality- the grim and deadly human cost of exclusionary and restrictive immigration and asylum policies. Their deaths are two in the thousands of those who have already died crossing borders this year. Sadly, they will not be the last, many will continue to die, being forced to take dangerous routes to cross states’ increasingly securitised borders. The tragic deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez and his tiny daughter Valeria highlight the lethal consequences of manipulated asylum processes across the world and specifically the utilisation of borders to stem migratory flows.

Hundreds of people die while seeking to reach the U.S. each year: drowning in the currents of the Rio Grande, perishing in the Sonoran Desert or suffocating in tightly packed smuggler vehicles. The same goes for those trying to enter Europe. So far in 2019, recorded deaths in the Mediterranean Sea have reached 597 with 2,299 in 2018[1]. With challenges collecting this information the true number of fatalities during migration is likely much higher. This, combined with the numbers of those who have died trying to cross the River Evros, the northern river border between Turkey and Greece, creates a stark image of the many who have died this year attempting to reach Greece alone. These deaths are not an accident, they are an outcome of multiple border practices resulting from deeply exclusionary, restrictive and violent immigration policies.

The EU’s external borders

The EU’s borders are far more complex than a single line separating sovereign territorial powers[2]. Fortress Europe has multiple borders, which are ever shifting and semi-permeable, distinguishing between the ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’. For example, the externalisation of the EU’s integrated border management to Libya and Turkey (which stand at the gateway of two main routes of informal migration into the region) has resulted in the EU fashioning non-EU member third countries into buffer states, reinforcing and externalizing the metaphysical borders of the EU. This happens despite evidence documenting torture and ‘unimaginable horrors’ that migrants and refugees are subjected to at the hands of Libyan state officials.[3]

And what about the EU’s ‘natural’ sea border? It is clear that with policies becoming more hostile to search and rescue missions[4] the Mediterranean will continue to be the mass catacomb of Europe, a ‘theatre of a new kind of war, the one the European Union is waging against migrants’.[5] Smugglers interviewed by journalists have maintained that suspending rescue operations to discourage migrants from crossing the Mediterranean has no impact on people willingness to take perilous journeys[6] and this is backed up by academic research[7]. Hostile EU policies to search and rescue and to migrants in general do not appear to effectively act as a deterrence. Rather, EU policies are to blame for thousands drowning unnecessarily.

Borders within the EU

Within the South of the EU, areas such as the Greek island hotspots, have been ‘deterritorialised’- a process where rights guaranteed to those in the rest of the EU no longer apply to those regions. Instead, asylum-seekers and migrants are subjected to ‘sub-national jurisdiction and biopolitical surveillance[8]’. Similarly, Greece’s position as a ‘natural’ port of entry to Europe, has turned it, along with Italy and to a lesser extend Spain, into a holding pen, ‘charged with filtering ‘migratory flows’ for the benefit of the richer and more powerful countries of Europe’s west and north’[9]. All resulting in further death and human suffering where refugees are left in ‘inhumane’[10] and hellish[11] conditions.

As for the rest of ‘Fortress Europe’, polices of exclusion continue. The conditions that migrants and refugees live in in Greece have been well documented and are often understated in official reports. They have been described as abysmal[12] with Greece failing its international obligations. With multiple international cases being found against Greece, crushing reports and continuous outcry from refugees and actors on the ground, the picture of the terrible conditions people are forced to endure in Greece only just begins to form. Furthermore, people are legally trapped here due to richer northern European countries’ outsourcing of refugee protection, using Greece as a further buffer zone to the rest of Europe.

To repeat: these deaths and human suffering are not an accident. They are the outcome of policies that are deliberately chosen and implemented by governments to keep people out, uncaring of what this means for their lives. These policies are deeply exclusionary and inherently violent.

The lack of access to family reunification- the hardening of borders within the EU

Writing from the buffer zone of Greece, and having volunteered with Refugee Legal Support Athens for the last year and a half, I have witnessed first-hand the results of strict border control. Informing someone that they will be permanently separated from their child simply because either the UK, Germany or France will not grant them the right to family reunification, for spurious reasons and despite their legal entitlement to this right, allows you to see the reality of Northern-European states’ enforcement of policies- the cruel utilization of national borders for an exclusionary agenda. Rejections from Northern-European member states to family reunification requests is something RLS has become exceptionally experienced at challenging.

I have lost count of the heartbreak and devastation that our clients have experienced at the hands of ineffective and purposefully hostile European laws and inhumane decisions on family reunification requests. Each rejection, often resulting from the decision-makers’ purposeful misapplication of the law or overly strict interpretation of it, represents a tightening of borders, a stemming of migratory flows and a reduction in the semi-permeable nature of European member states’ individual boarders to asylum-seekers and refugees. The permanent separation of nuclear families is something that Northern European states have become increasingly comfortable with.

For the families whose cases are eventually accepted, many must wait well over a year before transfer, despite there being an obligation on states to arrange this quickly. During this time, people must live in precarious and dangerous living conditions in Greece. Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine that this reality will have inspired many others to take dangerous and irregular routes across Europe to be reunified with family. As a 17-year-old minor explained to me “I now know that going by foot from Greece to Germany could have been quicker. Maybe it would have even been safer than being homeless and alone in Athens.” [13]

The image of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian child, lying face down on a beach, briefly woke the world. But this empathic response was short-lived. Will the same happen for Óscar Alberto Martínez and Valeria? And what about all of those who have died before them at the hands of “Fortress Europe”? With this short-lived empathy, we invite more deaths. How many more images do we need to see before understanding that people will continue to flee war, poverty, climate change and persecution and that restrictive and exclusionary immigration policies will cause more death and human suffering. We all have a responsibility to resist the violence of these policies.

[1] IOM. 2019. [Online]. [1 July 2019]. Available from:

[2] Kouvelakis, S. 2018 Borderland- Greece and the EU’s Southern Question. New Left Review 110.

[3] United Nations Human Rights. 2018 [Online]. [Accessed 1 July 2019]. Available at:

[4] Giuffrida, A. 2018. Eu policies to balme for 700 deaths at sea, says Amnesty International. The Guardian. Retrived from

[5] Babels. 2017 La mort aux frontières de l’Europe, p. 18.

[6] Breines, M. 2015. DG Migration & Home Affairs, A Study on Smuggling of Migrants: Characteristics, Responses and Cooperation with Third Countries, European Commission, Brussels, p. 38.

[7] Zamato F, Argenzziano S, Arsenijevic J, et al. 2017. Migrants caught between tides and politics in the Mediterranean: an imperative for search and rescue at sea? BMJ Global Health

[8] Mountz, A. 2011. The Enforcement Archipelago: Detention, Haunting and Asylum on Islands. Political Geography, 30(3), pp. 118–28.

[9] Kouvelakis, S. 2018 Borderland- Greece and the EU’s Southern Question. New Left Review 110.

[10] Boffey, D. 2019. Oxfam condemns EU over ‘inhumane’ Lesbos refugee camp. The Guardian. Retried from

[11] Human Rights Watch. 2017. [Online]. [Accessed 2 July 2019]. Available at:

[12] Human Rights Watch. 2017. [Online]. [Accessed 1 July 2019]. Available at:

[13] Dodd, E. 2019. Hungry, homeless and exploited. How does Europe protect the most vulnerable children? OpenDemocracy. Retrieved from

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