Grundrisse, Nummer 28

A Meridian Decides the Truth?

Refusing the role of a gendarmerie of the Euro-state*

Departing from the recent launching of the Union for Mediterranean, the essay questions the EU’s externalization of its migration control policy to the third states — particularly those in North Africa — with an aim to seek relevances for the role that is currently being shaped for Turkey. The discussion focuses particularly on the shift that such externalization has brought about in migrants’ activism, from a political challenge to the policies of Euro-state to a toned-down ethical-juridical monitoring of refugees’ rights. Against this narrowing down of perspective in the field of activism, and the accompanying transfer of political culpability from the Euro-state to third countries, particularly those in North Africa, the essay then argues that a different picture emerges when one focuses on the micro-political practices of the undocumented migrants in the course of their border crossing. A proliferation of associations of sub-Saharan migrants in North Africa is one manifestation of these practices, while another is the mobilizations by North African diaspora communities in Europe against the EU’s border restrictions.

In both these cases, the micropolitics of undocumented migration allows us to see that the externalization of the EU border has implications that go beyond the scope of human rights initiatives, and it involves agents other than the UN body for refugees. It also demonstrates that the involvement of the third states in Europe’s buffer zone cannot be limited to the contracts with the Euro-state, but rather occurs through the local encounters between the border agents of the neighboring countries and the migrants, as well as between the migrants and the local populations.

In the past few months the Turkish public has been closely observing the talks about the Mediterranean Union, though without much debate as to the actual contents of what the summit would entail. This most recent venture of partnership by the EU, the first action of an impatient French presidency, has undergone a number of revisions in its structure—in the initial design, it would bring together Mediterranean countries under the leadership solely of France, and only after Germany’s objection was it expanded to include all the EU member states. Likewise there were several trials to name the venture till it finally became “Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean,” or UPM—easy to confuse with Sarkozy’s own UMP, the French right wing party… Among the sporadic accounts of the issue that have appeared in the Turkish media is that of the Turkish minister of foreign affairs, Ali Babacan, who has been reported to say: “We have told them ‘Turkey’s situation is not the same as a North African country. Our position, our status must be different.’ And they accepted this.” [1] The remark does not make clear in what respect Turkey’s situation differs from a North African country. Viewing from Turkey, one perceives the entire process of the creation of the UpM as a project launched mainly to suggest an alternative path to Turkey’s negotiations for EU membership. Instead of a debate on what role Turkey will play as a Mediterranean partner, what is in store for us in joining the UpM, public attention was directed exclusively to whether or not it is feasible to exchange a partnership in the Mediterranean for the actual EU membership.

And yet, far from being tailored for Turkey, the UpM, as we know, comes at the last stage of a long history of European policy of border control and management of migration flows, the outlines of which had started to take shape with the Barcelona Process in 1995. This is the backbone around which Europe has been elaborating a distribution of labor among the states on its eastern and southern borders. Turkey’s relation to the Mediterranean Union needs to be thought along these lines, and if its status “cannot be the same as a North African country,” then we can probably seek a closer parallel with a country such as Poland, which has proven to be a more successful candidate than Turkey, and has been rewarded, immediately after its membership in 2005, with the headquarters of FRONTEX, the EU agency for integrated border surveillance, with an accompanying budget of close to 4 million Euros.

It is somewhat misleading to refer to the current restructuring in the EU’s border strategy with the term “fortress Europe” though the term has become commonplace by now for those of us involved in the problem: the situation we are facing is not that of the EU shutting down its borders to migration as such, but rather one of fine-tuning the mechanisms by which it filters migration—we often hear talk, especially in France, of a “chosen” migration, instead of compulsory migration. The image of a fortress is misleading because the border at stake is not solid and indifferent as a wall, but on the contrary both permeable, and highly sensitive in its process of selection. Unlike a wall that is stable we are dealing today with a flexible wall that slides and shifts, and quickly responds to the movement of migrants. It operates like a ditch in Sandro Mezzadra’s words, [2] or is a just-in-time border, in the words of activist-theoreticians Angela Mitropoulos and Brian Finoki. [3] We can even add that the border mimics the movement it aims to arrest. It moves towards the outside of the EU, further south and further east. The recent inclusion of Mauritania in the Union for Mediterranean can give us an idea of the extent of this flexibility: for Mauritania has its coast not even on the Mediterranean but on the Atlantic. The geographic flexibility is complimented by the flexibility in juridical arrangements.

I will try to frame a few problems here concerning this becoming flexible of the border. The EU’s bilateral negotiations with North Africa provide a rich and complex example of this. Therefore, going against the administrators’ sense of ‘Turkish exceptionalism,’ I will try to suggest the relevance of such problems to our locality.

The restructuring in Europe’s border management policy has been pronounced for the first time in the Tampere meeting of 1999 that obliged “third countries” to “readmit their own nationals who are illegally present in any Member State,” as well as all the other undocumented people who have transited through the third country in question. This was the first community-wide articulation of what had already started in 1992 on basis of singular action plans with bordering countries such as Morocco. In the Seville Summit of 2002 the scope of the cooperation of third countries was broadened by articles proposed by Spain and Britain, which insisted on the enforcement of cooperation. These articles stated that if a partner state is deemed to refuse cooperation, the EU would adopt appropriate measures, that is to say, the partner state would be threatened with sanctions as well as cuts on the funds it receives from the EU. Enforcement was further complimented by the provision that conditioned all future co-operation, association or equivalent agreement between the EU and the third countries on the latter’s participation in the common management of migratory flows.

Though eventually rejected as counterproductive these proposals are suggestive of the eventual direction that the reshaping of European borders will take. We see the idea of externalizing the task of border control persists for instance in the British government’s unofficial design in 2003 for locating centers for processing asylum applications in the regions where they originate, such as “Morocco, Somalia, Iran, Kurdistan and Turkey”. In the 5-year program drafted in La Haye in 2004 this direction has resurfaced in the explicit formula of the “external dimension” of the EU’s migration policy. Going beyond the step taken in Seville of “readmission” of irregular migrants by third countries, the La Haye program proposes the dislocation of the checkpoints themselves to the regions bordering Europe. The very procedures related to border regulation, that is, not just the systems and personnel for surveillance but also the units for processing and evaluating demands for asylum, so-called “Transit Processing Centers,” would be relocated to the countries of transit. The procedures that follow for those who are denied asylum, namely, detention centers and means of deportation back to the countries of origin, would also be relocated to these regions. [4] Announcing the findings of a feasibility study on “externalization” in 2005 the Italian foreign minister Frattini was declaring that the reception of the undocumented people in countries of transit “seems less expensive than the reception in the refugee centers installed in member states of the EU”. [5]

From 2004 when externalization of the border was first brought on the EU agenda, down to the present, infrastructure has been installed with remarkable promptness and efficacy in third countries to create a buffer zone that will preempt the arrival of the undocumented at European borders. So far 7detention centers have been installed in Morocco, 12 in Algeria and at least 20 in Libya. Moroccan security forces have intercepted 26 thousand clandestine migrants in 2004, of whom 17 thousand were non-nationals, mostly from sub-Saharan countries. In Algeria more than 8000 migrants have been arrested already in the first half of 2007. On Algeria’s southern border with Mali and Nigeria, 40 thousand migrants have been arrested between the years 2000-2007, more than 27 thousand of whom have been deported. Libya boasts of 53,842 expulsions in 2006 on the Sicily canal as well as at its southern desert border with Mali and Niger.

Meanwhile a new partner of the EU such as Senegal announces capturing in 2006 more than 1500 candidates of clandestine migration preparing to depart from its own territory for the Canary Islands.

However the EU has not acted with equal promptness in ensuring the basic rights of the captured people during the period of retention and deportation. Nor are the legal rights of the detainees, such as access to application for asylum, guaranteed. The establishment of offices of UN High Commissioner for Refugees has lagged beyond the opening of detention centers, a significant number of which are located in the desert areas of these North African countries with the result that the detainees are often expelled without a chance to even make an asylum request. The subordination of the basic rights of migrants to the priority on border management cannot be accounted for simply by the failure on part of the third states, either. It is important to stress this point as we respond to singular events of human rights abuse and mistreatment of migrants by the security forces of the transit countries. The time lag between the enforcement of the control and the protection of rights is not merely an accident that occurs in the implementation of agreements by a non-member state, but is rather a legislative gap in the very drafting of the agreements by the EU and its partners. A case in point is the 2004 text that has laid the basis for Frontex. As Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty of the Migreurope network has pointed out, a provision to distinguish the asylum seekers within a group intercepted by a Frontex agency was added only after 2 years to the initial text detailing the measures of control. Such legislative lacunae are created by the agreements themselves endorsed by the EU. I’d like to argue, moreover, that far from being accidental, the particular way that distinctions between terms such as “illegal migrant” and “asylum seeker” are deployed serve as policy tools in the European state’s strategy of border management.

The obliteration of this distinction has created and continues to create grave results: in 2004 the Libyan state deports 164 potential political refugees to Sudan and Eritrea amidst an ongoing war. The 109 Eritreans that have been repatriated, with the silent consent of the UNHCR, are reported to be in detention since.

Yet the human rights organizations, in their attempt to raise awareness for the particular condition of asylum seekers, become prone to another kind of pitfall: if the lumping together of political refugees with economic migrants under the common rubric of “illegals” is one way the apparatus of capture operates, distinguishing between these groups can become yet another means of control, to the extent that it serves to create a hierarchy between the political and the economic causes of migration. In advocating the priority of rights over enforcement, the human rights perspective nevertheless remains confined within the European state’s discourse, which recognizes the right of movement of noncitizens only when it is justifiable on grounds of a visible political threat to life. It seems as if room for maneuver for activism becomes limited to adjusting, rather than opposing to the state’s management of migration; it becomes limited to making the state keep to its word. But to do so is to retreat tacitly from the claim to freedom of the flows of people, wherein lies the uncontainable force that upsets the borders of wage that capitalism is at pains to keep intact.

It seems as if with the strategy of the “externalization” of the border the European state succeeds in redirecting the scope of activism as well, from the broader political concern for the movement of migration as a counter force to capitalist inequality, to an ethical concern for the treatment of migrants: priority shifts to ensuring that those who are eligible for a “legal” status as refugees are scrupulously distinguished from the rest; ensuring also that “humane” criteria apply in the expulsion of the latter group. Another significant shift occurs in the political perspective when human rights organizations become focused on the implementations of the transit countries, evaluating and ranking these states in terms of whether or not they fulfill the criteria of European and international conventions. This once again reorients the political stance tacitly yet significantly, while everything appears to follow from common sense: NGOs and activists must of necessity be alerted towards the management of flows in states such as Libya, which has not even signed Geneva conventions and whose partnership with the EU has been limited to an “observer” status throughout the process. Yet this “externalization” of NGO activity falls back into the hierarchy between Europe and less democratized nations; what is more, the human rights reports on the EU’s Mediterranean partners begin to function similar to the negotiations for EU membership where the candidate states are put on a path of democratization under the tutelage of the EU. The case of Turkey may be symptomatic in this respect, for the status of the partner is combined here with that of the candidate.

When the issue is thus framed within the terms of a contract between the EU and a non-member state, what also disappears from the scene is all the dynamics that play into and facilitate the third country’s ability as border patrol, such as the relations between two transit countries—e.g. Morocco and Algeria, or Turkey and Greece—as well as between them and the countries of origin, the conflicts and contradictory interests between them. The concept of “regional protection” or “protection close to the source” that have been proposed in an EU Circular of 2004 outlining the La Haye program, does not quite engage with such local dynamics. Yet, we have the striking accounts of sub-Saharan migrants captured by Maghrebian states at the time of the dismantling of migrant camps at Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco in the fall of 2005. We read in these accounts of how the Cameroonian, Malian, Senegalese and Mauritanian migrants are driven by Moroccan authorities to the desert zone between Morocco and Algeria, only to be captured by the Algerian security forces who expel them back to the Moroccan side. [6] Can this be considered as a small-scale re-enactment of the policy of “externalization” of the border, a duplicate of the European strategy? Given their limited resources these Maghreb states’ way of “containing” migration is to defer it to a no man’s land. We could say that there is a trade-off between the precision of controls at the border with Europe and the precarization of the border between southern Mediterranean states. While the people are pushed to intensely insecure conditions on a fluctuating border in the desert between Morocco and Algeria, Algeria and Mali, Niger and Libya, there is no loss of efficiency in the policy of containment viewing from the coast of Europe.

Multilateral assemblies such as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership fail to address the dynamics of the relations between the third countries since such organizations are geared to regulating the relations between each non-member country and the EU. Even though transnational regional bodies like the Arab Maghreb Union become party to the negotiations with the EU, their intervention often concerns overarching issues and long established conflicts where these states can act as a unified block. It was remarkable, for instance, how in the recent debates on the Union for Mediterranean, the Arab Maghreb Union’s reservations focused exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [7] Similarly in the meeting of FORMED —Forum des pays de la Méditerranée— in Algiers, the reservations declared by the Algerian foreign minister focused on the distribution of funds and the location of the headquarters of the UpM. Immanent problems issuing from management of migration at the local level between these states were nowhere raised. The objection voiced by the African Union that attempts such as UpM are destructive to African unity, are likewise devoid of substance. This leads one to question whether meetings such as the Union for Mediterranean actually generate cooperation between countries that share the task of surveilling European borders.

The deportations that occur at the borders between nonmember states appears to exceed the traditional field of activity of human rights groups and NGOs as well, for the problem goes beyond the observation and reporting of the conditions at a definite reception center. The lacuna emerging at the interior borders of the southern Mediterranean and outside the legislative/contractual space set up by the EU may be seen as an impasse for the human rights initiatives. On the other hand, it may provide the ground to unforeseen political responses towards transnational migration. The recent accounts of the treatment of migrant groups at the Saharan borders of North African states point to a new direction for migrants’ activism, which exceeds the traditional orientation of human rights initiatives. On the list of groups that have contributed with their reports to the Black Book of Ceuta and Melilla compiled by the Migreurope collective, we come across the names of—and I translate—Forum for another Mali: Network of African Artists and Intellectuals; a group based in Oujda, the border city between Algeria and Morocco, called Beni Znassen Association for Culture, Development and Solidarity, besides the traditional human rights associations based in Andalusia, Rif and others. Two years later, in October 2007, a greater diversity of groups have come together to draft the “Declaration of Oujda” calling for an investigation of the attacks on migrants in Ceuta and Melilla: Association for the development and sensitizing of Cameroonian Migrants in the Maghreb, Association of Friends and Families of the Victims of Clandestine Immigration, Association of Congolese Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Morocco, Democratic Labor Confederation of Morocco, Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco, and so on—a real coalition of local initiatives. We also note that transversal regional connections are characteristic of these groups. The first hand experience of displacement, the particular trajectories and obstacles encountered are expressed in the very composition of the organizations. The case of the group called ARACEM, Association of Central African Deportees in Mali, is a very good illustration. The group has been created by two young migrants from Cameroun who have crossed ways in Bamako—the capital of Mali—after having been intercepted in the course of their journey first by the Moroccan forces in Ceuta and then by the Algerian security forces. The association has been joined by migrants from a number of countries in central Africa, who share a common state of displacement in Bamako – since they cannot simply go back to their respective hometowns after having used up all the family resources to start the journey. Thus, turning precarity into a resource, they gather in solidarity to record their experiences and raise awareness about the dynamics that are at work in the uncontrolled desert borders of North Africa. [8] In 2007 the group has published a report on arbitrary deportations carried out by the Algerian government on its border with Mali and Niger. [9]

From this report we learn about the off-the-record tactics the Maghrebian security forces use to handle migrants; moreover we find clues about the micro dynamics of the encounters between people of different ethnicities and religions. Among these are the instances of local solidarity. We learn, for instance, that when a group of black migrants encounter the inhabitants of an Algerian town one of the first questions asked is whether they are Muslims. When the local people learn that the migrants share the same faith as themselves, generous help often follows. A common language also serves as a basis for solidarity. If there are Arabic speakers in a migrant group they are able to establish contact with the locals and receive the latter’s support. From these accounts we acquire an outlook on the immediate encounters between the people on the move and the locals. Dynamics such as these operate on a plane different from the contractual one between the governments of third countries and Europe. The multiplicity of local dynamics, and the associations that grow from them signal towards another political direction than the effort of the human rights organizations and the more progressive sections within the EU body to bring checks and balances on the implementations of third states. The micro-politics of migration taking shape at the border zones operate outside the slow moving calender of “democratization” set up for the third nations by the European state.

The legalization or regularization discourse seems, on the contrary, to have narrowed the horizon so much that the only actors on the field outside the state agents appear to be “illegal networks for human trafficking”. Let’s read for example this article from the Draft conclusions of the Seville Summit: “Strengthening control measures at their borders to prevent illegal entry, transit of stay in the countries of the European Union, complemented by police controls within their national territory aimed at disrupting and dismantling networks of smugglers or traffickers in human beings”—and in the latter part of the article a shift occurs: “in line with the relevant international instruments including those on Human Rights.” At best, the migrants are depicted as “victims” of illegal networks, as if the act of border crossing is not a conscious choice on the part of migrants. Or worse, the discourse used in the EU’s multilateral agreements confounds the “undocumented” status of the migrants with the “illegality” of the traffickers.

A good way to expose this logic that makes any active will for mobility disappear, or displaces it unto illegality, is to compare the discourse in the EU documents with the counter case of voluntary “humanitarian help” to migrants in the US border zone. A recent legislation by the US Homeland Security treats those who help illegal migrants as equally subject to penalization as the human smugglers. Catholic leaders in the border states have recently had to deal with this new regulation and have overtly stood against it, showing civil disobedience by continuing to give migrants shelter and aid. This counter example shows that the state’s discourse against the “mistreatment of the human traffickers,” while seeming to be protective of rights, applies just the same to human aid groups insofar as they facilitate the flows of people in defiance of the state’s control over its frontiers.

There is yet another channel that the micro-politics of migration and asylum follows. Thanks to the long history of migration from North Africa to Europe there is a strong presence of migrants’ organizations in the Maghrebian diaspora, particularly in France, which closely observe the EU’s policy of externalization of the border. Indeed, these groups possess an insight into the double aspects of the border: the inner border that isolates people of migrant origin in the metropolis, and the outer border surveilled by their own compatriots in the Maghreb. In the days leading to the first meeting of the Union for Mediterranean, an outspoken member of The Natives of the Republic, a transnational migrants’ collective based in France, comments: “I am anxious about the role the Maghrebian states are going to play as gendarmeries of Europe against our brother black Africans. They betray the spirit of independence and the struggle against imperialism. But I have great confidence in Algerian people. I am sure they will … stay on the side of the oppressed.” [10] In the same period, while the Maghrebian states pronounce their reservations against the Mediterranean Union, which are then removed by the quick maneuvers of the French leadership, such as the visit of the president to Algeria to promise a nuclear reactor, a coalition of organizations based in France are at work preparing a call for “a Mediterranean of struggles”. [11] Among these are the Association of respectively Moroccans, Palestinians, Tunisians in France; Association of Maghrebian Workers in France; Union of Tunisian Migrant Workers; International Civil Society for the Protection of Palestinian People; Federation of Tunisian Citizens of the Two Coasts; Generation Palestine; Movement of the Natives of the Republic; Assembly of Associations of Citizens of Turkish Origin; French Jewish Union for Peace etc., alongside organizations like Attac and CNT—National Labor Confederation.

These diasporic organizations approach the problem of the externalization of the border in its multiple facets. Their critique of the Maghrebian state is not limited to the latter’s attitude towards migration but targets all the other shortcomings regarding political freedoms as well. The vision of a “Mediterranean of struggles” thus combines the call for “freedom of movement of the people, the closing of the places of detention and the cancellation of all the agreements for the fight against migration,” with the struggle for “the respect of human rights and the development of fundamental freedoms, in particular, trade union rights and freedoms of press, expression and organization; release of all the prisoners of opinion, ending of torture, and of the states of exception and terror and, defending the right of each and everyone to be able to defend him/herself juridically”. We may note here that political refugees from the Maghreb have an important weight in the composition of these diaspora groups. Another singular aspect of their composition is that these groups emerge out of a solidarity based in the French banlieue, where people of North African descent are gathered with those from Western African or Caribbean origins. Hence the diaspora is one step ahead in terms of the inter-ethnic or transnational solidarity that is only just beginning to emerge in the Saharan border zones and along the migration routes.

Transnational solidarity on the issue of migration has also been developing on a macro scale in the Border Social Forums the first of which has been organized in 2006 in Bamako-Mali, Ivory Coast and Rabat-Morocco and immediately afterwards on the Mexican-US border. The mutual awareness among the struggles of disparate geographies promises to enhance the power of each. The responses by the organizations of the Maghrebian diaspora towards the “Return Directive” recently adopted by the EU (on June 18) found a prompt echo in the declarations of Latin American leaders, particularly in a statement by Morales, who denounced the legislation as a violation of the right of free movement, and underlined the importance of migrants’ remittances for third world nations.

In sum, the politics of migration seems to be shaped under divergent forces: the externalization of the EU’s border and asylum policy seems to have achieved its goal of filtering the flows of people. From the mass of migrants asylum seekers are elected as the only group whose claim to border crossing can be validated. In a climate where the procedure of that validation is itself placed at risk by being subcontracted to third states, the efforts of human rights organizations become oriented towards ensuring the legality of the procedure. However this reorientation of focus implies a closing off of perspective from the defense of free movement of people, to a juridico-ethical concern with asylum rights and proper treatment of those who will be expelled.

The opposing tendency, on the other hand, is a multiplication of local, transversal migrants’ rights groups emerging from the communities of deported migrants in third states, interaction between the migrants and inhabitants of a locality on the route of passage, as well as the already well-established diaspora struggles in the metropolis.

Some of the questions that in my opinion arise for us from these divergent possibilities are: What will be the determining forces in our attempts to reject becoming Europe’s gendarmerie? If we want more room for action than bringing checks and balances to the future implementations of the Turkish state as dictated by a Mediterranean Partnership, what local dynamics might be relevant for our geography? What are the potentialities for transversal local solidarity with our neighbors on the border, particularly Greece? Is the emergence of cities on the border such as Oujda between Algeria and Morocco, as centers for gatherings and declarations outside any state initiative, likely to have resonances on our local map?

* Text version of the presentation at the September 2008 Dikili No-Border Camp, the first one to be held in Turkey. The first part of my title, which I qualify with a question mark, is a line from Pascal’s Thoughts, cited by Carl Schmidt in The Nomos of the Earth to support his argument that the realm of justice must of necessity be geographically limited. The Jus Publicum Europaeum, or a European-wide justice system, is viable according to Schmidt, only to the extent that it sets itself up against territories where an other law or complete lawlessness reigns. Hence the attempt to extend European law across the world, in the manner of United Nations, is an absurdity. Schmidt’s notion of law appears to be an apt analysis of the contemporary situation in which human rights diminish along the shifting borders of Europe.

[1“Babacan: ‘Akdeniz’ konusunda korkular yersiz”, Radikal, 15 July 2008.

[2Mezzadra, Sandro. “Border, Migrants, Citizenship”, trans. Maribel Casas Cortés and Sebastian Cobarrubias, 11 Sept 2006,

[3Mitropoulos, A. and Finoki, B. “Borders 2.0: Future, Tense”, MetaMute, 12 Aug 2008,

[4Le livre noir de Ceuta et Melilla, Migreurope collective,


[6ARACEM, (Association des Refoulés d’Afrique Centrale au Mali), “Rapporto sulle Condizioni dei Migranti di Transito in Algeria”, 10 Dec 2007,

[7Union pour la Méditerranée: les pays arabes veulent des “clarifications”, 5 Aug 2008,

[9ARACEM, “Rapporto sulle Condizioni dei Migranti di Transito in Algeria”, 10 Dec 2007,

[10Interview with Houria Bouteldja,

[11“Pour une Méditerranée des lutes”,

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