Camps: migrations control, migrants struggles

Discussion paper for the september workshop in London

22.Sep.04 - Internment camps for foreigners are not new in Europe. But today the projects for externalisation out of Europe, the degradation of asylum policies which become what immigration policies have always been, tools for police control and migratory utilitarianism, all this make camps a major tool for these policies, European as well as national, and a place for migrants struggles and resistance.

Their denominations, their history, their typology differ from one country to another, but they have common functions, and remain at the opposite of the "Fortress Europe" vision, which (although sometimes efficient for mobilizing) is partial and victimary.

On the one hand because institutional policies use utilitarianism along with repression (and sometimes also a fake humanitarism, but contradictions and lies are nothing to wonder at, only neo-liberal rationality functioning in terms of cost/benefit calculus). A better term would be "sieve Europe", the sieve which lets go those we need and holds the "bogus" refugees. Migrations are not comparable to an hydraulic flow one can dry up or reactivate by the sole discretionary will of a political or economic programme, a repressive policy or a "plan for return". Migrations are an autonomous social mouvement, and no social or political struggle can ignore migrants struggles for collective rights.

But above all because this slogan sees in migration a trial, one of the numerous catastrophies engendered by globalization, an unavoidable process which overtakes those submitted to it. The migrant is a victim, a submissive body, doomed to invisibility, to wandering and waiting, prisoner of no-law zones out of political space, deprived of speech, with obligations but no rights, incorporated in quotes moved according to the needs of European economies. No place for subjectivity, speech, struggles, the many different desires for migration, the incredible courage migrants display to leave and live, to exercise a "right to flight". In this war declared to migrants a long time ago, more prosperous since 11/9 under the appearance of struggle against terrorism, migrants are neither "an undifferenciated fluctuating mass" (Etienne Balibar, L'Europe, la démocratie, la guerre), nor "large herds of innocent and bewildered people requiring urgent international assistance" as Edward SaÔd says about visions of refugees (Reflections on Exile). On the contrary those trapped in camps are neither categories ("clandestines", "irregulars") nor passive bodies: they are willing subjects.

Far from being all circled by walls with barbed-wire, camps are often delimited by invisible technological networks. A camp is also a process (control, filtering), not only a physical space.

Functions and characteristics, history, denominations

"The map is not the territory", Borgês wrote: as Europe borders cast their shadow beyond EU limits, "Europe" camps are far more than camps "in Europe".

The "centre d'accueil et d'hébergement de Sangatte", a strange organisation of transit, neither zone d'attente (for people entering the territory at an airport/harbour/railway station and willing to deposit an asylum claim) nor centre de rétention (for migrants waiting to be deported), has functioned as a camp between 1999 and 2002, under the management of the French Red Cross. It is a perfect example of what a camp is used for: created to make invisible the migrants who came to Normandy and Pas-de-Calais to try a passage to UK, it was closed for the same reason, since migrants every night tried, often risking injuries or death, to catch a train or a boat to cross the Channel. Those who were not granted papers for France or UK were chased by the police, and found another kind of camp in Paris: the square Satragne, a small garden near Gare du Nord, where they had neither rights nor housing. How they became a collective, along with some supporting militants, is another story.

Whatever their names, we call "camps" these "present time Lagers" which evoke German camps for "asocial" in the 30's or the "camps on the beach" that France opened for the Spanish Republican army (Rivesaltes, now a centre de rétention). Camps are not as exceptional as has been said: the domination logic which functions there is also to be found in society at large, as an administrative mechanism to control migrants mobility and to assess a national sovereignty shattered by the making of Europe.

In spite of their differences (size, time of duration, status, functioning), camps have common characteristics

their inmates are exclusively foreigners (outside EU), whose only crime is to have infringed (or tried to infringe) the rules States determine for the crossing of their borders;
frequent legal indetermination;
no freedom of movement;
inmates considered not as subjects but as categories, or even numbers;
violation of fundamental rights (asylum right, private and family life right, right not to be imposed inhumane or degrading treatments, or specific rights for minors);
Frequent physical and moral violences.

Camps also serve some common functions

confinement, which is also a tacit contract between State and society, to which it is presented as a garanty of safety;
they serve as a deterrent towards migrants (wether the camps are visible or not);
they serve as a filter for illegal work and the recomposition of labour, the only issue for those who escape or are released.

Variety of camps

They can be official or informal, built for asylum seekers, sans-papiers, foreigners awaiting deportation or a decision which will allow them (or not) to cross a border. The internal regime, the average duration (fixed by a law or arbitrary, reminding of the "indefinite detention" in Guantanamo), the status of the foreigners inside vary. There are border-camps near airports and harbours such as French zones d'attente, some Italian Centri di Permanenza Temporanea e d'Accoglienza (CPT) or the Spanish Centres d'Internement pour étrangers. There are the Belgian centres fermés (closed centers), or the French centres and locaux de rétention where the foreigners await deportation. There are the sieve-camps where arrive migrants trying to reach Europe from East or South: 20-some in the Greek islands, 5 or 6 in Malta, others in Canary Islands, Sicily, Hungary, Slovenia. In Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish towns enclosed in Moroccan territory, steel walls more than 3m high have been erected, with barbed-wire, captors, cameras, searchlights, along a no man's land 5m wide.

Camps localisation vary: in the heart of the towns or in their peripheries (via Corelli in Milano, Zapi3 in Roissy); on the national territory but more remote than on another planet (Woomera, now closed, in the Australian desert 400km from the nearest town; Lampedusa, surrounded by a dangerous sea). And these other camps which externalisation projects (English, German-Italian, European) plan at the margins of Europe or in Africa, on the model of the Australian Pacific Solution, which deports in Southern Pacific banana republics (with juicy financial agreements) migrants forbidden on the mainland, under IOM control and with the blessing of UNHCR.


In France, the administrative retention go back to 1810 ( Penal Code art. 120), and the centres de rétention (detention centers for foreigners waiting to be deported) were created in 1981 by the (socialist) loi Questiaux. But some of them already existed in the 30's (Rivesaltes), or the 50's, as a proof of the permanence of the administration: e.g. during the war in Algeria, in the administrative detention centre of Vincennes were imprisoned militants of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale, i.e.French in spite of the fact that they were officially called FMA ? French muslims of Algeria) d'origine musulmane); after Evian agreements (1962) it was used for extreme-right OAS activists; it is now a centre de rétention.

The zones d'attente (waiting zones for asylum seekers) in airports, harbours and international railway stations, existed, though illegaly, since the end of the 70's and were legalized by a socialist gouvernment (1992 amendement Marchand).
In Italy, a "left" government creates CPT with the Turco-Napolitano law (1998), and a Berlusconi government which settles their functioning by the Bossi-Fini law (2001).

Camps are used for migrants, but also for asylum seekers. In 30 years the official conception of asylum has changed: after welcoming political refugees and Russian dissents in the 70's comes the stop to economic migration (74); the croll of the Berlin Wall, the end of the soviet system bring apocalyptic visions of Eastern invasions; 11/9 will transform any migrant, asylum seekers included, into a terrorist. Whenever a European document mentions illegal immigration, it is always along with organized criminality, human beings trafficking and drugs trafficking, and now terrorism; a "common sense" idea understates that if there are many refugees, it is because there are too many of them, and too many "bogus". UNHCR, which manages camps in Africa, agrees with this vision, and its Convention Plus project announces less protection.

Externalisation projects now concern camps outside Europe.

Borders surveillance and struggle against clandestine migration are the core of the common policy installed by EU for asylum and migrations, starting from Amsterdam treaty (which came into force in 1999); a process accelerated since 11/9, a key date making the struggle against terrorism a priority for EU. Even if the link between terrorism and illegal migration has never been observed, it does not matter: there is now an atmosphere of suspicion, which favours the next step. Foreigners camps are part of a set of measures which, under the name of "common asylum and migration policy", goes towards "externalization" of EU borders control.

In February 2003, Tony Blair sent to his European partners a project for delocalized Transit Processing Centers, camps outside EU borders to confine asylum seekers while their claims are processed by UNHCR, while IOM takes care of the managements. When a decision is reached (after 6 months), the migrant is either "voluntarily" returned to his country (if denied asylum) or admitted to Europe: not to the country he had chosen for his new life, but according to a system of quotes determined in function of EU countries needs. Hungary, Morocco, Ukraine and Albania were evoked. The English project, presented at Veria informal JHA Council (march 2003), was favorably welcomed by several countries and above all by UNHCR Lubbers. At Thessaloniki Council (june 2003) it was temporarily postponed (because it raised crucial financial and logistic issues), but never rejected: UK was invited to proceed to "experimentations" with other countries (among which Australia, famous for its Pacific Solution), and a few months later negotiated with Tanzania, of course in exchange of an increase of financial help, the opening of camps of Somalians denied asylum rights in UK (Tanzania declined). Denmark considers sending its asylum seekers in East Africa.

What is at stake here is to export beyond European borders the responsibility European member states have towards their international commitments - here concerning refugees protection - and towards the consequences of their immigration policies. Management of the camps will be more and more privatized, subcontracted to multinational security companies such as Group4 Falk, which managed Woomera before it was closed, and Yarlswood in UK; employees of these companies are also operating in Irak.

These projects have taken a new upward turn during the summer of 2004, and even if they are not immediately implemented represent a capital turning point, a qualitative leap in European lingo and projects. All this in a quite widespread indifference (except for Italian activists and very few associations).

Two tragedies served as pretext, while the European Commission was renewed and Libya became everyone's darling (especially high-tech firms).

On July 11th, Cap Anamur (a ship belonging to a german NGO) is authorized for "humanitarian" reasons to dock in Sicily, 20 days after having rescued, in the international waters between Libya and Sicily, the 37 passengers of a sinking ship; the Italian authorities had been forbidding the docking since July 1st, scorning the non turning back principle. Italy, Malta (where the ship had stopped) and Germany handled the responsibility to one another, while scorning Geneva Convention, Nice Carta and Italian Constitution. These three EU member states, with the conniving silence of the European institutions, insisted on the fact that "humanitarian urgency" was impossible to meet for fear of creating a "dangerous precedent which would lead to numerous abuses".
They also misinterpreted Dublin II: in order to determine the state responsible for examining the asylum request, the request must first be presented in a EU member state. Moreover, the Italian Parliament has not yet adopted an asylum law: Italy has delegated to police the treatment of the admission to asylum procedure of refugees who have no other issue than clandestine immigration. The refugees are sent from one CPT to another, then deported to Ghana (although ECHR had forbidden their deportation); 3 members of the NGO are arrested (then released) for "helping illegal immigration" (Bossi-Fini law art.12). Roberto Castelli, Italian minister of Justiceand member of the Lega del Nord (extreme right party) talks of terrorism.
Otto Schily, German minister of the Interior, reactivates the English project by asking that EU opens camps for asylum seekers in North Africa.

A few weeks later, on August 2nd, the German cargo ship Zuidierdiep saves the 72 surviving passengers of a small boat which had left Libya a week earlier (with food and supplies for 2 days) ; they had to throw to the sea the corpses of 28 others. After the docking in Sicily the migrants are imprisoned in CPTs then deported. While Italian extreme right (by the voice of two Lega ministers, Castelli and Calderoli) asks for the strengthening of military interventions at sea, and that illegal entrance becomes a criminal offense, a new "consensus" appears.

Beppe Pisanu, Italian minister of the Interior, asks Europe to help Italy fight migratory invasion, of course for the sake of the migrants themselves, and with the goal of fullfilling Europe's "historical duty towards the thirld world". Romano Prodi, still officially UE Commission president, supports Pisanu: Europeis ready, but there is no agreement between the member states (thus no means),the competent instances must be put in motion (JAI and European Councils).
The Libyan minister of Interior "reveals" that his country is at risk to disappear with the arrival of millions of illegal migrants, most of them terrorists, and appeals to Europe (Libya had just eliminated the last obstacle to the shifting of the embargo by accepting to pay the victims of a bombing in Berlin).
On August 12th, the Italian Director of immigration visits his Libyan homologue; an agreement is signed (mixed sea patrols, now enforced, training, high technologies). Prodi pays a phone call to Ghedaffi to congratulate him forj oining the choir of democratic nations.
On the same day, Pisanu and Schily advocate the opening of camps in Libya and North Africa for asylum seekers. The project is supported by Rocco Buttiglione (former Berlusconi minister of European Affairs, UdC), newly appointed vice-president of the Commission and Commissioner for "Justice, Liberty and Safety" (the General Directorate which, under former Commissioner Vitorino, was called "Justice and Home Affairs"). He also indicates that European firms will be encouraged to visit these "portals" (the official denomination for the camps in Libya and North Africa): a new slave market? Meanwhile the Italians reactivate a 2003 proposal : the building in Malta of a "superjail" for all the migrants illegally staying in Europe for whom it can be proved that they had transited via Malta. An "unofficial" UNHCR position seems to indicate that it will be more or less involved in the management of the externalized camps.

No precise information is given: official press releases remain vague, a prefiguration of the Constitution "operational cooperation". But it would be no surprise that externalisation, with or without explicit camps (or rather behind euphemisms such as "active cooperation with origin countries" or the implementation of "protection systems in countries of origin" and "procedures for crossing protected borders") be at the agenda of the november European Council which must define the main axes of EU policy for 2005-2010, a period already called "Tampere II", in reference to the 1999 Tampere meeting, which launched a five years programme achieved in 2004, qui avait lancé un programme sur cinq ans, qui se termine en 2004).

Europe launches its Pacific Solution, camps already existing in Libya and North Africa become legitimate, EU borders extend beyond the Mediterranean. Camps become more and more a filter for illegal work and the mainspring of control policies, but also a critical space for migrants struggles.