by Will Taylor
In December 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of “six decades of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” Emboldened, the EU looks down on the nations of the global south from a high pedestal. Over and over one hears calls for “development”, admonishing them for being so poor while marvelling at the wealth of Europe – whilst carefully never drawing a causal link. Angelina Merkel was in Oslo with the great and good of the EU to receive the award, however throughout the autumn, underneath the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, refugees on hunger strike shivered under the meagre shelters of umbrellas. They had brought a tent, but the Bundespolize – fearful of anything tent shaped post Occupy – tore it down. The circumstances of this group of wretched figures, dwarfed by one of Berlin’s greatest monuments, demolish any claims by the EU to be advancing human rights.
The refugees were part of the “Berlin Refugee Strike” protest movement, which in turn is one struggle within in a spontaneous movement of refugee activism that is currently sweeping the Eurozone. With next to no main stream media coverage, asylum seekers and immigrants across the EU are organizing, launching popular marches, setting up camps in plazas and town squares, occupying churches and going on hunger strike. The largest mobilisations have been in Germany and Austria, where protest marches from across the country converged on Berlin and Vienna to occupy public spaces.
Their demands vary from country to country, however essentially they are demanding human rights and human dignity. In France the hunger strikers of Lille demanded regularization, the right to be considered a legal person. In the detention centres of Poland, Eastern Europeans went on hunger strike for fair treatment during incarceration. In Finland hunger strikes began in protest to deportations to Afghanistan. In all of the cases people who have become uprooted exiles for a chance of freedom are seeing their one desire taken away by the countries they thought would help them. They see the border policies of the EU as authoritarian and with many migrants facing the prospect of death if they are deported to their home country or unlimited periods of detention, they have resorted to the hunger strike as a last resort.
The fact that this option need even be considered, in what is supposed to be one of the most “developed” regions of the world, aptly demonstrates the levels of persecution suffered by refugees in Europe. Since the end of the cold war, political and media rhetoric towards refugees has shifted. They were portrayed as “clandestine migrants” or “asylum cheats” rather than exiles from tyrannical regimes. Despite colonial legacies of integrating different peoples, it suited some in the political class of Europe to scapegoat migrants for their own failures. They made a conveniently weak target to be blamed for unemployment levels, lack of housing and increasing inequality. Then came 9/11, and a disconcertingly popular discourse of “clash of civilisations” between Muslims and Christians. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, with regimes across the region collapsing into political turmoil and an upsurge in people fleeing their homes, the situation became a major humanitarian crisis.
The EU solution has been to treat this humanitarian crisis as a security threat. It is monitored, policed and kept under control. An Iron Curtain has fallen over Europe (again). Instead of dividing east and west, it cuts north from south. As the EU did away with internal frontiers and controls via the Schengen Agreement, it consolidated its external border. Much of this is the Mediterranean sea, where European reluctance to assist refugees in unseaworthy vessels has led to untold numbers of deaths at sea, over 1500 in 2011 alone, and chilling incidents such as the “left to die” boat, which left Libya with 72 people on board and drifted for 14 days. By the time they had managed to limp back to the Libyan coastline, only 11 people were left alive. This despite being sighted by 3 separate NATO aircraft and one Navy ship during their ordeal. The EU is pouring millions into its EUROSUR surveillance project, which will see the use of drones in hunting humans trying to make the crossing.
Those who make it into Europe alive mostly arrive in Italy and Greece, where their fingerprints are recorded on the EURODAC system. This biometric technology records fingerprints onto a European database, and is used to enforce the Dublin II convention, which stipulates that refugees must claim asylum in the first European country that they arrive in, which serves to shield the rich northern countries from “unmanageable” levels of migration by deporting them all to the south. Despite deportation being outlawed by the UN 1951 Refugee convention, the EU both deports refugees to their countries of origin, or uses internal deportation to keep them out of the rich north. Deportation is deadly; however not only by returning political dissidents to the arms of dictatorships – in 2010 an Angolan man named Jimmy Mubenga died on BA flight 77, due to send him from Heathrow to Angola. G4S private security guards suffocated him while he resisted, screaming “they are going to kill me.” To this date, none of his guards have been charged with any offense.  Internal deportation can be just as deadly, the fascist group Golden Dawn is now so powerful in Greece that the US Embassy warns its citizens visiting Greece of “unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants”.  There are regular cases of migrants who commit suicide rather than suffer deportation. 
The situation is no better in the detention centres. Although the exact conditions vary from country to country, human rights abuse is routine. The list of abuses tend to include racist treatment from prison guards, lack of respect for halal dietary preferences, denial of access to legal counsel, unprovoked attacks on prisoners and poor conditions overflowing centres.  The very use of detention centres for people who have committed no wrongdoing criminalises immigrants. If a refugee can bet past the external frontiers and avoid being trapped on the Dublin II conveyor belt, then she must face other borders; the ingrained racism in European society and social exclusion and depravation of minority groups that refugees are struggling to even join. 
The EU operates on the assumption of deterrence. “If we are tough enough then they will go somewhere else” However many of these refugees are from the most tyrannical dictatorships and the most blighted warzones; Eritrea, Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan or Syria. Tough migration policy will never deter them; it will only enter the EU into a race to the bottom against dictatorships. Meanwhile migrants are completely excluded from the public sphere – suicide, mental health problems and self-harm are all too common. Refugees in the EU are fighting for their survival – only time will tell whether they can improve their position in Europe, the continent of “peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights.”