Berlin, Germany – A massive police operation was launched by 25 European countries on Monday seeking to detect, detain and possibly deport tens-of-thousands of so-called “irregular” migrants.
During the 14-day Operation Mos Maiorum, some 20,000 police officers will stake out border crossings, railway stations, bus depots, and highways throughout Europe to apprehend so-called irregular migrants – people living clandestinely here without official documentation granting permission to stay.
EU officials say the operation is needed to combat human-smuggling rings and to gather information on smuggling routes. Rights groups, meanwhile, have denounced Mos Maiorum – a Latin term describing the unwritten code of laws and conduct in ancient Roman times – as inhumane.
No clear data exist on the number of irregular migrants in the European Union, but unofficial estimates range between 150,000 to 450,000 people.
These migrants are, in most cases, people who escaped dangerous homelands and are searching for safe and dignified living conditions, according to Karl Kopp, director of European affairs at ProAsyl, a German non-profit foundation.
“Mos Maiorum is an anti-refugee operation,” said Kopp. “Refugees are a target of this operation, let’s be clear.”
Ahmed Salihu, a Nigerian who received refugee status from Italy in February 2013, has been living in the German capital for more than a year.
He is considered an illegal migrant according to European Union’s Dublin regulation, which stipulates recognised refugees must live in the country that handled their asylum application. But Salihu hates being called “illegal”.
“Look at me,” he told Al Jazeera at Oranienplatz, a meeting point for the refugee community in the centre of Berlin. “I am a human being, just like you. I have two eyes, I have a mouth, so why do they treat me different? Why say I am illegal?”
The 29-year-old Salihu said he came to Berlin because in Italy, even as a recognised refugee with a residency permit, he had no opportunities to work, study, or live a normal life. Because of this and a better existence in Germany, he stayed in Berlin even though German authorities notified him he must go back to Italy.
Now he is under threat of arrest and deportation back to Italy.
Mos Maiorum is an anti-refugee operation. Refugees are a target of this operation, let's be clear.
Kopp said refugees often turn to smuggling networks because lawful, regulated entry paths to and inside Europe’s Schengen Area are hard to come by. Many migrants – most of whom are refugees from the Middle East or Africa – come to Schengen because it is the safest nearby region and offers economic security.
Only three legal ways exist for asylum seekers to enter the EU: through resettlement, humanitarian admission, and family reunification. These measures are far from adequate, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which last week urged EU ministers to create more safe and legal routes to Europe for people in need of protection.
The UN refugee agency has also criticised European countries, saying their low resettlement quotas are an insufficient response at a time when more than 51 million people are displaced – the highest number of refugees since World War II.
According to Kopp, a massive police operation such as Mos Maiorum is part of the EU’s deterrence policy against refugees, and it is a wrong signal in a situation that requires solidarity and humanity.
Fighting ‘organised crime’
The document announcing Mos Maiorum said its goal is “weakening the capacity of organised crime groups to facilitate illegal immigration to the EU”, and collecting information on smuggling routes. The word “refugees” does not appear in the document, even though during a similar two-week police operation last year, 36 percent of the 10,459 migrants intercepted were Syrians, and the second and third-largest groups were Eritrean and Afghan nationals, according to a EU document obtained by the NGO StateWatch.
The decision to set up Mos Maiorum was one of the first actions taken by the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union – a position that rotates among EU member states every six months.
The operation is led by the Italian Interior Ministry, which has so far not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
Frontex is the EU’s border control agency. Its Executive Director Gil Arias Fernandez said in a statement its participation in Mos Maiorum is limited to providing the Italians with statistics and data analysis of migratory flows at the EU’s external borders. The European Union’s Home Affairs office, the authority in charge of migration and asylum policy, declined to comment saying only it is not directly involved in Mos Maiorum.
I passed a lot of dangerous things. I survived a bomb attack, a shooting gun attack. In the sea - I survived. If they come to arrest me or to deport me - I am ready for that.
The operation has largely been kept out of the media spotlight in order to increase its effectiveness, critics say, but word has gotten out. In Berlin, activists who support refugees’ struggle for freedom of movement posted multilingual warning signs throughout the city urging “people without papers” to avoid public places for two weeks starting on Monday.
Salihu saw the warning signs on the Berlin streets, and also heard about Mos Maiorum from activists. He has reason to worry.
During last year’s operation, 1,606 migrants were caught inside Germany, the second-largest number of interceptions among countries that took part. Italy was first with 4,800 people arrested.
Germany confirmed to Al Jazeera that it is participating in Mos Maiorum. According Lisa Hager, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Ministry of the Interior, the handling of migrants who have no legal right to stay in Germany would be determined by authorities on an individual basis.
For Salihu, that could mean immediate deportation to Italy.
Since leaving his homeland in fear of political persecution, Salihu has been forced to move repeatedly. He fled Libya when the civil war made it too dangerous for him to stay. He risked his life crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy on board an overcrowded fishing boat. Finally, he left Italy when he realised he had no chance for a normal life there.
Salihu said whatever happens during Mos Maiorum, he is not afraid.
“I passed a lot of dangerous things,” Salihu said. “I survived a bomb attack, a shooting gun attack. In the sea – I survived. If they come to arrest me or to deport me, I am ready for that.”
Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner