The inhumane futility of border policing

Increased and more violent border policing does not work. It is time to abolish it.

An asylum seeker sits on a hill outside the perimeter of the overcrowded refugee camp at Vathy on the eastern Aegean island of Samos, Greece, on February 23, 2021 [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP]

On September 22, as I descended from the ferry into the bustling port of Lesbos, Greece, I was stopped by a police officer. “Don’t worry, it’s just a security check,” he said, gesturing for me to follow him, and insisting my friend come too. We were directed to a beige trailer at the end of the port, where I, an Arab woman, along with my white German friend, joined an Afghan man and a Black man. The belongings of the latter were strewn across the table, as the officer interrogated him about each card in his billfold – his residency card identified him as an asylum seeker. The officer then patted him down aggressively, grabbing at each of his legs.

A woman officer rifled through my belongings, opening each lipstick and each zipper, as a male officer, holding my American passport, asked me several times whether I was a reporter. “For the third time, I am an American university professor,” I said. He stepped up to me aggressively saying, “no one cares what you do”.

Racial profiling at the southern border of the European Union was clearly rife.

In the following weeks on the islands of Lesbos and Samos, as well as in the capital, Athens, I met asylum seekers from various places – from Afghanistan to Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea. They all shared their traumatic stories of trying to reach European shores to seek protection and safety – a right guaranteed to them under international law – and instead, being treated as criminals and rule breakers. They were among millions of others who, cast out of their homes due to war, environmental degradation, or persecution, amalgamate into what the media calls a “migrant crisis” – an influx of the “unwanted”.

In an effort to deter migration, countries in the Global North, at the border with the Global South, including Greece and the United States, are increasingly deploying violent policing tactics, including racial profiling, pushbacks at the border and incarceration. However, these violent measures do little to deter people who have nowhere else to go and nothing left to lose. Instead, this brutal, inhumane and expensive approach to tackling immigration only exacerbates the problem of displacement and causes suffering and death.

Greece has been lauded as the “shield” of the EU against immigrants – and is a key site of the billions of euros spent by the EU on digital and physical border infrastructure. The land border at Evros, and the sea border, including along the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, an hour’s boat ride from the Turkish coast, are at the centre of these efforts.

These are the sites of the illegal practice of pushbacks where Greek border officers and the coast guard, under the watch of Frontex, push asylum seekers back to Turkey. Mare Liberum, an organisation that tracks pushbacks in the sea, recorded a record 91 pushbacks of 2,289 people this September. Across the EU, these practices have claimed the lives of an estimated 2,000 people.

Pushbacks, however, have simply created a system where asylum seekers are forced to attempt the same journeys again and again, risking their lives each time. A Syrian man who I met in a refugee camp in Athens, and who had observable injuries on the left side of his body from a bombing by the Bashar al-Assad regime, was forced to try nine times to cross the land border at Evros. He said that each time he and his two female family members were apprehended on the Greek side, stripped of their belongings, taken to a jail and pulled back over to the Turkish border the following morning. I also spoke to Afghan and Congolese asylum seekers who also had to try multiple times by sea. They reported that smuggling has adapted to this new normal. Smugglers’ fees have gone up, and they are now paid to a broker who releases them only after a successful arrival.

The US border policies offer another example of how border policing, and particularly pushbacks, exacerbate crises of displacement. Recently, footage of Border Patrol officers on horseback whipping Haitians drew swift and fitting rebuke. Underlying this scene, however, is the persistent logistical violence of quick expulsions.

Following the lead of his predecessor, President Joe Biden has continued to use Title 42 of the 1944 Public Health Services Law, which allows the government to deny entry to foreigners who may have communicable diseases. Under this provision, at least one million people have been denied their right, per international law, to apply for asylum.

Importantly, this is part of a broader system of border policing and control over immigrant mobility, that starts at the border and extends inland, creating desperate situations of limbo. The Haitian asylum seekers were stranded in the town of Del Rio, which straddles the US-Mexico border, without food or water, as a way to compel them to self-deport.

Purposefully long waits at the border, however, are a standard aspect of the country’s asylum policy. What is more, even when asylum seekers do enter, they face the prospect of indefinite detention in the largest immigrant detention system in the world, and possibly even family separation, which was widely practised under the Trump administration.

On the Greek island of Samos, detentions have turned into effective incarceration. I spoke with people there who were stuck for over two years as their applications for asylum were adjudicated. The majority lived in the “jungle” camps – in tents without running water, electricity, or plumbing. On September 21, I watched along with NGO workers, and journalists, as they were forcibly relocated, under the gaze of Greek police officers, to a Closed Control Access Centre – an effective prison – surrounded by three layers of barbed-wire, which they cannot freely leave.

However, these brutal policies of pushbacks, beatings and detention in subhuman conditions have not been a deterrent to people on the move. In the US, Customs and Border Protection, an agency with a $17.7bn budget, reported a two-decade record of 213,534 enforcement encounters in July that stayed relatively stable in August. In Europe, as COVID-19 restrictions for travel eased, Frontex reported a 64 percent spike in sea crossings in the first eight months of 2021, compared with last year, with 103,630 people making the journey.

These statistics reflect the failure of the expensive, brutal tactics of border policing. Clearly, people on the move believe that what they are running towards is still better than what they are running from; so much so that they would risk these encounters with authorities, their savings and their lives.

Policing, as abolitionists have long argued, precludes safety by treating people as threats rather than human beings. The only solution to the human crisis of displacement is to divest from policing, and the borders they protect, and invest in people instead. This means not only recognising people’s legal rights but also recognising their aspirations. It means supporting them materially and symbolically, through healthcare, education and public assistance, as they pursue them.

The frontier between the Global North and South has become a liminal zone replete with people in perpetual limbo, denied a chance at a good life or societal contribution. If we believe that their lives are valuable, that they too are capable of more than waiting, then the denial of their possibilities as people is both a moral crisis and a devastating loss to us all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.