Border crossings

The closure of Sangatte means more freedom of movement…for the immigration authorities.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The recent deal between Britain and France to close the Sangatte refugee centre in Calais has sparked various number-crunching debates, about the implications of Britain accepting 1000-odd Iraqi and Afghan migrants (1).

But a more interesting aspect of the deal was the decision to move Britain’s immigration control across the Channel to Calais. On French soil, some 20 miles away from the White Cliffs of Dover, travellers will find themselves searched and questioned by UK Home Office immigration officials.

This is just the latest example of police services creeping across national boundaries. National borders were once considered all-important, symbolising the clear demarcation between the laws and customs of different nation states. When the Second World War refugee made it across the border into Switzerland, he was safe; when the Hollywood outlaw made it across the border out of America, he had got away with his crime.

Today, it seems, states are a bit more relaxed about things – happier to let foreign officials carry out business on their territory, and to join forces in collaborative efforts. This blurring of police boundaries has some worrying implications for liberty.

The UK has more plans to extend its immigration controls overseas. The UK Home Office’s White Paper, Secure Borders, Safe Haven, in February 2002 proposed a series of different measures for ‘engaging positively in the European and international arena to disrupt the flows of those who do not qualify’ for asylum – including pre-clearance in the Czech Republic, deploying Airline Liaison Officers overseas and screening passengers before they travel to the UK (2).

The USA has also moved its immigration controls south over recent years, acting in Guatemala and Mexico to stem immigrant flows towards its southern border (3).

National police services are also finding it easier to cross borders to catch suspects. In December 2001, European Union (EU) leaders agreed on the implementation of an EU arrest warrant – obliging any EU country to hand over suspects of serious crimes to any other member state, without having to undergo lengthy and costly extradition proceedings (4). This was used for the first time in February 2002, when Spain issued a pan-European arrest warrant to Holland for a Spaniard suspected of involvement in killings by Basque separatist group ETA (5).

There are also moves to create joint police and immigration forces – where national officials are pooled into supranational bodies. Back in February 2001, then Home Secretary Jack Straw suggested an EU resettlement programme – refugee camps set up in countries (like Pakistan) near trouble spots (like Afghanistan) that would process asylum applications and distribute refugees among European countries (6).

In 1998, the Italian Foreign Ministry suggested that a common ‘social pact’ be agreed to ‘that would resolve the immigration problem’, calling for a European Coast Guard Force to be established to survey porous borders against migration inflows (7). And the European Commission recently proposed that Europol, the coordinating centre for European police forces, be given teeth and transformed into what one commentator described as ‘a body resembling a mix of the FBI and CIA’ (8).

These moves indicate a shift in notions of national sovereignty. Rather than insisting on strict boundaries, within which their legal and official instruments reign supreme, states are looking to cooperate more with other countries to achieve their law and order objectives.

In part, these cross-border initiatives can be seen as a response to a heightened preoccupation with rootless international terrorism. Throughout the war on terror, we have been told that a third of the globe poses a ‘terror threat’ to the West, capturing the elites’ obsession with ‘shadowy’, indefinable networks.

But they also reflect states’ uncertainty about imposing law and order in a definitive way, within strict boundaries. Rather than building a border of steel along the White Cliffs of Dover, and dealing with migrants when they turn up, Britain is seeking to tackle the issue of illegal immigration in a much more diffuse way – sending its officials to work in a variety of countries, and cooperating with a variety of other authorities.

All this raises the question of liberty. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America in 1998, the USA reportedly paid for buses to transport migrants thought to be heading for the US-Mexican border from Guatemala back to El Salvador and Honduras. The USA has also paid Mexico to divert several boatloads of Chinese nationals away from California, where they were planning to claim asylum (9).

That the USA can restrict the free movement of people in Guatemala, hundreds of miles away, because it suspects that they may be intending to reach America, indicates that coercive functions are being extended and liberties eroded.

The system of territorial sovereignty makes citizens’ rights and duties relatively clear – if they live within the law of the land, the state has no business infringing upon their liberty. As the lines of sovereignty become blurred, it is less clear where citizens stand. Opponents to the EU arrest warrant have complained that it may mean Britons facing a foreign court charged with crimes not recognised in the UK. They also argue that the warrant would remove a suspect’s right to challenge extradition in their home country’s courts (10).

Others have claimed that an expanded Europol would be completely unaccountable – either to citizens or their leaders (11). Supranational police powers bode badly for democracy.

There are limits to how far boundaries can be blurred. A recent article noted that ‘moving beyond the sphere of competence of the individual state may be logistically and politically challenging’: ‘having German police officers enter the Netherlands during a “hot pursuit” would be largely viewed as politically and symbolically unacceptable to the Dutch. Similarly, proposals by the German government to send liaison officers to the Greek border to control the inflow of migrants there have met with great hostility.’ (12)

And this new approach is likely to present difficulties, as it becomes less clear where authority lies. What happens if one country disagrees with another country’s arrest warrant? And where does the buck stop? Is it France’s responsibility to prevent illegal immigration across the channel, or England’s?

In different circumstances, the breaking down of national boundaries could have positive consequences for freedom of movement, and allowing more international associations between people. However, as international migrants are finding out, the blurring of boundaries means freedom to roam for state authorities, not for individuals.

It is the extension of policing and surveillance, rather than the movement of people, that lies behind today’s apparently internationalist trajectory.

(1) Britain to accept 1,200 migrants in Sangatte deal, 3 December 2002

(2) See Secure Borders, Safe Haven (.pdf), Home Office, February 2002

(3) The Puebla Process: US Migration Controls Move South of the Border, Melanie Nezer, World Refugee Survey 1999

(4) See Suspects face quicker extradition, BBC News, 27 June 2002; and Battle looms over EU arrest warrant, BBC News, 13 December, 2001

(5) Spain implements EU arrest warrant, CNN, 1 February 2002

(6) Long arm of the Straw, by Josie Appleton

(7) Towards a common European migration and asylum policy?, Colleen Thouez, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, 18 September 2001

(8) The EU-arrest warrant: A threat to civil liberties, 21 November 2001

(9) The Puebla Process: US Migration Controls Move South of the Border, Melanie Nezer, World Refugee Survey 1999

(10) Battle looms over EU arrest warrant, 13 December 2001

(11) The EU-arrest warrant: A threat to civil liberties, 21 November 2001

(12) Towards a common European migration and asylum policy?, Colleen Thouez, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, 18 September 2001

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Topics Politics


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