The Phantasm of Civilization: What is the Price for Defending “Fortress Europe”?

Approaching the Polish-Belarusian border conflict from a decolonial perspective, researcher Kasia Narkowicz asks in her contribution to the “Black Box East” series: Is it worse to die in a cold forest on the border between two right-wing nationalist states than in cold waters on the borders of liberal democracies? Is it less painful to bury your children in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe?


There is a stark difference in tone of the coverage over the last few weeks of the tragic deaths associated with border crossings into Europe depending on which border is being crossed. Commentators, experts, humanitarian organizations on the ground, and EU officials have expressed outrage over the lack of humanity and resulting humanitarian crisis caused by Eastern European governments when discussing the treatment of migrants at the border between Poland and Belarus. Meanwhile Western European “border imperialism,” with ever harsher border patrols, pushbacks, and deaths, particularly at the border between the UK and France, is considered business as usual. Few appear to have noted the parallels let alone the intertwining of these “border spectacles.” But they are deeply interconnected as illustrated by the applause for British troops who are being sent to Poland to assist the government in building a wall to keep Europe “safe” from those who need refuge.

Since the 1990s European border walls have increasingly served to seal Western nations from unwanted Others. Accordingly, the governments in Poland and the EU at large, are blaming Belarus for staging an attack on these very walls, while self-critique amounts to the question whether the fortifications are state of the art and sufficiently large or not. There is a clear tendency to portray the situation as both being orchestrated by Belarus and taking place in a vacuum. A recent report by a humanitarian coalition on the ground claims that the current crisis on the Polish-Belarus border “is unprecedented in Europe.” But this is not true. On the contrary, what is playing out in the forests between the two Eastern European nations is a continuity of Europe’s historical violence, enacted in its peripheries.

Border violence unleashed

The funeral of a 27-week-old baby in the village of Bohoniki in the Eastern borderlands of Poland was organized by the local Muslim community who have been taking care of burials of migrants, many of whom are Muslim, that have died in the forest. Polish organizations assisting migrants fear that with a looming winter, many more corpses will be found in the forest between heavily guarded borders of Poland and Belarus. While dead bodies of migrants are still a new phenomenon there, people have been dying at European borders in large numbers for decades. In fact, the European Union is the world’s deadliest border. There has been a trend in the last 30 years to make movement within the EU easier for some, but borders never disappeared, they were merely reconfigured, internally and externally, while outright border violence has been mostly enacted at the EU’s external (and externalized) boundaries.

Today, Europe’s Eastern border is the world’s second longest border between a rich and poor region, after the US-Mexico border. While societies on this continent have undergone a shift to the right in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for unskilled, darker-skinned non-EU nationals to enter the EU. It is easier to arrange charter flights for disposable Eastern European migrant workers, even during a pandemic, to ensure that the European economy keeps going. They are also deprived from their basic rights, but treated as if they are more desirable and – since this follows a racialized logic – welcome because they are paler.

This situation almost inevitably leads migrants, who are desperate but live outside of the EU, to take increasingly dangerous routes, where many of them die. What the Belarusian president did in this situation – and this is something that even the most arrogant EU officials can’t quite deny – is to open up safer, more comfortable, and cheaper routes for migrants that are usually closed off to them. The late Hans Rosling in his usual matter-of-factness summarized the reason why refugees don’t fly; it is not because they cannot afford it, they pay much more to smugglers. It is because EU directives are designed to create a racialized class structure of mobility, so migration management can be enacted at will. This fantasy of border control is the dialectical product of another fantasy – and ultimately its flipside: the neoliberal dream of a borderless Europe.

However, this phantasmagorical apparatus does not undo the “autonomy of migration.” People still make the choice – if we can call putting your children in a dingy a choice – of trying to get to Europe. Since the wealth that European countries are built on is not being returned in reparations, people try to get to Europe, so some of that bordered wealth will “trickle down,” e.g. in the form of remittances.

The former Italian Prime Minister, in a strongly criticized column in the NYT, called smugglers “the slave traders of the 21st century” reflecting broader European narratives of trafficking as modern slavery that only criminalize individuals and never governments. Yet it is European states that create laws that lead to literal or outright enslavement. Then, as now, certain bodies are not as grievable. These tend to be bodies of people from poorer countries, that we rhetorically also usually refer to as “developing” as if they got some time to go before they become fully “developed”, also read: “human,” like us. As Judith Butler so poignantly wrote in “Frames of War”: “An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.”

Preventable and unnecessary deaths

Almost at the same time as the little body of the premature Iraqi baby was buried in a small white coffin in the east of Poland, a boat carrying 30 people including three children sank in the cold waves between France and England, only two people survived. It is “the worst-recorded migrant tragedy in the Channel,” at least since international organizations started collecting data in 2014. Since then, the Missing Migrants Project has recorded 22,977 missing migrants in the Mediterranean, the deadliest migration route in the world. A particularly hauting tragedy was the sinking of a boat off the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013, killing 368 people, mainly from Eritrea. Among them was a woman who gave birth while drowning, the dead infant still attached to her body. But perhaps the most shocking event was the death of Aylan Kurdi, whose three year old body was found on a Turkish beach and made it to front pages of newspaper. All these deaths, whether it’s the migrants with known names or the nameless, whether they qualify in the narrow definition of who is a refugee and who is ‘only’ a migrant, are preventable and unnecessary.

According to the 1951 Geneva Convention, a person has the right to claim asylum in another country if, because of their race, religion or belonging to a particular group, they are not safe in their country. This definition has since been challenged and there are calls to broaden it, for example by including “climate refugees.” The provision of papers, including travel documents and administrative assistance for refugees, is part of the responsibilities of the signatories of the Geneva convention. According to the law, states are not allowed to impose penalties on refugees who entered “irregularly” or to expel them. In addition, states are not allowed to penalize people entering a country without proper papers. This includes arriving in a country without a visa.

So what does it mean to be considered a “legal” or an “illegal” person in the first place? As Harsha Walia writes in her recent book Border & Rule: “migrant illegality is not an objective fact”. Rather people are made illegal, because of state restrictions and loopholes, amendments, and disregard for national, European and international laws. Thus, when the British PM Boris Johnson, in his commentary immediately after the Calais boat sinking at the end of November, insisted upon doing more to block entry of migrants, he did so although he knows that those crossing the Chanel are de facto not “illegal” migrants, but rather illegalized by a dehumanizing and extra-legal migration regime that politicians like him so passionately support. The Polish government who talks of a “threat” and blocks entry of people into Europe, similarly goes against international law since they indiscriminately reject and push back people at the border instead of providing a fair asylum application procedure.

There has been somewhat of an outrage around the lack of humanitarian support and a dismay at the EU’s response to the situation between Belarus and Poland. Hollow messages from EU’s Ursula von der Leyen repeat the tired mantra of “human rights at all costs” and one might wonder whose human rights she refers to because we know it cannot be those people at the borders, since their rights are consistently violated at all European borders. Commenting specifically on the Belarus border, the President of the European Commission said that “human beings are not bargaining chips.” No, they are not, but when von der Leyen’s humanitarian position is to stand together with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland as they fortify their borders against people who are “coming to destabilize Europe,” she reinforces these very political games.

The moral superiority of (Western) Europe

In this political climate it is unsurprising that the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is portrayed as a puppet master ‘luring’ migrants in from the Middle East as a revenge on European sanctions, while commentators across Europe turn a blind eye towards the doings of the EU. In Poland, for instance, there is a unified narrative that stretches across both liberal and left-leaning outlets. While gentle critiques are made from people who seem genuinely distraught that the EU is not better at telling Poland and Belarus off (they usually do the disciplining quite well), there is still a naïve assumption that if international press and public opinion will wake up to the situation of people in the Eastern forests, the Polish government will listen and act.

Danuta Kuroń, who works closely with humanitarian Grupa Granica [Border Group] lamented in her piece in Polish Gazeta Wyborcza at the failures of the EU to support, rather than participate in limiting, humanitarian efforts on the ground. “We are horrified,” Kuroń wrote in Polish “that violations of human rights are signed by the institutions of the European Union.” Another commentator, this time in the British Guardian, wrote that such moves “threaten the very foundations of the European project.”

The faith in the moral superiority of Western Europe and the EU, so often exaggerated in Eastern Europe, is overdue for critique. There is no denying that the Poland-Belarus conflict is about more than “migrants in the forest,” yet portraying a situation where people are almost shipped without agency is also short-sighted and legitimizes violent border governance through the rhetoric of a “Fortress Europe” that is benign and at the core humane. Even among Polish critical, supposedly decolonial scholars, border pushbacks are considered reasonable: “in the long run its hardline attitude is the more humanitarian thing to do, as it stops more people from being lured to freeze and starve on the border.”

A notable exception is Bogumiła Hall’s recent piece in the Polish edition of Le Monde Diplomatique where the author redirects the focus calling the events on the Eastern border not an exception but a reality of Europe’s migration regime that is underpinned by race and class inequalities forming the current rules of “global apartheid.” Taking an issue with liberal narratives circulating around Polish and international media, Hall locates the current crisis firmly in Western dominance. “It is linked”, she writes in Polish, “with a perception of the movement of non-white people as a threat to a white nation state. Furthermore, it is linked with the erasure of a colonial past and a self-image of Europe as a ‘white continent,’ whose resources and prosperity are endogenous and earned independently.”

Deconstructing Europe

The vast majority of the world’s migrants and refugees are hosted in the countries of the Global South. In some places like Libya thousands are held in detention centers that make part of shadow immigration systems for Europe that imprisons migrants before they reach their destination. Through the externalization of EU borders, countries across North Africa but also the Eastern margins of Europe (including Belarus and Ukraine), have come to act as Europe’s border guards, and are rewarded for it. Aside from arms deals and other promises, Poland can claim “whiteness” when it can serve as a guardian of Europe from within.

With a legacy of slavery, (settler)colonialism, and racism that continues in the daily exploitation of racialized bodies within and without Europe, governments can talk of migrants as “swarms,” initiate illegal pushbacks, and cause deaths, and still this does not permeate Europe’s self-image. To so many liberal commentators, Europe stands for justice, peace, human rights, freedom, dignity, and security. But looking back the last few centuries, there is much evidence to the contrary. It is those well-traversed routes marked by violence from “explorers” and slave traders that remain to be sites of extreme violence with the same people being on the receiving end of it as centuries ago. Harsha Walia poignantly summarizes their movement defying “Fortress Europe” as “ultimately a form of decolonial reparations”.

A critical response to the Poland-Belarus crisis necessitates taking an issue with violence against migrants, no matter in what part of Europe they arrive to and perish in. After all, border deaths of racialized mobile bodies are not unprecedented in Europe, they are exactly the opposite. One in every four people that tries to enter Europe by boat dies. Large numbers die at its externalized borders far from Europe. And now, “forest deaths” in its Eastern peripheries will add to the long list of ungrievable lives.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here:

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