This article was originally published in German in “Analyse und Kritik”. Read the German version here.
Since last fall, border protection in the EU has been strengthened even where there are no visible borders anymore – in the Schengen area. In the fall of 2021, the European public and media looked in shock at the EU’s external border between Poland and Belarus, where desperate fleeing people from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries of origin were brutally prevented from entering Polish territory by border guards.
Several of them died and are still affected by hunger, cold or exhaustion. They are trapped in the no man’s land between EU member state Poland and Belarus, dictatorially ruled by Aleksandr Lukashenka, who both violently abused the fleeing people. EU representatives put on record their anger about the brutal violation of human rights – and at the same time, strengthened their internal borders with other EU states. To shield the supposed border control-free Schengen area from asylum applications. At the forefront of border protection is the German Federal Police, which has been increasingly patrolling Polish territory lately. In joint patrols with the Polish police, the officers comb the German-Polish border area, check main roads at border crossings and on cross-border trains to stop refugees and arrest them in Poland.
German federal police in Poland
In September 2021, Horst Seehofer, the German Federal Minister of the Interior during this time, announced these joint police patrols on Polish territory. Subsequently, at least eight units with hundred of federal police were sent to the German-Polish border to strengthen identity checks in the border area. These targeted patrols are intended to shield Germany without closing the Schengen internal border between Germany and Poland. Police cooperation between the two countries is based on the bilateral agreement between the German and Polish police and border and customs authorities, which has authorized cross-border operational police patrols since 2015. As a result, officers have the right to initiate measures to identify persons on the territory of the other party and arrest them temporarily to hand them over to officers of the other party. The development of joint police departments such as those in Swiecko, Pomellen and Ludwigsdorf has also been pushed forward.
Many people seeking protection do not want to apply for asylum in Poland. After struggling to survive in the forests and swamps of the Belarusian-Polish border region, often for months, distrust of Polish authorities is high. Too often, their right to asylum in the EU has been disregarded by Polish border guards, who have pushed protection seekers back across the border into Belarus in so-called pushbacks. For the chance to apply for asylum in their “destination country”, the official registration in Poland is also a danger.
Because in the context of EU asylum policy, according to the Dublin III Regulation, only the country in which the first fingerprints and biometric data were recorded in the Eurodac database is responsible for the asylum procedure. Regularly, protection seekers are deported from Germany to the country of first entry. Protection seekers have to “go underground” to move on without registration. This “secondary movement” is increasingly monitored by intra-European states. Thus, Germany can benefit from operational police patrols on Polish territory, as protection seekers are controlled before they cross the border, and the responsibility for the asylum procedure is left to Poland as their agreement partner.
Dehumanizing treatment of refugees
Consequently, the Federal Police participates in bringing protection seekers to the Polish detention centres, officially called “Guarded Centers for Foreigners”. Near the German border, protection seekers are isolated from contact with the outside world at the Wędrzyn centre, on a former military training area surrounded by barbed wire, or at the long-term centre at Krosno Odrazanskie. There are now 2,000 people in Polish detention, including hundreds of children. They are being held in just two square meters per person, which is only half of what the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture standard provides. Moreover, contrary to EU directives ensuring international protection, they are not informed of their rights or the procedure for applying for asylum and, in isolation, have almost no opportunity to obtain legal counsel. The prospect of a successful asylum case is further diminished by the removal of cell phones containing “evidence,” the frequent lack of translation or poor translation of essential documents, and the lack of opportunity to prepare for the online asylum hearings that take place via videoconference to Warsaw. Protection seekers report that they are constantly threatened with deportation to their country of origin by the guards in the centres.
Moreover, they testify to being treated utterly dehumanizingly by the guards. The guards only address them by number, conduct unnecessary and humiliating “strip searches,” i.e., searches of the naked body, and repeatedly punish them arbitrarily. The dehumanizing internment for months without any information about the length of stay often leads to psychological demoralization and suicidal thoughts.
The costs of closing the border
Increased joint policing within the Schengen border area and the effective return of people seeking protection and their detention – including minors ¬- is explicitly recommended by the EU Commission in 2017 to compensate for the permeability of open internal borders. They are intended to prevent the reintroduction of border controls at all costs, as in the 2015 Schengen crisis, which is being promoted in the EU as a “migration crisis.” In the 2016 “Back to Schengen” roadmap presented by the EU Commission in response to the crisis, borderless “freedom of movement” for the circulation of goods and people is highlighted as “one of the greatest achievements of European integration.” Yet this is primarily an economic calculation: the Commission estimates the annual costs of closing internal borders at 5 to 18 billion euros. In the future, therefore, member states are supposed to apply compensatory measures in the event of “increasing migration pressure” or “gaps” in the EU’s external border management and avoid closing the borders by all means. Police checks within internal border areas are legitimized by Article 23 of the Schengen Borders Code, which emphasizes that they can be carried out if they are not recognized as border checks. The new measures and instruments will be used to advance the – in the EU Commission’s militaristic jargon – “fight against unauthorized secondary migration.” In its recommendations, the Commission declares this to be a “current threat to public order or internal security” – in the same sentence as terrorism and serious cross-border crime.
Member states at the EU’s external borders are becoming the focus of criticism of the border regime, while the other EU countries finance the brutal border violence and more effectively expand the sealing of their own internal borders. A network of bilateral and multilateral agreements between member states is continuously growing, in which police powers are defined and no longer limited to national jurisdiction. The EU Commission explicitly recommends cross-border police checks, which have proven to be a more effective monitoring tool for the internal border regime than traditional static border controls because of their flexibility. Controls within border areas occur under the public radar because they are decentralized, carried out at different times and in hidden locations. People are selectively racially suspected, checked, and sometimes immediately locked away within flexible controls. Due to the hiddenness of the police action and the subsequent isolation, people seeking protection are at the mercy of the arbitrary violence of European law enforcement officers.
Extending the focus
The construction of Fortress Europe – as the journalists Jennifer Rigby and James Crisp impressively describe it in the British newspaper The Telegraph – is additionally manifested by the 1,800 kilometres of border walls and fences currently being built or planned around and in Europe. Limiting the analysis of border violence to events at individual hotspots, such as those in the forest in the Belarusian-Polish military exclusion zone, on the deadly sea route across the Turkish-Greek Mediterranean, or on the heavily guarded Balkan route where refugees are subjected to brutal pushbacks, obscures the underlying systematics of EU border protection and intra-European closure. And it allows the European Union and all those who profit from its outwardly sealed-off freedom of movement to continue to evade responsibility for the deadly border regime.