Imagine a map of Europe superimposed with three concentric rings, a bit like the zones on a city transport map. Zone One – the inner zone – would cover the states of north-western Europe: France, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia. Zone Two – the middle zone – would cover the countries on the southern and eastern edges of the European Union: Spain, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland. Zone Three – the outer zone – would cover the countries immediately outside the EU: Turkey, North African states, Ukraine. This, roughly speaking, is the system that governs the movement of migrants who come to Europe seeking asylum. The aim is to prevent as many as possible from reaching the inner zones, while preserving the passport-free travel that EU citizens enjoy around much of the continent. This system is made up of physical defences such as fences, surveillance and detention camps, and it’s made up of laws that determine where and in what circumstances an asylum seeker is entitled to state support.

This is the system that broke down during the refugee crisis of 2015. In general, the crisis is blamed on a sharp increase in the number of migrants – mainly Syrians – crossing to Europe by sea or land. But while this played a role, it merely intensified a process that was already dysfunctional.


To understand why, it’s helpful to look at the EU’s border system as a series of different policies, sometimes working in concert but at other times working at cross purposes. The first point is that free movement of people within the EU implies a border at the EU’s edges. But the EU is not a state; it’s a union of different nation-states, each of which in theory retains control over its own borders. Spain for example, is responsible for patrolling its own borders; but it’s also got a responsibility to guard its share of the EU’s external border. To help coordinate this, the EU set up a border agency, Frontex. Initially Frontex played an advisory role, but in the last decade the trend has been to invest more money and give Frontex more power to carry out its own surveillance and deterrence operations. This, as research by the NGO Statewatch1 and Athens-based journalist Apostolis Fotiadis2 has shown, has involved spending increasing amounts of money on militarised technology. At the same time, peripheral EU states have been pressured by Brussels to invest their own money in border defences; the result has been the growth of physical defences at land routes into the EU, such as Spain’s enclaves on the Moroccan coast, or Greece’s land border with Turkey.

In theory, a state – or a union of states like the EU – has the right to exclude people who are not citizens. But the main exception is when someone crosses a border without permission and asks for asylum. Here, a second point comes into play. An international framework for protecting refugees was established in 1951 by UN convention, initially to cover political dissidents but then extended in later decades to cover people fleeing a general state of war.3 Its main provisions – that a person should not be penalised for crossing a border in search of asylum; that they should not be forced back to a country where they are unsafe; that their claim should be heard on its individual merits – have been translated into law by every EU member state.

But this framework can be interpreted in different ways, which brings us to a third point. While asylum seekers may often view ‘Europe’ as their destination, without making much of a distinction between individual states (it can vary – others will choose a particular country based on family or community ties, language, or their expectation of fair treatment), the provision of asylum support remains largely a matter for national governments. A Europewide agency – the European Asylum Support Office – does exist, but it has suffered from underinvestment. An investigation by Amnesty international found that between 2007 and 2013, the EU spent more than twice as much on border security as it did on improving asylum conditions across the union.4 The Zone Two countries on the EU’s periphery are poorer and tend to have less well-developed asylum systems. This means it takes longer for a claim to be heard, the living conditions (accommodation, food, clothing, access to healthcare) are worse while a person waits for a decision to be heard, and there are fewer opportunities for work once someone is able to settle. For these reasons, many asylum seekers want to continue their journeys once they reach Europe, towards the richer north-western states. In order to regulate their movement, the EU has a common agreement on asylum known colloquially as the ‘Dublin Regulation’, named after a series of treaties signed around the turn of the century. The system has been set up largely to benefit the states of north-western Europe: its main stipulation is that the country where an asylum seeker first sets foot is responsible for accommodating them and processing their claim. A Europe-wide fingerprint database for asylum seekers, Eurodac, is supposed to help track migrants.

The final point is that the EU also tries to prevent unwanted migrants from even reaching its borders in the first place. Through a series of agreements either conducted at EU level or by individual member states, many of the EU’s neighbours have agreed to police migration on Europe’s behalf. In return they get preferential trade deals and easier movement into Europe for their own citizens. Morocco sends soldiers to clear away migrant camps that spring up around the borders of Spain’s North African enclaves;5 Egypt stops smuggler boats leaving its Mediterranean coast;6 Ukraine catches undocumented migrants and locks them up in prisons whose construction was partly funded by the EU.7


This, then, is the system – or combination of systems – that fell apart in 2015. One major reason why is that Europe’s collective decisions about borders were affecting migrants before they even set foot in Europe. The slow closing off of legal routes into the EU (or safer routes by which to travel without permission) has led migrants to take more deadly and chaotic journeys, which in turn places a greater burden on Europe’s welfare and support systems when they arrive. In 2011, for example, the uprising against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia led to thousands of Tunisians taking smuggler boats towards Italy. Italy’s asylum reception system was unable to cope and the EU was unwilling to provide funds for expansion. Inhabitants rioted in protest at their conditions; many left Italy to seek asylum elsewhere in the EU. Yet 30 years earlier Tunisians were able to travel to and from Italy for seasonal agricultural work; the right to do so was rescinded as EU integration progressed and Italy’s border policies were brought in line with the union. Many of the Tunisians in 2011 were escaping poverty and would not have qualified for asylum, but the asylum system was the only way they could get a foothold in Europe.

Furthermore, while border security is often presented as a way to protect people from violence, it also produces violence and destruction. As routes from Africa and the Middle East were closed off, a growing number of refugees were forced into narrow bottlenecks across the Mediterranean: from Egypt and Libya towards Italy, and from Turkey to Greece. The increased security meant increased reliance on people smugglers, which in turn meant an increase in exploitation, abuse and death. As the number of new arrivals grew in 2013 and 2014, the burden of accommodating those people fell disproportionately on Zone Two countries like Italy, Greece and Bulgaria. Their national systems couldn’t cope; many refugees decided to leave. In the summer of 2015, Europe finally decided it faced a ‘crisis’ and temporarily allowed refugees to cross the continent unhindered.

Since late 2015, the response has been to close borders once again and extend the system well beyond the EU’s frontier. Border security efforts now reach as far as Niger and Sudan, disrupting traditional migration trade routes and empowering dictatorial regimes, since ‘provision of equipment and trainings’ often risks being ‘diverted for repressive means’.8 Elsewhere, the EU is using the threat of withdrawing aid to pressure Afghanistan into taking back tens of thousands of deported migrants.9 Inside Europe, dysfunction continues: although an unprecedented amount of aid money has been poured into Greece to help support the 50,000 refugees who have been trapped there by the Dublin Regulation since 2015,10 many camps lack basic facilities. Refugees were still living in tents when winter arrived last year. The excuse is that nobody can decide who is responsible: the EU, the Greek national government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) all have a role to play, but each blames the other for inaction.11 But here the dysfunction serves a purpose. ‘The Greek administrative chaos is the best deterrence’, one human rights activist told Refugees Deeply. ‘It sends the message that Greece is a mess so don’t come this way’.12

The prevailing view is that while Europe has a duty to protect refugees, it is entirely justified in seeking to exclude unwanted migrants. Refugees do not necessarily need to be accommodated on European soil in order to be protected. The British government, for example, uses this reasoning to justify a preference for investing in camps in the Middle East over taking in large numbers of Syrians itself.13 This is a common refrain among wealthy countries. The US, for example, points to its funding of the vast Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya as a reason for keeping refugee resettlement at a low.14 Perhaps an understanding of historical systems would help us see this in a different light. The migrants who try to reach Europe by sea or land are almost uniformly treated as foreigners but their relationship to Europe is in fact long-established. Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali – all former European colonies, and (in the case of all but Eritrea) the sites of disruption by ongoing European military intervention. Research by Lucy Mayblin of Warwick University suggests that between 95 and 98 percent of people seeking asylum in the EU in recent years come from countries that were once colonised by European states.15

The official mythology of the EU tells the tale of a union of nation-states, who were brought together in a spirit of equal cooperation, and who have guaranteed 60 years of peace in Europe. But to believe this requires an act of historical amnesia. As the sociologist Gurminder K Bhambra and others16 have argued, European unity was a project of imperial states, not nationstates.17 In 1957, of the six founding members of the European Economic Community, three still maintained colonies. Indeed, the allure of collective exploitation of those colonies was a major incentive: several leading architects of European unity in the 1950s saw Africa as ‘a dowry to Europe’.18

From the start, the benefits of EU membership were defined along racial lines: Arab inhabitants of Algeria – officially a part of metropolitan France until it fought a war for independence – were excluded from agreements on free movement and common social security policies. Today, EU citizens continue to benefit from wealth that was accumulated from exploiting colonised peoples, yet when descendants of those peoples come to Europe they are treated as though their claims are illegitimate and denied access. Once we understand this history we can see how Europe’s sprawling border system serves to protect wealth and privilege rather than rights and security – and we can think better about how this system can be dismantled.