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Europe’s Militarized Borders Are a Band-Aid for Climate Chaos

Scenes of migrants swimming to Spain's tiny North African enclave show how Europe outsources border control to peripheral countries like Morocco. This practice may shield militarized repression from scrutiny — but it can't hide a climate crisis forcing millions of people to leave their homes.

Moroccan security forces surround migrants who were planning on breaching the border fence of the Spanish exclave of Ceuta bordering Morocco on April 13, 2021. (Antonio Sempere / AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of May 19, a Senegalese man collapsed into the arms of twenty-year-old Red Cross volunteer Luna Reyes at the shores of Ceuta. A picturesque enclave nestled on the southern side of the Straits of Gibraltar, Ceuta is one of two tiny Spanish territories in continental Africa — and thus a gateway to the European Union.

Within hours, this scene of a heartfelt embrace amid chaos had gone viral, with Reyes soon forced offline by a torrent of fascist vitriol. Spain’s insurgent far-right Vox party, which won a record fifty-two seats in the 2019 general election, accused the Moroccan government of “launching minors like battering rams” against Ceuta. Mainstream figures’ language was more muted but reached for the same set of siege-related metaphors, accusing Morocco of “weaponizing” the migration crisis against Spain.

There is some truth to this. This month, Moroccan border guards chose to turn an uncharacteristically blind eye to refugees swimming the breakwater separating Morocco and Ceuta, following a diplomatic row over Spain’s (reasonable) decision to offer medical treatment to a Western Saharan independence leader. Eight thousand migrants, including fifteen hundred children, have arrived in Ceuta since last Monday, stretching local services and aid agencies beyond their limits.

Yet, the assumptions undergirding this “weaponization” line require further interrogation. Consciously or otherwise, it echoes the logic of what some political theorists call “weaponized interdependence.” As it is against the view that global interconnectedness raises the costs of conflict for all — and thereby creates harmony between nations — proponents of this theory show that nations use their strategic position to contest and shape the international order, through their control over finance, resources, or migration flows.

Morocco has an implicitly subordinate place in that order, for it is deputized to control flows of people by force in return for geopolitical favors. This account grants the people themselves no agency: the boy using plastic bottles as a flotation device is not a child with desperate hopes, but a weapon, a mute cannonball of international politics.

Members of the Spanish emergency services and Red Cross help migrants disembark from a coast guard vessel at the Port of Tarifa near Ceuta. (Marcos Moreno / AFP via Getty Images)

Outsourcing the border to Morocco — and indeed, Turkey and Libya — provides three core benefits for wealthy governments in Europe and North America. It allows the domestic perception of a migration crisis to be diluted; Spanish premier Pedro Sánchez is now facing political trouble mainly because the presence of thousands of desperate people is now visible and difficult to ignore. It reduces the financial and political cost of enforcement and management at wealthier borders. And it thus allows the outsourcing of the kind of violence necessary to hold back vast movements of people — enabling liberal democracies to maintain their commitment to rights and values while subcontracting brutality.

This is hardly just a theoretical problem. During the pandemic at least two thousand additional people have been killed in the Mediterranean as a direct result of “pushbacks” — European states forcing refugees back toward countries on their periphery. This means deporting people into slavery and the Libyan civil war, to Turkey which the EU also routinely criticizes on human rights grounds, or in many cases simply towing rafts full of desperate people out to sea to sink or swim without so much as a water bottle or a lifejacket.

This core-periphery system also exists within Europe, as poorer countries like Greece are made to handle migration (and, implicitly, to do so with greater violence, even if they are later condemned for it) under the threat of having their own EU free movement rights suspended. In 2017, Austria even threatened to use tanks at the Italian border.

Not to be outdone, Boris Johnson’s Britain is developing plans — condemned by the UN’s refugee agency — to force asylum seekers into countries where they have no connection, and deny people from seeking refuge on the grounds of political, religious, or gender-identity and sexuality-based oppression. This is the context in which Morocco and Turkey can extract political advantages by threatening to upset their place in the hierarchy and “weaponize” children seeking food and shelter by relaxing their own militarized security operations.

Unfortunately for governments across the Global North, this settlement is now under threat, because the forced movement of people is getting worse. Around the world, a record total of eighty million people are now displaced. In some cases, this is the routine drumbeat of preexisting geopolitical conditions, from the Syrian crisis to the recent Ethiopian conflict.

These situations will be structured and probably inflamed by the increasing redrawing of global maps of political power. The United States is unlikely to accept its lapsing hegemony quietly, while China, Russia, India, and Southeast Asian and Latin American states, as well as the EU and a retrenching UK, will assert their place on the stage in an increasingly muscular way.

Climate Refugees

Hovering over all this is the specter of climate change. The warming of our planet is forcing more people to flee northward, as extreme weather and drought directly make themselves felt. Despite exciting projects like the Great Green Wall, dire harvests are continuing to leave tens of millions short of food. It also forces people northward through the policy consequences of environmental crises: rising inequality and political repression. And the climate crisis generates new conflicts while exacerbating existing ones.

To call the events in Syria a “climate war” would grossly flatten the specific political drives behind the conflict. But we cannot ignore that just before civil war broke out in 2011, the country experienced the worst multiyear drought in nearly a millennium, stripping eight hundred thousand people of their income and killing 85 percent of the country’s livestock. This is how we are experiencing and will experience climate change; not only in clear-cut environmental emergencies but the intensification of existing complex political traumas generating more displacement. Morocco and Ceuta are themselves particularly vulnerable to extreme weather.

At this December’s climate conference in Glasgow, protesters and lobbyists will again demand that governments “do more” to deal with the climate emergency. They will rightly assert that governments are “failing us” on climate and need to “act.” But the Ceuta affair exposes an inherent danger within this rhetoric. If and when major states do get serious on the realities of climate change, and no longer produce the kind of half-hearted, short-termist, market-driven blundering that has defined the coronavirus response, what will their programs actually be?

We don’t have to speculate; the answers are already here. They may make positive moves on carbon reduction and some green investment, like Joe Biden is inching toward. But they will also intensify the system that runs from Mediterranean ports to the Arizona border, in a bid to cocoon their populations from the realities that lie beyond.

The militarization of the Mediterranean border is not so much about current migration flows as it is about anticipating a world where over a billion climate migrants may exist within a few decades. Which raises a central and disturbing question: When these changes meet with walls and guns, just how many people will they kill?

I’ve described elsewhere how the Mediterranean murder machine is not a border line but a system. It is made up of communication and discourse; advanced technology and military strategy; diplomatic arrangements and the converging interests of state and nonstate actors from the far right and people traffickers; and media outlets and centrist politicians. This system currently functions as intended — maintaining a semblance of normality over a steadily climbing body count. But what happens when this system’s moving parts are subjected to new and unpredictable disruptions — whether due to events in Ceuta or much longer-term trends?

In the medium term, the answer is depressingly predictable: these states will intensify their existing strategy. After the scale of migration began intensifying in 2015, the EU poured funding into measures to stop northward migration in Sudan, propping up the country’s Rapid Support Forces which went on to brutally suppress protesters in 2018.

During this period Sudan also deployed former operatives from the Janjaweed militia of Darfur massacre infamy as border police. New surveillance technologies will increase their ability to turn the Euro-American periphery into a panopticon; such as the introduction into the Mediterranean of Israeli-made drones (presumably tested in occupied Palestine, a grim R&D lab).

At the same time, these states will strengthen military cooperation, whether under the auspices of an EU army or Britain’s Integrated Defence and Security Review expansion. They will continue to make the core countries a hostile environment for newcomers, or for those advocating for a more humane policy. They will express their commitment to rights and values while the whippings, strippings, and brandings allegedly conducted by the core countries’ security forces continue. They will use a combination of carrots and sticks to bind periphery countries further into their role as purgatories for the damned. These measures will not only kill refugees, they will damage and deform international politics as a whole. But this is assumed to be the price we in the core pay to live in a cocoon.

A more just, and ultimately more effective, alternative is possible — and not difficult to imagine. A multinational program of climate crisis prevention, mitigation, and adaptation that stabilizes our fragile economies, tackles inequality, and prevents people from being forced northward in the first place is already here in theory (and has been for well over a decade): the global Green New Deal. Meanwhile the United States and UK could reduce their dependence on arms and military hegemony, funneling that expertise into domestic renewal while no longer fueling crises like the Saudi war in Yemen that has cost two hundred fifty thousand lives to date and displaced millions. They could expand domestic refugee protection programs, solving the collective action problem among wealthy countries through collective agreement on quotas for refugee assistance.

However, short of transformative governments that overcome every obstacle, special interest, and structural incentive that exists to prevent such a program being put in place, this is a largely theoretical answer. But there is no reason such a grand vision of dignity and justice cannot motivate much smaller actions that wedge cracks into the ever-growing armor of border capitalism.

In Glasgow’s Pollokshields on May 13, a street full of people prevented deportations from taking place. Refugee rescue crews have saved thousands of lives. In Ceuta this week, a young woman who hugged a young man on a beach and for a moment cut away the baggage of this system and reduced the conversation to the basics of human compassion and solidarity. All these actions and more faced vicious backlashes, from politicians and media barons and the law, precisely because they worked. The central question must instead become: How many people will we save?