Flags Flying up a Trial Mast: Reflections on the Hotspot Mechanism in Mytilene
via society and space. Part of the forum “Governing mobility through European Hotspot Centres.”
On a quiet spring morning on the promenade of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, a strange sight caught our attention: flying high on a mast just inside the port gates were two peculiarly selected flags, the French and the Finnish. Perhaps something of a random choice, maybe even a computer error picking up the two EU member-states starting with an “F”, we joked at that time. But a few hours later, during our meeting with the European Commission’s representative on the island as part of our research on the migration crisis, the record was put painstakingly straight: far from a mistake, this was a strategic choice ahead of the visits of the French and the Finnish ambassadors to Greece to the island that week.
The Office of the Commission stationed in Mytilene was tasked with presenting these two state representatives with a pristine image of the hotspot on the island: the image of some seemingly unhindered and seamless operation of the hotspot, along with all of its ancillary mechanisms. Like salespeople charged with selling a future car model, or real estate agents promoting an apartment through a brochure while construction is still taking place, the Mytilene-stationed officials have been commissioned with convincing EU member-state representatives of the efficiency of the hotspot while the mechanism itself is still under construction.
Officially the hotspot is an approach facilitating EU operation at the local level: a way for four key EU agencies―the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of member-states (FRONTEX), the European Police (Europol) and the European Judicial Cooperation Unit (Eurojust)―to “work on the ground with the authorities of the frontline member-state to help to fulfil their obligations under EU law and swiftly identify, register and fingerprint incoming migrants.” It is important for this approach to be effective at present but even more importantly, it is crucial for it to be widely accepted in the future: to instil confidence in the hotspot and enthusiasm for what is still, by the Commission’s own admission, little more than a conceptual construction. An idea painstakingly making its way from paper to life.
In one sense the hotspot is, then, already here: it lies in the reception centres, the detention centres, the temporary camps, the mechanisms of registration, filtering, hosting and relocating the people arriving in the EU. But in another sense, the hotspot is a future excess of the sum of all those parts: a glimpse into the all-encompassing population filtering apparatus yet to come. A bizarre mash of EU bureaucracy-turning-philosophical: “[the hotspot] is more of an idea, less of a material space”, we were told time and time again by EU officials stoically pondering into the horizon. More of an idea? That it may very well be, but an idea with some very real consequences for those caught in its midst, those traversing―forced to transverse―this experimental space. In its very essence the hotspot is a spatial experiment, a crucial test of potential new ways in which the European Union may come to ground itself in member-state territory.
The hotspot approach of intergovernmental management of populations, we argue, extends through and beyond the Greek territory. The pre-registration operation, launched by the Greek Asylum Service in early June 2016 to pre-register all those residing within ‘reception facilities’ around the country is an early manifestation of the hotspot extending both inside and beyond the border. Funded by the EU, its implementation is led by the Greek Asylum Service and relies on joint teams drawing personnel and expertise from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The target is to register all those who arrived in Greece between January 1, 2016 and March 20, 2016. Its purpose is threefold:
(1) to register asylum applications for those who want to apply for protection in Greece;
(2) to register asylum applications for those who are eligible for transfer under Dublin III, the EU regulation stipulating that people must claim asylum in the country of first arrival; and finally
(3) to register asylum applications for transfer under the Emergency Relocation scheme, a set of temporary intra-EU relocation measures to re-establish ‘normality’ in frontline states and a detraction to the Dublin Regulation, whereby eligible applicants may be relocated only after applying for protection and being registered.
What pre-registration means, in other words, is that all those who had crossed into Greece prior to the EU-Turkey deal―while registration and identification was suffering delays―are now unable to continue further into the EU, effectively subjected to indirect captivity. Even once pre-registered, it may take many more months for them to register an actual asylum claim due mostly to the chronic inefficiency of the Greek asylum system and the sharp increase in the number of claimants.
As such, the hotspot approach of intergovernmental management of populations extends throughout the Greek territory. A large scale operation was launched in early June to pre-register all those residing within ‘reception facilities’ around the country. Funded by the EU, its implementation is led by the Greek Asylum Service and relies on joint teams drawing personnel and expertise from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The target is to register all those who arrived in Greece between January 1, 2016 and March 20, 2016.
While this is evidently a desperate attempt to enforce the Dublin Regulation and rescue what little faith still remains in the official relocation processes (with merely 3734 out of 66400 individuals successfully relocated to date), the view from the ground is even darker. Many thousands remain within transit centres under new and old categories of legal and humanitarian categorisation―‘vulnerable cases’, ‘eligible for relocation’, ‘a Dublin transfer’―the sum of policies and methods used to institutionalise and therefore constrain and discipline mobility. Independent legal practitioners monitoring pre-registration reception facilities in mainland Greece tell us of misleading information leaflets which confuse migrants into thinking they have submitted an asylum application when in fact they have only voluntarily given more of their personal information and stated that they currently reside in Greece. The pre-registration operation is one example of how the national territory and the entire region (and not just the hotspot) are turning into a sorting space, since it forces those seeking international protection prior to the EU-Turkey agreement to remain in the transit spaces inside the Greek territory for an indefinite amount of time.
The hotspot did not arrive out of the blue: it follows decades-long EU-led initiatives to outsource and externalise certain aspects of the union’s border regime. In 1992 the Single European Act came into force, lifting restrictions on the free movement of EU workers inside the single market. Three years later, in 1995, the Schengen Agreement abolished border controls between most EU member-states. The doctrine of Safe Third Countries (STC), the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and joint FRONTEX operations in the Mediterranean Sea would gradually build “a belt of buffer-states around Europe” (Euskirchen et al., 2009, p. 4). The resulting loss of national control over borders created a perceived need for more intensive cooperation with non-EU countries of origin and/or transit countries (Boswell, 2003). In order to control people’s mobility within the common European space―and to ensure the freedom of movement of its citizens―the EU had to exert control over spaces that were not enclosed by its external border (Rigo, 2007; Betts, 2011). The logic then was one of the extension of police and control methods to an enlarged area outside the EU, encompassing countries of both origin and transit. The doctrine of Safe Third Countries (STC), the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and joint FRONTEX operations in the Mediterranean Sea would gradually build “a belt of buffer-states around Europe” (Euskirchen et al., 2009, p. 4).
This, in short, is how the European Union had so far produced spaces of control outside its territory in order to manage people’s mobility before they would reach sovereign European territory, where they could exercise their rights to claim asylum in a country of their choosing. Now, through the hotspot approach, the EU’s border regime reconfigures itself and transforms entire regions of its own European member state territory, internalising aspects of the border, mostly at its periphery―including frontline countries such as Greece and Italy.
Take the example of the Greek territory, rapidly becoming an internal buffer zone for the whole of the EU: formerly a transit zone― with incoming migrants unwilling to settle there, particularly due to the recent economic crisis―certain areas of the country now contain unwanted populations. The 2015 declaration of the ‘migration crisis’ allowed the humanitarian industry and UNHCR took to take over, importing their crisis management expertise from the Global South, and thereby causing power struggles and contestation over space at the local level. During our fieldwork research, the coordination and management of the perceived humanitarian crisis in Lesbos caused by the sharp increase of arrivals on the island resulted in tensions between the humanitarian actors involved and the local administration, the latter openly contesting the authority of the former over matters relating to the coordination of the relief effort. This violent internalisation of the border turned has turned entire swaths of the country, especially those along the Balkan route, into containment areas for people: spaces of wasted time, ‘empty presents’ (Griffiths, 2009) and ‘permanent temporariness’ (Simmel, 2011). In this sense the hotspot is following a long path of EU territory transformation: integration and freedom of movement within and across the said territory and, at the same time, the securing and controlling of territories that lie immediately beyond it.
In this latest version of the EU’s integrated border management model, different forms of authority and biopolitical control are laid side by side to maximise methods of capture and encampment. In light of the EU relocation scheme, identification, registration and access to asylum work together to tilt the balance between the stated commitments to combat crime and provide protection in favour of the former. New models of categorisation are founded according to perceptions of worthiness, based on the nationality of the incoming populations seeking protection. Even though nationality has always provided a basis for discrimination, now the requirement for a 75% EU average recognition rate means that only only few nationalities, predominantly Syrians, are eligible to be relocated to other EU countries while all others remain stranded in Greece, potentially worthy of protection but unable to move. The EU Emergency Relocation scheme, theoretically based on member-state solidarity and yet in practice widely accepted as poorly conceived and failing, is strengthened to a previously unachievable degree. This is largely thanks to the enhanced role of several intergovernmental agencies in the management of the undesirables, most notably the UNHCR, IOM and European agencies.
Applications for international protection are handled in the same physical space as border control activities such as screening, identification and registration. Importantly, the new integrated management model, reinforces and consolidates refugee protection as an immigration issue. Arguably, UNHCR backing for the relocation scheme, which effectively further inhibits and criminalises secondary movements, is an indication of the problematic and growing alliance between the refugee protection regime and immigration controls. As the focus turns decisively to identification and registration, ‘failed’ yet persistent attempts at return (removal) are promised by the latest EU-Turkey deal.1 This is evident in the revised and enhanced role given to FRONTEX within the hotspots with regard to both registration / identification and removal. Furthermore, in Greece, document authentication in relation to asylum applications becomes a central task of the EASO task force within the hotspots. This is partly as a response to the security concerns raised by member-states with regards to accepting requests for relocation, with EASO carrying out security interviews to detect potential exclusion grounds for relocation. Effectively, it reinforces the ill-conceived image of the migrant as an object of security concern as opposed to a subject with rights.
The hotspot is a crucial testing ground for intergovernmental cooperation and for the expansion of EU authority to detain, inspect and deport, a potential model for the formation of the future EU super-state. So what may this future state be? Think of what an ultra-neoliberal, purely market-driven territorial state could look like. You need not look far to imagine what this will look like: this project is already under way. Inside the hotspot, all three powers of government (legislative, executive, judiciary) now stem from the European Union. The host country authorities remain there as the bearer, in the form of an outside shell, but their own reach inside the hotspot is always and by definition controlled and overtaken by the emerging EU super-state. What about welfare? Social security provisions were the backbone of the Western European nation-state: a mechanism, it is important to keep in mind, of legitimising state power in the aftermath of some of the worst atrocities undertaken against populations from these very states. Inside the hotspots welfare is entirely privatised, run by colossal welfare-providing NGOs. This is not only the professionalisation (and therefore of course, the privatisation) of welfare. It is the absolute epitome of a Private-Public Partnership, a neoliberal model perhaps too perfect to exist outside this small, controllable and controlled test site―for now.
The hotspot hints at a potential direction for the relationship between state, population and territory inside a future EU super-state should the EU security and policing integration project gallop ahead unhindered. It is still too early to predict whether glitches in this European Integration trajectory, such as the Brexit vote of June 23rd 2016, will derail the entire project. With the full ramifications of the UK referendum vote still too early to grasp, developing the hotspot mechanism may very well turn into an existential exercise for the EU construct as a whole. Given that the partial unwinding of the Union has come on the back of resentment fuelled by the mainstream media and political elites against the free movement of people within the Union, the hotspot could become the one policy that salvages the EU project. Should this be the case, it will be doing so at the expense of the people’s freedom to move, their right to anonymity and privacy, and their rights to a dignified life and a less than suffocating relationship with the state.
1 The EU-Turkey deal or agreement was struck on March 18, 2016 following months of negotiations between the European Commission and Turkey and is highly controversial. In an effort to control and reduce the number of spontaneous arrivals to the Greek islands, the deal provides for blanket returns of migrants back to Turkey, which is de facto upgraded to a Safe Third Country, in exchange for -among others- additional financial support, resettlement of refugees from Turkey and visa-free travel in Europe for Turkish citizens.
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Joe Painter is part of the Transcapes team and principal investigator of the project The Urban Politics and Governance of Social Innovation in Austerity. Joe is Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University. His research specialises in the geographies of the state and their interaction with governance, citizenship and urban politics.
Anna Papoutsi is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham researching EU’s border regime. In particular, she seeks to elaborate the concept of mobility as a bordering practice in everyday settings within the European territory. She is also part of the ongoing ESRC-funded project Transcapes looking at the unfolding Mediterranean migration crisis.
Evie Papada is a researcher at Transcapes, an ESRC funded project on Mediterranean Migration based at Loughborough University. Previously, she has held various advocacy and advisory posts within the INGO sector on asylum and refugee issues. She is currently coordinating research and impact activities for the Mediterranean Migration Research Programme.
Antonis Vradis is Lecturer and VC Fellow at Loughborough University and part of Transcapes. His research spans migration and cities, all with a political urge to make sense of our turbulent times.