This month marks 30 years since the removal of the Berlin Wall. Border controls restricting the movement of people between East and West Berlin were demolished. This event was portrayed as ushering in a new period of the free movement of peoples. The wall had come to symbolise the ostensibly tyrannical nature of the former East German government, and its determination to stop free and unrestricted travel for its citizens.
The dividing wall was denounced by American politicians and the intellectual commentariat as an imposition on the inalienable right of Eastern Europeans to enjoy, among other things, freedom to travel. The Berlin wall indicated, for Western audiences, the punitive nature of an undemocratic regime. Surely a government that relies on walls is only demonstrating its politically bankrupt character?
The foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria at the time went one step further – performing a publicity stunt by symbolically cutting the barbed wire fence between their respective nations. This media-friendly PR move was meant to indicate the commitment of European nations, formerly enemies, to break down barriers, opening up a new era of cooperation.
This particular opening of the Eastern bloc border – the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ – contributed to the restoration of capitalism in the Eastern European nations. The integration of the Eastern European countries into the global capitalist economy led to the formation of an enlarged European Union and the abolition of immigration requirements within the Schengen region.
Thirty years after the Berlin wall came down, the European Union has implemented a series of militarised borders, becoming a garrison against the entry of refugees from non-European nations. Hungary has gone so far as to authorise the deployment of the army to prevent refugees from entering the country. European countries are resurrecting electrified razor-wire borders, hermetically sealing its external borders, denying refugees any entry points. These measures are combined with the abolition of the 1995 Schengen area provisions for internal borders.
Not only have militarised borders been erected in Europe, the United States administration of Donald Trump openly campaigned on a pledge to build a militarised border wall along the US-Mexico border. Demonising Hispanic immigrants as criminals and economic parasites, the Trump administration has pushed on with its determination to build a barrier as part of his xenophobic political platform.
Across the capitalist nations, heavily-fortified borders are being implemented, in particular to stop the movement of refugees and asylum seekers. The hype about welcoming the free movement of peoples has evaporated. Walls and borders do not necessarily have to be physical structures – Australia has enacted a policy of mandatory detention of refugees, involving a series of legislative and coercive measures that punish the most vulnerable – the refugees themselves.
It is no exaggeration to state that Australia’s policy of institutionalised cruelty against refugees is an inspiration to ultra-rightist parties and their conservative supporters around Europe. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has given several speeches at conferences in Europe portraying refugees as basically cheats and fraudsters attempting to unfairly secure a place in the wealthier nations. Such punitive border measures are rationalised by picturing immigration as a civilisational threat.
The European Union has turned the entire Mediterranean sea as a maritime barrier against African refugees, with no expense being spared in turning that sea into a graveyard for approaching refugees. The United Nations has noted that this year marks the sixth year during which the refugee and migrant death toll in the Mediterranean has topped 1000. Migrant and refugee fatalities have become an almost regular feature of maritime traffic in the Mediterranean sea.
One of the African nations from which refugees are fleeing, and which is itself a transit point for asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa, is Libya. The latter has been in a state of fractured political and economic chaos since the 2011 European-led war of regime change against former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Having once been a stable nation providing a unmatched level of prosperity for an African nation, Libya has been in a shambles economically as a direct result of policies pursued by the European powers.
Having created a failed state directly across the Mediterranean, the European Union washes its hands of all responsibility in producing an outflow of refugees. Instead, the militarisation of the Mediterranean is the preferred, xenophobic response of countries which once praised the free movement of peoples. The European Union has been outsourcing the refugee problem, by paying the Libyan authorities – at least the ramshackle tottering semblance of a government that the EU recognises – to house refugees in dangerous detention camps.
Sally Hayden, freelance journalist and writer who covers migration and refugee issues, wrote that the EU is funding a Libyan coast guard to prevent refugees from reaching European shores, and thus detaining them in makeshift camps in Libya. The refugees are at the mercy of rival militia groups and economic exploiters. The Italian government has been particularly duplicitous in pushing the refugee problem back into Libyan hands.
The 2017 Memorandum of Understanding between the Italian government and the Libyan authorities in Tripoli institutionalised a system of detention camps, where refugees face inhumane conditions. Such an approach only creates a pool of people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. These immigration and refugee policies, while implemented in Libya, are designed and carried out by Italian and EU authorities.
In the immediate aftermath of the Berlin wall’s demise, the East German politicians who gave the orders for their border guards to use lethal force were put on trial and held accountable for their actions. Will we see the architects of the EU’s harsh and deliberately cruel refugee policies being held accountable for the deaths their decisions have caused?
While we remember the fall of the Berlin wall, let us not fool ourselves – Europe has erected thousands of kilometres of walls since that time. Building walls not only gives us a sense of xenophobic insularity; they project imperial power over the immigrant and refugee outsider. Walls, razor-wire and surveillance are not purely defensive measures. They have become the new status quo in relations between capitalist states.