Sara Prestianni: “The EU puts a price on development funds: returning immigrants”

Sara Prestianni (Fano, 1979) grew up in central northern Italy as the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, at a time when La Lega still carried the “surname” North and those of the south, from Calabria and Sicily, were their favourite scapegoat. That experience, intersected during her adolescence, in the nineties, with the images of the boats loaded with Albanians arriving on the coast of Puglia. And “that combination of things,” she explains one early Monday in a café in Madrid’s Lavapiés district, made her think that “something was happening and something had to be done.” Her life and professional trajectory has been concentrated on that “something”, on the defence of the right to migrate and on protests against the externalization of borders. 

“The first proposal to outsource refugee camps to countries such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt for asylum applications to be processed directly there, came from Tony Blair”, says the coordinator of the project Externalisation Policies Watch of the Italian association ARCI and member of the European and African network Migreurop. 

Ceuta, Melilla, the Canary Islands, Lampedusa, Mauritania, Senegal, Niger, Sudan… these  are some of the increasingly distant borders to which Prestianni has travelled to investigate, interview and gather testimonies. 

An interview by Amanda Andrades.

Sara Prestianni in Madrid – photo by JOSÉ MARÍN

What is the externalisation of borders?

It means collaborating with third countries, countries of origin and transit of migrants, so that they take charge of blocking and controlling the border and also collaborate in speeding up the return of their citizens or those who have passed through their countries and who are already in European territory. 

Why is it dangerous? 

For many reasons. Firstly, we do not choose the countries that respect human rights the most, but those that are interesting geographically. Over the years, there has been collaboration with dictatorships such as Turkey or Sudan, with very fragile democracies that would have needed another type of collaboration such as Niger or Tunisia, with states that repress their citizens on a daily basis such as Egypt, and also with countries that do business with migrants for their economic and geopolitical interests such as Morocco or Libya. At the time of Gaddafi, it was a real business. Not economically, but aimed at being accepted internationally, after the embargo, to appear on the red carpet in visits to Paris and Rome. Of course, this has an impact on the violation of the human rights of migrants, but also on the destabilization of those countries. Now the obvious example is Libya. We are supporting one of the three governments because migrants leave from their region. And only to protect Italy’s electoral interests, so that the Minister of the Interior can say that there are no migrants arriving to Italy.

But the agreements with Libya were already signed when Salvini became Minister of the Interior. 

The agreements with Libya date to February 2017. And they were ratified by Parliament, in what was a clear violation of Article 80 of the Italian Constitution, which states that every international convention has to be voted in the Houses. It was justified as an annex to Berlusconi and Gaddafi’s 2008 agreement. This is the general framework for collaboration, but Italy had already begun in 2017 to obtain money from the European trust fund, 46 million EUR, to manage and support the coast guard and the Libyan land border guard. Without taking into account that these had very close relations, or were very close to some of the actors who managed the departure of migrants and with many militias. The connection with the militias was made clear in a report by the UN Security Council. It was a pact in which Italy somehow convinced human traffickers to become European gendarmes. In fact, that was what happened; in Italy there was a drop in migrant arrivals of up to 80%. All this was instrumental in the March [2018] election, in which the Democratic Party boasted such result. We denounced its effects. If the traffickers don’t have an income deriving from the departure of the migrants on boats, they have to make an economic gain, and for this reason they developed another business: detention centres, where they sell migrants to each other. Where torture, violence, violation of human rights, takes place on a daily basis… 

Is the outsourcing of borders effective with respect to its objectives?

It is not effective, not if the objective is to stop the arrival of immigrants. We can see this with the example of the strengthening of the borders of Ceuta and Melilla, especially in 2006 with the concertina in Melilla. The departure points were moved to Mauritania, to Senegal, to the Canary Islands. Moreover, collaborating with dictators also has a very fragile impact. For example, after the agreement signed in 2008 with Gaddafi, a decrease in arrivals followed over the next two years, and in 2011, what happened was the completely instrumental use of migrants, who were placed in boats by Gaddafi’s forces to try to convince and block the action of NATO against him. Now we risk a similar situation. Both on the part of [Khalifa] Hafter and [Fayez] Al Sarraj, the question of migration is being instrumentalized. A day will come when they may be more interested in letting migrants leave. It also happens in Turkey, a day may come when Erdogan may be more interested in opening the borders. It is a business with the lives of people.

There is another country less known than Libya, Turkey or Morocco that is also an example of these policies of externalization of borders and in which you have worked, Niger. What is happening there?

Niger has been one of the privileged partners of the EU and some member states since 2015. Why? What happened that year? There was a shift in outsourcing policies. They ceased to be bilateral, real but informal in the agreements. They were institutionalized through specific funds for outsourcing. 6 billion for Turkey and 4.3 billion for the Africa Trust Fund. Niger is the first beneficiary. This country was the pre-Libyan stage for all migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

The consequences for the migrants are that the number of deaths in the desert has increased exponentially.

There was a kind of economic life around migration. For most migrants, the horror began when they reached the Libyan border. What the EU asked Niger – and Niger accepted – was a law criminalizing the trafficking of migrants, law no. 036. With it they began to carry out controls and to block and stop cars with the migrants and to jail the young people of Agadez who made the passage. In addition, biometric data collection points have been developed on the southern border with Burkina Faso, in Agadez in the north and in the capital, Niamey. The entire area is covered by the protocol on the free movement of the Cedeao [Economic Community of West African States, composed of 15 countries] space. And it is being completely violated because it is being blocked and movement is prevented in the middle of that space. 

What are the consequences of this law?

Migrants have taken other routes inside Niger, along the border with Algeria or Chad, which are more risky. When I interviewed [Mohamed] Bazoum, Niger’s Minister of the Interior, he told me very clearly: “We are going to militarise all the water points that are on the migrants’ route. So the traffickers no longer pass through these places, it is too risky, and they go with very little water, along routes where there are many criminals. And, of course, those who can cover those routes are no longer the young people from Agadez who used to be able to move between two points, they are much more organized traffickers. The consequences for the migrants are that the number of deaths in the desert has increased exponentially. Very little is said because it takes place in the sand, but it is one of the very clear consequences of European policies.”

In addition, the routes have also moved to Mali. And who controls the north of this country? The groups that, in theory, Europe would have to fight. And yet, we are giving them more money because we are adding another form of trafficking, that of human beings, to the trafficking they already have in arms and drugs. Routes, such as the ones in the north of Mali, are much more dangerous. And what happens in Algeria? This country, seeing the number of tickets rising, has begun to carry out very violent returns – 35,000 in 2018 alone – to Niger. The stories and the wounds they carry on their bodies are mind-boggling and make us understand the horror that is now being experienced on the Sahel route, the horror that is being experienced with this policy of externalising borders in the region.

You mentioned the Trust Fund for Africa, created in 2015 with the aim of ending the causes of migration. There is evidence that these funds diverted from development are being used for migration control. 

Of course. The Trust Fund was created with the idea of being a flexible fund for an emergency. I always say that we must take a good look at this concept of crisis, built to justify this type of measure. Most of these funds, 90%, come from European development funds and some from contributions from Member States. One part, almost half of it, is being used under the concept of development, but this idea of development is linked to migration, making it conditional on the issue of migration. This is based on a false concept. Any economist will tell you that the more a country is developing, the more migrants leave. It is not true that more development means fewer migrations. And then we have the question of what it actually means “to develop”. One example, one of the most serious, is Sudan.

It is not true that more development means fewer migrations.

There are projects financed with trust funds for Eritrean refugees to take root in the refugee camps in the regions of Kassala, on the border with Eritrea, camps where the men of the Eritrean dictatorship enter. It is not a question of development. The other part is funds for border control projects. For example: support for law 36/2015 in Niger or 45 million EUR in 2015 and 46 in July 2017 for the Italian Ministry of the Interior for projects in support of the Libyan coast guard. 

Another concept on which ARCI works is that of the invisible border, what does it mean?

It is being developed both in Europe and in Africa. At European level, in recent months the creation of a database with fingerprints and facial recognition of foreign citizens entering Europe has been approved. This is big business. And at an African level, in addition to the development of these biometric techniques for civil registration, the IOM, not with European funds, but with Japanese and Canadian funds, is creating an entire biometric system on all the borders of Niger. What does that mean? You can see it on their Facebook page; the IOM has offered the local police a van that is a mobile border point, to collect fingerprints with a system managed by IOM itself, the Midas system, where they collaborate with Frontex. The fingerprints will then be processed by the DST, the Nigerian central police. How long will this data be left only in Niger? When will it be shared with EU countries? They are valuable data for Europeans because signing readmission agreements for those who have made transit through Niger allows you to return them on arrival in Italy. We are not there yet, but the goal is very clear in all the discussions, for example, in the Africa Plan in Spain, or in all Italian policies, with the conditionality clause: if you want development funds, you have to collaborate with the return of migrants. That’s written all over the place.

The answer lies in those meetings that are taking place in Europe and abroad, in which migration, together with terrorism, is the new European market.

Invisible borders are less criticized than a fence, but they have an impact that is as strong as a fence. Furthermore, we are seeing the multiplication of meetings on security and on the business generated by technology and border management, in which immigration, anti-terrorism and security are mixed. At one of those meetings, which I attended, at the Security Research Event in Brussels, where there were representatives of the European Commission, the security industry and universities researching new forms of border control, what was said very clearly was: we are going to develop the European security market. And how can this be done better? By creating an enemy, an idea of invasion that justifies the increase in European funds for security and migration. If we look at the MFF project (the European Union’s multiannual financial framework), it is clear: there is a huge increase in funds for border management and security. So why do we need the European priority to be the development of all these security systems around Europe and Africa? The answer lies in those meetings that are taking place in Europe and abroad, in which migration, together with terrorism, is the new European market.

What companies are in that market?

There are several of them. For example, Leonardo, what was formerly Finmeccanica, received a very important fund to develop an invisible border between Niger and Libya, an agreement signed in August 2008 by Berlusconi’s government with a member of La Lega  as interior minister. At that time, the treasurer of La Lega was also on the board of Finnmeccanica, which made it very clear that one of the interests of that agreement was to be able to obtain those border management revenues. Then we see, for example, a parastatal industry like the French Civipol, which accounts for a large part of the market for biometrics from the civil registry of African countries or Airbus. 

We must also ask ourselves whether there is a risk that all these tools given to these countries will be used for the repression of the civilian population. I am thinking, for example, of all the boats donated by Italy and France to Libya that have been used for conflicts that had nothing to do with migration. Or in Egypt, of all the security systems that are being delivered with the excuse of migration to a country with a very high number of disappearances and repression of civil society.

Sudan is another example of this, why?

Sudan has received 100,000 EUR from trust funds, not directly, but from different projects. When I went there in December 2016 with parliamentarians from the GUE [Confederal Group of the European United Left] to follow some migrants returned from Italy under the 2016 agreement between Italy and Sudan, it was already known that some cooperation agencies were using trust funds to develop training projects for the Sudanese border guard. What was not very clear was how many militia members were being trained there. At that time, Omar Al Bashir, like Gaddafi at the time, had every interest in collaborating with the EU in blocking Eritrean refugees in order to rehabilitate himself at an international diplomatic level. And this was evident when he began to raid Eritreans and return them. That was the first step. The second was the announcement of a specific border guard to control drugs, migration, terrorism, the Rapid Super Force. They went so far as to send a letter to the European Parliament saying ‘we are your collaborators’. And in the EU everyone said no, we are not supporting them. It may be that there was no direct European money, but we collaborated with Al Bashir and he had created a force that was almost entirely composed of Janjaweed militiamen, well known for the horrors of Darfur. The Rapid Super Force issued press releases such as: “We have arrested 50 migrants trying to cross the border with Libya,” normalizing itself as the new Sudanese border guard. In 2016 they started at the border with Libya and then they were also put at the border with Eritrea. In fact, the border was closed.

At the same time, in 2017 and 2018, they began to take power in Khartoum, to control migrants. And as some Sudanese activists told us, if you continue to collaborate with Al Bashir, we will never have justice for what happened in Darfur. And it has had an impact on the civilian population. The Rapid Super Force, the Janjaweed militia, normalized by Omar Al Bashir to justify border control, has been so strengthened in recent years that they are now the armed wing seizing the militants of the Sudanese revolution, throwing stones at them and throwing them into the Nile, with brutal violence.


This interview was originally published in CTXT. Translated by Emma Gainsforth.

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