Statewatch News online: The other asylum statistics - Governments count the numbers coming in. But who counts the numbers that do not make it?

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The other asylum statistics
Governments count the numbers coming in. But who counts the numbers that do not make it?

IRR press release, 29 July 2003

Research by the Institute of Race Relations has found that, in the last 18 months, at least 742 lives have been lost on Europe's militarised borders. The actual number of deaths is certainly much higher, as only officially verified deaths have been counted in this figure. In spite of the vast human tragedy taking place on Europe's periphery, the total number of people dying is not known, as no EU body takes responsibility for monitoring these deaths.

The deaths have taken place by air, sea and land. There are those who have frozen in the wheel-bays of aeroplanes. There are those who have drowned as their rickety, overcrowded vessels attempted to escape detection. And there are those who have trekked across perilous land routes, falling victim to landmines or suffocated in the back of sealed containers.

The majority of those who have died are Africans, but also included in the grim tally are Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans, Albanians and South Asians.

These deaths barely register on Europe's conscience. Instead, the problem is thought of in criminological terms, focusing on the links with organised crime, rather than the rights of refugees. Those who die are dismissed as 'illegal immigrants', part of the 'invading army' which newspapers eagerly warn us against.

But policies of deterrence, which assume that tougher penalties and tighter border controls can reduce the movement of people, do not work. Instead, such policies effectively create a market for the services of traffickers and smugglers, which are now essential for refugees who want to enter the EU.

The result is that, every time the authorities close off one route of entry, the traffickers open a new one elsewhere - one which is more circuitous and hazardous than before. EU policy is thus funnelling people to their deaths.

The example of Spain

Nowhere is this clearer than on the southern tip of Spain, where Africa's desperate and displaced peoples attempt to seek entry to Europe. At first, sub-Saharan Africans would trek across the Sahara to Morocco and then on to the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Then Spain, aided by the EU, responded with a £24.5 million programme to prevent the crossing from Morocco to Spanish territory. But still the desperate came, only now in the boots of cars, or hid under life-rafts, or in the narrow pipes and drains that carry waste into Bomba gully, the natural frontier between Morocco and Spain.

But, more often than not, they sought to enter by crossing the Mediterranean Sea to mainland Spain, or crossing from the African coast to the Canary Islands. Again, Spain responded by installing an expensive surveillance system and deploying the military to patrol the seas for clandestines. And, again, the death toll rose - only now the 'nautical graveyards' were inceasingly in African territorial waters, ensuring that the problem was further hidden from European view. Yet, almost daily, bodies wash up on Spain's holiday coastline.

Liz Fekete, author of the research and deputy director of the Institute of Race Relations, said: "the asylum policies introduced in Europe from the 1980s onwards have set the tone for an ill-informed debate. Intelligent discussion on the reasons for forced migration and refugee flight has been curtailed and compassion for the desperate derided. The result is that the human cost of the EU's asylum policy is forgotten"


The research Death at the border - who is to blame? is published in issue number 44 of the European Race Bulletin (

Read the report Death at the border - who is to blame? in full, along with a supplement on Return at the frontier, interception at sea and appendices with detailed data on recorded deaths. © Institute of Race Relations 2003

See also:

1. EU: “safe and dignified”, voluntary or “forced” repatriation to “safe” third countries: Report
2. Mediterranean joint patrols fail to stop migrants: Report
3. Statewatch's Observatory on Asylum

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