As I examined earlier this year in my series on the border regime, the transnational system of nation-states is inherently characterized by numerous forms of violence and injustice in terms of human mobility (or migration) and the legal-state parameters of modern citizenship. I find Nicholas De Genova’s assessment – made in relation to Europe, but also relevant beyond that context – particularly useful:

Europe’s borders, like all borders, are the materialisations of socio-political relations that mediate the continuous production of the distinction between the putative “inside” and “outside,” and likewise mediate the diverse mobilities that are orchestrated and regimented through the production of that spatial divide. Thus, with respect to the abundant inequalities of human mobility, the borders of “Europe” are simultaneously entangled with a global (postcolonial) politics of race that redraws the proverbial colour line and refortifies “European”-ness as a racial formation of whiteness, and a comparably global (neoliberal) politics of transnational labour mobility and capitalist labour subordination that produces such spatialised (and racialised) differences, above all, to capitalise upon them. 

Nicholas De Genova – The “Crisis” of the European Border Regime: Towards a Marxist Theory of Borders. (International Socialism, Issue 151, April 4 2016)

Over the last decade, since the so-called ‘migration crisis’ of 2014-2015 that De Genova analysed in this 2016 piece, Western politics has been constantly marked by the topic of immigration and, it must be stressed, xenophobic, authoritarian, racist and sometimes even fascist worldviews and rhetorics. From a more general and historical perspective, it was in fact the Second World War and its (migratory, economic, social, political, UN, etc.) consequences that initiated the globalisation of the nationalist and murderous political model that was at the root of the horrors committed on the European continent in the 1930s and 1940s.

To give an order of magnitude for the number of victims of the cross-border system, bearing in mind of course that it is impossible to be 100% exhaustive or conclusive, we can estimate that there have been at least 90,000 or 100,000 deaths since 2000. The figure is likely to be much higher, as the process of documentation and counting is hampered by issues when it comes to identifying victims (who are often undocumented), gathering details/causes/information and verifying incidents, as well as by the non-transparency and obscurantism of states and other border forces/actors. For example, the investigations led by Lighthouse Reports have shed light on the murderous policies of Frontex and their partners (see in particular ‘Sink the Boat’ and ‘Desert Dumps’), on the fact that many deaths along the Balkan route and at the Polish-Belarussian border go unaccounted for, and on the lies and omissions of the authorities (e.g. during the Pylos and Crotone shipwrecks, or about the Melilla massacre).

Nevertheless, this estimate, based on data from the ‘Missing Migrants Project’ (coverage since 2014) and ‘The Migrant Files’ project (completed in 2016, but covering the period 2000-2015), gives an idea of the seriousness and scale of this tragedy, indeed this fundamental crime against human life and dignity. The Fatal Policies of Fortress Europe campaign also estimates that more than 60,000 deaths since 1993 are linked to European policies. There are other projects and teams documenting the massacres and lives lost as a result of the border regime, including the El Paso Sector Migrant Death Database, Border Forensics, and OpenDemocracy.

Visualizations help illustrate the figures and data and give us a clearer picture of the reality of this global phenomenon. My latest infographic shows changes in the number of migrant deaths since 2014, based on UN figures (‘Missing Migrants Project’). While there was a slight drop during the quarantine and containment measures introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the incident rate has risen again since 2020, with drowning still the main cause (58.5%). This latter prevalence is due to the fact that the majority of deaths worldwide are concentrated in the Mediterranean region, meaning that European policies are directly responsible for the bulk of this toll.

Using the same data, a few weeks ago I created an animated visualization of migrant deaths since 2014, thanks to Flourish.

During my research, I also came across this map published in Le Monde in 2015, produced by Jules Grandin and Flavie Holzinger.

Jules Grandin, Francesca Fattori et Flavie Holzinger, Les routes mortelles des migrants. Le Monde, 30 August, 2015.

I also recommend checking out the interactive visuals created by Soha Elghany and Jan Kühn using the same UN data.

Visualization by Soha Elghany. See interactive version on Tableau Public, as well as this related visualization.

Interactive Visualization created by Jan Kühn.

Moreover, deaths are obviously only one part of the overall barbarity of contemporary borders: let us briefly mention pushbacks (Lighthouse Reports, Border Violence Monitoring Network, Bellingcat), surveillance (‘Invisible Borders’, ‘Airborne Complicity’), deportations (Statewatch, Lighthouse Reports/Nadieh Bremer, see below), and in general the abuses and injustices committed by state and other forces (The Border Chronicle, Border Forensics, European Council on Refugees and Exiles, etc.). As De Genova argued, all this violence is based, on the one hand, on the international structuring of contemporary capitalism and, on the other, on the dehumanisation of foreigners, the poor, refugees and so on. For a more comprehensive discussion of the border system and how it relates to other modern structures (militarism, racism, colonialism, etc.), see the work of the Transnational Institute and the Funambulist, as well as the works of Harsha Walia and Nandita Sharma.

Frontex: EU’s Deportation Machine, made by Nadieh Bremer.

In conclusion, it’s important to highlight the connection to the ongoing genocide in Palestine, which European countries have for the most part supported and cheered rather than opposed. What is happening in Gaza (and in Sudan, Ukraine, Syria, Burma…) is unfortunately an indication of the horrors that the majority of humanity will face in the 21st century. The only solution is transnational solidarity, resistance and uprising, not only against capital and colonial empires or regimes, but also the state, police, prisons and borders themselves.

The resonance we see between the Israeli apartheid and the global mobility apartheid is lived as a continuity in the trajectories of numerous Palestinian refugees we have met during our investigations over the last years. Whether they attempt to cross the Mediterranean, the Balkans or Eastern Europe, Europe’s borders continue to deny Palestinians their rights, and their rights to mobility in particular, just like the apartheid regime they escaped. Even after they have reached European soil, many remain for extended periods of time without the full recognition of their right to stay and work, joining other people of the global south as Europe’s second-class citizens.

Against all Apartheid Regimes: From the Occupation of Palestine to Global Borders – A declaration of solidarity by Border Forensics, November 2023