Transborder SummerCamp: Transnational Solidarity against the European Border Regime

At the Transborder SummerCamp 2022 in Nantes/France, which lasted several days, activists from all over the world came together. They discussed about the EU refugee policy at the external borders. Valeria Hänsel and Kerem Schamberger were there.

“I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me that there was a place where so many people from different countries and backgrounds could meet to discuss our different yet common struggles together. I would not have believed that here we are all equal, no matter if we come from Africa, Asia or Europe, no matter what language we speak and what skin color we have. But here it was like that. And now we have many plans and the common struggle will continue,” explains a young activist from West Africa.

He stands at the microphone under the roof of a colorful circus tent that has been erected on the autonomous site of the ZAD (zone à défendre) near Nantes to provide shade from the burning sun. The ZAD was occupied a few years ago by activists to prevent the construction of an airport. The young man at the microphone is a first-timer at the Transborder Summercamp, which took place the second time at ZAD from July 15-18. He is one of many who speak at the closing ceremony and emotionally describe their impressions of the event. Several hundred people in and around the tent listening to his words, which are simultaneously translated into six different languages by the interpreter collective Interprise.

Over four days, parallel workshops at the meeting discussed the disenfranchisement of people and their struggles against various different borders: the EU’s external and internal borders, and borders externalized deep into the Sahel region, but the discussions also circle around anti-racist struggles from South America to Afghanistan. It is clear to all participants what they are fighting for – and above all what the struggle against: the topic of death is omnipresent. Lists with names and pictures of the dead of Fortress Europe characterize the overall image of the camp.

The opening event begins with a minute of silence for the 37 people who died on June 27 at the highly-armed border fences of the Spanish exclave of Melilla. The workshop on “Identification and Missing Migrants” highlights the scale and drama of the fates of missing people at borders around the world. Thousands of people have died in recent years in the Mediterranean Sea alone trying to reach Europe. The identity is only known of about one in three dead. All the others disappear forever in the anonymous mass grave of the Mediterranean Sea, because the responsible authorities do not bother with their identification.

However, the camp is not only about anti-racist struggles at the borders of Europe, but also within the EU states. Among the images of the deceased on display are people who died as a result of racist police violence in Germany and elsewhere. At the closing event, a moving moment will commemorate Hassan Numan, a recently deceased activist from Sudan who was able to prevent numerous deportations from German reception facilities through self-organized protests. People without papers and freedom to travel also found their way to the Transborder meeting – sometimes with great difficulty. As one activist explained in the closing session, “I am one of those who have no papers but have lived in France for years. I have met here many women from all over the world who are engaging together in a feminist and anti-racist struggle. This gives me the strength to continue, hopefully when I come back here in three years I will have my papers.”

Resistance to border violence, pushbacks and criminalization

Despite the experiences of death and disenfranchisement, the participants of the Transborder SummerCamp do not remain in helplessness and apathy. On the contrary, they inspire each other through their different projects and their self-organization. The meeting is a place of exchange, where different struggles are connected and networks are established. A young man who provides basic necessities to people fleeing in the forests of the Polish-Belarusian border says, “As one of the few true international movements, we have the potential to bring about real social change. In the common struggle against the European border regime, we are working together toward a revolution in society.”

An essential focus of the Transborder Summercamp is to develop common practical ideas and to find solutions. Networks and activists from the MENA and Sahel regions play an important role in this process. Due to the externalization of European border protection policies, it is not only projects in coastal states such as Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, but also in countries such as Mali, Niger and Chad that are taking on an increasingly important role in the fight against European walls-up policies.

The Alarmphone Sahara (APS) in Niger is one of the projects that is supported by activists from the region and was further developed at the Transborder Summercamp. It aims to save refugees from dying of thirst in the Sahara desert. A Frontex agreement with Niger, announced in mid-July, could endanger the work of APS. Joint police “investigation teams” are to be formed by Frontex, the EU Capacity Building Mission, and Nigerien security forces to combat “terrorism and illegal migration,” but possibly also humanitarian helpers of migrants.

Another pressing issue discussed at the meeting are the increasing illegal pushbacks at many European borders. These are violent attacks at people seeking protection who have already crossed a border but are often pushed back by paramilitary or police units using weapons, beatings and abuse, and the theft of clothing and valuables, for example at the Croatian and Bulgarian borders. In the sea, pushbacks are carried out by attacking people in inflatable boats by the coast guard to force them to turn back or by outsourcing the responsibility for rescue to violent actors such as the so-called Libyan coast guard, which drags people off to prison camps. In Greece, in particular, it happens regularly that asylum seekers who have already reached the Greek islands are dragged back to the open sea by the local coast guard in cooperation with the police and abandoned there on life rafts. This illegal practice was recently described in the Memento Moria podcast.

Perspectives of resistance against this border violence were lively discussed at the camp. On the one hand, it was about the further development of already running campaigns and strategies against the European border protection agency Frontex. On the other hand, concrete measures were discussed how pushbacks can be prevented on the spot, e.g. by journalists and activists witnessing the arrival of refugees. In doing so, however, they are under massive criminalization pressure – because people who are discovered in the vicinity of arriving refugees are threatened with arrest as alleged smugglers.

However, it was repeatedly emphasized at the camp that refugees in particular are themselves criminalized as smugglers and face draconian punishments. Often, fleeing people will be sentenced to life in prison for holding the tiller of the inflatable boat on the way to Europe or for sending a distress call to the coast guard in case of distress at sea. In Greece, the second largest group of all detained people is in prison on charges of “human trafficking,” including many refugees. For a long time, various groups have been working in cooperation with local lawyers to support these people, accompany court cases and implement campaigns against the criminalization of people seeking protection. Now some of them have joined forces: Only one day after the end of the Transborder Camp, the website Captain Support went online. There, refugees are informed about the danger of criminalization and can report if they themselves or others are affected by arrests. The Captain Support network then tries to organize legal help and, if desired, a political support campaign.

These exemplarily selected initiatives show that the worldwide struggle against disenfranchisement continues even in view of the increasingly deteriorating situation in the world. The Transborder Summercamp has impressively shown how important the transnational coming together of activists and organizations from different regions of the world is. As medico international we are happy to have participated together with some of our partner organizations. We agree with the verdict of a human rights lawyer from Egypt who stated at the end of the meeting: “At this camp there is an idea of solidarity and resistance that allows us to fight for our freedom.”

Text: Valeria Hänsel & Kerem Schamberger