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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT


The opera of the European ‘Border Spectacle’

Ruben Wissing
Reading time
8 min.

Before Ali became the protagonist of the opera of the same name, he was one of the many anonymous extras in the European ‘Border Spectacle’ that has been unfolding in our name for a quarter of a century but remains hidden from view.

In this opera, Ricard Soler Mallol and Ali Abdi Omar focus our gaze painfully sharply on the existential experiences and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that Ali had to endure with so many of his compatriots during his long migration journey in search of safety. This direct confrontation with their intimate emotions makes them into the recognizable, vulnerable people for whom there is little or no room in objectivizing media coverage and political discourse. Ali’s grief and uncertainty are of course related to the fact that he had to leave behind his mother, his family and his familiar surroundings, a loss inherent to migration. But his pain and fears are largely due to the border and migration policies pursued by Europe, but which could just as well be different, more humane.

‘Instead of killing us, they expose us to death.’
— Ali (Act 3, Scene 4)

The border spectacle is European before it is African, because the long journey that is fleeing would never involve such dehumanization without the visa policy of the European Union (EU), which has caused a veritable global mobility apartheid (article in Dutch). If you were born in Belgium, your passport allows you to travel visa-free to about 84 per cent of the world’s countries (191 out of 227) (see this passport index). With a Somali passport, you can travel visa-free to only 16 per cent (36) of the world’s countries. For the remaining 84 per cent, Somalis need to apply for a visa, one they will rarely get. Syrians, Afghans and Somalis who have to flee because of war or persecution have a legal right to asylum but cannot enter the EU. This paradox in European border policy ensures that asylum seekers can only access a quality asylum system illegally and clandestinely, by boat or other clandestine means – while, once in the EU, they usually are entitled to refugee status or subsidiary protection.

Ali was on the road from Qoryooley in southern Somalia for two long years before he finally found protection and safety in Brussels. On his journey, he faced all the aspects and consequences of the EU’s external and internal migration policy: necropolitics, a politics of the normalization of death, according to which certain bodies deserve to live while others are allowed to die.

‘I want to – live. Everybody wants to live.’
— Ali (Act 4, Scene 3)

When Ali fled Somalia, he was trying to escape decades of civil war, political instability, social disruption and terrorist violence, a place where only the clan can sometimes offer a relative form of protection.

Somali refugees in numbers

In addition to more than four million internally displaced Somalis, more than 900,000 Somalis found themselves abroad as refugees or asylum seekers in 2023. That same year, 20,000 of them applied for asylum in the EU, a slight increase from 2022. Of these, 63 per cent were effectively granted protection status. In Belgium, 700 Somalis applied for asylum in 2023 – out of a total of 35,000 asylum applications, a slight decrease from 2022, which had seen the highest number of applications since 2015. About 58 per cent of asylum decisions for Somalis in Belgium were positive, compared to an overall protection rate of 43 per cent (source: UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Belgian Office of the Commissioner-General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS)).

Fleeing the violence in his home country did not automatically mean that Ali was safe. He had to resort to a smuggler and embark on an endless series of life-threatening stages in the grip of a criminal network. A maddening journey. He had no say, was given no information and was not allowed to ask questions. He had to endure decisions, follow and wait, accept, hide. Hounded by men shouting instructions, he always had to be on the alert for moments when things would move fast, moments over which he had no control. Danger lurked everywhere and in everyone: violence and death at the hands of the smuggler, arrest and abuse by authorities, loneliness in extreme, never-suspected environments, exhaustion, insomnia, hunger, thirst, pain, stress, uncertainty. Nowhere protection or humanity. Only an overpowering fear. That is how strong young men become vulnerable. They have to survive on hope.

‘You move in darkness.’
— Man (Act 1, Scene 6)

International agreements advance three durable solutions for refugee protection: local integration in the country of asylum, resettlement in another country, or sustainable return. None of these options was available in the African countries Ali travelled through.

In Africa, the vast majority of refugees are received ‘in the region’. Of the 27 million people who have fled sub-Saharan Africa in the last half century, more than 25 million have remained in that region as refugees. Yet the East African countries Ali passed through are not safe asylum countries offering a chance of legal residence with dignified reception and integration opportunities. On top of the many millions of internally displaced persons, the region hosts some of the largest refugee populations in the world: Ethiopia hosts one million persons seeking refuge, Kenya 750,000, Uganda one and a half million, South Sudan 300,000. At the same time, the reception of refugees there is among the most underfunded in the world: barely 30 per cent of the budgets needed for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, are effectively provided by the international community.

‘I’m here to help you.’
— Walid (Act 2, Scene 1)

It is true that the EU is developing a migration policy with African partner countries in which better protection of the rights of refugees and migrants, alongside the fight against human trafficking, invariably figures among the stated priorities. However, the reality is a lot more cynical. The EU hardly sees to it that those forced to flee in its partner countries also get access to the rights provided by the Refugee Convention (the so-called 1951 Geneva Convention), and there are virtually no integration and future prospects in the region. Development money is reallocated to secure borders.

The EU has not created legal and safe alternatives to keep asylum seekers out of the hands of criminal organizations nor has it shown solidarity with African countries hosting refugees. Of the 30,000 resettlements they committed to in 2021–22, EU countries effectively implemented only about half, and none from the Horn of Africa, Ali’s region. Belgium resettled only seventy-one people in 2022 and 287 in 2023. Instead, borders are being militarized, lending an innocent hand to migrants is being criminalized, and routes are increasingly dangerous and expensive. Ali’s fear of the authorities on the road shows that they are not partners in protection, but implementers of European migration policy. The ultimate goal of the policy is to curb migration to Europe, and to this end border policies are being deployed in Africa that perpetuate terror and dehumanization.

Libya is a notorious example of a European policy making deals with regimes that, for a cheque with nine zeros, are willing to get their hands dirty and deter the disenfranchised outcasts of the earth. The initial deal between Berlusconi’s Italy and Gaddafi’s Libya is now being facilitated by the EU. Ali personally experienced its sufficiently well-known and widespread consequences: indefinite detention in the Libyan desert and subjection to the arbitrary extortion and torture practices of smugglers, militias and security forces that see migrants as nothing more than commodities or sex objects.

‘Time stretches endlessly.’
— Ali (Act 3, Scene 4)

By focusing on curbing migration without enforcing humanitarian conditions, Europe has exposed itself to blackmail by regimes that are less than fussy about human rights. This has led, among other things, to an unprecedented increase in and normalization of banned pushback practices at Europe’s external borders. Ali too experienced the contempt for death these practices entail. In the Mediterranean, the EU partly outsources the rescue and disembarkation of migrants – which it is obliged to ensure under international maritime law – to the Libyan coast guard, which took a spectacular and proactive lead in deterrence, with deadly consequences – see the Sea Watch lifeboat incident in 2017. Over the last decade, this has led to 30,000 missing and dead within our Euro-African Mediterranean.


‘I’m afraid I’ll disappear.’
— Ali (Act 3, Scene 4)

For more and more European countries, the road they have embarked on is only the beginning of their plans in the Global South. With the so-called ‘Australian model’, they want nothing less than to completely outsource their asylum policy: banning asylum seekers completely from their territory and funding partner countries to organize the asylum procedure and reception. The UK government’s Rwanda plan and Italy’s agreement with Albania are the most telling examples, but they cannot possibly be implemented in accordance with international law without unlikely investments and reforms in terms of reception and procedures in partner countries (article in Dutch). It is political science fiction, while humane alternatives (report in Dutch) are feasible: resettling substantial numbers of refugees from the regions of origin, seriously supporting the development of better refugee reception on site as well, and sharing efforts among EU member states need not be more expensive and will have a greater impact on irregular migration in the long run than the current policy of deterrence.

If, despite everything, Ali did eventually make it across Europe’s external borders, he did not arrive just like that at the safe haven that our human rights discourse promises, or once promised. The values and principles we declared fundamental have proven to be extremely malleable where refugees are concerned: no freedom and protection, but detention, camps and a culture of disbelief and mistrust. There is no real solidarity between member states, only crisis mechanisms and endless procedures. For those seeking protection and opportunity, the freedom of ‘Schengen’, with its internal open borders, is blocked by ‘Dublin’ – as the rules are known that seek to keep asylum seekers without visas at the EU’s external borders. Dehumanization, which we claimed to have driven from the European territory forever with the ghosts of the past, threatens to become the new standard in the EU with the recently adopted Migration and Asylum Pact.

‘No one is waiting for me anywhere, but I’m leaving.’
— Ali (Act 4, Scene 3)

Translation: Patrick Lennon