Who is illegal?

Racist raids in Spain
By Iker Barbero · 9 May 2011
Racist raids in Spain

In the last years two photographers, Edu Leon and Olmo Calvo, have been developing a project called Fronteras invisibles or invisible borders. Despite increasing obstacles created by the police when taking pictures, this project is still active with the aim of exposing the reality of identity checks and police raids in Madrid (Spain). These controls are carried out to identify, arrest, and in some cases, imprison in detention centers all those ‘foreigners’ who, for whatever reason, lack the immigration documents.

The legal logic for these raids is usually based on political orders and internal police circulars such as the 1/2010, through which instructions are described as “the Villa de Vallecas police station must detain 35 foreigners, mainly Moroccans. If insufficient, find them outside the district”. In practice, these checks in public spaces such as railway, metro and buses stations, neighborhoods, streets and places frequented by migrants, permit offices and embassies, or even outside schools where parents wait to pick up their children. The procedures are numerous. They also involve a number of police forces: from national, autonomous and local levels, to discrete, but equally blunt, undercover policemen who become responsible for identifying the ‘foreignness’ of pedestrians in response to racial or ethnic physical features. There is no transparency about the methods and assumptions used to make such identifications and we can only imagine the orientalist and colonialist prejudices at work. The activist work of photographers such as Edu Leon and Olmo Calvo has enabled us to see that.

Not too long ago, at the end of 2010, a European operation called Hermes was initiated, which coordinated simultaneously with police forces of Member States to develop documentation identification checks on foreigners in strategic transport points. The results of the operation have been published by the European Council in the Final Report 17816/10, 13 December 2010, according to which between 11 and 17 October 1900 persons where identified as irregular. This data will subsequently be reviewed by agencies such as Frontex, the Center for Information, Discussion and Exchange on the Crossing of Frontiers and Immigration (CIREFI) or the Center for Risk Analysis that will determine contemporary illegal migration routes and profiles of migrant subjects lacking documentation. In other words, they will identify and build the identity of the ‘illegal immigrant’, and its movements.

What is the justification for these operations? At the European level all seems to find room under the pretext of intercepting the illegal immigrants who have crossed the external borders and now are flowing through the select ‘Space of Freedom, Security and Justice.’ In Spain, according to a report published by INMIGRAPENAL (Group Immigration and penal system) on ‘Identity checks and arrests of immigrants: illegal practices’ (2010), the Organic Law 1/1992 on Protection of Public Safety only allows police checks on prevention and clarification of crimes only. Not having proper documentation can be revealed in administrative checks such as during traveling in the bus without a ticket or smoking inside public buildings. Yet, the fact that mass raids or identification checks are requested only from people with features that identify them as ‘foreigner’ is a violation of the principle of non-discrimination enshrined in Article 14 of the Spanish Constitution and numerous international treaties on fundamental rights ratified by Spain. How are such enactments regarded as acceptable?

But these police abuses are not accepted by all Spanish citizens. Thanks to the efforts of individuals and collective reports of civil society organizations, the Spanish state has recently been warned by various state institutions such as the Ombudsman (Annual Report 2010), and international bodies such as the Committee for Human Rights of the United Nations (Communication 146/2006) and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD/C/ESP/CO/18-20) who have demanded the immediate cease of such actions.

The raids in public spaces are intended to govern the migrant population through fear, these police actions are trying to create a social stereotype of an ‘illegal immigrant’. However, given that state authorities are clearly found in breach of treaties that they have signed, it raises the question as to who is illegal?

Learn more about: Orientalising citizens

About the author

  • Iker Barbero

    Research Associate
    Iker Barbero
    The Open University
    After my MA at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (2003/2004) I completed a PhD in Law at the University of the Basque Country (March 2010). My thesis, titled “Towards new... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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