Mos Maiorum: A hunt for the undocumented

Police across EU participated in a search for undocumented immigrants this October. Source: Armando G Alonso, Flickr CC

Between the 13th and 26th of October 2014, a hunt for illegal immigrants took place in several countries in the European Union. The operation was initiated by the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in cooperation with the European border authority Frontex. All the EU countries were invited to participate. The goal was to stop trafficking networks but it has been heavily criticized for worsening the exposed situation of already vulnerable individuals.

Information about the operation is hard to come by; the European Parliament was not the main actor in charge, and provided therefore no answers to inquires. Elected politicians have been reluctant to answer questions on the issue, and in Sweden the politicians have referred to the police on questions about Mos Maiorum since it was mainly the police that took action in this project. But the police was also unwilling to comment on the operation; referring to a common policy not to comment on operations to avoid putting the operational success at risk. Only one official document regarding the operation is open to the public, it is published on the EU website but a lot of the information has been deleted. However, the original document has been leaked, giving some insight. The operation was aimed at among other things to “apprehend irregular immigrants” and to carry out police controls at border crossings, railway stations, bus depots, and highways.   Besides finding undocumented immigrants, the aim with this operation states to be to identify, prosecute and disrupt organized crime groups, to fight illegal immigration and to find the main routes of illegal immigration. In order to do so, the countries that participated were encouraged to gather information about the illegal immigrants, which included nationality, gender, age and time of arrival in the EU. The purpose of collecting information about the illegal immigrants was stated to be for investigation purposes.

The biggest issue the police face when gathering information about illegal immigrants is that they do not know who is an illegal immigrant on sight. One of the major points of criticism towards this action is therefore centered on the fact that the police might base their actions on prejudices. The identification and passport controls that the police carried out in order to find illegal immigrants were by some considered to be based on observing that people looked like they had a foreign background. A collaborative project initiated in Sweden a few years ago, called REVA, share some of the difficulties Mos Maiorum is struggling with. People who have been affected by this operation have given evidence about having to prove one’s identity on the metro, with apparently no other reason than their skin not being white, which according to Swedish law, and ECHR (the European Convention on Human Rights), is illegal. One could therefore question whether the directive from the EU made the police perform potentially discriminatory actions which are not compatible with European law.

Illegal immigrants, a vulnerable group that live at the edge of society. Is Mos Maiorum helping the situation? Source: Kevin Van den Panhuyzen, Flickr CC

In light of these considerations, the name for the operation, Mos Maiorum, was a questionable choice. The name dates back to the ancient Romans and refers to an unwritten code from which they derived their social norms, implying that behind Mos Maiorum lies a will to exclude those who do not comply with European customs. The supporters of Mos Maiorum state that the main goal is to find the networks which are engaged in human trafficking and eliminate them. A noble cause, but its critics are doubtful of the effectiveness of stopping trafficking networks by apprehending undocumented migrants. The Swedish Left Party EU-parliamentarian, Malin Björk, is very critical of these types of operations. “It is frightening to use cooperation this way when we are in a situation where we have to get a better immigrant reception and find more legal ways for immigrants to get to Europe and in order to seek asylum”. One of the few ways to enter Europe is via human trafficking networks. The question is if by closing down these trafficking networks, the situation would improve. Since the demand to enter Europe would still exist it is likely that it only gives rise to new networks taking the place of the old ones. Therefore many argue that if the EU is going to fight human trafficking, they should also make it easier to enter legally. As long as there is war, dictatorship, famine and natural disaster, people will be forced to take refuge in other countries. To seek asylum is a human right, a right that is hard to exercise if it is impossible to actually enter a country where you can seek asylum.

No matter if the operation is the right way to handle the issue or not, one thing is sure and that is that it is affecting the lives of illegal immigrants. One undocumented immigrant in Sweden describes her life after Mos Maiorum began and how she started feeling ashamed of being an undocumented migrant. Before, she enjoyed being outside, visiting the church and going to Swedish lessons. Now, after being indoors for two weeks, she suffers from persecution mania, loneliness and the struggle of finding food, with no right to work and no other income. She asks herself who came up with the idea of hunting illegal immigrants, and how a person can be called illegal.

Tove Gustafsson

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