You could barely see that it was a finger. “The wound was large, with several deep cuts into the flesh. He had tried to climb the fence and was up there when he was caught by police in the middle of the night,” says András Léderer, advocacy officer for the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based NGO.
“He lost his balance. The wound was so horrific because as he fell, he tried to grab the razor wire – and also, he said, touched the second layer of the fence, which is electrified.”
The unnamed Pakistani refugee in his 30s had attempted to cross the fence near Sombor, Serbia, to get into Hungary in 2016. The coils of metal that lacerated his finger are ubiquitous at the perimeters of “Fortress Europe” and can be found on border fences in Slovenia, Hungary, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Spain and France.
Razor wire is cut from galvanised steel, and unlike barbed wire, which was devised to tangle and impede movement, it is designed to maim.
It is one of the most visible symbols of the fortification of the EU’s borders. Thousands of migrants have already paid with their lives while attempting to get around those borders: by crawling through pipes, suffocating in the back of lorries, or drowning in the Mediterranean.
In September 2005, a Senegalese man reportedly bled to death from wounds inflicted by deadly razor wire coils topping the fence in Ceuta, one of Spain’s two exclaves on the north African coast.
Migrants from African countries regularly attempt to scale the six-metre high barriers separating these port cities from Morocco. They do so at great personal risk; after mass attempts to cross, Spanish medical staff regularly attend to deep cuts from razor wire, from which migrants’ bloodstained clothes are sometimes left dangling.
Like the rest of Spain, Ceuta and Melilla have been under lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic. But tighter Moroccan border controls linked to the pandemic have not stopped migrants and refugees from coming: 1,140 people succeeded in crossing the frontier into Ceuta and Melilla in the first three months of this year.
The Spanish authorities started removing the razor wire from these fences last December as part of a review of border security. The wire was first installed in 2005, removed two years later and restored by the centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy in 2013. The socialist government led by Pedro Sanchez had a chance to make good on repeated promises of a more humanitarian migration policy after June 2018. And throughout 2018 and 2019, Spanish officials stated their determination to remove the razor wire and, in the words of the interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, move beyond “bloody methods” of border control.
Spain’s humanitarian policy has become largely redundant, though, given that Moroccan authorities have started installing razor wire along their own border fence with Ceuta. And Grande-Marlaska announced recently that fences around the two Spanish exclaves would be raised by 30 metres to deter incomers.
These apparent double standards are part of a pattern, says Karl Kopp, of the German NGO Pro Asyl.
“The European style is to outsource this more vicious, older style of border control with its razor wire and multiple fences to third countries. At home, it’s about drones, surveillance and technical cooperation to identify migrants approaching the EU border before they even reach it. Meanwhile, violent border policing is kept farther afield: out of sight, out of mind. So the Moroccans build an ‘ugly’ fence which can be criticised, while the Spanish create a more ‘humanitarian’ alternative,” says Kopp.
Public pressure elsewhere has led some governments to reconsider the use of razor wire as experts brand it both inhumane and ineffective. Others even wonder about the legality of its use.
“On the one hand, legislation about borders states that crossing anywhere other than an official checkpoint is illegal. On the other hand, the notion of crossing a border illegally is usually voided under international refugee law if making an asylum claim,” says Bernd Kasparek, a researcher at Border Monitoring, a German NGO that tracks pushbacks of refugees. “So there is a legal tension at the EU’s borders. Sometimes it is very necessary to cross the border irregularly in order to lodge an asylum claim. Fortified borders like these interfere with that legal right, particularly in places where it’s an open secret that 99% of asylum claims lodged with border guards are rejected,” Kasparek adds.
Recent successful attempts at removing razor wire from Europe’s borders have not been motivated by legal or humanitarian concerns but by ecological ones. In Slovenia, environmentalists’ fears of the impact of razor wire on wildlife led in 2016 to the removal of the coils from sections of its border with Croatia. In light of legal constraints in several European states on the deployment of razor wire in rural areas, some manufacturers even indicate the wildlife-friendly credentials of their razor wire.
One difficulty in mounting a challenge is the near impossibility of establishing the true scale of the injuries inflicted specifically by razor wire at borders. According to Kate Dearden, project officer at the I nternational Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, many governments only keep records on deaths at borders, rather than deaths that occur later as a result of injuries during attempts to cross them.
Moreover, it can be hard to discover exactly which portions of Europe’s fences are topped by razor wire and who supplied it; in recent years many governments have classified detailed information about fences as state security issues. Nevertheless, some manufacturers have refused to sell to border fences on humanitarian grounds. In 2015, Talat Deger, director of the Berlin-based company Mutanox, refused to do a deal with the Hungarian government. In an interview last year, Deger’s successor, Efekan Dikici, said that he and his staff have kept to the principle.
“We want to sell razor wire, of course, but only for the right purposes: to secure property, factories, jails, or for example on the railings of ships to prevent piracy. For those purposes it’s justified; but when it’s being used against humans who need help, that’s awkward,” said Dikici. “Most of our workers have a foreign background themselves, so I think we all feel this a bit more.”
That stance is costly. Dikici stressed that it can be genuinely difficult for razor wire suppliers to establish the end use of their product, given that they often deal with middlemen and procurement agencies. “If you’re selling to a government, razor wire could be used for a prison or a border. But if a request for a really huge amount comes in, we do wonder whether it’s for a border fence. Even large private properties need a few hundred metres, not kilometres. I ask myself, if we got a request from the US for the Mexico border, would we give them a quote?”
Other companies do not appear to have these scruples – after all, there is a brisk trade to be done in razor wire, which is not to be confused with barbed wire. Razor wire is cut from single sheets of galvanised steel, and most commonly sold in folding coils known in the industry as concertinas. The sharp razors come in various sizes; most seen by the Guardian at four European border fences are of the BTO-22, BTO-20 and BTO-10 varieties – straight razor edges affixed to a metal coil.
There are even more formidable options: CBT-60 includes “harpoon” style hooked razor heads that can embed themselves in the flesh of those trying to cross them. Some razor wire manufacturers seemingly flaunt the effects in their brochures; for example, Chinese manufacturer Hebei Jinshi advertises its CBT-65 long blade as a “vicious product” whose “extra long blade razors produce[s] [a] frightening effect.”
However, some European producers have discovered that selling razor wire to border fences comes at the cost of bad press, even in times of rising xenophobic sentiment.
When Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, decreed in 2015 that a fence be raised on Hungary’s border with Serbia, the Malaga-based manufacturer European Security Fencing (ESF) provided the razor wire. ESF, a subdivision of Mora Salazar, has delivered coils for fences in Austria, Slovenia, Bulgaria and France, and proudly presents itself as one of Europe’s leading razor wire suppliers.
Nevertheless, after the installation of its razor wire on the Hungarian border, ESF spokesmen told the Spanish press that they had been unaware of the product’s final use by the Hungarian clients. In September 2015, the company deleted its official Twitter account following the backlash provoked by a tweet boasting of ESF’s leading role in the European razor wire industry.
Today, ESF appears to have competition in the form of Polish company GC Metal, which now refers to itself as Europe’s leading seller of razor wire. The company’s website indicates that it may have been involved in supplying concertina wire for the Bulgarian-Turkish border fence. Neither ESF nor GC Metal responded to requests for comment about the end use of their products or their humanitarian implications.
Europe’s fortified borders are here to stay, even if borders in decades to come may be unrecognisable in comparison to today’s crude fences. Razor wire, much like fortified borders in general, is both inhumane and ineffective, concludes Kopp, though its removal may not necessarily be a bellwether for a more humanitarian migration policy. Seismic sensors, night vision cameras and surveillance drones have all come to play a greater role in border policing – with hi-tech solutions like these, will razor wire become redundant?
“There’s a high symbolic value to razor wire, like fences,” says Mark Akkerman, a researcher at the Transnational Institute and author of a recent report on Europe’s border-industrial complex. “Simply put, they allow governments to show the public, the press, their voters, and the world that they’re ‘doing something’ about migration.”