Castle in the Sky - Open Europe and the Realities of European Exclusiveness

In the third chapter of Stories of Europe, human rights lawyer and doctoral candidate in law Mehrnoosh Farzamfar discusses the conflict between human rights and security of state; a conflict that manifests itself in the hypocrisy of the “Open Europe”-narrative we are used to hearing.

About a decade ago, when young Mehrnoosh Farzamfar was considering doing a degree in human rights law, one detail made her choice easy. The law curriculums at different universities seemed similar, but few European countries offered free university education for everyone. Free education was something valuable that she astonished her, so she came to Finland – a country she calls "home" today.

Nowadays, Farzamfar works as a doctoral researcher at the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence. During her time in Europe, she has noticed some changes in the practices and attitudes towards students coming from outside the European Union: expensive tuition fees are being introduced and application procedures are more complicated and time-consuming for non-European students than for their European counterparts.

Some say these measures are a way to fund the universities and to ensure that incoming students are motivated enough, but others see something sinister in the way Europe, and in this case, Finland, is becoming more and more exclusive. This change reflects something larger happening in Europe: “It is one manifestation of the hypocrisy of the ‘Open Europe’ narrative”, Farzamfar says. "Europe today is an exclusive VIP club that you either have to be born in to or pay a huge price to become a part of."

And, as one might guess, Farzamfar is not talking just about tuition fees.

On the other side of the moat

In 1959, the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte painted one of his well-known works, ‘The Castle of the Pyrenees’. The painting portrays a fortress floating in the sky above a restless ocean. The surrealist masterpiece has turned into a striking metaphor of Europe today from a migrant's perspective - the only thing missing from it are the flimsy refugee boats wandering  helplessly on the waves, with no port willing to accept them. This surrealist situation, imagined by Magritte in late 1950s, realizes today in Europe at its Southern and South-Eastern borders, which are the main entry points for immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. At these gates, the European ideals of universal and fundamental human rights and the rule of law are weighed and contested on a daily basis, as Farzamfar explains:

“Collective expulsion of aliens is just one of the many examples of what happens when the human rights of migrants clash with the national security of states, and in the case of Europe, with the European internal security.”

Two recent legal cases are of particular interest to Farzamfar’s research on the conflict between human rights of migrants and the security of state: N.D. and N.T. v. Spain, and more recently, Asady and Others v. Slovakia. These cases, in which non-European individuals tried to enter the European Union, demonstrate that even though mass expulsion of immigrants is prohibited under European-level human rights instruments, the ambivalent practices of European countries towards Middle Eastern and African immigrants trying to enter Europe undermine and challenge this prohibition.

"In the case of N.D. and N.T v. Spain,  the Spanish Government and other European countries who supported Spain, argued that there were legal mechanisms available to get access to Europe, and the refugees should have used them.", Farzamfar explains.

"In practice, access to legal immigration mechanisms is very difficult, especially for Sub-Saharan Africans."

What makes the second case, Asady and Others v. Slovakia, noteworthy is the spectacular speed with which the applications of 19 Afghan immigrants were processed: 19 applications were processed in roughly three hours, with only one interpreter present. Either the border control office in question houses some of the most efficient bureaucrats in the world, or something must have gone very, very wrong.

According to Farzamfar, there is a performative aspect to the European immigration mechanisms from Africa and the Middle East:

“When a group of immigrants come to the attention of the authorities at the European borders, every case should be heard individually, not as a group. Every individual must be heard. In many instances, this has not been case.”

To Farzamfar, the case in question demonstrates the problems which stem from the conflict between what is right versus what is lawful. In other words, Farzamfar calls Europe out on the hypocrisy of its border authorities, who rush through obligatory procedures at the borders and treat immigrants as a group of invaders, instead of individual human beings.

European palace or Fort­ress Europe?

According to Farzamfar, the current situation at the EU’s external borders is the most inhumane and cruel incident that has happened in Europe at a larger scale since the Yugoslav Wars. Incidents like this have had and will have a dramatic effect on European narratives and identities.

“I claim that Europe today is a fortress”, Farzamfar says. "And what I mean by that is that Europe is taking a hard and militarized approach to providing internal safety and security to Europe.” 

To Farzamfar, who has worked with refugees at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the issue of treatment of migrants is both personal and professional. As a human rights lawyer and someone who has come from outside Europe, she is constantly reflecting on these themes, and has taken on the habit of reminding her European friends of their privilege:

“Those who have been born and raised in the post-war Europe need to remember that they have won the lottery of life: they are living in a continent of post-war peace and democracy, in a land of post-colonial wealth and prosperity, with a rich post-enlightenment intellectual history."

In other words, being European means being safe, whether that means to have a passport that grants access to almost anywhere in the world, to have better access to education funds, or simply, enjoying basic and fundamental human rights. But is it fair? No, says Farzamfar: "How can we base human rights policy on the lottery of life? After all, we cannot ignore how the place of birth effects one’s chances in life."




Mehrnoosh Farzamfar (LL.M., M.Soc.Sci) is a researcher in Subproject 3, Migration and the narratives of Europe as an “Area of freedom, security and justice”. She is a doctoral candidate in Constitutional Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki. In her PhD research on “Migration Law and Security”, she investigates the perceived tension between protecting human rights of immigrants, as opposed to safeguarding the national security of States.

Find Mehrnoosh Farzamfar on The University of Helsinki Research Portal and read her recent blog text on refugee law and human trafficking at!

Text: Iida Karjalainen & Bea Bergholm