For too long, Western leaders have been getting away with a brutal circus in the name of border security. From hard-right politicians to the erstwhile establishment parties, “fighting illegal migration” is the new game in town from Canberra to Washington by way of Brussels and Rome. While it is natural be outraged by the locking up of children in Donald Trump’s United States or the criminalization of rescues in Italy during Matteo Salvini’s reign as interior minister, this deadly game is sadly not just being played by a few erratic and callous politicians. Rather, it is systematic.
For many years now, a key part of the game has been to get poorer neighbors to do the dirty work of deterring migration. The short-term political gains of this strategy are often huge. But taking a longer view, such outsourcing of migration and border controls represents a spectacular own goal not just in humanitarian terms, but also politically.
Consider the European Union’s external borders. In a July report, we detailed how the EU and its member states have gone about outsourcing the deterrence of migration to states such as Turkey, Libya, and Niger, with severe consequences that are rarely debated. Tallying up the score sheet of fewer migrants and refugees arriving onto European shores since the record-high numbers in 2015, politicians are getting away with trumpeting the supposed success of fighting migration via patrols, fences, and heavy deterrence. Most of the media have lapped up the so-called success story simply by reducing their reporting on migration, while more progressive voices have kept silent for fear of stirring the far-right beast. Yet this spurious success masks a much bigger moral and political failure that will keep coming back to haunt the EU.
From the indefinite containment in what Amnesty International called “insecure and undignified” camps in Greece to de facto pushbacks of migrants toward the hell of Libya, from increasingly perilous routes across the Sahara to the avoidable mass drownings in the Mediterranean, Europe’s so-called fight against illegal migration has fueled abuses that undermine the EU’s global role and its avowed values.
Europe’s so-called fight against illegal migration has fueled abuses that undermine the EU’s global role and its avowed values.
Inside Europe itself, the perennial crisis mentality has fueled a sense of siege and foreboding that only benefits the far-right. In just the latest example of this, Spain’s surging far-right party Vox is now clamoring for “insurmountable walls” at the borders of the country’s North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla—where existing tall fencing, military technology, and manpower have for years been contributing to the chaos.
Yet the EU, just like the United States, has doubled down. In its strategic agenda for the next five years, it has coalesced around a project straight out of the hard right’s playbook—of protecting borders, not people. And the way forward, in the words of the agenda, is “fighting illegal migration and human trafficking through better cooperation with countries of origin and transit.”
The strategy is simple: externalize the problem. As the Council of Europe has noted, this involves outsourcing “border controls to third-countries with notorious human rights records.” Simply put, contain the threat far away—out of sight, out of mind—by exporting the costs and risks of fighting migration to such countries. Do this even if it involves paying unsavory regimes in ready cash or political concessions, as long as they are willing to do the dirty work of deterring migration through inhumane detention, arbitrary expulsions, heavy-handed prevention of departures, and more.
Examples of the induced suffering in the EU’s backyard have been meticulously catalogued by advocacy groups for many years, whose list of deaths owing to Fortress Europe since 1993 now adds up to well over 30,000 human beings and counting. Yet it is hard work indeed to lift the veil on what happens to people subject to expulsions into the deep Sahara desert or inside Libya’s brutal detention centers, which have been financially supported by the EU.
The suffering is kept at a distance until spectacular violence hits the news, such as in the July killing of at least 44 people in the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s airstrike on a Tripoli detention center. The general silence means the suffering festers, infecting European countries’ relations with their neighbors. And some among the neighbors are taking note of the cynicism. As a leading West African voice on migration, former Malian Culture Minister Aminata Traoré put it succinctly: “Europe is subcontracting violence in Africa.”
In other words, in winning its self-proclaimed fight against migration, the EU is losing a much bigger war of influence, undermining the values supposedly underpinning the European project, and eroding its diplomatic clout abroad. Worse, by temporarily pushing the problem away, it is sowing the seeds for abuse, repression, and even instability on a much larger scale.
One of the ways this happens is through escalation. Once migration has been elevated into an existential threat to the “European way of life,” those on the other side of the EU’s borders will know how to leverage that threat effectively, with destabilizing consequences.