In December 2016, Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán stated that his country’s “stance on immigration [was] becoming more widely acceptable,” and that “the concept of establishing refugee camps outside the territory of the European Union is gradually gaining a majority within the EU.” Recent events suggest that he was right.
European governments continue to close their borders and dump refugees on each other’s territory, as France recently did in Italy. But above all these states clearly agree on the need to prevent refugees from arriving in Europe in the first place.
This is how we should understand the recent declarations by France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte backing the establishment of asylum-processing centers in the mostly African countries from which migrants and refugees arrive. Or, indeed, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent announcement of a plan to deploy 10,000 extra armed guards to protect Europe’s external borders.
Cloaked under the rhetoric of development and human rights, these initiatives follow on from last year’s criminalization of NGOs rescuing refugees as well as the Italian government’s efforts, backed by the EU, to push migrants back to Libya. They signal a further stage in the EU’s hardening stance on migration, aimed at blocking and keeping as many migrants and refugees as possible outside of Europe indefinitely.
As xenophobic parties make worrying advances across the continent, European national elites seem to believe that the best way to counter their rise is to directly implement their policies and replicate their discourse.
Policies once considered extreme and on the fringes of political public discourse are now in the mainstream, directly endorsed by European governments.
These developments are in line with European countries’ recent history regarding migration from the Global South, which they have always seen and framed first and foremost as a security problem and as a threat to their domestic political, economic, and cultural order, and, therefore, as something to be limited and controlled.
In the early 1990s, while movement for European citizens within the continent became easier thanks to the Schengen Agreement (effectively allowing free movement between most EU countries, without customs or passport checks), member states also started focusing on the EU’s external frontiers, building a sophisticated border regime to control and dissuade migration from poor countries by whatever means.
The militarization of the borders of countries on the outer shores of Europe like Greece and Italy is well-known, notably due to the recurrent tragedies in the Mediterranean. But rather less discussed is the process through which the EU outsources its frontiers to other countries, and the human suffering this brings.
This additional layer of repression has rendered Europe one of the most difficult places in the world to reach for the poor and people without documents, and its access routes among the deadliest on Earth.
The EU mounts significant PR efforts to disguise and sell its border regime as humanitarianism. But an analysis of the limits it imposes on the free movement of people from the Global South, its treatment of refugees, its approach to border enforcement, its deals with Third World countries including dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, and its criminalization of migrants and refugees within its member states, reveals the true nature of the EU’s migration policies. They are founded on the dehumanization of black and brown people, with the objective of preserving a political and socioeconomic order designed to maintain the dominance of a small minority at the expense of the rest of the world.
Colluding With Dictators, Fueling Trafficking, Criminalizing Refugees
Border externalization — that is, the transfer of border management from European states to migrants and refugees’ countries of origin or of transit – is a core pillar of EU migration policy.
This externalization gradually advanced across recent decades, and, as the number of arrivals started to increase, dramatically accelerated after the Valletta Summit in 2015, which drew a number of African countries into this process.
EU member states have continually expanded their interventions beyond the Union’s own borders in order to contain migration and to make deportations easier. In so doing they have sealed multilateral deals and bilateral agreements with more than forty states from Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, through which they are able to enforce their border regime overseas.
The rationale behind border externalization is clear: to preemptively block migrants and refugees on their way to Europe in the early stages of their journeys and let the security forces of third countries do the dirty work of interception, detention, and expulsion of people on the move, far from European citizens’ eyes. People who seek due protection and rights in Europe are thus physically prevented from doing so.
European countries have implemented several measures in this regard, including tight visa restrictions, penalties for airline companies who admit passengers without the appropriate documentation, detention centers abroad, and, crucially, the provision of funds, training, and military and surveillance equipment to the border and security forces of third countries.
In this they have had no hesitation in collaborating with military dictatorships like Eritrea, authoritarian and corrupt regimes such as Turkey, Sudan, and Afghanistan, and collapsed states in the hands of militias engaging in human trafficking like Libya, all in the name of controlling migration.
The EU’s collaboration with these types of regimes gives these latter legitimacy in the international arena, and has a more general effect in boosting their security apparatus and repressive capacities, which ultimately result in strengthening “precisely the state security organs most responsible for repression and abuses of human rights” from which people flee.
Migrants and refugees are dehumanized and reduced to bargaining chips, while their movement is criminalized.
As the EU makes moving and crossing borders more difficult and dangerous, migrants and refugees are faced with the choice of either being forcibly returned to the place they left, getting locked up in detention centers, or trying to find alternative routes to continue their journeys.
Inevitably, thus, the criminalization of migration leads to the emergence and proliferation of criminal networks and smuggling webs, and leaves people with no other choice than to put their fate in the hands of reckless traffickers to cross borders and checkpoints, thus exposing themselves to abuse, blackmail, violence, and, often, death.
While the EU boasts that tackling irregular migration and dismantling trafficking networks are its primary objectives, the establishment of rules and policies designed to intercept and make it harder for people to move is what creates illegality in the first place. There is a logical, direct link between the border policies of the EU in countries of origin and transit that criminalize and push migration underground, and the growth of networks profiting from people smuggling.
If the EU were genuinely concerned about human trafficking, it would do the only effective thing to counter it: put in place safe and legal pathways for people on the move to reach Europe. These are, of today, practically nonexistent, ineffective, or too small in scale.
As things stand, there are no official statistics able to measure the human cost of the EU’s border policies in third countries.
We don’t know how many refugees die from thirst and starvation in the Sahara desert; we don’t know how many are tortured by Sudan’s brutal regime; we don’t know how many are locked up in Libya’s prison camps, beaten, and sold as slaves; we don’t know how many are physically and sexually abused in Agadez, Niger, the smuggling capital of Africa; we don’t know what happens to the thousands forcibly deported to war zones in Afghanistan; we don’t know how many drown at the Spanish-Moroccan border; we don’t know how many women and girls are raped in squalid detention centers; we don’t know how many Syrian children are forced to work in Turkish factories to survive.
What we can be sure of is that European governments have blood on their hands, and are directly responsible for this dirty, silent massacre, most of whose victims will forever remain without names and faces.
The fact that European countries blame the traffickers themselves for migrant deaths serves only to mask the brutality of their policies, and as a pretext to enforce even more repressive measures.
Border Externalization in Africa: Neocolonialism in Practice
But if the Valletta Summit in 2015 succeeded in securing a number of African states’ collaboration in acting as border guards on Europe’s behalf, why were these countries so willing to help?
Part of the reason is that the EU moved to make their allocation of humanitarian and development aid conditional on African governments’ cooperation in patrolling borders, reducing migration flows, and complying with the EU forced returns policy. This was a process reminiscent of how in the 1980s the IMF and World Bank forcibly imposed economic “structural adjustments” on African countries by making privatization and cuts to social spending conditions of loans.
While European states’ approach to migration is driven by “the link between migration and security” and the “aim to secure their external borders and to limit migration flows,” African countries traditionally tend to focus on “the structural causes” that make people leave their countries, and prefer “redirection of funds towards projects that stimulate the local economy.” Given the unequal balance of power and African nations’ generally weaker bargaining position, their proposals and different vision were completely disregarded.
This represents a critical interference in these states’ internal affairs, and a serious cause of destabilization and tension: border controls and limitations of the freedom of movement within Africa undermine “an important migration-based economy in the region,” forcing locals into “underground into criminal networks or turn to violence to keep profits flowing,” writes the Transnational Institute. It conflicts with these states’ own radically different and more humane current approach to refugee protection.
Numerous NGOs and civil society organizations have expressed concern over how this outsourcing of border controls to countries such as Mali, Chad, Niger, and Sudan is financed, as European funds for development in Africa are instead diverted to border security and militarization. The European Development Fund increasingly allocates resources not to investment but to the recently created EU Trust Fund for Africa, which, according to the NGO Concord, is used as a political “tool which … diverts … [funds] to reach objectives and finance actions that are no longer linked to the EU’s development goals but rather to the EU’s internal political goal of stemming migration flows.”
Thus, masking its efforts under the fig leaf of development, the EU finances the strengthening and training of African countries’ border forces. EU leaders who boast of “helping” and “investing” in Africa end up abandoning the fight against poverty in favor of bolstering the security forces.
As a report by Italian social association Arci comments, Europe’s “monetization of the relationship with African countries opens up a commercial logic that appears to skate over questions of human rights and the fate of thousands of people on the African continent.”
Echoing a long colonial history, through various forms of semi-legal coercion, corruption, bribery, blackmail, and economic and political leverage, European states thus impose their own interests and concerns at the expense of African nations and indeed refugees.
Forging the Path for the Far Right
The EU commonly invokes its alleged commitment to democracy and human rights as key pillars of its international reputation.
If the EU’s economic policies and undemocratic governance have already seriously shaken its legitimacy, its self-assigned image as a land of tolerance, equality, and peace crumbles in front of its inhuman treatment of migrants and refugees.
In fact, its racist borders go hand in hand with its technocratic and elitist character, structurally designed to serve the interests of the rich at the expense of the majority. This essence is apparent not only through economic austerity, but also through its ruthlessness in repressing refugees, including through third countries.
If left unchecked, this repressive trend will lead to the rise of extremist forces that will only have to build on the work already done before them. Already today, the
architects of Fortress Europe are paving the way for the far right by normalizing their discourse and enacting the policies for which they have long called.
While many European governments claim the moral high ground regarding Trump’s harsh immigration policy, their measures to thwart refugee arrivals are (despite the many differences between how migrants reach the United States and Europe) strikingly similar.
As argued by writer and activist Leanne Tory-Murphy, as the Mediterranean Sea becomes “a laboratory for anti-migrant politics worldwide … the desert and the sea have been weaponized on both sides of the Atlantic,” death itself “appear[s] as the purpose of the deterrence strategy.”
A recurrent line in European public discourse holds that liberal and far-right parties have opposite, unbridgeable views on migration. Indeed, this opposition is politically convenient for both sides, which each feed off the other. Yet the divide between them is much less clear-cut than it is often presented.
In fact, as the xenophobic Italian Interior minister Matteo Salvini praises his Democrat predecessor for his “good work” on immigration, and as the French government warns of a “submersion” of refugees and colludes with Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen to pass a repressive asylum reform, the far-right and “moderate” European parties increasingly walk hand-in hand to defend the continent’s external borders from people fleeing conflict and poverty.
This should come as no surprise; ultimately, the liberal European establishment is committed to defending the international capitalist order that is causing people to flee. When the contradictions of the system get sharper, and it must act to defend itself, its authoritarian and extreme tendencies come out into the open.
As climate disruption, economic instability, poverty, and wars propagate global chaos, and as people on the move will increase, there are only two alternatives: solidarity, or else a world of fortresses, walls, and a slow genocide. There is no middle ground.