The West’s Obsession With Border Security Is Breeding Instability
In the name of fighting illegal immigration, the EU, the United States, and Australia are emboldening authoritarian regimes, fueling abuses and corruption, and stoking intolerance at home.
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. 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.
Consider one of the blueprints for deterrence today: Turkey, where EU acquiescence over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tightening grip on power went hand in hand with the panicked EU-Turkey migration deal of 2016. Playing his cards cleverly within the rules set by Europe’s growing obsession with migration, Erdogan then explicitly threatened this October to “open the gates” for refugees to head toward Europe if EU leaders failed to support his military incursion and resettlement plans for northern Syria.
Or consider Sudan, where the country’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group formerly linked to the genocidal janjaweed in Darfur, have trumpeted their credentials in fighting migration. This is the same force that killed dozens of protesters in Khartoum earlier this year and whose leader had by this summer by most accounts become the de facto, Saudi-backed ruler of Sudan.
EU leaders have suspended migration control cooperation with Sudan amid the turmoil, insisting that the EU has never supported the RSF. However, this is too little too late. The RSF, like Erdogan, has played a clever game within the rules set in part by the EU and has presented itself as helping the EU to fulfill its priorities—while simultaneously acting as a smuggling conduit. In effect, border security has been given a premium in the political marketplace, helping the guys with the guns to capture a larger market share.
This is happening not just in Sudan but across the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions, where the EU is now lavishing migration-related funds and political recognition on shady regimes and their frequently repressive security personnel. One of the countries targeted is Niger, which has become a laboratory for border security, with dire consequences.
The draconian law on migrant smuggling that the EU pushed has hit not just cross-border human smuggling but all sorts of cross-country transport, and it has involved Niger’s authorities selectively targeting members of certain ethnic groups. This risks fueling ethnic and political grievances while depriving northern Niger of its economic lifeblood, which includes not just irregular migration but also ordinary cross-border trade with, and travel to, Libya.
Meanwhile, the EU and its member states are plowing funds into the country’s security apparatus, no questions asked. The unpopular president, Mahamadou Issoufou, asked for a billion euros to halt migration; and soon after, the EU duly provided it—showing any willing partner state how little importance the EU gives to its avowed values, ignoring the government’s failure to provide free and fair elections. Amid growing popular discontent, and with an emboldened security state and a reeling economy, Niger is today a tinderbox thanks in no small part to the very security measures imposed by Europe.
Or take Libya, bizarrely held up at times next to Turkey and Niger as a sign of the success of the outsourced fight against migration. Building on former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi’s sordid deal-making with Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi a decade earlier, Italy and the EU have since 2015 tried to get around legal responsibilities at sea by funding and training a so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which in large part is simply a front for dolled-up militias.
These forces are pushing people back into limbo and dangerous detention in a Libya racked by renewed conflict where migrants are a prime target, as Sally Hayden reported recently in Foreign Policy. Meanwhile, reports have shown how militias’ tussling for position to deal with migration on Europe’s behalf risks deepening the chaos that followed NATO’s military campaign and the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011.
To cynics, these troubles may seem a small price to pay for keeping migrants out, just as Australia’s offshore solution of using poor Pacific nations as indefinite containment sites or Trump’s arm-twisting of Mexico and Central American states may seem harsh but necessary. But the assumption of the EU’s strategic agenda, for one—that “fighting illegal migration” in this way is key to defending “the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens”—is plain wrong. A quick glance at the longer trend shows 2015—when an estimated 1 million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea—to be an exception: Most immigrants enter Europe by air, and most sub-Saharan African migrants stay within their own region.
More fundamentally, human mobility is in itself not a threat to anyone’s safety. In fact, the risks associated with its most chaotic manifestations are perversely caused in large part by the very security measures rolled out to stop it. But even these manmade risks pale in comparison with the risk of strengthening authoritarian regimes and repressive forces, while undermining the EU’s clout and values, in the name of European citizens’ security.
Another kind of migration politics is possible, in Europe and elsewhere. In fact, the border security obsession is rather recent and far from inevitable. Instead of escalating border security and political fears around migration, the EU must rekindle positive projects of collaboration and opportunity—including, not least, by working with the African Union on its incipient plans for boosting free movement across the continent. And it must ensure that the EU and member states don’t fuel instability and abuses, as has been the case with Libya since well before NATO’s disastrous intervention there.
Similar moves can easily be envisioned elsewhere. For instance, migration toward the U.S.-Mexico border can be addressed by Washington through genuine attempts at reversing long-standing U.S. complicity in the instability racking Central America—both in terms of support to violent groups and abusive leaders and in the export of gang members into El Salvador. Similar reversals are needed in the drug war that is racking Mexico, where U.S. arms and incentives have helped fuel violence that has claimed thousands of lives.
But for such policy shifts to happen, there first must be a paradigm shift in the West’s thinking about migration. Progressive forces must act together on both sides of the border to reframe the debate. Today’s tug of war between rights and security, or between open and closed borders, paints those in the former camp as naive idealists and those in the latter as hard-headed realists. However, this is a false dichotomy.
An obsession with protecting the border—and with escalating the fight against migration—is actually an ideological choice that sets up a dangerous game. If policymakers and voters really want to be “realistic,” then it is essential to appreciate the full future costs of the path on which they are currently set and to acknowledge the dangerously perverse incentives for escalating violence, extortion, and authoritarian rule that it entrenches. Meanwhile, the fantasy of protecting Western democracies through the outsourcing of migration controls feeds the damaging delusion that these countries can seal themselves off from problems such as conflict and global warming to which they are themselves strongly contributing.
The next step is to propose another frame. Instead of feeding instability abroad and normalizing shrill nationalist politics at home through obsessing over more short-term border security, there’s a better choice to be made—a choice that involves protecting people, not borders. Enlightened citizens and political leaders must start making the case for it.
Ruben Andersson is an associate professor at the University of Oxford and the author of No Go World: How Fear Is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics.
David Keen is a professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics and the author of Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars Is More Important Than Winning Them.