Extending borders: What are the consequences of the EU externalising its migration management?

With the highest number of refugees arriving in Europe since the Second World War, and many of those perishing in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea, the European Union (EU) and its member states have been under increasing pressure to act. However rather than use the opportunity to create a long-term, innovative, and durable strategy for migration management, the EU has instead opted for a short-term fix; in the form of migration deals with countries such as Sudan, Turkey, and Libya. This approach conveys the externalisation of the EU’s borders to its southern neighbourhood as a means through which to reduce the number of asylum-seekers reaching EU territories. This piece will explore the consequences of the EU’s policies and aims to provide a starting point for further analysis on migration and the transatlantic.

In an effort to curb ‘irregular’ migration to Europe, the EU, European countries, African states, and the African Union (AU), joined forces in 2014 to launch the ‘EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative’, otherwise known as the Khartoum Process. Sudan was and continues to be a special point of interest to the EU as thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese have arrived each year in Italy. Building on the Khartoum Process, in November 2015 the EU hosted the Valletta Summit on Migration which saw European governments give €1.8 billion to their African counterparts in exchange for their cooperation on the issue of migration. With a rise in boat arrivals from Turkey, the EU-Turkey Statement was launched in March 2016 and was heralded as a success by EU leaders as they cited a a drop from 57,100 maritime arrivals in February 2016 to fewer than 3,700 one month after the statement was made. Through these deals, the EU has pushed and externalised its border further South. The policy of outsourcing migration management is however not without severe consequences, as can be observed most effectively through EU-Libya cooperation.

Like Sudan and Turkey, Libya is considered a ‘transit-country’ for migration, i.e. a country through which migrants pass through to reach their origin of destination. With a special interest in such countries, members of the European Council met in Malta on 3 February 2017 and agreed to prioritize the provision of training, equipment and support to the Libyan national coast guard and other relevant agencies. Moreover, complimenting such provisions, FRONTEX (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) has since 2013 been supporting the Libyan authorities in developing border management and security of Libya’s land, sea, and air borders.

EU cooperation with Libya on migration is first and foremost concerning due to the fact that under Libyan law, entering, staying or leaving Libya in an irregular manner is illegal. Moreover, Libya has refused to sign or ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The consequence of which is that asylum-seekers are stripped of their basic rights under international law to have their case reviewed. As a result of criminalizing irregular movement and not ratifying the convention, ‘irregular’ people in Libya can be subject to indefinite detention without lawful or judicial oversight. It is estimated that at present approximately 20,000 asylum-seekers and migrants are detained in centres formally managed by the General Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). Both in and out of these centres, reports highlight that those with ‘irregular’ status in Libya are exposed to torture, sexual violence, beatings, abuse, and forced labour. Furthermore, a damning report published in early 2017 by the German embassy in Niger authenticates reports of executions and torture in detention centres in Libya. It is therefore no surprise that many migrants and asylum-seekers have ‘opted’ for assisted voluntary return. In fact, the EU has, since the beginning of 2018, already financed the return of 8,521 Nigerian migrants out of Libya. Primarily the EU’s deals with Libya are therefore alarming as they expose migrants and asylum-seekers to grave dangers within the country and subsequently inefficiently use EU funds to provide assisted returns to countries of origin, such as Nigeria.

The externalisation of the EU’s migration management can also be understood as a damaging practice in that it transfers power away from asylum-seekers. In his seminal work, Homo Sacer, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben considers the concept of ‘bare life’. Contrary to citizens being subject to and resistant of power relations as can be understood in Foucauldian biopolitics, asylum-seekers are only subject to power exerted by nation-states without the possibility of resistance. As sovereign entities, nation-states have the power to deny asylum to seekers, whilst those seekers are in no position to resist or contest such power. In between the country they are fleeing, and the country they are seeking asylum in, an asylum-seeker lacks the power invested through citizenship to access any rights. As Jonathan Darling highlights, the position of the asylum-seekers is paradoxical; even though they are outside of the sovereign law, they are still subject to its power.

This paradoxical and distressing situation which asylum-seekers find themselves in, is only exacerbated by the EU’s extension of its migration borders. Despite being geographically far removed from the EU’s borders, the asylum-seeker is subject to EU sovereignty without even being physically present on EU territory to claim or appeal asylum status. Through this practice, the EU is undermining International Human Rights Law as everyone has the right to enter another country to seek asylum. Consequently, it also undermines the very power of the EU vis-a-vis powerful authoritarian actors. The EU prides itself on a set of core values outlined in the Lisbon Treaty. One such value is the respect of human dignity, defined in Article 10a. In promoting these cosmopolitical values, the EU has set out to demonstrate that as a supranational entity, it is possible to have a strong economy whilst respecting human rights. Manners and Tocci argue that it is in fact in the interest of the EU to promote a cosmopolitical world, as through doing so, it promotes a world in which it has a leading role to play. By not respecting the value of human dignity through essentially off-shoring refugees and asylum-seekers in dire conditions, the EU undermines its own role in the cosmopolitical world it seeks to promote.

Finally, examining the practice of externalisation of migration management in a global setting, it is clear to see that the EU is not the only actor taking part in this practice. Likewise the United States (US) has for years been engaged in similar practices, as it has extensive immigration deals with both Canada and Mexico. Consider Jeffrey Legro’s argument that since the 1700s, the rules and norms at the global level have been dominated by mostly ‘Western’ nations. As powerful actors in the international order, the EU and the US set precedents for what is acceptable vis-a-vis migration policy and the rights of asylum-seekers.

One thought on “Extending borders: What are the consequences of the EU externalising its migration management?

  1. Agustín Carrasco

    I agree that EU is failing in its aim to address such a big issue like the control of the external borders and migration. By one hand the approach is contrary to its foundational values and by the way it is not effective at all.
    In your opinion, how should be the context that could help to find the innovative and long terms solution that you are pointing out? Which actors should join?
    P.S. I like the way you express and link your arguments… Well done! 🙂


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