On Dignity, Development, and Defence – A look at European migration policy at home and abroad

In 2015, over 1 million migrants arrived irregularly in Europe, a fourfold increase on the previous year. With numbers steadily dropping since then, this article scrutinises the European domestic and international political toolkit for migration policies – particularly examining the consequences for rights and development within this policy frame.  

There is something intrinsically human in showing empathy and solidarity to others. It is a part of our nature – enshrined in our democracies, our statutes, and our international organisations. Since the World Wars, a global answer to migration has become necessary, and such values of humanity have formed the core of that response. Yet, for many crossing borders today in search of a better life, they are faced with quite the opposite reception. Over recent years, the rhetoric surrounding migration – particularly in Europe and the United States – has been dominated not by empathy or compassion, but by questions of security. Migrants and refugees are portrayed as destabilising for receiving communities, a threat to national identity, and as intrinsically connected with terrorism and crime. Indeed, the notion of ‘protecting’ borders has taken centre stage in many contemporary political debates, particularly in Italy with the ‘Salvini Decree’, in the United States with Trump’s wall project, and in Australia’s offshore island camps.

Whilst obviously it is the job of governments (prospective or current) to have an informed and functioning migration strategy, the recent trends in populism have led to a central and public debate concerning the individuals crossing our borders – a debate which often translates into security driven policy. But at what cost? Whilst what the implications of increased border management policies might have on human rights remains to some extent an open question, could it be possible that by prioritising control the opportunity to promote meaningful development and fruitful collaboration will also pass us by?

Policy and dignity in Europe

Within Europe, and at its external borders, a variety of policies have been implemented since the large influx of irregular migration in 2015. In the cases of push-backs within the E.U., and collaboration with non E.U. countries, the consequences for rights and dignity could be huge.

Operation Sophia was renewed last month – a physical presence in the Mediterranean working to prevent the trafficking of individuals into the European Union, with updates including an increased reliance on air search with a withdrawal of ships. With the lack of safe and legal routes however, some scholars argue that the operation amounts to the prevention of irregular migration as a whole into Europe, including for refugees and asylum-seekers in need of international protection. The operation also allows for collaboration and training with the Libyan coastguard – despite their record of human rights abuses, particularly with migrants in Libyan detention centres. This move has been widely criticised by rights groups, academics, and NGOs as an example of aiding and abetting human rights violations and as a failure to treat people with basic dignity.

Officially, Operation Sophia is part of a broader E.U. policy, which includes addressing the root causes of migration such as climate change, poverty, and conflict. In practice, however, any investment in ‘protective’ measures is by definition an opportunity cost – and the potential to increase border control spending three-fold for the 2021 budget up to almost €35 billion truly highlights the scale of such choices.

The case of the Balkan Route can be used to highlight some of the main issues arising from this new trend in migration policy within Europe – primarily the consequences of increased fear for marginalisation, and the effect this has on risk-taking among migrant populations.

A study conducted by the Network of Researchers in International Affairs along the Balkan Route recorded migrants voluntarily staying in unofficial camps with limited resources, due to the fear of refoulement should they register at one of the official centres. This concern left them not only with worse access to healthcare and WASH facilities, but also served to compound their marginalisation by excluding them from properly documented labour, thus increasing the risks of exploitation. It also became a push factor towards the pursuit of riskier routes across borders to further avoid detection. Such evidence shows the real human impacts of security-oriented migration policy at the level of basic needs and dignity, and it is by no means unique to Europe.

Policy and development in the Sahel

The effects of such policies are not only broad geographically, but in scope as well, and are not limited to these fundamental failures to meet basic human requirements. By pursuing a policy direction with such a heavy focus on security, valuable opportunities to address development challenges are also missed. The case of the Sahel region of West Africa provides a prime example of how today’s policies from all relevant actors have impacted the capacity for development in the affected countries.

One manifestation of this is the way that policies designed to securitise borders may have the unintended consequence of destabilising the region yet further, by simply shifting migration routes and driving cross-border movement further underground. Evidence for these newly hypogeal migration patterns is abundant in Xchange’s recent Niger reports (1, 2). These criminalising strategies can decrease stability further by driving a wedge between state authorities and the population, and by contributing to the economic frailty which can prepare the ground for extremism. The resultant volatility can lead to the need to divert already limited funds from development projects to humanitarianism, since the appropriate foundations for long term development goals have been undermined.

The approach that the E.U. has taken to migration management has not only involved securitisation of the Sahel’s external borders, but also securing some borders within the Sahel region (for example 1, 2), in a bid to curb the subsequent movement into Europe.  Such efforts have included support of, and training for, the local border security, as well as longer term approaches such as reinforcing the judicial authorities in the area. This move has the potential to paradoxically thwart economic development in the region, by cauterising its supply of migratory labour which has historically been a mainstay in local economies. This issue could present a further step backwards in terms of economic sustainability and strength for the region, which may in turn feed back into the causes of instability in a man-made vicious cycle.

Some final thoughts

Quite apart from the above concerns regarding rights and development, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that securitisation policies are ineffective in controlling migration. Instead, migration routes become more varied, more hidden, and often longer and more treacherous – with the Mediterranean crossing, and the pre-Mediterranean journeys through Africa becoming increasingly fatal.

Although IOM and UNHCR figures show that fewer migrants are attempting traditional routes, there are proportionally far more deaths. A prime example here is the Mediterranean route, where the number of deaths per arrivals has increased from 1 in 269, to 1 in 51 since 2015. It is therefore worthwhile challenging the assumption that such policies really do deter migration – as the huge data gaps, as well as research focus on individual routes, make assessment of policy effectiveness difficult. Given the limited efficacy and multitude of potential pitfalls with the current policy pool, a strong argument exists for opening a new conversation on global migration policy, with a new focus away from security and towards our shared humanity.