Europe’s Bouncers, Europe’s Disgrace

5 septembre 2017

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The European Union has failed, and continues to fail, in its response to the flow of migrants and asylum seekers landing at its shores in search for security and a better life. The European response has been uncoordinated so far and still lacks any coherent approach to address the underlying problems that cause human beings to board vessels in unprecedented numbers. As of August 16th, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that 2,420 people drowned in the Mediterranean in 2017. The numbers would be even more appalling were it not for NGOs filling the void left by European infighting, rescuing more than 46,000 people in the central Mediterranean in 2016, which accounts for over 26 per cent of all rescue operations.[1]

Since 2003, the concept of externalization of migration controls has characterized the European Union’s approach to migration.[2] The main idea was, and still is, to incentivize or pressure third countries into taking actions to prevent migrants, including asylum seekers, from entering the jurisdiction of destination countries. Some implemented policies seek to make groups of asylum seekers legally inadmissible without verifying the merit of individual asylum claims.[3] Often framed as capacity development or even humanitarian undertakings, this externalization can in fact have dramatic effects on migrants and asylum seekers, increasing their vulnerability and acting as a strong deterrent to seek international protection.[4] This, after all, seems to be the common denominator of European migration policy: Fortress Europe.

Externalization of migration controls as a policy approach is failing not only in accomplishing its essential objective – keeping migrants out of Europe – but can lead to severe abuses of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.[5]  Closing down regular paths of migration, the militarization of borders, and the criminalization and internment of migrants in countries with dubious human rights records exacerbate vulnerabilities, forcing migrants to choose risky routes and unsafe means of migration. This reveals another paradox in European migration policy: despite all the high-level talk about fighting human smuggling and criminal networks, it is astonishing that European governments seem to neglect the fact that it is their policies that force migrants to pay and sustain these networks.

While the closure of borders along the Balkan route and the EU-Turkey deal reduced the number of arrivals in Europe – at the price of any credibility the European Union’s human rights agenda might have had – arrivals in Italy from North Africa remain at levels similar to recent years.[6] The complex problems underlying the refugee crisis remain unaddressed, while political leaders everywhere in Europe hide behind measures merely aimed at fighting symptoms.

Multilateral declarations and forums, like the EU’s interior ministers’ recent meeting in Tallinn, the Malta Declaration, or the European Partnership Framework under the European Agenda on Migration, have reinforced externalization as the main European approach to migration. Cooperation with governments of countries such as Sudan and with governments only partially in control of their territory, such as Libya, raises complicated issues.

Equipping and training actors such as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan, essentially means strengthening, with European money, a militia directly controlled by President Omar al-Bashir,[7] who is wanted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court.[8] In Libya, equipping and training border and coast guards with the explicit aim of preventing migrants from leaving the country means leaving migrants at the mercy of armed groups.[9] This turns them into poker chips, used as leverage by militias that are rivaling for power in the intractable conflict ravaging the country since 2011.[10]

Externalization policies aggravate vulnerabilities of migrants and strengthen transnational criminal networks and oppressive regimes. By dominating political discourse and framing decision-making processes, they block political capacities which are urgently needed to find long term solutions to structural problems. What can be done?

Member states of the European Union have to abolish the Dublin regulations, which place unfair burdens on states like Italy and Greece, that currently lack the capacities to deliver asylum procedures that meet international standards. European states should instead take in migrants and asylum seekers based on their capacity to do so and address the diverging quality of asylum procedures. The EU must find a way to incentivize states to take in refugees that goes beyond moral appeals, while at the same time ensuring that the individual asylum seeker’s dignity and rights are not infringed upon.

Where externalization of migration controls has taken the form of strengthening and legitimizing oppressive regimes, cooperation must cease, especially in the security sector. Instead, the EU should support the development of capacities relating to human rights and vulnerability issues and set up strict and verifiable standards of protection for migrants in partner countries. Development cooperation must never be used as an incentive for states to prevent migrants from exercising their right to leave any country.

The European Union has to substantially increase the options for legal migration. This includes fulfilling resettlement pledges already made,[11] but also creating new forms of migration, including private sponsorships and better access to work, student, and humanitarian visas, as well as family reunification schemes. All measures aimed at declaring asylum applications from whole groups of asylum seekers as ‘inadmissible’ (e.g. so called “safe countries of origin”), should be revoked.

It should not be forgotten which countries take in the lion’s share of the displaced population: Jordan, Turkey, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Pakistan and Lebanon.[12] The EU should, in addition to much more generous resettlement schemes, make sure that these governments and organizations such as the UNHCR are properly funded and have the capacities to support and integrate displaced people into their communities.

Seldom has there been a more pressing issue demanding coordinated European action. Fortress Europe is already failing, and every second spent trying to sustain this illusion in order to ease the fears of European electorates is a second lost.


Picture: © Stefanie Eisenschenk



[1] UNHCR, “Mediterranean Situation“, 2017, accessed on August 16, 2017,

[2] UK Government, “New Vision for Refugees“, March 3, 2003, accessed on June 7, 2017,

[3] Bill Freilick, Ian M. Kysel, Jennifer Podkul, “The Impact of Externalization of Migration Controls on the Rights of Asylum Seekers and Other Migrants“, Journal on Migration and Human Security 4, no. 4 (2016): 190-220.

[4] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Valletta Summit on migration – Malta, 11-12 November 2015“,  November 12, 2015, accessed on June 7, 2017,–malta-11-12-november-2015/

[5] Ministry of the Interior of Italy, “La situazione relativa al numero dei migranti sbarcati a decorrere dal 1 gennaio 2017 fino al 1 giugno 2017 comparati con i dati riferiti allo stesso periodo dell’anno 2016“, accessed on June 10, 2017,

[6] Jacopo Barigazzi, “EU asylum reform deadlocked“, Politico, June 6, 2017, accessed on June 7, 2017,

[7] Enough Project, “Border Control from Hell: How the EU’s migration partnership legitimizes Sudan’s “militia state”“, April 6, 2017, accessed on June 7, 2017,

[8] International Criminal Court, “Warrant of Arrest for Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir“, March 4, 2009, accessed on June 7, 2017,

[9] European Council, “Malta Declaration by the members of the European Council on the external aspects of migration: addressing the Central Mediterranean route“, 2017, accessed on June 7, 2017,

[10] Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Armed Groups Detain, Torture, Kill“, January 12, 2017, accessed on June 7, 2017,

[11] Nando Sigona, “The flop of relocation and the sinking of the Dublin Regulation“, January 24, 2016, accessed July 9, 2017,

[12] The World Bank, “Refugee Population by country or territory of asylum“, accessed on June 7, 2017,

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Felix Hoffmann

Felix is producing and moderating the Policy Corner Podcast and works on fundraising for The Policy Corner. He currently pursues his bachelor's degree in Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin and he works with the Global Public Policy institute. Felix’ research interests include International Relations, Human Rights and Peace and Conflict Studies.