Another Escalation in Migrant-EU Contention

10 October 2016, 0800 EDT

This is a guest post by Justin Schon, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington. He studies information diffusion within conflict zones, as well as how civilians make decisions regarding their migration during conflict, and has conducted fieldwork with Syrian and Somali refugees in Jordan, Kenya, Turkey, and the United States. He tweets at @goliathSchon.

Last week’s announcement of the signing of a deal between the European Union (EU) and Afghanistan that allows EU member states to deport Afghan civilians back to Afghanistan appalled many human rights and migration advocates. The move is particularly concerning amidst reports that Afghanistan was threatened with losing foreign aid if it did not accept the deal.

To understand the context of this policy, it is instructive to consider the contentious history of EU responses to migration. This history portrays a long series of tit-for-tat responses between EU host states and migrants. This pattern results from the conflicting aspirations of migrants for physical and economic security and of EU host states for small and easily manageable migrant populations. As host states escalate their efforts to control the size of their migrant populations, migrants escalate their efforts to enter EU countries. (Note here that I am using migrants as a general category that includes refugees. See this post for a discussion of the debate over whether to use the term migrant or refugee. Also, see Alex Betts’ work on survival migration.)

Before 1991, there was a largely circular migration pattern between North African migrants and EU host states like Spain and Italy. Then, Schengen visas were introduced, beginning a period of increased migration restrictions. Rather than limiting migration though, migrants used more unauthorized migration methods. In response, Spain installed sophisticated border control systems. Again, rather than prevent migration, border enforcement motivated migrants to diversify their migration routes and increasingly employ smugglers. These efforts have prompted EU member states to call for increased anti-smuggling efforts, which only prompt smuggling to go further underground. This back-and-forth only continues to escalate as migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia join the movement to Europe in growing numbers.

This contention has shifted to a higher level since 2014, when the Syrian refugee crisis spread to the EU. The EU has realized that standard increases in border enforcement and monitoring are simply not enough to stop the influx of migrants.

Based on this realization, the EU has adopted a new strategy of involving transit countries. This arguably has created proxy border enforcers. Turkey has been enticed to cooperate with EU aspirations to reduce migration through a deal promising six billion Euros. Turkey has increased controls and deterrence efforts at its own border with Syria, as well as increasing the prosecution of smugglers.

A more troubling development is occurring in Libya and Sudan, where pro-government militias are becoming involved in deterring migration. As Human Rights Watch associate Europe and Central Asia director Judith Sunderland stated in July, “The EU – soon perhaps with NATO’s help – is basically deputizing Libyan forces to help seal Europe’s border.” These Libyan forces are often militias with poor human rights records. Sudan is also allegedly using pro-government militias, specifically a reconstituted form of the Janjaweed called the Rapid Support Forces, for “migration management.”

The EU’s deportation deal with Afghanistan is a troubling signal that there may be a further escalation in migrant-EU contention. By leveraging existing foreign aid in exchange for agreeing to the return of migrants, the EU is coercing both the migrants and the origin country of the migrants. This should be a worrying trend, as many major migrant-sending countries like Somalia, Eritrea, and Iraq also lack substantial power to resist being bullied into accepting the return of their migrants.

The international community displayed at the recent UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants that it lacks the collective will to substantially increase hosting commitments. Yet, civilian aspirations to continue migrating show no sign of abating. Unless EU host states substantially change their preferences, we can only expect migrant-EU contention to continue escalating. Regardless of which states win in this contention, civilians lose.