Border control has boosted irregular migration

30 October 2015

These days, strengthening European border control is often presented as a solution for the chaos surrounding migrants and refugees. The EU even has a joint marine force in the Mediterranean and the Security Council recently gave its blessing to this military approach to migration. Tough action will be taken against human smugglers, through criminal legislation and intensification of prosecution. Opinion leaders often argue that Europe should finally begin to guard its borders. This suggests that European external border are not or insufficiently guarded.

What has been done in the past 25 years to combat irregular migration? Until 1990, European countries all had their own visa policies. From most countries in the world at least one European country could be reached without an entry visa. Therefore, most people didn’t need a smuggler. As part of Europeanization, this has changed. Today, all EU countries require visa from nationals of poor countries. In addition, Europe has forced transport companies to check passports and visa before travellers are allowed to board an airplane or ferry. Also, the technical quality of documents has improved considerably. As a consequence, it is much more difficult now to enter Europe by plane or ferry without being in possession of all documents.

This policy ended temporary migration (including seasonal migration) from the Maghreb to Spain and Italy. Travel became so burdensome that those who had succeeded in enter Europe now remained there. Furthermore, the permanent intensification of these policy measures led to an ever increasing demand for human smuggling, by land or by sea. Europe responded by guarding its borders ever more strictly. Fences appeared, infrared cameras, radar and satellite systems, negotiations with transit countries were started, in addition to the traditional coast guard the navy was put to use, criminal sanctions were introduced, a separate EU agency was created (Frontex), European border guard operations were carried out (with ancient Greek names such as Poseidon, Hera, Trition). The private security sector alone has an estimated annual turnover of €7 billion of European border business.

The notion that Europe should finally begin doing what it should have done straight away (namely: guard the external borders) therefore has no basis in reality whatsoever. But the European Commission and other policy makers don’t tire of repeating that these policies have had no visible effect, and consequently … should be intensified. Of course, this is a remarkable conclusion. The facts suggest that irregular migration has not diminished over the past 25 years, but that it has increased and that human smuggling has not been combated successfully but has become booming business. The number of people dying at the borders of Europe has skyrocketed and now runs into the thousands each year.

Researchers in Europe and North America (where the situation is similar) have a quite different analysis of the same facts. They show it is likely that American and European migration policies have not reduced irregular migration over the past 25 years, but has amplified it. Ever ‘smarter’ border policies have increased the demand for human smuggling. The increasingly strict approach of smugglers leads to higher prices for smuggling, with rising profits and more entrepreneurs entering the market for smuggling. And because smuggling is not a mafia-like, hierarchical organisation but a network of many individual actors, the repressive approach stimulates the market much more than it destroys the business model of smugglers. Intensification of migration policies often occur after disasters at sea. Norwegian researcher Jørgen Carling summarized his analysis in this diagram.
Jørgen Carling 2015
Hein de Haas (Oxford/University of Amsterdam) shows that human smuggling is not the cause of migration, but a consequence of European migration policies. Empirical analyses such as these are ignored by policy makers and opinion leaders. To the extent that they take notice of them at all, the response is purely ideological. So you want open borders? You don’t think it is criminal to let people drown at sea? The response is not that the alternative analysis is factually incorrect, or not plausible; instead it is that the alternative analysis cannot be true. This is pure tunnel vision. There is an exclusive attention for just one version of reality. The conclusion has to be drawn before the analysis is made: policy has failed, so what we need is more of the same policy. The facts of these researchers are opposed not with facts, but with opinions.

The rhetorical weakness of the alternative analysis is that it does not enable one to make grand gestures. European opinion leaders and politicians can prove their decisive courage. Go guard the borders, at last! Bomb Libyan smuggler boats! The alternative analysis does not allow sturdy and masculine conclusions, but concludes that migration policy is a matter of Scylla and Charybdis. There are no complete solutions. As long as global inequality remains as it is, we will have to choose between several evils. Meddling through is the only option, but that can be done a bit less short-sighted than now.

The un-rhetorical character of this alternative analysis should, by and of itself, be sufficient to find it more plausible than the one that dominates the media and politics. But in these overheated times, display of decisiveness is much more important that having a correct analysis of the facts. In light of the chaos to which that leads, Europe is likely to pay dearly for this short-sightedness.

Dutch version published in De Volkskrant, 30 October 2015