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Externalization of Migration Policies: How the European Union’s Beloved Human Rights Took a Backseat

The EU’s long sought magic wand for containing illegal migration flows is the policy of externalization: the outsourcing of migration policies to third countries, a widely criticized solution which significantly contradicts the European Union’s founding principle of respect for human rights. Yet to properly review this much-condemned recourse, it is vital to grasp both externalization’s core drivers and its many faces. What if the “out of sight, out of mind” had more to it than meets the eye?

To President Jean-Claude Juncker’s own admission during his State of the Union speech, the EU’s past migration measures certainly overestimated the capacity of its members to “share the burden.” This bleak assessment is evident as migration policies now extend beyond the EU’s borders.  Yet the externalization of migration policies far predates this year’s declaration. Ever since 1991’s Budapest Process, the Commission has pushed towards more cooperation with origin and transit states to outsource border controls, ease the return procedures, and curb unwanted migration by shirking the burden.

Image courtesy of Irish Defence Forces, © 2015

Though externalization was further endorsed in the June 2018 Council Conclusions, the widely controversial Turkish deal in 2016 and the proliferation of overcrowded centers on the Mediterranean coastline  brought it into an unseemly spotlight. For example, harsh criticisms of the EU have proliferated as redistribution of the crisis to both sides of the mare nostrum has occurred at the expense of human rights.  As the EU has long striven to promote such norms in its external relations, this lack of consideration threatens its credibility and appears somewhat hypocritical. However, given the complexity of the situation, the externalization approach was likely the only card the EU could rationally play.  The harsh reality of the current context forced the EU to embrace a more pragmatic stance.

Despite low approval ratings among much of the European public, a predominant driver of the externalization policy was in fact public opinion. Nationalist movements, supported by a growing number of EU citizens, have accused the EU of prioritizing outsiders (i.e. migrants) over its own people. The EU countered these burgeoning nationalist movements through the implementation of externalization. No longer could nationalist movements claim the EU neglected its own citizens at the expense of “weak” migration policies.

Additionally, a lack of collaboration among Member States weakened Europe’s ability to shoulder the migration crisis on its own. The most telling example being the inability of Member States to impose quotas to relieve the Greek and Italian hotspots.

Given the ever-increasing influence of nationalist movements, it is evident European citizens must better understand the complexity of migration measures, instead of viewing the EU as the sole and unique decision maker. The reality is that the readmission process invariably involves a trilateral dynamic. To fully activate its return directive, the EU needs to prove the identity of the migrant, his citizenship, and the route taken during his journey to Europe. This thereby requires a degree of collaboration from the migrant himself and from the country of origin, a level of cooperation which is naturally far from guaranteed.  The EU has responded by enhancing its mobility partnerships, through the one for one scheme, to ensure the smooth return of unauthorized migrants while unlocking opportunities for legal migration. These pre-agreements with third countries, while appearing cynical, have become compulsory.

Lastly, the positive aspects of externalization must not be overlooked. For example, “turning off the tap” provides a comprehensive approach aimed at tackling the root causes of migration in the origin countries. This notably includes the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility and the (EUR 3.2bn) EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to mainstream migration in development policy, eradicate human trafficking, and unlock opportunities for legal migration in exchange for cooperation on return. The EU represents the first donor of humanitarian and development aid and with externalization also supports economic growth through vocational trainings and the development of small to medium-sized enterprises. By 2018, 375 small companies had been launched and 237,808 new jobs were created through 54 different projects in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions.

This is in no way a justification of the ethically dubious dimensions of a deal such as the one contracted with Turkey. Nor is it a trivialization of the outrageous conditions in migrant camps reported by civil societies and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, a broader perspective on the externalization of migration policies is necessary. Most political bodies in the world – and the EU has become one – are primarily driven by a self-preservation agenda. Europe, albeit imperfect in its handling of the crisis, is already outdoing any other comparable entities in the world. European citizens must be more informed on the core motivations of both this externalization and of the EU-funded programs in third countries, especially as the EU continues to project an image of a “Europe that protects.”

Is externalization the main answer to the migration crisis? Surely not. It remains a quick fix to temporize and balance the lack of collaboration between Member States. But with a drop in sea arrivals from over a million in 2015 to 78,000 by September of 2018, it must be part of the solution. And with the upcoming EU-Africa Summit in December, there certainly is room for the much-reviled externalization to embrace its more ethical sides and to finally redeem itself.


Emile Fabre

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