Guest post by Thomas Spijkerboer and Tamara Last, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Thomas is Professor of Migration Law and currently conducting research on migrant deaths on the Mediterranean. He is on Twitter @ThomasS_VU. Tamara is a PhD candidate in Law and is conducts research on migrant mortality and border policies in the Mediterranean.

The European Commission presented a proposal for a European border policy on 15 December 2015. At the core of its proposal is the European Border and Coast Guard, which to a large extent federalizes European border law and policy. The tools the European Border and Coast Guard would use are intensified versions of the tools of Member State border policies over the past 25 years: more controls, more technology, externalization through more cooperation with third countries, and internalization through more emphasis on forced return. The entire package consists of several documents jointly amounting to hundreds of pages. A first analysis leads to three observations.

Root Cause of ‘Migration Crisis’ Unaddressed

To begin with, the Commission justifies its proposals by referring to the ‘migration crisis’ at the European borders. What the proposals fails to deal with is that this crisis is primarily a crisis of European asylum policy. The past few months and years have shown that what’s formally called the Common European Asylum System is neither common, nor is it a system. EU Member States all have their own distinctive asylum procedures and their own way of examining asylum applications. In addition, the level of facilities in asylum reception systems varies wildly. As a consequence, migrants and refugees risk death while trying to cross internal borders (such as the one between Hungary and Austria) because they have good reasons not to want to end up in a Member State without a functioning asylum system.

Drowned (2003) by Marlene Dumas

The 1 or 1.5 million new asylum applications which the European Union will be facing this year are a challenge for the asylum systems of European states. But if there would have been something worth calling a Common European Asylum System, this wouldn’t have created a crisis. Less than 0.5% of the population of the European Union (with over 500 million inhabitants) will be a new asylum seeker―a number that pales in comparison to the challenges faced by Turkey (2.5% of the population are Syrian refugees), Jordan (10% Syrian refugees), and Lebanon (over 25% Syrian refugees). True: the new asylum seekers in 2015 will be added to asylum seekers and refugees from previous years. But the same is true (and much more so) of the countries in the region.

Whereas the inability of the European Union to develop a functioning asylum system is at the root of what the European Commission calls the ‘migration crisis,’  nothing is being undertaken to address this. The plans to redistribute a minimal number of asylum seekers―agreed on in September after bitter negotiations and subject to litigation in the Court of Justice―aren’t being implemented. The Commission’s proposals don’t do anything to address the cause of the ‘migration crisis.’

Tunnel Vision

The second observation concerns the proposals which the Commission does make. 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 visas from nationals of poor countries. In addition, Europe has forced transport companies to check passports and visas before travellers are allowed to board an airplane or ferry. The technical quality of documents has also improved considerably. As a consequence, it’s much more difficult now to enter Europe by plane or ferry without being in possession of all required 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 entering 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 along with infrared cameras, radar, and satellite systems, and negotiations with transit countries were started. In addition to the traditional coast guard and police, the navy was put to use, criminal sanctions were introduced, a separate EU agency was created (Frontex), and 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.

These policies haven’t had the intended effect of reducing or controlling migration. They have had the unintended effect of boosting the market for human smuggling. Basically, the policies have backfired. Yet policy makers don’t tire of repeating that these policies have had no visible effect, and consequently… should be intensified. This is a textbook case of tunnel vision: Policy has failed so what we need is more of the same policy.

Border Deaths

Our third observation concerns border deaths. Many observers have pointed out that the steady increase of unauthorised migration across the EU’s external borders since 1990 (and thereby border deaths) coincides with the harmonization of European migration policies which, as part of harmonization, have become much stricter towards certain groups. There may well be a relationship between the two, as is shown by our research on border deaths.

Slovenia's border fence (Credit: imgur)

The European Commission, in response to what are labelled as the ‘tragedies’ at sea which took place in recent months, years, and decades, now proposes to intensify current restrictive migration policies. But there is a considerable risk that, by making migration more difficult, EU policies may put more lives at risk. What has been changed in order to reduce or remove the unintended side-effects of European migration policies, most notably the increasing loss of lives?

The answers to such questions should be based on evidence about almost three decades of migration and border policies. But policy decisions are presently being driven by politics rather than facts. It’s necessary for European policy-makers to begin a process of evidence-based policy-making in an area which affects the lives of countless people. However, in its proposals, the European Commission doesn’t even begin to ask the question whether there may be a relation between the policies which it now proposes to intensify, and the increasing number of migrants dying at European borders.

Towards Evidence-based Policy-making: The European Migrant Death Observatory

Existing data sets, such as the Deaths at the Borders Database and the lists compiled by UNITED Against Racism and the Fortress Europe blog can be an important part of evidence-based policy-making, in combination with data on migration policies and the determinants of international migration (for example, research of the DEMIG project of the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute), data on the volume of unauthorised migration (such as apprehension data), and data on smuggling (for example, research of the Migration and Border Management project of the Danish Institute of International Studies).

Such data can be collected and analysed in an observatory that tracks migrant deaths in Europe. Local authorities trying to identify the bodies of dead migrants, and families searching for their loved ones, as well as the many organisations and individuals trying to help, need an appropriate and mandated office to which they can turn. And evidence-based policies require accurate data to be collected and analysed using a holistic and longitudinal approach by an independent office which could properly evaluate the effects (intended and unintended) of past and current EU policy, to inform future policy decisions.

The observatory should operate at a European level because these needs could not be satisfactorily met at a regional or national level. First, migration routes in different regions and countries are related, so policies directed at preventing unauthorised, unwanted migration must take an encompassing European approach to stand a chance at success. Second, individual migrants’ routes can change and their bodies may end up in places their families would not search, so to maximise the chances of identification, all available ante-mortem and post-mortem information needs to be centralised. Third, one responsible office is more likely to result in consistent procedures, data collection, and analysis. Fourth, discovery and exchange of best practices on recording deaths and on identification benefits from maximising the number of actors (and their localities) involved. Finally, direct cooperation between local authorities of different countries requires an alternative to the usual nationalised model. Such an observatory would preferably be hosted by the Council of Europe because of its larger geographical scope (consisting of 47 Member States as opposed to the EU’s 28 Member States), and because it has extensive experience with the supervision of human rights practices.

The observatory (which we have outlined in more detail here) could use a very similar methodology to that of the Deaths at the Borders Database to collect data from 1 January 2014―the date on which the Database ends. The task would be made far easier by the fact that death registration in Spain, Italy, Malta, and Greece has now been digitalised and are accessible at the national (Spain, Greece, Malta) or regional (Italy) levels. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Spijkerboer, T. and Last, T. (2015) EU Border Plan is a Textbook Example of Tunnel Vision. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/12/eu-border-plan (Accessed [date]).