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A group of people in dark jackets and jeans lower a casket into a grave in a forested area..
A local Muslim community buries a Yemeni migrant in Bohoniki, Poland, in November 2021. He was one of several people from the Middle East and elsewhere who have died in an area of forests and bogs along the Poland-Belarus border amid a standoff involving migrants between the two countries. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Outsourcing migration control is leading to violence in eastern Europe and beyond

Over the past few months, the border between Belarus and Poland has become the site of yet another “migration crisis,” and the recent drowning of at least 27 migrants in the English Channel has further illustrated the increased human cost of restrictive migration controls.

These events show that the European Union’s approach to migration governance isn’t working.

The situation will continue as long as governments keep prioritizing the protection of borders over the protection of human rights.

Outsourcing migration control

Shifting migration and asylum responsibilities to countries bordering the EU’s territory dates back to the early 1990s.

Germany began co-operating with central and eastern European countries on migration controls in the wake of displacement caused by the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

In the early 2000s, Ukraine, Moldova and Russia became partners along the eastern border. In the south, co-operation between Spain and Morocco started 30 years ago and now includes the EU. Collaboration between the EU, Italy and Libya is a decades-long affair, despite ongoing armed conflict in Libya and the absence of a functioning government there.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the EU has relied on Turkey for more than 20 years to tighten its borders, to stop migrants from heading to the EU and, since 2016, to host millions of asylum-seekers.

Collaborating countries receive money, equipment and training for their various law enforcement authorities in exchange for aligning their migration and border control policies with the EU and minimizing EU-bound migration through their territories.

These collaborations often come with additional development aid, privileged commercial and trade relations with the EU (often not included explicitly in these agreements but negotiated alongside them) and relaxed visa restrictions for their citizens.

While current events along the Belarus-Poland border are embedded in the region’s complex geopolitics, they are also the consequence of the EU’s efforts to shirk responsibility for migration.

A man in a dark suit and a moustache sits in a red upholstered chair.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his interview with the BBC in Minsk, Belarus. (Nikolay Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

Co-operation between the EU and the authoritarian regime of Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko began in 2014 and followed the same pattern of providing financial resources and technical expertise in exchange for co-operation on irregular migration and creating opportunities for Belarussian citizens to work and travel in the EU. Back in 2016, Human Rights Watch criticized the EU’s “migration deal” with Belarus.

The EU promotes collaboration agreements with non-member states as far as Niger on the assumption that migrant arrivals will eventually diminish if controls extend to countries of origin and transit.

Instead, unregulated migration has continued, but the EU has made its borders more deadly. Outsourcing migration responsibilities means that human rights violations simply happen elsewhere, as the EU provides both legitimacy and financial support to individuals and organizations benefiting from human trafficking.

These tactics have increased human suffering and death and commodified migrants’ lives thereby feeding the crisis and exposing the EU to blackmail.


Read more: The EU is the real villain in the Poland-Belarus migrant crisis


Border control versus human rights

In 2013, more than 360 people died near Lampedusa in Italy, and European leaders vowed to do better. Since then, a conservative estimate situates the number of deaths in the Mediterranean alone at almost 23,000. Even the European Commission admits it — the current approach to migration and asylum does not work.

Co-operation among states, both within and beyond the EU, is fundamental to overcoming the current impasse. International migration is likely to increase in the years to come due to climate change, collapsing governments and ongoing armed conflicts around the world.

A woman in a wool hat and mask carries a sign saying 'I am legal, you are legal, he is legal, she is legal, it is legal, we are legal, you are legal, they are dead.'
Dozens of people take part in a rally organized by the Mothers to the Border group that’s calling for the admission of migrants especially for families with children who remain in the forest in freezing temperatures in Hajnowka, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

A new framework for collaboration focused on human security at the regional and global scale is urgently needed, and current European and global efforts simply will not do.

We are made to believe that the lives lost, diminished and enslaved are collateral damage — the inevitable price to pay to keep people out.

EU member states’ own legislation, its framework for the protection of fundamental rights and international commitments linked to the protection of human rights, refugees, children and the protection of life at sea are erased in this race to the bottom.

The root of the problem

From the Canary Islands to Polish forests and the English Channel, the root of the problem is the same — the belief that the EU must “protect its way of life” with a border that keeps unwanted migrants out. When migrants are framed as a threat to national security, economic prosperity and European identity, other countries can use these fears as leverage.

Capitalizing on Europe’s fear of outsiders is, again, nothing new. In 2010, former Libyan leader Muhammar Gaddafi negotiated a co-operation agreement with the EU in apparent exchange for — in his words — stopping EU-bound impoverished Black Africans from reaching “white and Christian Europe” and ruining the European experiment.

Hundreds of people stand in a long line.
Migrants queue as they wait for their lunch in southern Italy in November 2021. The port of Roccella Jonica recently received 550 migrants, the highest number they have ever seen in one day. The migrants were rescued from two fishing boats off the coast of Libya. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

More than 10 years later, migrants are a guaranteed source of money and bargaining power, as seen in Libya, Turkey, Morocco and Belarus.

What is happening in the eastern forests of the EU is a catastrophic spectacle and makes a mockery of the EU’s legal and moral obligations – but it is not a migration “crisis.” It is the logical and expected consequence of more than three decades of irresponsible border policy.

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