Where Do We Want the EU’s Borders to Lie?

Tr@nsit Online

The idea of creating off-shore ‘hot-spots’ for the hundreds of thousands of migrants making their way towards the EU’s borders is deeply troubling for a variety of reasons. The stated intention of such hot-spots would be to provide what has been termed ‘protection in the region’, saving migrants from potentially deadly sea or land journeys and exploitation by unscrupulous smugglers while also, crucially, allowing for the assessment of claims to asylum on behalf of EU states before claimants’ arrival on European shores and soil.

Where Do We Want the EU’s Borders to Lie?
Refugee camp in Somalia, April 2013.


Whether presented in a rubric of security and a militarized language of deterrence and containment (of chaotic and un-manageable flows), or through a humanitarian or pastoral logic (framed principally around the need to protect migrants’ lives), such proposals present an alluringly simple spatial fix. The solution to Europe’s border crisis lies with simply shifting the borders elsewhere, sequestered out of view. Although current proposals (whether those of enhanced collaboration with Turkey and other states in the region already hosting large refugee populations such as Lebanon and Jordan, or the new plans for transit centres in Greece and Italy) appear specifically intended to respond in emergency fashion to the challenges of the moment, it is important to understand them within a much longer series of developments in how migration to the EU has been controlled in recent years. It is only in this wider context that we can fully comprehend the multiple dangers inherent in such proposals.

Borders that are no longer only at the border

For over a decade now, the ‘border-work’ of EU Member States has stretched far beyond the physical borders of the Union. The UK was one of the first to formally propose a ‘new off-shore line of defense’ for policing migration flows in 2008, but the mantra that ‘successful borders’ stop unwanted flows (of people, or other ‘un-wanteds’) long before they reach the actual territorial borders of the state has by now become commonplace. Border officials now routinely speak of ‘remote control borders’ (or ‘bordering at a distance’), of ‘layered inspection strategies’, or of the ‘thickening of borders’ through ‘buffer-zones’.

The EU’s neighbours to the East and South have played a crucial role in these policies – whether through EU-financed hardening of controls at their own borders with states further afield (for example, through the EUBAM programme in Ukraine and Moldova, launched already in 2005), or by participating in joint policing operations designed to prevent migrants from reaching the EU’s external borders (as has been the case in the Mediterranean over the past decade). Many such agreements have been bi-lateral in nature, engaging directly states such as Spain and Italy with North African counterparts (Morocco in the case of the former, and Libya in the case of the latter).

It is useful to recall that Libya under Gaddafi had become a key partner for Europe in policing Mediterranean migrant flows – ‘Le douanier de l’Europe’ as a cover story on Paris Match proclaimed just months before the Arab Spring.

Thanks to a series of agreements signed with Italy between 2007 and 2010, Libyan authorities carried out joint maritime patrols and surveillance operations at sea and on land and, from 2009 on, were engaged in ‘push-back’ operations that authorized the capture of all vessels carrying migrants in international waters and the removal of those on board back to Libyan shores. There, they were either left to face the brutal conditions of Libyan detention centres, or deported to their countries of origin. As European leaders contemplate striking new agreements for the off-shoring of controls at the EU’s southern borders, it is important to keep this episode in mind.

But the de-bordering of the Union’s borders has not only relied on such direct collaboration with more or less-unsavory regimes at its external borders, charged with halting irregular migration flows. The control of the EU’s borders has progressively been transformed into a highly complex and geographically-dispersed system of ‘border management’, relying on a much wider array of institutional and private actors, far beyond the territory of the Union. It now involves consular officials that assess visa applications and rights to asylum in migrants’ countries of origin on the other side of the globe, as well as a growing cadre of immigration liaison officers (ILOs) deployed by Member States and whose task it is to carry out ‘risk analyses’ of potential flows of irregular migrants, in collaboration with local authorities. It relies also, crucially, on private actors, whether airline companies or ferry operators that, under European Council directives, are now obliged, under financial penalty, to confirm all passengers’ ‘right to travel’. Most often, the first ‘border guard’ that a traveler to the Schengen space will encounter is indeed the travel agent or airline company representative, now tasked with assessing their immigration and visa status.

Canadian political theorist William Walters has coined the term ‘viapolitics’ to refer to the crucial role that modes of transport and transport routes play in power struggles over mobility and especially over its control.  The tragic events that have been unfolding in the waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean for years now should make Europeans wonder why is it that migrants will pay between 2500 and 5000 euro for dangerous Mediterranean journeys on smugglers’ boats that by ferry (or even plane) would have cost them a fraction of the cost…

The role of external actors, state as well as private, in halting but also (and equally importantly), in sorting and administering migrant flows brings me to the second set of dangers inherent in the ‘hot spot’ proposals. It is the role that such ‘hot spots’ or ‘transit centres’ may play in the deliberation of the access to rights – picking up on points made in Transit Online by Ranabir Samaddar regarding the perils of what he terms ‘differentiated citizenship’.

Sorting access to rights, at a distance

The proliferation in recent years of off-shore detention and ‘regional protection’ facilities – at the borders of Europe, but also in the Pacific and North America – has led scholars as well as activists to query the functions that such spaces play for contemporary states. A key function of such facilities is as ‘sorting locations’ in the management of flows: they are not simply sites of reception and protection, but even more importantly they are spaces where the right to certain rights is determined, where access to citizenship is (differentially) deliberated.

The centres and camps that already exist at Europe’s borders (and those being proposed) are not simply de-territorialized, exceptional, ‘waiting spaces’ where European rights do not (yet) apply. They are rather sites that are crucial to the sorting and organization of the right to European rights, through a principle of differentiated inclusion. Access to the right to asylum is thus no longer regulated through physical presence on national territory, but determined in geographically-dispersed locations.

The sorting function of such sites is crucial in other ways as well. In the current panic, the threat of ‘chaos’, ‘anarchy’ and their potential political effects in a Europe faced with an ‘uncontrolled wave’ of migrants whose identities are ‘unknown’ is one of the strong reasons invoked supporting off-shore solutions. The masses at Europe’s borders could ‘be anyone’ or ‘do anything’: thus the need to find ways of governing such unknown, anarchic flows. Halting such flows elsewhere allows a spatial fix that can (at least temporarily) impose order on what is inherently a chaotic process. The detention of migrants at a distance allows states to spatially contain and fix their identities: here, in a circumscribed space, they can be made knowable, their rights can be determined.

The victims of such sorting strategies will be much less visible to European eyes – their bodies will not wash up on Greek or Italian beaches, and we will not see them huddled in the cold in our train stations or at our border crossings. For although such facilities of ‘hostile hospitality will perhaps not exert outright physical violence (we hope), they carry the potential for a lot, a lot of harm. Out-sourcing EU Member States’ legal obligations under the refugee conventions by allowing access to asylum to be deliberated in far-off locations may provide a quick geographical fix, but access to fundamental rights cannot be seen as simply a spatial management problem.

Luiza Bialasiewicz is Jean Monnet Professor of EU External Relations in the Department of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam and Bronisław Geremek Visiting Fellow at the IWM. Her most recent book is the edited collection Europe in the World: EU Geopolitics and the Making of European Space.

Walters, W. (2015). Migration, vehicles and politics: Three theses on viapolitics. European Journal of Social Theory 18(4):469-488.

As Khosravi has evocatively termed it – see Khosravi, S. (2009). Sweden: detention and deportation of asylum seekers. Race and Class 50(4):38-56.