European arms companies are already ‘winning’ in the race to outsource security and migration control to African states – many of them with poor human rights records (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
The dramatic scenes of Syrian refugees walking in their tens of thousands across Eastern Europe three years ago are starting to seem a distant memory.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said that the EU can now celebrate “solid progress” having dramatically reduced irregular arrivals.
However the commission’s proposed budget on 2 May shows that migration has certainly not slipped down the priority list.
The budget increase belies the rhetoric of Juncker that “Europe, contrary to what some say, is not a fortress and must never become one.”
It shows that Europe is being fortified more than ever. What is more – and far less visibly the fortress is being expanded through a policy of so-called ‘border externalisation’.
Starting in 1992, but at an accelerated rate since 2015, the EU has pressurised third countries, mainly in Africa, to act as its border security outposts, preventing forcibly displaced persons from even reaching the external borders of the EU.
A forthcoming report by Dutch organisations Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel explored the impacts of these border externalisation policies.
‘Authoritarian’ African states
An examination of the 35 countries the EU prioritises for advancing migration controls shows that nearly half of those have an authoritarian government and every single one poses extreme or high risks for exercise of human rights.
The fact that more than half score poorly in human development indicators shows that migration control is clearly a distraction from more urgent priorities.
Yet the EU and its member states is diverting limited resources to fund expensive border security and surveillance technologies and systems.
Refugees bear the brunt of the consequences of these policies.
In the first four months of this year over 600 died in the Mediterranean, en route to Europe.
They face violence and repression at borders and are forced to take more dangerous migration routes.
The commission celebrates falls in arrivals on European shores, but the proportion of recorded deaths to arrivals in 2017 was over five times as high in 2017 as it was in 2015.
Many more deaths at sea and in deserts in North Africa are never recorded.
Determination to keep migrants from Europe’s shores has also led the European Union to increasingly embrace authoritarian regimes at the cost of its professed commitment to human rights and democracy.
What is worse, it has also often ended up directly supporting those security forces most responsible for violence and human rights abuses.
Sudan is an indicative example.
For many years President Omar al-Bashir has been an international pariah, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes during the Darfur war.
The main perpetrators of these crimes were the Janjaweed militia fighters, which are now part of the Rapid Support Forces, the official border guard.
Yet, the EU is now providing support for these Sudanese border authorities and has started to bring the regime of al-Bashir out of international isolation.
The combination of support for authoritarian governments and the diversion of resources from much-needed spending on education, healthcare, climate adaptation feeds an untenable situation, threatening economic development, security and internal stability in many countries.
In the end, this will only force more people to flee. It also raises the question whether these border externalisation policies will actually serve the stated EU interests in the longer term.
If even the EU is likely to see these policies backfire, whose interests do they serve?
One certain winner is the military and security industry, which provides the equipment donated or funded by the EU or its member states.
The EU has, for example, funded the purchase of armoured vehicles from Turkish company Otokar and boats from Dutch shipbuilder Damen for border surveillance by Turkey.
Germany gave a large array of border security equipment to Tunisia, mainly from European arms giant Airbus and from Hensoldt, its former border security division.
Companies like Gemalto, soon to be taken over by French arms company Thales, Veridos, a German joint venture, and the French OT-Morpho have exported (biometric) identification systems and digital ID documents to African countries.
Out of sight, out of mind
While Juncker says the EU has almost solved the migration issue, it seems that a large part of this ‘solution’ has been a deliberate strategy to push the problems out of sight.
EU relations with African countries have become obsessively focused on stopping migration towards Europe, regardless of its consequences for forcibly displaced persons and for these countries.
This border externalisation policy not only causes untold suffering to refugees, but is bolstering a ring of dictatorships around Europe that poses a long-term obstacle to peace and security outside and within Europe.
The EU needs to set a different course – working on the elimination of reasons people have to flee, providing safe legal passages to refugees, and seeking to support rather than undermine human rights and democracy beyond its borders.
Mark Akkerman is a researcher at Stop Wapenhandel (Dutch Campaign Against Arms Trade) and author of the report Expanding the Fortress: The policies, the profiteers and the people shaped by EU’s border externalisation policies, in cooperation with the Transnational Institute