Wednesday 23 September 2015

Don't blame the smugglers: the real migration industry

The billions spent on the militarisation of border controls over the past years have been a waste of taxpayers' money. As we are able to witness during the current 'refugee crisis', increasing border controls have not stopped asylum seekers and other migrants from crossing borders. As experience and research has made abundantly clear, they have mainly (1) diverted migration to other crossing points, (2) made migrants more dependent on smuggling, and (3) increased the costs and risks of crossing borders.

The fact is that 25 years of militarising border controls in Europe have only worsened the problems they proclaim to prevent. As a very useful graph (see below) drawn by the prominent migration researcher Jørgen Carling illustrates, the EU has been caught up in a vicious circle in which increasing number of border deaths lead to calls to 'combat' smuggling and increase border patrolling, which forces refugees and other migrants to use more dangerous routes using smugglers' services. Longer and more dangerous routes means more people who get injured or die while crossing borders, which then leads to public outrage and calls for even more stringent border controls.

Source/author: Jorgen Carling

In the current panic about the issue, it is often forgotten that so-called 'boat migration' across the Mediterranean is a 25-year old phenomenon that started when Spain and Italy introduced (Schengen) visas for North Africans. Before that, Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians could travel freely back and forth to work or go on holiday. And so they did in significant numbers. However, this migration was largely circular. Most migrants and visitors would go back after a while, to be close to family and friends, because life back home is less expensive, and because they could easily re-migrate. This experience exemplifies that open migration doors tend to be revolving doors.

With the introduction of Schengen visas in 1991, free entry into Spain and Italy was blocked, and North Africans who could not obtain visas started to cross the Mediterranean illegally in pateras, small fisher boats. This was initially a small-scale, relatively innocent operation run by local fishermen. When Spain started to install sophisticated, quasi-miltary border control systems along the Strait of Gibraltar, smuggling professionalised and migrants started to fan out over an increasingly diverse array of crossing points on the long Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines. The diversification of crossing points continued over the 2000s, in which migrants started to cross not only from Morocco and Tunisia, but also Algeria, Libya to Italy and Spain, and from the West African coast towards the Canary Islands.

While in the 1990s most people crossing were young Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians attracted by employment opportunities in southern Europe, over the 2000s an increasing number of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees have joined this boat migration. The major upsurge in numbers over the last few years is mainly the result of an increasing number of Syrians joining this trans-Mediterranean boat migration. Over 2014 and 2015, increased maritime border patrolling in the Mediterranean is one of the causes (alongside the worsening of conditions in Syria and neighbouring countries) of the reorientation of migration routes towards Turkey, the Balkans and Central Europe.

So, these policies have been completely self-defeating. While politicians and the media routine blame 'smugglers' for the suffering and dying at Europe's borders, this diverts the attention away from the fact that smuggling is a reaction to the militarisation of border controls, not the cause of irregular migration. Ironically, policies to 'combat' smuggling and irregular migration are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to 'fight'.

It is therefore nonsense to blame smugglers for irregular migration and the suffering of migrants and refugees. This diverts the attention away from the structural causes of this phenomenon, and the governments' responsibility in creating conditions under which smuggling can thrive in the first place. Smugglers basically run a business, a need for which has been created by the militarisation of border controls, and migrants use their services in order to cross borders without getting caught. Of course, in the media stories abound of smugglers deceiving migrants, and such stories are certainly true, but there is good research (for instance by Ilse van Liempt and Julien Brachet) showing that smugglers are basically service providers who have an interest of staying in business and therefore generally care about their reputation and have an interest in delivering.

Certainly, smugglers can be ruthless and regularly deceive migrants, but it should not be forgotten that smugglers deliver a service asylum seekers and migrants are willing to pay for. Without smugglers, it is likely that many more people would have died crossing borders. For many refugees and migrants, smugglers are a necessary evil. For some, smugglers can be heroes. For instance, Al Jazeera quoted African refugees in Sudan who saw smugglers as freedom facilitators, because they enabled their escape toward safer countries. The irony is that European countries have created huge market for the smuggling business by multi-billion investments of taxpayers' money in border controls. There is no end to this cat-and-mouse game, in which smugglers constantly adapt their itineraries and smuggling techniques.

So don't blame the smugglers. Blaming smugglers also diverts the attention away from the vested interests of the military-industrial complex involved in border controls. Under influence of the growing panic about irregular migration and the perception that (supposedly uncontrolled) migration is an imminent threat to Western societies, states have invested massive amounts of taxpayers' money in border surveillance. Border controlling have become a huge industry, and businesses involved in building fences and walls, electronic border surveillance systems, patrolling vessels and vehicles as well as the military have a vested interest in making the public believe that we are facing an impending migration invasion and that we therefore need to 'fight' smugglers, as if we are indeed waging a war.

This reveals the contours of the real migration industry. Arms and technology companies have reaped the main windfalls from Europe’s delusional 'fight against illegal migration'. As has been documented by the Migrant Files, four leading European arms manufacturers (Airbus (formerly EADS), Thales, Finmeccanica and BAE) and technology firms like Saab, Indra, Siemens and Diehl are among the prime beneficiaries of EU spending on military-grade technology supplied by these privately held companies whose R&D programs have been financed by EU subsidies. The staging of uncontrolled migration as an essential threat to Western society has also served the military, who have been in search of a raison d'être after the (imagined or real) 'Communist Threat' evaporated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

In this way, Europe's immigration policies have created a huge market for the private companies implementing these policies as well as smugglers. The main victims are migrants and refugees themselves, through soaring smuggler fees and an increasing death tolls. But also European taxpayers who have been deceived and lured into a delusional 'fight against illegal migration' by fear-mongering nationalistic politicians. While the same politicians fan the flames of xenophobia by insinuating that refugees will be a huge drain on public funds and a threat to social cohesion, they waste billions of public funds on border controls, which have not stopped irregular migration, but created a market for smuggling and increased the suffering and death toll at Europe's borders - at least 30,000 people died in their attempt to reach or stay in Europe since 2000.

This has created a multi-billion industry, which has huge commercial interest in making the public believe that migration is an essential threat and that border controls will somehow solve this threat. According to a series of investigations by the Migrant Files, since 2000 refugees and migrants spend over €1 billion a year to smugglers to reach Europe. European countries pay a similar amount of taxpayer money to keep them out, a few companies and smugglers benefiting in the process. Since 2000, the 28 EU member states plus Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland have deported millions of people, with a price tag of least 11.3 billion euro. A further billion has been spent on coordination efforts to control European borders, mainly through Frontex, Europe's border agency. The real costs are much higher, as these figures do not include expenditures on regular border controls by individual member states.

Across the Atlantic, similar same dynamics can be found on the US-Mexican border, where soaring public expenditure on border controls has fuelled a military-industrial complex consisting of arms manufacturers, technology firms, (privatized) migrant detention centres, the military and state bureaucracies involved in deporting people. In a study entitled Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinerypublished in 2013, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based migration think tank, calculated that the US government spent $187 Billion on Federal Immigration Enforcement between 1986 and 2012.

To put this in perspective, the same report showed that $18 billion spent in 2012 are 24% higher, then the combined costs on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies (FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). While these costs are staggering, they have created a huge parallel market for smugglers (coyotes) helping migrants from Mexico and, increasingly, Middle America, to defy border controls.

So, instead of blaming smugglers, it is important to be aware governments have in many ways created their own monster by pouring massive public funds in the migration control industry. Like the mythological Hydra of Lerna, for which each head lost was replaced by two more, each time a migration route is blocked such as through erecting a fence, it will create an ever expanding market for smugglers helping people to get over, under or around migration barriers. This has led to an unintended increase in the area that countries have to monitor to ‘combat’ irregular migration to span the entire European external border, making the phenomenon less, instead of more, controllable.

National politicians arguing that border controls can solve the current 'refugee crisis' are thus selling illusions. The current situation in the Balkans and Central Europe makes this abundantly clear. As long as violent conflict persists in countries like Syria, as well as labour demand for undocumented migrant workers, people will keep on coming, in one way or another. There is no easy 'solution' to this problem, but it should be clear that the solutions of the past have been a counterproductive waste of taxpayers' money and have caused unspeakable suffering.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Europe's disgrace

A general sense of panic is dominating media coverage of what has come to know as Europe's 'refugee crisis'. It conveys the image of a massive exodus going on from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, with European countries struggling to control borders in order to prevent an invasion from happening. To be sure, we are dealing with a grave humanitarian tragedy, that needs urgent addressing. Yet the idea that we are facing a biblical, uncontrollable exodus is sheer nonsense. This idea needs urgent correcting, because the panic and political fear-mongernig around the issue works paralysing on efforts to find a practical solution to deal with the issue.

As I have argued earlier, this crisis is largely self-inflicted. It is not a crisis of migrants or refugees, but a result of entirely counterproductive border controls and Europe's shameful failure to get its act together in sharing sharing responsibility for refugee reception and status determination. As we can now witness on TV screens on a daily basis, the millions of taxpayers' Euros spent on border controls over the past years have been a total waste of money, which mainly resulted in a rising death toll and the geographical diversion of migration routes. For instance, the recent increase in asylum and refugee migration through the Balkan is partly a reaction to increased border patrolling in the Mediterranean, which was in itself a response to increased asylum and refugee migration to Italy and Malta. 

The Economist, 12 September 2015

Ever since the Schengen visa regime was introduced in southern Europe in 1991, which interrupted relatively free trans-Mediterranean movement, migrants and border patrollers have been involved in a constat cat-and-mouse game leading to a constant shifting and geographical diversification of maritime and overland crossing points. Instead of stopping border crossings, it created new markets for smugglers who help migrants to cross borders without getting caught. To correct a widespread misunderstanding, smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration. Ironically, policies to 'combat' (to refer to a common but inappropriate belligerent term used in this context) smuggling only increased the dependence of migrants and refugees on smugglers, thus making matters worse. 

The current crisis in the Balkan region clearly shows that intensifying border controls at one crossing point (such as between Libya and Italy, or through building a fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border) only leads to a geographical reorientation of crossing points.  It is therefore outrageous that politicians still get away with making us believe that border controls can 'solve' refugee crises. The irony is that such policies increase the reliance of refugees and migrants on smugglers as well as the likelihood that people go underground. So, such 'tough' policies make migration less controllable and manageable, while they pretend to do the opposite.

This is why migration hardliners deceive the public. Unless the European Union turns into a closed police state by literally erecting a new Iron Curtain circumventing the entire Mediterranean coastline and Eastern land borders, ignoring all refugee and human rights conventions, and systematically deporting all people arriving at the borders - which is very unlikely - it is an illusion that refugees can be stopped from arriving.

Does that mean that 'borders are beyond' control or that we should abolish immigration rules? Not at all. There are good reasons for states to regulate mobility by determining who has the right to stay and who not, including the right to asylum. Most European other states have developed quite sophisticated and often rather effective rules and institutions which regulate the entry of workers, family members, students, and asylum seekers. Based on the UN Refugee Convention, most European states have set up clear rules and procedures to determine who has the right to asylum and who not, including provisions for the latter to return. The systems are in place, they just need to be implemented based on a European sharing of responsibilities, which might imply adjusting the so-called Dublin Regulations.

The current crisis is therefore not one of real numbers but one of an impotence or, rather, and outright refusal of European governments to get their act together in finding a collective reaction to the increase in the numbers of Syrian and other refugees making their way to Europe. In many ways, European national politicians such as Hungary's PM Orban fall on their own sword of fear-mongering around the current refugee situation. While fence building only worsens the problems they pretend to solve, the accompanying rhetorics about massive (Islamic) invasions paralyse any sensible response and debate. Such fear-mongering may serve to rally electoral support and to deflect attention away from more important domestic political issues, but is totally irresponsible in terms of providing effective ways to deal with the current situation.

It is worth mentioning here that the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Europe in 2015 are large, but by no means uncontrollable. Refugee hardliners commonly argue that we should seek 'regional solutions' for refugee problems. This may sound sensible but also this argument is deceptive as it totally ignores the fact that the large majority of refugees worldwide already find refuge in their own region. Developing countries host over 86% of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago.  This is not only because many refugees lack the resources to travel far, but also because many refugees simply prefer to stay close to home.

This also applies to Syria. As the above map shows, the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees have stayed either in Syria, or in neighbouring countries, particularly Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Of the about 3 million people who have fled the devastating violence in Syria, only about 5 percent (about 150,000) are currently registered in Europe.

What makes the 'regional solutions' argument not only deceptive but also really hypocritical is the extremely lukewarm support of many governments for providing support to refugees residing in the region. There is an acute shortage of international funds to help refugees in the region, which is hampering humanitarian assistance efforts to meet the needs of Syrian refugees as well as in communities hosting hem in neighbouring countries. Against the about USD 4.5 billion needed for such programmes, only one third has been received. This funding shortfall has led to a reducation in food assistance, school attendance and health services. The deteriorating situation in neighbouring countries is one of the direct causes of the rapidly increasing numbers of Syrians moving to Europe.

With regards to numbers, the more than 300,000 Syrians and other nationals who have so far crossed into Europe irregularly over 2015, is certainly a big increase compared to earlier years. This increase has been clearly driven by conflict in Syria and origin countries and the increasingly dismal situation for refugees in neighbouring countries. However, to suggest that Europe cannot deal with such numbers is nonsensical. For instance, Lebanon (with 5.8 million inhabitants) alone hosts more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, or 19% of its population. In this light, the idea that the European Union, which counts over half a billion inhabitants, and is the wealthiest economic block in the world, would lack the resources to host several hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers is simply outrageous. In this context, it is worth reminding that 300,000 asylum seekers is equal to less then 0.06% of the entire EU population, and that legal immigration to the EU alone is about 2.5 million on a yearly basis.

As long as conflict in Syria and other countries persists, it is likely that a relatively small, but sizeable number of refugees will find their way to Europe. To think it away, or to create illusions that 'regional solutions' will solve this problem, will only make matter worse.  Of course Europe can deal with this. Any representation of the current refugee flows as 'massive' is therefore misleading. The current crisis is not one of numbers, but a political crisis, a crisis of the failure of Europe to find a joint response to this issue.

In their short-sighted attempts to please their constituencies, national politicians create illusions that intensifying border controls on national level can solve this problem, while it only diverts migration routes to other countries, expands the market for smugglers and increases the death toll. In this way, 'hardliner' countries such as Hungary and the United Kingdom shift the burden of refugee reception to more welcoming countries such as Germany and Sweden, who bear a disproportional burden.  The only sensible respons to the current situation is a collective one, in which European countries share their responsibility for refugee reception and asylum processing by developing some quota system, largely along the lines proposed by the Angela Merkel and the European Commission.

The real crisis is therefore political one, not one of hordes of refugees invading Europe, which is a product of conscious political fear-mongering and uncritical, sensationalist journalism. As long as politicians get away with making us believe that 'closing borders' will solve this problem, the problems will only get worse. The real crisis is a crisis the unwillingness of European countries to get their act together and formulate a collective response by agreeing on effective responsibility sharing.  Both morally and practically, this is only way to address this crisis. A second  element of a more effective response is to dramatically increase support to help refugees in neighbouring countries, so that they are not forced to move on if they prefer to stay close to home.

Unfortunately, so far no agreement has been reached because such proposals have been sabotaged by national politicians eager to show off their 'toughness' on migration and failing to take their responsibility. Sensible responsibility sharing on the European level and genuine support for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries are the only way forward. There are no quick and simple fixes to this problem, but the least European politicians can do is to stop deceiving the public by going tough on migration, which only fans the flames of xenophobia and does not provide any practical way to stop people suffering and dying at Europe's borders.