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Outsourcing oppression: How Europe Externalizes Migrant Detention Beyond its Shores

Author: Mark Akkerman

Affiliation: Researcher at Stop Wapenhandel (Dutch Campaign Against Arms Trade)

Organization/Publisher: TNI (The Transnational Institute)

Date/Place: April 14, 2021/The Netherlands

Type of Literature: Report

Number of Pages: 62


Keywords: Migration, refugees, Asylum, EU infringement, detention


With the EU commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum of September 2020, Europe’s expanding involvement and outsourcing/shifting of responsibility on migrants and asylum seekers to third countries (countries outside the European Union) is alarming. The EU and its member states are criticized for the appalling prison-like conditions in which asylum seekers are held inside Europe’s borders, but the EU and its member states tend to evade criticism for their direct role in promoting and funding the detention of migrants in third countries. This report exposes the hidden involvement of the EU in outsourcing migrant detention to third countries and the notorious conditions within the migrant detention centers. Militarization, developing smart borders and the externalization of border security and border control to third countries are the main pillars for the EU’s policies on border security. The EU’s externalization policies revolve around turning third countries into outpost border guards to stifle migrant flow from reaching the EU. Many countries are involved, and many methods are used in detaining migrants when they attempt journey to Europe. While some countries have detention facilities, others hold detainees in police stations. However, in both cases, deprivation of liberty and human rights violations are occurring. In many cases, migrants are not officially detained and have little chance to stay in the holding facilities. Many have no right to exercise their right to seek asylum, nor are they allowed to continue their journey towards a safe country. The EU and its member states influence migrant detention policies and practices in third countries. Though there is no concrete policy embedded on detention externalization, obvious patterns show the EU’s influence on the policies of detention and practices in third countries. These patterns include funding the construction of detention centers, funding the implementation of detention-related activities such as training, and other less direct forms of influence such as concluding agreements that request or encourage migrant detention. EU candidate countries need to meet the requirement of being like third countries. Among the requirements for countries seeking to join the EU are strengthening border security, given the open internal borders within the EU, coupled with the strict control of Europe’s external borders. Candidate member states can obtain funding to construct detention centers or other detention-related projects. These states are Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey. Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo are potential candidate member states. Though negotiations between Turkey and many EU member states are halted, Turkey has obtained EU funding to construct detention centers for migrants. In addition to having a consistent policy of requiring candidate countries to enhance their capacity to detain migrants en route to Europe, EU member states also encourage and involve themselves in the detention of migrants through: 1) Funding the construction of detention centers in Africa (Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Mauritania, and Senegal), Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine), West Asia (Jordan and Lebanon); 2) Funding or implementing detention-related projects, such as training and workshops like in Azerbaijan and Georgia; 3) other forms of involvements including readmission agreements with the EU (one or more of its member states) and third countries concerning detention of migrants and deportation. Another form of Working Agreement between Frontex (The European Border and Coast Guard Agency) and non-EU countries (Balkan countries, Turkey, Cape Verde, and Nigeria) is developing cooperation. The EU’s involvement in migrant detention in third countries takes various forms. The Council of the EU has authorized to negotiate with some other countries, though that has not led to a readmission agreement like Algeria, Belarus, Jordon, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia. Other countries have conditional readmission agreements upon the completion of the EU project; such as building detention centers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Turkey, and Ukraine or detention-related projects in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Other countries do not have readmission agreements with the EU, but they have intensified their migrant detention mission capacities, like Egypt. The EU has attempted to establish disembarkation platforms in third countries. Building on a “Proposal to the European Union for a Regional Cooperative Arrangement Ensuring Predictable Disembarkation and Subsequent Processing of Persons Rescued at Sea” by the IOM and UNHCR, the EU proposed that refugees picked up at sea would be brought to “reception centers.” However, there is no clarity about where the disembarkation platforms would be. Though many countries have either willingly or bowed to European pressure, no North African states were open to the idea of hosting disembarkation platforms. The same response came from the African Union that rejected the European proposal, commenting that “African capitals worry that this plan will see the establishment of something like modern-day slave markets, with the ‘best’ Africans being allowed into Europe and the rest tossed back – and it is not far from the truth.” Human rights and refugee supporters have also rejected the EU proposal. Building disembarkation platforms means blocking people at the doorstep of Europe regardless of how vulnerable they are or what horrors they are escaping. Also, sending refugees back to some states is not safe and would violate obligations under international law. Even so, the EU wants to play its power to influence third countries in Africa for its New Pact on Migration and Asylum 2020 and angles a carrot in the form of development aid and trade agreements. The role of international organizations fails in the EU proposal. Although international organizations’ involvement may help improve the conditions of detention, it legitimizes such detention, particularly with the financial dependence upon cooperation with the EU (like the case of IOM). Even more, many organizations have worked to whitewash the EU policies’ consequences in Libya to safeguard substantial EU funding. Beyond taking responsibility for its direct role in externalizing migrants, the EU must revise and address its structural causes of forced migration (its uneven trading relations, sale of arms to the region, its extraction of wealth …etc.). The EU must realize that outsourcing oppression is morally repugnant, though it might be convenient politically. The human collaborative approach is the only real solution.

By: Imad Atoui, CIGA Research Associate



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