EU is doubling down on failed migration policies

EU is doubling down on failed migration policies

EU is doubling down on failed migration policies
The humanitarian catastrophe gripping Tunisia is, in large part, a self-inflicted wound born from misguided policies. (AP)
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The spate of controversies surrounding Europe’s migration policies toward North African countries — chiefly Tunisia, the principal sea departure point for refugees and migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe — raises grave questions about the sustainability and ethics of these existing strategies. Worryingly entangled with a precarious political environment and an escalating human rights crisis, the contours of these policies have proven not only ineffectual in curbing the flow of irregular migration but also have significantly contributed to amplifying existing problems — a classic case of doubling down on failing policy, one might argue.

There is no shortage of alarming narratives on flawed migration management in Tunisia, underscoring tactics that veer significantly from the principles of human rights and international law. The assertions of horrific abuses, from indiscriminate expulsions of asylum-seekers to collusion of security forces with smuggling networks, paint a grim picture of a system that is fundamentally flawed on multiple fronts. Over the summer of 2023 alone, about 86 percent of illegally expelled sub-Saharan Africans reportedly experienced physical violence, with an astonishing 85 percent attributing this violence to the hands of security forces — an alarming series of findings that highlights the severity of the situation.

Yet, as accounts of systematic abuses, corruption, and collusion pour in, they consistently fail to perturb the irregular migratory flow, a glaring testament to the gravity of the failure of the EU’s deterrence and externalization policies. Add to these the EU’s strategic attempts to bottle up displacement along, for instance, the Tunisian coastline have spearheaded a grim spiral of human suffering without signaling any significant dent in the fundamental challenges driving human mobility.

Furthermore, the socioeconomic context of Tunisia, battling underdevelopment, poor governance, and regional insecurity, significantly exacerbates this problem. The government’s response, void of any coherent strategy or policy, oscillates between xenophobic rhetoric, abusive practices, and draconian actions.

Can these strategies, backed by the EU and the US, be validly defended when they appear to be guided by a culture of impunity and an utter disregard for the rule of law?

The humanitarian catastrophe gripping Tunisia is, in large part, a self-inflicted wound born from misguided policies. The situation calls for a radical rethink of the stance on migration cooperation with Tunisia, one that prioritizes safeguarding human security by fostering sustainable solutions over knee-jerk reactions and policies rooted in exclusion and deterrence. Anything short of that would only amount to a doubling down on profound policy failure — an untenable proposition at a time when the stakes could not be higher. 

Current approaches are not only ineffectual but also unsustainable.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Current approaches are not only ineffectual but also unsustainable and, given the catastrophe they have spawned, highly indefensible. Yet, such assessments appear lost in the fog of Brussels’ dogged pursuit of a problematic agenda, specifically, these border externalization strategies conceived in 2021. Under this axiom, the EU has enthusiastically fostered migration cooperation agreements with at least 14 countries. With a war chest swelling into billions of euros aimed at bolstering border controls, laying siege on people smugglers, and stymieing the flood of asylum-seekers and migrants, the policy has largely been unyielding.

Implementing this strategy was perceived as a preventive measure to thwart the overall movement of migrants — mainly from the Western Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa — before gracing the EU’s external borders. On paper, it seemed a tenable course of action; however, it has not borne the anticipated outcome. Far from slowing migration, the EU’s extravagant spending on border management and fortification has inadvertently expedited the humanitarian crisis.

Even more troubling is the revelations in a letter from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that outlines forthcoming plans to institute “new anti-smuggling operational partnerships” with Tunisia and Egypt. The audaciousness of this plan lies in its blatant neglect of well-documented accounts reporting abuses against migrants in both countries. Such malign neglect punctuates a habitual disregard for the proximal determinants of migration, effectively hampering the development of a targeted approach or strategy.

There is simply no appetite, political capital, or even notable civil society advocacy for measures beyond securitization and deterrence by focusing on systemic changes that address the drivers of irregular migration while channeling dramatic increases in emergency support services for displaced people. Instead, what we have is the perpetuation and institutionalization of unfortunate knee-jerk responses from Brussels, borne out of framing migrant surges as a security and political issue rather than admitting it as the humanitarian crisis that it most certainly is. This simplified understanding of a complex phenomenon effectively glorifies a culture of dismissing evident failures as a mere consequence of insufficient funding or security mobilization. 

The vicious cycle of misdiagnosis and mistreatment does more harm than good.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

The vicious cycle of misdiagnosis and mistreatment does more harm than good. The conventional wisdom of border controls and migration agreements, while having their place, need to transition toward addressing the root causes that push desperate thousands to risk treacherous journeys, abuse, neglect, and indefinite detention for a chance to make it to Europe. A distinctive tilt toward human-centered policies that underscore key drivers of migration, such as conflict, poverty, and inequality, is not just desirable but an absolute necessity. Until the EU adjusts its stance on this issue, it risks further worsening the humanitarian catastrophe, while simultaneously hemorrhaging resources with trivial, if any, gains to show.

With Europe cannibalizing its budget, diverting development aid and conflict management funding toward building “Fortress Europe,” little is left to fund targeted solutions designed to improve living conditions and stem migratory flows from origin states. It is unlikely the current political environment, which is increasingly skewing to the anti-immigrant right, will ever agree to create legal and safe pathways for asylum-seekers and refugees. Nor will boilerplate messaging about upholding commitments to human rights galvanize sufficient public support for alternative approaches to what is quickly snowballing into Europe’s next biggest crisis — notwithstanding Ukraine.

While some may understand the EU’s bumbling attempts to avert a hybrid crisis, its current approaches are inadequate and, in many ways, counterproductive. What is needed now, more than ever, is a serious course correction in Europe’s migration policies. It can at least begin by ensuring transparency and accountability on migration spending, since the current opacity of funding and lack of precise records make it difficult to assess the cost and efficacy of border externalization.

Beyond that, Europe needs to address a discernible vulnerability in how third countries continue weaponizing desperate migrants, turning them into a tool for leverage and geopolitical gamesmanship. Should that dynamic persist, Europe risks becoming a financier and underwriter for the glaring failures and tragic consequences of its doubling down on failure.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.

X: @HafedAlGhwell

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