Policing Europe's borders

Fence at Ceuta

Europe depends on partnerships with West and North African security forces to help crack down on irregular migration, but this has created an ‘illegality industry’ which causes unnecessary suffering for those who become its targets.

In February 2014 around 250 African migrants tried to ‘storm’ the Morocco-Spain border fence en masse at Ceuta, a small Spanish territory on the north coast of Africa. Fifteen drowned as they tried to evade the border guards by swimming around a part of the fence that juts into the sea.

Tragedies such as this, played out on Europe’s southern border, have created the myth of a Europe under siege by desperate African migrants.

Following the Ceuta tragedy, the Spanish interior minister claimed there were as many as 80,000 migrants waiting to cross into Southern Spain from Africa. This is a vast over-estimation according to critics who argue that these numbers are produced by European politicians to justify more controls at the borders.

Dr Ruben Andersson is a Post-doctoral Fellow in LSE’s Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit who has followed migrants on their clandestine journeys through West and North Africa. He points out that, statistically speaking, these people actually represent a tiny group in the larger picture of migration into the EU.

“The problem has been blown out of all proportion by both European and African states,” says Andersson. “By focussing on these minuscule, but spectacular flows, politicians try to appear effective and tough. However the vast majority of migrants, irregular or not, arrive by air and cross the border without anything like the same attention.”

Andersson argues that the outsourcing of policing to African states has created an ‘illegality industry’, which depends on the promotion of the idea that they are the last bulwark against an African exodus.

“A very warped economic system is being created with all sorts of perverse incentives for border forces and politicians in the region to use migrants as a pressure point to get funds, political concessions or resources,” he explains.

In Senegal, for example, Andersson found that a ‘gift economy’ had developed whereby Spain incentivised Senegal’s border police with generous expenses pay for officers working on illegal migration, equipment such as vehicles and computers, and trips and junkets.

Strait of Gibraltar from TangierThanks to such incentives, Andersson found that a hunt was on for ‘illegal migrants’ across the deserts, forests and towns beyond the Euro-African border.

This meant that even before they had attempted to cross the border into Europe, sub-Saharan Africans could be targeted as ‘illegal’. ’Stephen’, a Liberian asylum seeker in Tangier, explained to Andersson how to pass off as a documented visitor, rather than a deportable ‘illegal’ – carry a bottle of water like tourists do and keep walking straight ahead when you spot undercover police.

In Morocco and Mauritania, NGOs and activists have catalogued how people have been expelled on the basis of their skin colour – including cases of black Mauritanians being deported to their own country’s borders, along with regional labour migrants. The past decade has also seen bona fide refugees in Morocco among those rounded up and dumped in the no man’s land of the closed Algeria-Morocco border. While these expulsions have ceased recently, the raids and crackdowns on migrants continue.

Andersson found that many migrants get stuck in a ‘warp’ of repeated deportations. For example, 'Daouda', a Senegalese whose Moroccan entry stamp had expired by a few days, had been deported by Moroccan soldiers to the border where he was then robbed by Algerian soldiers, before he made his way back to his temporary home in Tangier.

Trying to push migrants like Daouda further back into African territory clearly doesn’t work, but rather displaces them either into a cycle of expulsions or the Sahara desert – where an unknown number perish – all the while spurring them onto ever more desperate border crossing attempts.

“When they set off, many of these migrants expect to face dangers on the road as part of the rite of passage of moving north. This comes, in part, from the idea of embarking on an aventure (adventure), which exists among some travellers from French-speaking Africa,” says Andersson. “But after repeated expulsions, they reach a point of true desperation, often facing grave mental health problems, as Médecins Sans Frontières has documented.”

He explains: “They can’t go back home. Their families have often supported their journeys. They’ve been abroad for years and their families are expecting them to come home with money and gifts.”

There is no easy solution to the problem of irregular migration from Africa to Europe because it feeds into much larger economic and political issues. However, Andersson argues that more can be done to address the human suffering that accompanies it.

This involves rethinking collaboration with African countries, which are increasingly leaned on to tackle irregular migration, to address the perverse incentives and economics around migratory flows.

Andersson says: “The first principle should be ‘do no harm’. Tragedies like the ones at Ceuta are manmade. Where people once walked across the border, there is now a huge fence and a mass deployment of security forces. As a result people can only enter by charging across the fence en masse, sometimes getting quite badly wounded, or dying.”

Whether or not tough rules on migration are justified, Andersson argues that the spectacular controls now in place at Europe’s southern frontiers do not just lead to unnecessary suffering – they also fail to do the job they were designed to do.  

“The ever stronger border controls being constantly proposed by the European Commission and by European member states are counterproductive. Strengthening the border hasn’t helped, and more of the same won’t help either. It will keep on producing the same scenario where people die within a small distance of European shores.”

Posted: 30 May 2014


Useful links

Ruben Andersson| is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development. He obtained his PhD on irregular migration at the LSE’s Department of Anthropology in 2013.

Blogpost by Ruben Andersson on Allegra legal anthropology website, Fear by numbers: on the rise of Europe's 'illegality industry'|

Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe| by Ruben Andersson is published by the University of California Press in July 2014

Hunter and Prey: Patrolling Clandestine Migration in the Euro African Borderlands|, Ruben Andersson, Anthropological Quarterly