Migration and Human Rights (52): Remote Border Controls, Or How to Deal With Poor People On the Move

Many of the poorest people in the world are determined to seek a better life in wealthy countries. The governments and large swats of the populations of those countries react with increasing despair to this stubborn fact, even though the numbers of immigrants aren’t really much higher than they used to be. It’s also not the case that current immigrants create more problems than their predecessors. (On the contrary, welfare consumption, crime rates etc. are lower among immigrants than among natives, and there’s a lot of evidence that natives benefit from immigration).

But then what is causing this despair? I guess it’s got something to do with the perceived failure of Western governments to deal with the “immigration problem”. Whether or not it’s true that there are too many immigrants causing too many problems, many Westerners think it’s true and are dismayed by their governments’ reaction to this supposed fact: people are upset with ineffective policing of the borders (to the extent that some of them have set up private militias to deal with illegal border crossings); they’re upset with the failure of government agencies to send back “illegals” present on the territory; they want but often don’t get harsher immigration laws; they sometimes get but don’t want amnesty etc.

These governments, being democratic, feel the need to respond to popular discontent – even though the actual popularity of the discontent can be questioned. How do they respond? The first thing they do is step up their existing efforts: tightened border security (including walls if necessary), less generous visa and asylum rules etc. Unsurprisingly, this is often unsuccessful if success is defined as a large reduction in the number of illegal – and sometimes also legal – immigrants. Poor people are very determined folks and often find a way around restrictions.

Hence, there’s now a second line of response. Since a few decades now, Western governments have been trying to “externalize” or “extraterritorialize” their immigration restrictions. They also call this policy, somewhat euphemistically, “upstream” or “remote” border control. Western governments have de facto extended their borders. A first step in this second line of response has been the policy of intercepting people on the high sea, outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the states that are the supposed destinations of the people who are intercepted. For example, the US has used force against Haitian refugees outside its territorial waters. And of course this is now the common European practice in the Mediterranean Sea.

The US, Europe but also Australia are moving their border enforcement efforts beyond their national borders into the high sea. But that’s only a first step in the extraterritorialization of immigration control. Immigration restrictions are now being implemented in the territories of countries wherefrom migrants try to reach the West.The policy is to have agreements with the countries of origin and important transit countries. These countries agree to control people departing from or transiting through their territories.

The word “control” can mean different things here: for example police patrols carried out in cooperation with the authorities of Western countries; no-go buffer-zones if the origin or transit countries share a border with the destination countries; destination countries funding detention facilities abroad etc. Cooperation agreements like these aren’t always mutually voluntary. In some cases, Western countries make development funding, visa-allotment and other goodies conditional upon acceptance of said agreements.

Here’s a visual representation of the increasing importance of remote border controls.

This is the outsourcing of immigration control, and I’m sure we’ve only seen the beginning of it. In truly Orwellian style, Western governments use the supposed wellbeing of (potential) migrants as a justification of remote border controls. Better to stop them before they depart for the West than to allow them to put themselves at risk during an often dangerous journey. Better also to stop them than to send them back on the same dangerous journey. As if it’s not the immigration restrictions that make the journey dangerous and that force a good deal of successful immigrants to make the same journey back.

If you believe that immigration restrictions are morally acceptable, then I guess remote borders controls are OK. This type of immigration restriction isn’t necessarily more harmful to potential migrant than more traditional restrictions at the border or in the territory of destination countries. It can indeed be less harmful, sparing a lot of people a lot of trouble and risk. But my point is of course that immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable. If I’m correct, then more restrictions mean more immorality. Why do I think immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable? Because I believe there are good reasons based on human rights to allow people to move across borders, even people who want to move for purely “economic” reasons (meaning that they want to move in order to escape starvation and crippling poverty). I’ve set out these reasons here and won’t repeat them now.

I do realize that I’m occupying a minority position here. Much less controversial is the right of refugees and asylum seekers to move across borders. The Refugee Convention is very clear about the rights of people migrating in order to escape persecution. One of these rights is non-refoulement. This is a principle of international law that forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to his or her persecutor.

Article 33 of the Convention states:

No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Even if you think it’s OK to have remote border controls for economic migrants, the same controls will unavoidably trap some refugees in the countries that want to kill or imprison them. It’s only abroad that they can get a fair hearing of their asylum claims, but this is made impossible by remote border controls. So let’s get rid of it, and not only for the sake of refugees.

More posts in this series here.