Photo by Will Bakker

Imagined Threat—How Europe’s Migration Foreign Policy is Fuelling Greater Instability

As the European Council meets this week, migration policy is one of the top-billed topics of debate. Dahrendorf Post-Doctoral Fellow Julia Himmrich argues here that Europe’s response to migration should be resilience not deterrence.

At this week’s Council meeting, European leaders will debate the response to the internal and external dimensions of migration. But earlier this week, divisions between the EU institutions and member states became clear. Council President Donald Tusk, reflecting the position of the heads of states, rejected the relocation quotas suggested by the Commission, which would be a key factor in improving the burden sharing between EU member states.

The Commission has brought forward many initiatives on migration in the past year, with the most recent paper published last week. However, with member states in the driving seat, defending borders and treating migrant flows as a potential threat remains the dominant narrative. Externalising migration is now seen as the be-all and end-all solution.

Migration naturally has an international dimension, and with global mobility on the rise it will be central in future European foreign policy. Taking this external dimension of migration seriously is important. However, the current understanding of this dimension is built on false interpretations of threats, which makes the proposed solutions unsuitable.

With growing interest in on so-called ‘hybrid threats’, migration has been thrown in with other new challenges facing Europe such as cyber attacks and terrorism. How exactly migration fits in this group is not clear, however, references to destabilising factors and to organised crime are frequently made. The Implementation Plan  on Security and Defence of the EU’s Global Strategy says the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions should deal better with the “challenges related to migration”. These challenges are not explained in the document, but have been discussed elsewhere in the European Agenda on Security and the Agenda on Migration. Trafficking and organised crime networks and managing high flows of irregular migrations seem to be the perceived threat. The EU isn’t the only international body adopting this approach to migration: EU-NATO collaboration identified maritime cooperation for the purpose of migration management as a key area of cooperation.

A variety of deterrence strategies have been used to reduce the number of migrants coming into the EU. This includes reducing search and rescue operations, negotiating return agreements with third states, and building the capacity of migrants’ states of origin to prevent citizens from departing on their journeys to Europe. Europe’s misguided fear of being overrun by large numbers of migrants is defining its approach to migration. Neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Libya have been able to exploit this by threatening to ‘unleash’ migrants onto Europe to achieve favourable agreements with the EU, a tactic that Kelly Greenhill defined as the ‘weaponisation’ of migrants. The EU is putting itself in uncomfortable situations through agreements with governments that are considered responsible for the weak political and economic conditions from which individuals are trying to escape.

The trafficking and smuggling of migrants is also considered a key source of instability in Europe. Although the institutions make a clear distinction between smuggling, assisting migrants to cross borders illegally, and trafficking, forced migration for the exploitation of migrants, member states are less interested in these nuances.

The other priority defined by the EU Commission in its Agenda on Migration, to save migrants’ lives and respond to the humanitarian crisis, falls into the background in the face of perceived threats. In one of the most striking instances of this de-prioritisation, the EU denied support Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation, which sought to save migrants at sea. The justification was that this would be a so-called ‘pull factor’ for migrants. Instead the EU supported the Triton operation, which covers a much smaller area. The CSDP mission Operation Sophia supports these activities when needed but it does not represent a sustainable search and rescue effort.

However, the evidence shows that the number of migrants does not decrease when access to Europe is made more difficult. Instead, securitising and militarising borders and migration routes pushes smuggling practices closer to organised crime syndicates and creates new security challenges in the neighbourhood. In Libya, for example, armed militias are becoming involved because higher risk makes the business more lucrative. The most recent reports of slavery in Libya are only an indication of how the policy of deterrence and externalisation leads to further destabilisation.

The response to hybrid threats is typically to build resilience rather than to employ traditional strategies such as military action or deterrence. Interestingly, if one accepts the hybrid-threat narrative of migration, the solutions are not very different from what civil society and those operating on the ground have been arguing. Resilience in regard to migration would require states to be better prepared so that they are not threatened by blackmail from partner countries or encourage smuggling and trafficking networks. The focus should be on diminishing risk factors such as high death rates along the borders, bolstering legal pathways to migration to better control migration flows, and breaking up trafficking networks in Europe.

This is unlikely to be a popular response with those who simply want to reduce the number of migrants. This solution is boring. It is about the capacity and resources of local governments in Europe, about coordination, about permits to live and work. Not about sending out ships to ‘fight migrants’.

Resilience also means future-proofing. New migration flows are likely to develop for unexpected reasons. Europeans need to be able to coordinate and respond to absorb migration flows; focusing only on reducing numbers will always put the continent in a defensive and vulnerable position. There are undeniably security concerns related to migration but these are connected to the instability of countries of origin and transit—it is not the migrants themselves that present a threat.

Against better judgment, European states have been pushing to control and restrict movement not just in its immediate neighbourhood but all the way to sub-Saharan Africa. In the external dimension, European migration policy should build on a strong internal policy which takes redistribution of migrants seriously, releases the pressure on communities carrying the burden, and prioritises the protection of asylum seekers. This way a sustainable external dimension can project stability, foster regional cooperation, and promote economic growth and mobility.


Julia Himmrich is a Dahrendorf Post-Doctoral Fellow.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.