Opinion: The EU Looks To Offshore Its Migrant Crisis. That's A Horrifying Prospect European leaders are looking to set up migrant holding sites outside the EU, following a controversial Australian precedent, writes an anthropologist who researches migration in North Africa.
NPR logo Opinion: The EU Looks To Offshore Its Migrant Crisis. That's A Horrifying Prospect

Opinion: The EU Looks To Offshore Its Migrant Crisis. That's A Horrifying Prospect

Isabella Alexander (@isabella_writes) is an anthropologist, writer and documentary filmmaker. She lives between the U.S., where she is a professor at Emory University, and North Africa, where her ongoing research is centered on Africa's expanding migrant and refugee crisis and the externalization of Europe's borders. Her latest documentary is The Burning.


African migrants climb over a metal fence that divides Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Since the early 1990s, Spain has built 20-foot-tall, layered border fences around its two North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, to help dissuade migrants from entering the cities from Morocco in the hope of reaching a better a life in Europe. Santi Palacios/AP hide caption

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Santi Palacios/AP

African migrants climb over a metal fence that divides Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Since the early 1990s, Spain has built 20-foot-tall, layered border fences around its two North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, to help dissuade migrants from entering the cities from Morocco in the hope of reaching a better a life in Europe.

Santi Palacios/AP

Moneba was the chief of a hidden migrant camp in the mountains of northern Morocco. The camp was near Melilla — one of two Spanish enclaves that bring Europe's land borders within the African continent. It was the first of many such camps in North Africa I have lived in and researched.

From the edge of the camp, where nearly 100 young men and boys from Guinea slept on the forest floor, they could see the Mediterranean below and the Spanish coast curving along its shores like a green blade of grass in the distance. At one point, in the summer of 2016, more than half of his camp was under age 16.

"I see my little brother in them," Moneba, now 28, told me, explaining why he took so many children and teens that other chiefs turned away.

Moneba successfully crossed by boat into Spain in late 2017. His work as a day laborer makes it possible for him to send his mother and younger siblings in Guinea enough money to rent a home with "a real roof," he said.

"Moneba means 'one who sacrifices himself for his family,'" his mother told me during my visit this summer to her home in rural Guinea. Although it wasn't the name she gave him, she wasn't surprised to learn people now know him as nothing else.

Their family are Fulani, a people whose roots spread across Guinea, Ghana, Chad, Nigeria and Sudan and are estimated to number nearly 50 million. They represent the single largest population of migrants arriving in Europe from the African continent today.

Right now, more people are displaced from their home countries than at any point in recorded history — nearly one in every 112. The international laws that outline displaced people's rights were established after World War II to address Europe's then refugee crisis. These laws were never intended to last as long as they have or to address displacement on a global scale. The countries that signed the Geneva Convention committed to uphold basic human rights of all world citizens, including the right to seek refuge in other countries, yet they are choosing to face new waves of migration in very different ways.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country's doors to a record 1 million refugees last year, U.S. President Trump lowered America's resettlement quote to below 50,000, the lowest number in years.

More nations, including the United States, are exploring practices known as border externalization to control the flow of asylum-seekers before they reach their shores.

In the Mediterranean, ships carrying those fleeing poverty and war are being turned around in international waters. In the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, similar populations are being beaten off border fences. Both fail to give migrants the chance to apply for asylum and trap them in transit countries where their basic rights are not guaranteed. These practices, viewed by many as criminal, are seen by others as a highly successful model for border control.

Moneba, in his apartment in Spain, holds a picture of his younger brother Abdoulaye, who started his migration journey at age 12 but was killed in a detention center in Libya before ever reaching Europe. Isabella Alexander for NPR hide caption

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Isabella Alexander for NPR

Moneba, in his apartment in Spain, holds a picture of his younger brother Abdoulaye, who started his migration journey at age 12 but was killed in a detention center in Libya before ever reaching Europe.

Isabella Alexander for NPR

Deadly quest for refuge

In recent years, headlines have drawn attention to migration routes like the one Moneba took. Many people die on the journey. An average of 14 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean every day in 2016, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project said a record 629 died this past June alone.

These numbers are good estimates at best. As my research has shown, Mediterranean crossings are poorly reported and authorities in transit countries have incentives to underreport deaths. Three paths commonly referred to as the western (Algeria and Morocco to Spain), central (Tunisia and Libya to Italy), and eastern (Turkey to Greece) Mediterranean routes are active and deadly, raising alarm in destination countries.

Italy, Spain and Greece each receive tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty across the African continent every year. Yet their individual responses to migration have begun to diverge.

Italy's "zero tolerance"

Italy's newly elected populist right-wing government has drawn criticism from rights groups for a "zero tolerance" approach. That includes closing ports to humanitarian rescue ships and plans to step up deportations before asylum case review.

If "more people leave, more people die," Italy's new Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini claimed of migrants heading to Europe. He is highlighting only the threats along the migratory route, failing to recognize any risks migrants face in their home countries, from Sudan to Syria.

In June, the humanitarian ship Aquarius — operated by the French organization SOS Mediterranée — saved 629 lives after a three-day search and rescue mission, only to spend the following 12 days in the water turned away from port after port. First Italy closed its ports, then Malta. The relief workers and rescued migrants struggled with dwindling supplies and the threat of a forced return to North Africa. Spain finally agreed to open its ports to the Aquarius on June 17.

Spain, under a new center-left administration, took its moment on the global stage to tell the world it saved one ship. But it cannot possibly save them all. Days later, 70 men, 30 women and six children drowned off the coast of Libya.

Every time a ship is turned away from European ports, those aboard are returned to countries they were fleeing.

The world's most trafficked borders by displaced people are just beyond the international waters of the Mediterranean, and the events unfolding there raise an important question. Can European border states close their ports to those fleeing Libya, even after the EU has condemned abuse and enslavement in detention centers across the country?

Moneba (left) sleeps beside fellow migrants he calls his "brothers" in a hidden forest camp in Morocco. He was the chief of about 100 boys and young men from Guinea who hoped to reach Europe. The Spanish enclave of Melilla and the Mediterranean Sea are both visible in the distance. Isabella Alexander for NPR hide caption

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Isabella Alexander for NPR

Moneba (left) sleeps beside fellow migrants he calls his "brothers" in a hidden forest camp in Morocco. He was the chief of about 100 boys and young men from Guinea who hoped to reach Europe. The Spanish enclave of Melilla and the Mediterranean Sea are both visible in the distance.

Isabella Alexander for NPR

"Regional disembarkation platforms"

In late June, European Union leaders meeting in Brussels reached a deal that threatens to solve the bloc's migration issues by pushing them southward — effectively abandoning international commitments to basic human rights.

Here are some of the main points they agreed to:

  • Share responsibilities among member states of migrants rescued at sea.
  • Create detention centers in Europe, where migrants would wait while their asylum claims are processed.
  • Tighten the EU's outer borders and increase deportation rates.
  • Set up centers outside the EU, where ships would disembark migrants rescued at sea, for their cases to be reviewed.
  • Increase financing for Turkey and North African transit nations to control migration to Europe.
  • Channel more government aid, and private investment, toward the "socio-economic transformation of the African continent."

In a final statement designed to satisfy the divergent EU views, the leaders agreed to shoulder the job of handling migrants on a "voluntary basis." Who is volunteering? That remains unanswered — though it is clear who is not.

Poland and Hungary refused to accept any new arrivals or alleviate the burden on Spain, Greece and Italy.

Italy's Salvini ruled out opening detention centers to process asylum requests. "The only centers [Italy is] opening are those for repatriation, at least one in each region," he said.

The EU summit statement does not specify what countries would receive aid or offshore processing centers, which it calls "regional disembarkation platforms."

But according to an earlier document leaked before the summit by the EU commissioner in charge of migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, there were already plans under review to create these "platforms" in North Africa.

The system would allow governments to review asylum applications before migrants reach Europe. It would also trap asylum-seekers in potentially critical situations beyond the purview of the European states reviewing their cases.

Australia's offshore model

Key parts of Europe's new plans have a controversial precedent — in Australia.

Antony Loewenstein, a reporter who has spent the past several years investigating Europe's move toward externalized border controls, revealed in June that officials from individual European countries and the EU had secretly met with Australian officials about their refugee policies.

As part of a complex system established by the Australian government in 2001, migrants and refugees who were imprisoned in privatized detention centers on the Australian mainland were increasingly sent to small Pacific islands that border the country — Manus in Papua New Guinea and the nation of Nauru.

Although access to these centers has been tightly controlled, reactions from the international community have grown louder as news from the inside slowly trickles out — stories of routine abuse, rape and death from beatings or suicide. Australia, which campaigned for three years to gain a seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council, received a scathing report from the council during its first week in session in 2017. In a 20-page exposé, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, detailed a system of abuse designed to punish and use migrants as an example to deter future ones.

"It is not because [the refugees] are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers we [have] to deprive them of the product," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a phone call with President Trump in 2017, according to a transcript in The Washington Post. The product he was referring to is their basic right to seek asylum.

According to Loewenstein's reporting, European officials were looking to adopt a similar practice.

If Australia, a democratic nation signatory to international human rights conventions, has successfully outsourced its processing centers with no concrete outside intervention, what is to stop Europe, which receives significantly more migrants, from doing so?

European leaders have an opportunity to learn from Australia's human rights failings and avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of establishing similar processing centers outside of the bloc in North Africa.

Already, rights experts and nongovernmental organizations have called attention to the contradictions in Europe's outsourcing its migration enforcement. "Just a few months ago, European governments were condemning reports of slave markets in Libya. Today they don't seem to hesitate in trapping them there," Doctors Without Borders said.

Building detention centers in Morocco or Algeria, which have received less negative press than Libya in the past months, would also mean trapping vulnerable populations in countries with sordid human rights records, tight bans over foreign media and international NGOs and a practice of illicitly "deporting" migrants to the desert.

"The primary cause for the massive abuse suffered by migrants in all regions of the world, including torture, rape, enslavement, trafficking, and murder is neither migration itself, nor organised crime, or the corruption of individual officials," wrote Melzer in his exposé. Instead, it is "the growing tendency of States to base their official migration policies and practices on deterrence, criminalisation, and discrimination, rather than protection, human rights, and non-discrimination."

Europe's populist leaders have continued to use sensationalized, often xenophobic rhetoric about impoverished immigrants flooding in.

But the numbers of migrants entering Europe has actually fallen from their 2015 record.

"This is not a migration crisis, this is a political crisis," the outgoing head of the EU presidency, Bulgaria's Boyko Borissov, reminded leaders in his remarks at the end of the summit. "There are 90 percent fewer migrants than two years ago." According to U.N. data, fewer than 45,000 migrants have made it to the EU this year.

Migrants aboard the Open Arms aid boat, run by Spanish humanitarian group Proactiva Open Arms, react as the ship approaches the port of Barcelona, Spain, on July 4. The aid boat sailed to Spain with 60 migrants rescued in waters near Libya, after it was turned away by both Italy and Malta. Olmo Calvo/AP hide caption

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Olmo Calvo/AP

Migrants aboard the Open Arms aid boat, run by Spanish humanitarian group Proactiva Open Arms, react as the ship approaches the port of Barcelona, Spain, on July 4. The aid boat sailed to Spain with 60 migrants rescued in waters near Libya, after it was turned away by both Italy and Malta.

Olmo Calvo/AP

Give a voice to the migrants

These days, Moneba occasionally finds work as a day laborer picking fruit on a farm. He shares a small apartment with three other undocumented migrants on the outskirts of Barcelona. He says his younger brother Abdoulaye was not as fortunate. Abdoulaye made multiple attempts to escape Libya but was forced to return again and again to a Libyan detention center, where, Moneba says, he was eventually beaten to death.

Abdoulaye was 12 years old when he left home. His mother told me she remembered how Moneba begged him not to follow him, crying and shouting at him, "I sacrificed myself so that you don't have to take the same risks with your life!"

The voices of youths like Abdoulaye were absent from debates across Europe last month. I can't help but think how powerful their stories would be in proving the dangers of border externalization, before it becomes the new approach to managing global migration flows.

Agreements between Australia and its barrier islands have modeled those written between Morocco and Spain, and between the EU and Turkey. It is easy to imagine the influence this trend could soon have on the U.S. relationship with Mexico and Central American nations farther south. Already, the U.S. has invested heavily in Mexico to bolster its migration enforcement to stop Central American asylum-seekers from coming north.

With populism on the rise around the world, and with the number of individuals displaced by conflict, poverty and climate change projected to grow in coming years, the points of agreement reached at the summit last month will be some of the most pressing challenges we meet as a global community. There is no easy solution, but having conducted research on migration, embedded with smuggling rings and lived in migrant camps, since 2007, I know that pushing European border controls and asylum processing centers south will not solve the problem.

Seeking asylum in foreign countries is a basic human right guaranteed under international law to those fleeing the African continent as much as it is those fleeing the Middle East and elsewhere. At the very least, it is our global responsibility to ensure that migration journeys do not trap individuals in destinations as dangerous as, or more than, those they are fleeing.