Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Media Deterrence Campaigns: Border Externalisation and Neoliberal Belonging

This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms. The full article, on which this piece is based is free to access.


Eleanor Paynter
Sara Riva


Time to read

4 Minutes

Eleanor Paynter is a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate in Italian Studies and with the Cogut Institute at Brown University. Her research focuses on asylum, testimony, racial justice, and colonial memory in Mediterranean migrations.

Sara Riva is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow. Her research focuses on border abolition, feminism, and the intersection of humanitarianism, neoliberalism, and migration management.


In 2022, the UK spent more than £90,000 on social media campaigns aimed at deterring migrants from attempting to cross the Channel. Social media posts targeted people in Northern France with messages emphasising that they might drown if they attempted to cross to the UK, and that smugglers are not to be trusted. That same year, the number of people crossing the Channel reached a record high. Did media deterrence campaigns have any effect on border crossings?

Photo of a closed off fence
Image credit: Travis Saylor

This, we argue, is itself a problematic question. Measuring the “success” of these campaigns is a complex task, especially given the actual complexity of migrants’ individual and collective decision-making and strategizing about leaving home. Moreover, to attempt to assess that “success” risks legitimising such campaigns and their exclusionary impulse. Regardless of campaigns’ potential “success” and the challenges of measuring whether they work, media deterrence campaigns participate in what can be described as the “spectacle” of externalisation.

While ostensibly directed at would-be migrants, these campaigns operate rhetorically to bolster pervasive stereotypes about migrants and migration for destination country publics. In particular, they reify neoliberal notions of the moral, responsible citizen, and the criminal or bound-to-falter migrant. For instance, in Australian campaigns that portray the risks of sea crossing like a casino game, and in the UK campaigns mentioned above, precarious migration appears not in relation to a person’s need for protection or their right to seek asylum, but instead as illegalized movements that threaten global North populations. Deterrence campaigns like these signal that the government is doing its best to “protect” citizens from the “threat” of migration.

In an article recently published in Geopolitics, we elaborate these ideas, arguing that media deterrence campaigns are critical performative strategies of neoliberal ideologies and their depoliticisation of migration. Building on scholarship that has focused on these effects largely through single cases, and engaging feminist media studies, narrative studies, and critical border studies, we emphasise media deterrence campaigns as a strategy used throughout the global North (though not only) in ways that further border externalisation as a neoliberal project that also perpetuates gendered, racialised stereotypes about those (potentially) crossing borders. We analyse three cases in which global North nations target would-be migrants in the global South with multimedia messaging to persuade them not to move North, but to stay home and become responsible, productive citizens in their countries of origin: The Aware Migrants campaign, implemented in the beginning of 2016 by the Italian Ministry of the Interior in collaboration with IOM and directed at African migrants, uses videos featuring migrants who testify about the dangers of the journey and advise potential migrants to stay put. We also discuss two US-funded campaigns directed at migrants in Mexico and Central America: Say No to the Coyote, launched in 2022; and Dangers, from 2014. These campaigns use fictionalised narratives of migrants dying en route or encountering Border Patrol to underscore that any attempt to travel North is not only dangerous but a criminal offence.

Deterrence campaign poster from UK Government saying 'don't risk your life coming to the UK' showing people drowning at sea
Image credit:  The Independent 

Deterrence campaigns insist on contradictory logics. In particular, media embrace the paradoxical notion that migrants are responsible for making the right choice, while also possessing no agency. In individual testimonies for the Aware Migrants campaign, migrants describe how they were victimised while travelling to Europe, as if their departures from home were due to errors in judgement, or a lack of understanding about risks. In addition, in the music video “bul sank sa bakane bi: [don’t risk your life]”,  Senegalese singer Fatou Guéwel warns people about the dangers of the journey, and urges them to “Stay in Africa!”, offering a vague promise of a brighter future: “[if you stay] one day everything can change”. Exactly how that change might happen is not clear. These depoliticising campaigns put the focus—and responsibility—on individuals, without regard for the root causes of displacement (violence, insecurity, economic instability, job precarity, climate change, neoliberal projects that displace populations, and so on) or the fact that multiple factors and relationships may shape a person’s decision to leave home. The Say No to the Coyote and the Dangers campaigns use flyers and short videos, respectively, to convey that crossing the border is not only dangerous, but that those who engage in it will be prosecuted. In this sense, migrants are understood to have agency only if they make the “right” choice: if they stay put. 

Media deterrence campaigns do not just stay in the realm of the symbolic, but have material consequences. The construction and dissemination of these ideas—foreigners as dangerous—reflects and shapes the public recognition and treatment of migrants. By centring the “problem” on the individual (the migrant) rather than the system (borders), these campaigns depoliticise migration and reinforce the idea that borders protect the citizenry. Rather than test whether deterrence campaigns affect border crossing attempts, we should be asking questions such as: how do migrants learn about their rights while on the move? What aid can they access, and how? And how can we—as researchers, and as citizens in the global North—help shift the discourse away from homogenising portrayals of migration, and towards a recognition of more complex, more complete stories?

Questions like these might help shape recognition that deterrence campaigns not only externalise borders, but also rewrite ideas of what citizenship and belonging entail. Rather than point to the need to mediate structural issues, persecution, or violence, they instead pin responsibility for border and migration issues on individuals, while at the same time disregarding the rights, needs, and hopes of people on the move.



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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

E. Paynter and S. Riva. (2023) Media Deterrence Campaigns: Border Externalisation and Neoliberal Belonging. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/11/media-deterrence-campaigns-border-externalisation-and. Accessed on: 17/04/2024




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