Letting Die and Performing Morality: The Case of European Migration Policies



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Guest post by Shoshana Fine. Shoshana is a postdoctoral researcher, CERI Sciences Po/University of Liège/ German Institute for Global and Area Studies. This is the second post of Border Criminologies themed series on 'Deaths at Borders' organised by Marta Esperti and Antoine Pécoud. The series draws upon a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, coordinated by Marta and Antoine.

Although the absolute number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has fallen since 2015, there has been an increase of the rate of migrants’ deaths, from one in every 51 migrant arrivals to the EU in 2017 to one in 28 in the first nine months of 2019, according to the International Organization of Migration. At the same time, the EU’s border management agency, Frontex, has grown exponentially: from a budget of 20 million in 2006 to 137 million euros in 2015 to 322 million euros in 2020. How can we understand this annual loss in human life at the European border in a context in which the EU is investing more in border surveillance?

For EU policy makers it seems that the key to reducing migrant deaths is to eradicate smuggling and enforce the law. States demarcate what can be treated as legal and humanitarian spaces. As such, they create the conditions for humanitarian organisations to act, but they also determine the limits of what is considered humanitarian. Smugglers are a case in point; some are not seen as possible humanitarian actors supporting men, women and children fleeing warzones and hardship; rather they are all portrayed as criminals infringing on the sovereign claims of European states and exposing migrants to their possible death for their financial gain. In this context, unscrupulous, illegal smugglers and the NGOs that are charged with colluding with them are held accountable for migrant deaths. The prevalence of a ‘pull factor’ narrative among state agencies, which connect NGO rescue operations with illegal crossings, has led to the criminalisation of NGOs as smugglers, despite the fact that there is no evidence of a causal link between NGO presence in the Mediterranean and migrant departures for Europe. For instance, comparative figures on migrant departures from Libya show that, by June 2019, around 85 people tried to cross the Mediterranean every day but, with NGOs present, that number was decreased to around 76.

If the rise of the relative death rate is not related to smuggling activities and the ‘pull factor’, what are the alternative explanations? Perhaps worth exploring is the European politics of ‘laissez faire’ and then ‘externalisation’. The humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean initially led to engagement, particularly from the Italian government, through its search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum. Yet Italian and European rescue operations over the last five years have been dismantled. The end of the Mare Nostrum mission in 2014 left a gap in national search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. To fill the gap, Frontex launched Operation Triton in November 2014. Yet Triton ships only ranged around 30 nautical miles off the coast of Lampedusa, leaving a zone that extended 40 nautical miles off the coast of Libya unpatrolled. Moreover, these ships did not actively patrol but responded to calls. Migrant deaths increased dramatically during this period; between January-April 2014, there were 26,644 crossings and 60 documented drownings. In the same period the following year, the number of crossings moderately decreased – to 26,228 – but the number of deaths skyrocketed to almost 1,700. Most recently sea vessels have been replaced with drones. For instance, these surveillance drones are monitoring Libya waters, where the EU has not carried out rescues since August 2018. This enables EU states to evade their legal commitment to saving lives at sea; the legal obligation to help someone in distress does not apply to an unmanned aerial vehicle.

As part of its externalisation approach, parallel to a growing reliance on technology, the European Commission and member states increasingly strive to delegate search and rescue to ‘third countries’, through funding, training, and the provision of equipment to ‘partners’ in Libya, Turkey and Morocco. Notably, the Libyan Search and Rescue Region and the Libyan Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre were set up with financial support from the EU Trust Fund for Africa. Encouraged by the EU, the Libyan authorities dramatically extended their SAR zone and assumed responsibility for coordinating operations in that area, forbidding NGO rescue vessels from entering it. The EU’s delegation of control and rescue activities to Libya directly contributed to the increased rate of migrants deaths, up to one in every three crossings from Libya in the first four months of 2019.

Thus, it seems that migrant deaths are also connected to how migration policies are carried out. In the case of migration in the Mediterranean this is not necessarily an intended strategy but it is an effect of migration policies. European externalisation policy does not only physically contain migrants away from European borders but even more so distances them from our cognitive and emotional map. In his analysis of bureaucratic rationality, Zygmunt Bauman draws attention to two processes which may help us to understand this possibility: 1) Mediating policies through a chain of disassociated actors and the imperative of a cost benefit rationale; 2) Making the victims physically invisible – governing migration and borders at greater distances from European territories. The former relates to how each link in a long chain of events allows the persons on one end to distance themselves from the final outcome. For Bauman, in a rationalized organization, each person gives an order and takes an order, thus someone else carries out your command, and what you do is a result of someone else's decision. The delegation of competencies at the heart of Europe’s externalisation approach removes responsibility of European states from migrant deaths. For instance, it is held that it is Libya’s coast guards who mistreat, leave to die or kill migrants, while EU authorities provide intelligence, financial and material support to the Libyans in the name of saving them. The second process, making the victims invisible, refers to the physical process of making people hard to see as people. Externalisation ensures that governing practices operate at greater distances from European territories and increasingly in ‘transit’ and ‘sending’ countries. Migrant deaths in the Sahara Desert are much less visible for Europeans than they are in the Mediterranean.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fine, S. (2020). Letting Die and Performing Morality: The Case of European Migration Policies. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/10/letting-die-and [date]

Found within

Border deaths
Border control
Human smuggling
Immigration policy


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