How Did Militarisation in the EU and US Come About?

           The origins of border militarisation in the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (US) can be traced back to a shift in the discursive framing of migration and security beginning in the 1980s but heavily accelerated after the events of September 11th, 2001. In the post-war realism era of international relations theory from 1945 to the 1970s, security was perceived as an inter-state problem and nation-state relations were the topic of concern for both security studies and public discourse about security (Castles et al., 2014). Migration from the Global South, at that time, was mainly perceived as a means to address labour shortages in the Global North and wasn’t associated with some kind of security threat or threat to western culture (Castles et al., 2014). This changed at the end of the 1970s with the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the general rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East against western-backed dictators. Coinciding also with the decline of the Soviet Union as the main perceived antagonist to the western way of life, an increased degree of threat began to be associated with migrants, especially those originating from the middle east (Castles et al., 2014). This gradual change in the perception of migrants was accelerated greatly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing “war on terror”. Far from being a source of labour for the West’s industries, specifically the Islamic world and the global south, more generally, were now seen as the number one threat to western societies, and migrants coming from these countries were under general suspicion of terrorism (Castles et al., 2014; Pinyol-Jiménez, 2012).

            The end of large-scale inter-state conflicts that came with the end of the Cold War also led to a reorientation of the concept of security: away from the defence of nation-states towards the concept of human security. This approach to security integrates a rather inclusive and holistic conception of the protection of individuals into the traditional political-military conception of security. This “new” concept of security, as defined by the UN, includes economics, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security (UNDP, 1994). Migration, which wasn’t considered a major security threat under the older conception, now “endangers” societies in a multitude of ways (Weiner, 1992). Ceyhan and Tsoukala (2002) distinguish four axes that tend to be included when migration is considered in security terms. A socioeconomic axis, concerning rising unemployment, welfare state crisis and urban environmental deterioration; a securitarian axis, concerning the “loss of control” narrative that associates sovereignty, borders and both internal and external security; an identitarian axis, where migrants are associated with a threat to a host countries national identity; and a political axis, as migration often fuels anti-immigrant, racist and xenophobic discourses (Ceyhan & Tsoukala, 2002, p. 24). This all culminates in the concept of the migration-security nexus, which signifies the close connectedness between migration and security in present public discourse (Estevens, 2018). This redefinition of security also changed the perception of borders. From largely defensive lines in inter-state military tensions to sites of policing and control of flows of goods and people, and more recently to sites of militarised surveillance (Jones & Johnson, 2016).

            This shift in the perception of migration-security, which happened roughly simultaneously in the US and EU, was both driven and exploited by various actors for personal economic or political gain, and consequently led to the militarisation of the US and EU southern borders (Akkerman, 2017; Massey et al., 2016). In the US, politicians, bureaucrats, pundits and the security and weapons industry form what Miller (2019) calls a border-industrial-complex, that drives both public debate and policy on issues relating to migration and border security. This led to a >6,000% budget increase for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 1980. Strikingly CPB’s commissioner once proclaimed a “silent invasion” of America by “illegal aliens”, despite the facte that the actual inflow of undocumented migrants remained stable after the late 1970s and since 2010 is decreasing (Massey, 2020; Massey et al., 2016; Miller, 2019). Yet politicians were able to spin the increase in apprehensions at the border, caused by the higher number of agents present, as a continuously accelerating “border crisis” and used it to increase funding for border enforcement (Massey et al., 2016). The biggest private profiteers of increased spending on border enforcement were the same arms manufacturers that saw their market decline with the end of the Cold War, who are incidentally also the biggest donors for politicians responsible for allocating security funding (Miller, 2019; Wilson, 2014). In the EU, due to its decentralised nature, lobbying efforts by the security industry are more obscure, yet industry interests are strikingly well represented in advisory committees for the allocation of research and development (R&D) funds, like “the Group of Personalities”. This led to more than 350 million euro, or 23% of total R&D subsidies, being spent on security research in the EU between 2002 and 2016 (Akkerman, 2018). Next to that, the budget for FRONTEX, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, has nearly tripled since 2010 to over 300 million annually, while at the same time a lack of oversight and problematic track-record concerning migrants’ human rights have resulted in plenty of critique from the UNHCR and NGOs like Seawatch and the European Council for refugees and exiles (Akkerman, 2016; European Council on Refugees and Exiles, 2020; EU Parliament, 2019; Tammikko, 2019).
Some authors also regard the border militarisation efforts by the West as a symptom of what Gramsci (2021) calls a “crisis of hegemony” of the neoliberal capitalist state in a post-Cold War, globalised world. Pinyol-Jiménez (2012) argues that after the demise of the communist adversary, the West was left without an adversary to identify against and in whose opposition, security could be assessed. After 9/11 this role of the antagonist was taken up by the “Third World terrorist”, whose threat served to unite western societies. This signification also involved laying an adverse linkage between international migration and international terrorism, both involving racialised others, that ultimately led to border militarisation as a defence against the black/brown “migrant-terrorist” (Pinyol-Jiménez, 2012). Moreover, Brown (2017) and Jones and Jonson (2016) maintain that the increased focus on borders are the reactions of nation-states to their declining status in a globalised world and that fortification of borders serves as a “re-articulation of sovereign power” (Jones & Johnson, 2016, p. 188).