Border Militarisation and Its Effects on Irregular Migration

Thore Elberling

SBS320: A Global View on Migration

Word Count: 3597


21,470 irregular migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea between 2014 and 2020, and 7,261 irregular migrants have died while crossing the US-Mexico border between 1998 and 2017. Yet in Europe and the United States, irregular migration is framed as less of a humanitarian crisis endangering the lives of migrants and more as a security threat to the West, and consequently is met through the militarisation of borders. This paper utilises the literature on border militarisation and irregular migration on the southern borders of the US and EU to answer the research question: How does border militarisation affect irregular migration in the US and EU? The paper comes to the conclusion that the “prevention through deterrence” approach to irregular migration actively endangers migrants attempting the journey northward, while also failing to prevent irregular migration. Moreover, research conducted in the US shows that raising the migration costs through border militarisation decreases re-migration and therefore has effectively increased the population of irregular migrants in the US.
              In 2016, a person drowned in the Mediterranean Sea every 90 minutes while trying to reach Europe with the hope of a better life. Between 2014 and 2020, at least 21,470 migrants have died this way (Missing Migrants Project, 2021). Between 1998-2017, 7,261 deaths of people with similar motives were documented along the US-Mexico border (CBP, 2018). Yet, discourse surrounding the “crisis at the border” is less about the death and despair happening at the boundary separating the Global North from the South, and more about “illegal aliens” posing a threat to the security and welfare of Western societies. This “threat” is then answered accordingly with walls, drones and more money for border patrol agencies. Whether this militarisation of borders actually solves the “problem” of irregular migration is unclear.

            Therefore, this paper will analyse border militarisation in the United States and the European Union and will attempt to answer the following research question: How does border militarisation affect irregular migration in the US and EU?

What is Border Militarisation?

            Serrano and Dunn used the term militarisation in 1998 to describe increased border policing, highlighting specifically the “use and normalisation of military rhetoric and ideology, as well as military tactics, strategy, technology, equipment and forces” (Serrano & Dunn, 1998, p. 3). Graham (2010) refines that definition by connecting normalisation of military paradigms with “efforts at the aggressive disciplining of bodies, places and identities deemed not to benefit […] nation, citizenship or body” (Graham, 2010, p. 60), and Kraska (2007) adds the assertion that militarism regards “use of force and threat of violence as the most appropriate and efficacious means to solve problems” (Kraska, 2007, p. 503). This means that border militarisation does not only consist of the presence of military personnel and equipment at the border, or the use of military tactics but includes the militarised and pre-emptive rationales embedded throughout the policing and enforcement of borders (Wilson, 2014).

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).

Border Militarisation Strategies in the US and EU

            As mentioned above, border militarisation is manifested in both the application of military hardware and militarized tactics and ways of thinking. Concerning hardware, the link between the military and CBP in the US is readily apparent. Using “program 1033”, excess equipment worth some $5 billion has been transferred from army stockpiles to civilian law enforcement agencies, including CBP and ICE. This equipment includes body armour, assault rifles and armoured vehicles, now used to police the border. Next to that, CBP specifically recruits veterans into its force, even sending recruiters overseas to recruit soldiers from the battlefield (Jones & Johnson, 2016; Musgrave et al., 2014).

            Just like the US, the EU is also using military hardware, like drones, to surveil its external border. Yet, except for FRONTEX’s Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABITs), military weapons aren’t common among European border guards, while variety exists across the member states’ agencies. Militarisation of borders in the EU is more pronounced in the application of military rationality when enforcing the borders. Three militarised principles employed in border enforcement stand out in both the US and EU: the control of the “enemy’s” mobility, preemptive logic of preventing future problems and techno-solutionism. Techno-solutionism and preemptive logic manifest themselves in what CBP calls “smart fencing”, the deployment of sensors in remote parts of the border, or in Eurosour (European Border Surveillance System), an information exchange platform that aims at integrating the border surveillance all over the EU to create real-time “situational awareness”, a term also borrowed from military jargon (Jones & Johnson, 2016).

            Preemptive military logic also leads both the US and EU to attempt to externalise their border enforcement towards neighbouring countries, Mexico for the US and the North Africa and Turkey in the EU’s case (Jones and Johnson, 2016; Slack et al., 2016). These policies reward countries through which migrants pass to their final destination in the EU or US if they forcefully prevent irregular migrants from continuing their journey. In doing this, the EU doesn’t refrain from partnering with militias in Libya, that next to being the country’s “coast guard”, are also involved in torturing and enslaving migrants in Libya as well as smuggling of goods towards the EU (Pradella & Cillo, 2020).

            Lastly, both the EU and US attempt to control irregular migrants’ mobility by various means. One manifestation of this is the mortification of previously well-frequented crossing sides, like the border fence between Tijuana and San Diego or around the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, more or less deliberately drive migrants into more hostile terrain in order to “deter” their crossing (Pinyol-Jiménez, 2012; Slack et al., 2016). Another practice of controlling mobility is the kidnapping and forced relocation of migrants. Tazzioli and de Genoba (2020) use the term kidnapping to describe the “family separation” policy employed by the Trump administration in 2018, as well as the “closed ports” policy used by the EU to trap shipwrecked migrants and their civilian saviours at sea. Kidnapping in this context is used to regain control over the migrants' mobility for multiple reasons: as a punitive tactic for “deterrence”, as physical constriction and forced relocation of migrants bodies and lives or for intra-state political as well as inter-state diplomatic leverage (Tazzioli & De Genova, 2020).