Who is cashing in on keeping migrants out?

Ruben Andersson unpicks a murky border control industry that generates its own demand.

Driving towards Mexico through Arizona, watchtowers rise out of the dry soil like tall cacti. The highway is adorned with clutches of cameras and blocked by a vast Border Patrol checkpoint. Down at the border itself, a tall fence of rust-brown steel drives a wedge between ambos Nogales – ‘both Nogales’, as the interlinked US and Mexican towns are known. In the hinterland, drones buzz over the rattlesnake-infested ground, which is dotted by sensors whose antennae sprout like desert weed.

‘You have to watch where you step,’ says one middle-aged Central American man at a shelter in Nogales, Mexico, as he mimics a mine-clearing movement. The other migrants around us murmur and nod. Some of them are new to the route, some veterans, others deportees bent on returning home to the US. All are caught up in the ‘cat-and-mouse game’ of the border, where they are chased like prey while also playing another, complementary role: as guinea pigs in a state-of-the-art border control laboratory.

Across the industrialized world, public debate on migration is focused on numbers and the drama of recurrent border ‘crises’: massed arrivals and crowded camps; the saved, the drowned, the deported. How many people can we accept? How can we make them stay away? Republican presidential candidates such as Donald Trump assure voters the solution is to ‘secure the border’. In Australia and Israel, militarized borders have also proved to be a vote-winner and a growth sector. The same goes for Europe, where bickering politicians only seem able to agree on one thing – beefed-up borders. As the European Council president, Donald Tusk, said last November, the means of saving the Schengen system of passport-less travel within the European Union (EU) was to ‘first and foremost, restore external border control’.

However, what politicians like Trump and Tusk fail to mention is that border security has been booming for many years already, generating a large public-private industry. The US spends some $12 billion a year on customs and border protection, including massive increases in Border Patrol agents and new technology; Europe for its part has largely mimicked the US, seeking to ‘seal’ borders since the early days of Schengen in the 1990s.

I surveyed the tragic, and sometimes absurd, results of the EU’s security response to unwanted migration in my book Illegality, Inc. At the six-metre-tall fences that encircle Spain’s small North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, border guards proudly showed me the advanced machinery installed to halt undocumented migrants, yet admitted the barriers were rather ‘useless’. After all, undocumented Africans kept clambering across the barbed-wired barriers – or else diverted towards more dangerous sea routes.

In West Africa, I followed local police on the patrols they carry out on Europe’s behalf, hearing about their frustrated attempts – despite the new gadgetry at their disposal – to monitor thousands of kilometres of desert sands and coastlines.

In such sites, I came to see how Europe’s security approach to ‘halting migration’ is failing spectacularly. Like the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘fight against illegal migration’ is what economists would call a ‘supply-centric’ effort. As a punitive attempt to cut off supply ‘upstream’, it fails to address demand – for safety and work, among refugees and migrants, or for labour, at destination countries. And it has brought immense ‘negative externalities’ – misery and chaos – without actually succeeding in its purported task of stopping migration.

Balloon effect

As in the drug wars, migrant routes shift in response to crackdowns and fences, generating displacement effects not just within regions, but increasingly on a global scale, too. Evidence suggests that West Africans have moved on from Spain to Italy and Syrians from Italy to Greece; that Australia’s ‘no boats’ policy may have contributed to the ‘boat people’ dramas on the Andaman Sea; and that Eritreans have turned away from Israel and Afghans from Australia to head instead towards Europe.1,2

Europe’s security approach to ‘halting migration’ is failing spectacularly

Each shift forces migrants to take bigger risks along more dangerous routes, meaning more recourse to smugglers – but also more demand for border security. As refugees change direction, Balkan states build new barriers to keep them out; and when people keep drowning in the Mediterranean, politicians launch a military operation targeting smugglers’ boats, or push Turkey to boost patrols. In this way, the failure of controls has perversely fed a market for ever more controls.

‘Migration is something that will never stop,’ one frustrated Spanish Civil Guard told me, even as he showed me the latest surveillance systems rolled out for his coastlines. His assessment rang all too true from the Europe of 2015. Despite huge sums spent on border security, arrivals surpassed 1 million in 2015 and some 3,500 people died trying.

The winners

But while the ‘fight against illegal migration’ may be failing, it is proving a great success for those groups that stand to gain. These groups – which jointly make up what I call an ‘illegality industry’ – include the defence contractors providing the hardware; private-security companies that increasingly handle deportation and detention; border guards and military forces with bolstered status and resources; even the ‘non-profit’ sector which, along with international organizations, often collaborates with the security response; and neighbouring ‘partner’ countries, some of whom have turned the West’s anxieties about the threat of migration into a bargaining chip, as seen in Morocco, Libya and Turkey.

Western governments can also extract political capital by appearing to ‘do something’ about the big, amorphous phenomenon of migration without damaging their economies, which depend on it. They achieve this, in part, by focusing controls on those people arriving by land and sea, and not on the air routes by which most irregular migrants in fact arrive (namely those who overstay their visas).

If these are the winners, the losers include almost everyone else: taxpayers footing the bill and the rational policymakers who find their arguments marginalized; the border communities hit by needless chaos and the rescuers who pick up the pieces after desperate crossings; and of course, people on the move, who suffer or perish in larger numbers, as seen from the Mediterranean to Arizona.

The ‘illegality industry’ not only benefits from an obsession with border security, it also generates its own demand. This is actively fed by its paymasters, the politicians. For those on the hunt for votes, the border is an almost endless ‘natural resource’ around which fears of foreign dangers – migrants, terrorists, diseases – can be easily mobilized.

Demand goes global

The most extreme result can be seen in Arizona, where controls keep expanding despite net Mexican migration now being in negative territory. Demand has also gone global, as states such as Saudi Arabia adopt Western ‘innovations’ in border security. While Arizona is a principal shop window for this market, European states are also trying to muscle in, bolstering their defence businesses through targeted research and development funds.

The vicious cycle at the border means we need an urgent rethink. A rational effort to deal with migration via policy tools other than security is required. Politicians need to open up debate over legal pathways, labour market reform, and the ways we intervene abroad. We must listen to those on the frontlines – the migrants and refugees, volunteers and border workers who deal with the consequences of the security approach. Migration politics need to de-escalate, giving way to a sane debate on the limitations of border security – based on evidence.

Besides these long-term goals, we also need more transparency, audits and parliamentary assessments of the murky world of taxpayer-funded investments in border security. The time has come to call the illegality industry’s bluff: ‘Border security’ brings more insecurity, not greater safety. And it does so at a great human and financial cost that has so far escaped serious political scrutiny.

Ruben Andersson is an anthropologist and author of Illegality Inc.

  1. 1 IRIN news nin.tl/GlobalBorderControls

  2. 2 Region Mixed Migration Secretariat nin.tl/GlobalRoutes