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Border Controls under Challenge: A New Chapter Opens

Border Controls under Challenge: A New Chapter Opens

Cover Top10 3Borders UNHCR

Migrants rescued at sea in the Mediterranean rest in the ship's cargo space. (Photo: UNHCR/A. D'Amato)

As governments in Europe and North America remain vigilant about border security, and even take steps to further strengthen certain aspects of enforcement, they are finding their systems and policies tested by a development that gained strength in 2014: Increasingly creative entry strategies.

Some migrants headed for the United States or Europe, apparently confident in the knowledge that they will not be immediately returned if encountered by enforcement officials, now act in a seemingly counterintuitive way, presenting themselves to authorities for processing rather than trying to evade border controls. Many of these migrants can stay for extended (sometimes permanent) periods once they reach their destination, regardless of the legitimacy of their claim, because of legal and political complications that states face when attempting to repatriate those judged not to meet national or international standards designed to protect vulnerable populations.

Highly Adaptive Flows

The mixed flows of would-be entrants arriving without authorization—which include asylum seekers as well as economic and family-stream migrants—are highly adaptive (or responsive) to perceived changes in policy or new opportunities at destination.

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A high-profile example of this trend occurred in late spring and summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and parents with young children from Central America reached the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly 52,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras crossed the U.S.-Mexico border during fiscal year (FY) 2014, presenting themselves to authorities for processing in the expectation—based on the experiences of earlier entrants—that they would be placed with family members already in the United States until their immigration court hearings, typically years later. (For more on migration flows at the U.S.-Mexico border, see Issue #5: New Era in Immigration Enforcement at the U.S. Southwest Border.)

In Europe, the ever-growing flows of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in 2014—with frequently tragic results—also provided examples of people adapting their entry strategies in response to a shift in the policy environment that emphasizes rescue over enforcement. In response to this shift, smugglers and their cargo now actively seek out European coast guard or navy vessels—drawing attention to their boats or even intentionally disabling them, so that passengers can be taken to shore and processed. With the advent of Italy’s now-ended Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation, which intercepted an estimated 150,000 migrants since October 2013, many smugglers began sending boats full of migrants without facilitators, and little fuel, food, or water as “they would be rescued by Italian authorities after two days at sea anyway,” according to interviews of migrants conducted by Frontex, the European Union’s border agency.

Similarly, Australia has faced a significant number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in recent years, leading the government to implement a deterrence policy of offshore refugee processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. As the number of boats reaching Australian waters dwindled in 2014, the number of asylum seekers and refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia rose to nearly 11,000 as of the end of November 2014. Seeking to pre-empt changing migrant strategies, including efforts by some to travel to Indonesia and apply there for refugee admission to Australia, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that refugees who applied for resettlement after July 1, 2014 through UNHCR Indonesia would not be accepted in Australia; the country also reduced the overall number of resettlement places from Indonesia. The government’s rationale for this policy, and the reintroduction of temporary protection visas for asylum seekers (which replace permanent refugee status) in a new migration law adopted in early December, is to deter unauthorized arrivals and drive all migration to approved channels.

Increasingly Perilous Conditions

Beyond deliberate strategies to adapt to changing enforcement and policy realities, migrants fleeing desperate conditions have been forced into increasingly dangerous routes in order to reach Europe or the U.S. border. The burgeoning demand for humanitarian protection, with crises in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, a constellation of unstable states in sub-Saharan Africa, and in Central America, have outpaced the ability and political willingness of neighbors in the region and the broader international community to offer meaningful protection to all, let alone resettlement opportunities, pushing many to embark on precarious voyages to safer destinations. (For more on rising humanitarian protection needs, see Issue #1: World Confronts Largest Humanitarian Crisis since World War II.) With global estimates of more than 4,000 migrant deaths in 2014, the Mediterranean has proven the world’s deadliest crossing this year. More than 3,000 migrants drowned attempting to reach Europe, up from an estimated 700 in 2013, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Similarly, many of the Central American children and families heading to the United States also face difficult and dangerous journeys—with widespread reports of extortion, gang violence, sexual assault, and even serious injury or death at the hands of traffickers, or, until recently, aboard the freight trains atop which many travel through Mexico on their journey to the United States.

Treatment at Arrival

Once they reach the U.S. border, unaccompanied child migrants and parents traveling with young children capitalize on U.S. policies and processing backlogs that often allow them to stay in the United States for several years, as well as the limits of political will to enforce the removal of such vulnerable populations. Many ultimately receive, if not refugee status, various forms of subsidiary protections.  

Nor are some less sympathetic populations likely to be removed either in the U.S. or European contexts. Some abscond during the adjudication process, others lack the necessary identity documents for processing their claim and/or return, while yet others are protected by requirements for states not to deport them to countries that lack a readmission agreement, are deemed unsafe, or will not accept their return.

The Policy Response

With European countries’ protection systems already under strain and policymakers increasingly sensitive to public concerns over rising asylum claims, border control policies and operations in the Mediterranean came under increasing scrutiny and adjustment in 2014. The U.S. government, facing a sharp public outcry over the spike in arrivals of unaccompanied minors from Central America over the late spring and summer and questions over its control of the U.S.-Mexico border, also responded with a range of measures.

The European Response

Italy, which implemented Mare Nostrum in international waters following the drowning of more than 360 migrants off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, repeatedly called for the European Union to supplement or replace the operation, which Italy claimed cost more than 9 million euros a month. Frontex launched Operation Triton, a maritime mission focused on Italian coastal waters, to replace Mare Nostrum in November 2014, but has found little support from Member States, with only seven ships, two planes, one helicopter, and personnel from the Netherlands, Finland, and Portugal; the United Kingdom has refused to participate, arguing the rescue mission encourages more people to attempt the dangerous crossing—a viewpoint shared by several other EU Member States. While Operation Triton represents a more limited response than Mare Nostrum, it is nonetheless a step forward in terms of the collective European response to Mediterranean migration over the past several decades.

Europe may be reaching an inflexion point on this issue, with the growing realization by governments that crisis-propelled flows are not going to disappear overnight, and that the policy response will need to be rethought. The undertaking, already complex in a union of 28 Member States with different policy contexts and realities, will be made all the more difficult at a time when there are strong voices calling for less immigration and publics are skeptical about the ability to integrate immigrants effectively.

The U.S. Response

In North and Central America, responses by the U.S., Mexican, and Central American governments resulted in a dramatic decline of flows of unaccompanied minors and parents with young children—from a peak of 26,951 apprehended in June 2014, to 6,788 in October. In the United States, the government established fast-track immigration court hearings, increased detention of family units, and worked with Central American governments to launch public awareness campaigns warning of the dangers of the journey and making clear that migrants would not be given “permisos” to remain permanently in the United States. The United States also announced in September that it would establish in-country refugee processing centers in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, allowing for certain lawfully present parents in the United States to request refugee resettlement in the United States for children still resident in one of the three countries.

Mexico also stepped up its immigration enforcement, both along its southern border and in the interior. As part of that strategy, Mexico had deported nearly 107,200 Central Americans during the year, as of December 8—a 47 percent increase over 2013, according to Guatemala’s General Directorate for Migration. (For more on Mexico’s role, see Issue #8: Changing Landscape Prompts Mexico’s Emergence as a Migration Manager.)

The Future Ahead

The push and pull factors propelling mixed migration flows to North America, Europe, and Australia will not abate. What is less clear is whether additional policy initiatives that incorporate but go beyond what is already in the receiving countries’ toolboxes—among them rescue and protection mechanisms, greater regional cooperation, and greater use of detention and deportation policies in  Europe—will dissuade would-be migrants. Regardless, prioritizing the timely adjudication of migrants’ cases by granting asylum to those with legitimate humanitarian protection claims and removing those who do not qualify for asylum or visas and can be sent home would lessen some of the pull factors and bring much-needed transparency and policy coherence to the responses to the massive humanitarian—cum—immigration control crisis of today.


MPI Research




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