Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.

Pushing the Frontier: The externalization of the Schengen Border

3 mins read

By Adam Kinnwall

The migrant crisis of 2015 caused many EU countries to re-introduce border controls. This effectively disrupted the Schengen-zone agreement and put a dent in the EU’s pillar of freedom of movement. To resolve this issue the EU initiated the so-called externalization of the Schengen border, which aims to outsource the external border management to third party countries in an attempt to cut the number of migrants reaching Europe. But how does this process work and what exactly is the EU’s external border?

Already in 1985 EU members signed the Schengen agreement and in 2007 the majority of the EU members had abolished border controls between the member states. In order to replace the so-called internal border controls within the Schengen-zone the commission externalized the borders to the outer rims of the Schengen-zone. This external border would act as the de facto border of the Union and the agency Frontex was created to control this newly formed border. However this new externalized border would soon be put to the test.

The migrant flows across the external border from the aftermath of the Arab Spring had already caused Southern European countries to abandon the Dublin regulation which asserts that asylum should be sought in the EU state of arrival. This was a first blow to the border system, but it was the migrant crisis of 2015 that brought the external border system to its knees. As the large flow of migrants made their way by foot through Europe to claim asylum it was apparent that the external border system had failed, and as a result Schengen countries started re-introducing their own border controls. The EU commission decided that something had to be done to keep the Schengen-zone intact and thus decided to externalize its borders further to third party countries.

So what does this externalization process entail? The Schengen-border proved increasingly difficult to monitor and the question on how to deal with the migrants started to cause political friction within the Union. The commission therefore decided to implicitly introduce an extra set of borders in the states surrounding the EU, notably in North Africa. The European Union has agreed to engage in so called “capacity building” which consists of outsourcing the border controls to third party countries, with the aim of stopping the flow of migrants into Europe. Frontex provides training of border officials in the partner states to build migration regimes, supplies them with border monitoring technology and finances so-called detention centres. Not only is Frontex in charge of the EU’s external border, it is also pushing the external border outside EU territory by giving third party countries authorization to detain migrants heading for Europe.

Although the capacity building efforts have had some positive impacts on the bilateral ties between the EU and its neighbouring countries, it has also faced severe critique. One of the most criticized components of the capacity building is the establishment of the detention centres that the EU has funded in third party countries.  They have been the target of fierce criticism due to the lack of transparency and deplorable conditions migrants often find themselves in. Allegations of abuse, rape and maltreatment are common. Harsh criticism has also been directed towards external borders in countries such as Libya, where it is uncertain that fair legal processes of migrants can be assured, due to the state’s political instability. The EU’s migration deal with Turkey has also become a controversy as the country descended into authoritarianism. There is on one hand fears for the rights of asylum seekers in Turkey, and on the other, fears that Turkey will use the migrant deal as leverage against the EU.

It has become apparent that the external border was only as strong as the EU-members internal consensus. The debacle over migration policies and failure to form a coherent European strategy caused the external border to collapse and the externalization is a way to overcome the internal divisions around the issue. But what it does is merely kicking the can down the road by letting third party countries make the decisions about migrants instead of the EU. Further, while the externalization of the borders might give political stability within the Union it does have severe consequences for migrants. Migrants might now find the door locked as they reach Mali, Turkey and Morocco and are thus denied to state their cases bringing into question whether the EU lives up to its commitment to the right of asylum.

While the EU has put a lot of thought and resources on how to externalize their borders it has paid less attention to the more important issue of developing sustainable legal pathways into Europe itself for the migrants. Once again one might argue that state security trumps human security.


By Adam Kinnvall

Image: Mstyslav Chernov

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