22nd Mar 2023


The secrecy behind the EU's plans to 'externalise' migration

  • While plans to 'externalise' border controls to Niger, Senegal, Morocco and the Balkans are pushed ahead, parliamentarians and civil society remain largely in the dark about their scale and scope (Photo:
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For at least three decades, the EU and its member states have engaged in a process of "externalisation" — a policy agenda which seeks to prevent migrants and refugees setting foot on EU territory by outsourcing border controls to non-EU states.

The results have often been disastrous for people seeking safety or a new life, who are frequently subjected to mistreatment and abuse by police and border forces.

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Nevertheless, with the Pact on Migration and Asylum the European Commission sought to accelerate the trend, proposing a raft of measures to step up cooperation with non-EU states on migration, asylum and borders — and while negotiations on the laws that make up the pact are largely stalled, the externalisation agenda continues unabated.

It includes plans to deploy Frontex missions in countries such as Senegal, Niger and Morocco; financial and technical support for states in the Balkans to carry out deportations; the funding of "information campaigns" to discourage migration; and intensified police cooperation with a whole range of countries not known for their respect for human rights.

Cloak of secrecy

Yet while these plans are pushed ahead, parliamentarians and civil society remain largely in the dark about their scale and scope.

The externalisation agenda is propelled through diplomatic and political contacts, cooperation between states' executives and operational agencies, and technical and administrative procedures that are not subject to traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny.

Obtaining detailed information is an uphill struggle, as we found last year when we filed almost two-dozen access to documents and freedom of information requests to EU institutions and the authorities in Bosnia, Morocco and Niger — key target states for the externalisation agenda.

Denials of access — when we received any response at all — were common, with authorities frequently citing the need to protect public security and international relations. Nevertheless, as detailed in a new report, we were able to shed some light on the development of the externalisation agenda.

Diplomacy, deportations and dialogue

First, it is evident that the EU is putting substantial diplomatic and political effort into its externalisation plans: Niger, for example, received visits in 2022 from Ursula von der Leyen, Ylva Johannson, Jutta Urpilainen and the deputy director-general of DG HOME, Johannes Luchner.

Documents released provide scant information on what was said at their meetings, and they make no mention of the fact that last year the Nigerien government imposed an internet shutdown and passed a decree that the International Federation of Human Rights says "provides for total control of NGOs' actions by the Nigerien authorities."

The EU achieved its aims, however: in July the EU Commission announced the "first ever anti-smuggling operational partnership with a third country."

The Balkans is also seen as a key buffer zone for halting unwanted migration to the EU, and last February a "ministerial return conference" was held with the aim of finding ways for the EU and its member states to help Balkan states carry out more deportations.

The conference resulted in a joint ministerial declaration — in itself, nothing out of the ordinary. What is more unusual is that the declaration was never published, and is now only available to the public as a result of our access to documents requests.

Frontex also plays a prominent role in the externalisation agenda, and our requests revealed that in June 2019 the agency and the Moroccan interior ministry established a "Frontex-Morocco mixed committee," aiming to foster "a trusted and transparent partnership."

Trusted? Maybe. Transparent? Absolutely not.

There has never been any mention of the mixed committee in any public Frontex report, and the documents about it that we received from the agency have not been added to its public register — despite a previous commitment to publish all documents released in response to access requests.

Given that at least two dozen people died at the Spanish-Moroccan border last June after mistreatment and violence by border forces, who then failed to provide medical assistance, the least that might be hoped for is a trickle of transparency over Frontex's cooperation with the kingdom.

Public relations?

That the EU has a problem with secrecy will come as a surprise to no one — the question remains what to do about it.

With the Commission and Council pushing the externalisation agenda forward as far and as fast as they can, MEPs and civil society organisations need to expand their efforts to counter its negative results.

As the Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik remarked recently, "cooperation with non-EU countries can be part of a healthy and functioning asylum and migration system. However, this will only function if we engage in truly equal partnerships with human rights at their core."

A fundamental prerequisite for that is ending the secrecy that reigns over much of the externalisation agenda. Without transparency and democratic scrutiny, there is nothing left but state PR.

Author bio

Chris Jones is executive director of Statewatch, an NGO monitoring the state and civil liberties in Europe, and specialises in issues relating to policing, migration, privacy and data protection and security technologies.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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