How Deportation Became the Core of Europe’s Migration Policy

In recent years, the European Union’s member states have built their migration policies around an evermore elaborate system of filtering people and finding ways to expel them. This effort to put up obstacles isn’t just expensive or inefficient, but outright antihuman — subjecting migrants’ lives to the whims of recruiters and opaque bureaucratic processes.

Asylum seekers travel by boat in the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia. (Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images)

“Failed asylum-seekers are devilishly difficult to deport,” the Economist wrote in January 2017, analyzing Malta’s ambition to use its spell in the presidency of the European Union to curb migration by sea. As leaders debated how to sort and process people, Sarjo Cham from Guinea-Bissau just wanted to play football with his Maltese and international friends. “I have money to go [to tournaments abroad] with them. The only thing I don’t have is a travel document,” he said on a discussion panel in December.

Indeed, rejected asylum seekers and bureaucracies find the absence of documents “devilish” for different reasons. For the latter, the treatment of rejected asylum seekers is about demonstrating control — over borders, movements, and even language.

Coming from a country where international drug lords terrorized the population, Sarjo might have been luckier with his asylum case in Sweden. But if he was rejected there, he would have been barred even from playing football, where sports clubs, too, exclude people without an ID number.

Conversely, in 2018 Malta created a residency scheme for rejected asylum seekers who worked and demonstrated “integration efforts” across a number of years — and a similar “lane changing” policy exists in Germany. Some other EU member states like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania offer a formal toleration status, while Greece allows rejected asylum seekers to work only in agriculture, domestic work, and the clothing industry. Some other countries offer temporary residence permits.

Hence, although people with and without a strong asylum case cross the same deserts and board the same ships, their treatment is wildly divergent across the EU. The Returns Directive, adopted in 2008 to ensure basic rights for people with no right to stay in an EU country, only requires countries to provide for their basic survival needs.

In Austria, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and some other states, rejected asylum seekers are not permitted to work. Amid a patchwork of radically different entitlements to health care, education, and social benefits, these individuals are left to rely on informal connections to find housing and a source of income.

What Do We Call Them?

Asylum law is complicated. Go to an NGO roundtable, and you may hear about COI (country of origin information), TCNs (third-country, that is, non-EU nationals), or even NRAS (non-removed rejected asylum seekers). The jargon is difficult to explain to the general public. Repeat “refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection” — two statuses that carry the largest number of rights — a few times in a news article, and it will gobble up the word count. The media thus search for a shorthand and either call them all “refugees” or “migrants.”

As large numbers of people were traversing Europe to claim asylum in 2015, Al Jazeera English explicitly decided that crossing the Mediterranean sea is not an act of free will — as implied in the term “migrant.” To empathize with asylum seekers’ aspirations, liberal German media, too, chose “refugees” (Flüchtlinge) rather than “asylum seekers.”

We see this in a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) article reporting on Angela Merkel’s famous 2015 speech where she proclaimed that Germany “can do it” — that is, handle a spike in asylum claims. The speech became the cornerstone of the so-called open-door policy, though few noted that Merkel never promised favorable decisions for everyone.

According to FAZ, “[measures to manage the influx] range from speeding up the asylum process and ‘repatriation’ of such refugees who cannot support their claim of political persecution to accommodation matters.” So, when asylum authorities made their decisions and Germany did, indeed, start deporting  rejected asylum seekers, there was widespread confusion — and glee in the international anti-immigration camp. See? Even Germany changed its mind!

Except, it hadn’t. In fact, European countries have been beefing up their deportation regimes for decades. Before 2015, every sixth asylum applicant in the EU was from the western Balkans, and most were promptly sent back with little mercy. From slashing benefits to creating prison-like conditions, countries hope that migrants without a convincing asylum claim will rationally decide that it’s not worth it.

The Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway are known for particularly elaborate ways to exclude them from formal society — denying them access to employment, benefits, education, and health care. This is old news. But in 2015, the shared plight of people with and without reasonable hopes for protection made sympathetic media feel there should be one word for them all. The BBC, among others insisted on “migrants.” After all, there are other authorities whose job it is to sort them apart from one another.

The Sorting Machine

As people from different continents moved side by side, authorities rushed to centralize the sorting process. “Hotspots” in Italy and Greece, developed in 2015, prepared people with a strong case to move to other countries using the redistribution mechanism. The 2016 EU-Turkey deal stipulated that persons who crossed Turkey into the EU without a strong case will be sent back, and persons with a strong case will be resettled from Turkey. Thus, Mediterranean countries will deal with the rejects, while recognized refugees will move further North.

Around 2014, the Maltese Islands, located between Libya and Sicily, were relieved of sorting duty. Italy would coordinate all sea rescues in the area and direct rescue ships to Italian islands for further processing. Over 2,000 people arrived in Malta by sea in 2013, but only twenty-four in 2016, so Malta’s asylum infrastructure opened to others.

The country fulfilled its EU relocation quota, bringing in asylum seekers from Greek, Italian, and Turkish camps. Hundreds of Libyans received protection. With the number of new sub-Saharan Africans under control, the government started exploring regularization for those already inside. Malta’s booming economy gave people at all stages of their asylum process a chance at finding a job.

Then ships returned. In 2017, Matteo Salvini of Italy’s far-right Lega took to Facebook to promise “mass expulsions, [reception] center closures, and the navy ships [sending] people back after saving them.” The following year he became the interior minister and started refusing entry to rescue ships. Meanwhile, with Donald Trump at the helm, the US refugee resettlement program, which used to accept hundreds from Malta, dried to a few dozens.

Malta found itself with sorting duties again, and the focus shifted from managing to preventing migration. Knowing that people will have rights once they touch the ground, authorities reportedly hired private fleets to drive them back to Libya and kept them in floating prisons. While recognizing, in scores of asylum decisions, that Libya is unsafe for Libyans, Malta’s authorities believe that Libya is perfectly safe for sub-Saharan Africans.

The prevention and deterrence approach flourished alongside the acknowledgement that the archipelago’s voracious economy needs migrant workers. Former prime minister Joseph Muscat famously said he would rather have migrants than native Maltese work hard under the sun. But most importantly, migrants should not come by themselves. Authorities, recruitment agencies and businesses get to choose.

In a glaring paradox, when a rescue ship docked after weeks at sea last year, one of the first announcements was that forty-four Bangladeshis on board will be immediately deported. Meanwhile, recruitment agencies were busy looking for workers in South Asia, including Bangladesh. In 2018, there were over 200 registered Bangladeshi workers. Having taken the dangerous journey by sea rather than paying an agency, the forty-four fell through the cracks.

“Devilishly” Difficult for Whom?

Centralized EU agencies and member states pay thousands to deport unwanted persons. According to the EU border agency’s statistics, authorities sent away just under 139,000 people (especially Ukrainians, Albanians, and Moroccans) in 2019, out of 298,000 “deportable” people. But there is some hope for them: in its Return Handbook — a deportation management guide for member states — the European Commission advocates reconsidering deportations for survivors of torture, rape, or human trafficking.

Why would these survivors be ineligible for asylum? Because they may have experienced this cruelty not in their country of origin, but along the way. This is common. Without safe and legal pathways to work, strong and healthy individuals are eligible to stay in the EU if they arrive broken. And if the desert and the sea didn’t break them enough, the system might. In Switzerland, researchers found that many rejected asylum seekers felt depressed or suicidal.

This regime, when countries open “revolving doors” and let recruitment agencies charge exorbitant fees instead of allowing migrants already on their territories to work and save money, has many critics. In Spain, over 1,100 organizations have signed a call to do away with sorting and categorizing people, and instead adopt a rights-based approach to make sure everyone is safe as the pandemic rages.

Nonetheless, governments and their supporters feel that deportations must continue out of principle, or in the name of discouraging further arrivals. It is all about being in control to choose. Policymakers promised better and faster deportations when, collaborating with religious communities, Italy opened humanitarian corridors to resettle up to 600 people from Ethiopia, Jordan, and Niger. In 2018, the country resettled 400 from Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, and Turkey.

Humanitarian corridors will help refugees avoid the dangerous sea crossing. Citizens of receiving countries approve of them. But it doesn’t solve the problem for people already on the move, but without a convincing claim.

Exclusion Benefits No One

A Dutch research team found that rejected asylum seekers “preferred the curtailed life chances of unauthorized migrants [rather than] return” to their countries of departure. Instead of deterring those still thinking of it, legal uncertainty takes a toll on people who have already arrived, sickening previously healthy and work-ready persons. The prevention and deportation mechanism drains budgets and people’s health.

NGOs advocate for taking a pragmatic and humanitarian approach. The people have already made the journey, and they are willing to stay. Destitution serves no one, and lack of rights drives people into the informal economy. Employers, too, would rather keep the workers they hire and train.

So as national administrations worry about being seen as fully in control, cities find themselves confronted with this population’s very human needs. Pragmatically aware that homelessness, destitution and mental illness is in no one’s interest, cities like Amsterdam and Vienna successfully extended provision of social services and benefits to rejected asylum seekers even as national governments were striving to restrict them. This way governments can flex their punishing muscles while cities quietly care for this vulnerable population.

Still, neither charity nor patchy local service provision offers a sustainable solution to the constant, dangerous, unpredictable movement of people looking to rebuild their lives. Theoretically, the forty-four Bangladeshis brought to Malta by a rescue ship can still raise money and pay an agency to return as guest-workers. However, for people rejected at sorting centers in Agadez (Niger), there is no agency to apply. Even for the most qualified Africans, there is no visa-free travel to meet prospective employers. And the ones who most desperately need opportunities are not the most qualified.

Discussions on solutions must start from de-stigmatizing work migration. Governments sign agreements to facilitate migration from some countries in the Global South, after all — just not sub-Saharan Africa. Oxford academics Alexander Betts and Paul Collier suggested several paths: opening up to circular migration (“to come, contribute, earn, learn, and return”) and creating private sponsorship schemes like Canada’s. Loren B. Landau, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, and Hannah Postel advocated for labor migration programs, internships, and a credible visa lottery system. Protected from the informal market’s uncertainty, migrants could send more money to their communities and, if their migration project is financial, save enough money quicker.

Still, to build a fair system, policymakers must acknowledge that migration is not merely a rational calculation. A person who sets off on a journey carries their entire community’s hopes — or, on the contrary, may have severed close but exploitative contacts in their home communities. Very often, new communities, such as sports clubs or voluntary associations, welcome them if given a chance to. Then why are only employers, but not these communities, given a right to vouch for someone’s right to stay?

Shaken up by the pandemic, European welfare systems have expanded their catchment. Welfare is expensive, but so is deportation, detention, and discouragement. Listening to people’s needs would be the first step to redesigning a system that is now based on sorting human beings and cataloging rights. For those who only need money, governments and the International Organization for Migration already provide return grants. For those who need safety and freedom, employers and overpriced agencies should not be the only ones to decide their fate.