The foreign policy of the European Union and the reification of foreigners: how to reinsert humanist rhetoric as the basis of European migration policy?

This interview was made before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia on 24 February 2022. 


Following a succession of events which have shown that the handling of migratory movements by the European Union is a humanitarian disaster, as it shows disrespect for human rights and its founding values, which are dignity and solidarity, we recall that the redefinition of the migration policy of the European Union is today a key issue. It faces quite a number of dysfunctions and obstacles. We observe especially a diplomatic instrumentalisation of migrants by third countries such as Morocco, Belarus or Turkey. We see that there is a confinement of migrants in camps, such as in Lesbos and on the island of Samos, in unsanitary conditions. The abandonment of migrants, as we have seen in recent months with the tragic events in the English Channel and the abandonment of 27 migrants on their boat by France and the United Kingdom, is increasing. Furthermore, we note the flagrant inability of the European Union to manage its borders, as evidenced by the attempt of 1500 migrants to cross the Melilla fence, separating Spain and Morocco, where at least 23 migrants died on June 24. This raises questions about cooperation between EU member states and third countries. Moreover, the multiplication of practices of securing and externalising borders severely puts refugees and their rights at risk. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reminds us that this kind of practice violates the principle of non-refoulement provided for in the Geneva Convention of 1951. It is time to restore humanist rhetoric in this European migration policy. From this point of view, we conducted this interview with Shoshana Fine, who is a postdoctoral researcher in International Relations at CERI-Sciences Po, the Hugo Observatory – University of Liege and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). She is also an associate member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Holder of a PhD in Political Science and International Relations, a master’s degree in European Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, her research focuses on migration and borders, Europe, international organisations and the relationship between knowledge and governance interventions. We first gave her time to give a few words on the subject of the interview before asking her our questions.

I find this to be an interesting approach. It is true that migration is a categorisation that dehumanises migrants. You have underlined this security approach for migrants and also for refugees. Today, we observe a dominant paradigm conceiving migrants as a problem or a threat. But why? Is it natural? Has this always been the case? Not really. Why are migrants considered a threat today?

When we look at international relations, we can evoke the concept of securitisation, that is to say the construction of something as a threat, either by practices, by policies, but also by discourses that associate migrants to different types of threats or problems. It can also be the terrorist threat, as was the case in the context of the Bataclan, although the threat pre-existed it; or it can be an identity threat, a cultural threat: we see different framings of migrants as a threat.

How to destabilise this construction? We must change the way we perceive migrants, not as a security threat, but as something completely normal. Why are we securing mobility today? Why is mobility considered dangerous? Of course, we don’t really consider mobility per se as something dangerous, but only the mobility of a certain part of the population. We have also seen in the COVID context this fear of the foreigner, this fear of the outside through the policies put in place to manage COVID, such as the strengthening of border controls, as if the threat came from the outside. What we have seen in the United Kingdom is very little control vis-à-vis the British population, even if it is changing, and a lot of border control: we have this vision of the foreigner, of those who come from outside, as a threat.

The category of “migrant” is not a neutral or a descriptive category. It is not just a category that we use to talk about the mobile populations, for people who cross borders. There is an imaginary linked to this notion of migrants, and we do not apply this notion of migrants to everyone. If we look at the European Commission, when we talk about the mobility of European citizens in the different member states, we are not talking about migrants, but about mobility. When we think of mobility, we don’t have the same negative image, it is considered as something positive. We can see the same thing with the expat. Of course, on an empirical level, we see the same thing, but another imaginary is associated with it. We can also talk about the question of exchange students, which is not secured in the same way as that of migrants or refugees. The category “migrant” is thus a politicised category, not only a descriptive one, it has a very important class dimension and it is also a very racialised category.

To what extent does the European migration policy, conducted over the past ten years, contradict the will of the European Union to appear internationally as a normative power?

There is a lot of tension with this notion of the European Union as a normative force, and yes, we certainly see a certain type of fairly cosmopolitan discourse: respect for values, rule of law, while we see a completely different practice vis-à-vis migrants. This is also the case with cooperation policies. We can also speak more of a practice of cooperation, of delegation, because the concept of cooperation reflects the image of two partners working together, while delegation allows us to glimpse power relations.

It is certain that this is in contradiction with the European Union, which constructs different practices, different borders, different border practices to stem or prevent migratory flows, and we can clearly see – you mentioned the example of Calais, but we can see this in different places – the direct consequence of European migration policy: an increase in migrant deaths. Often, the European discourse blames these deaths on the smugglers, but we must of course take into account the structural context. If there were legal channels, smugglers would have no business, and migrants and refugees could fly safely in Europe, for example to seek asylum. Today, there is a huge gap between discourses and practices.

Let’s look at a more concrete case. Today, the European Union accuses Belarus of its “attack with migrants” in retaliation for the sanctions that were imposed by the European Union, following the violent repression of the democratic demonstrations which had followed the re-election of Lukashenko. Increasingly, we see a discourse that revolves around migrants as a “diplomatic weapon”. Is the migratory flow really capable of causing Europe to implode, or is it rather the imaginary European identity that feels threatened?

I think this discourse that speaks of migrants as a weapon is quite dangerous. In English, we speak of “weaponization”, and I find that we must be wary of this type of framing which feeds the idea that migrants would be a threat. I think we have to try to find another vocabulary to talk about this situation. Of course, in the case of Belarus, it is not the migrants themselves who are a threat: we can speak of 2000, to 3000 people. Would it really be a threat to Europe to open its borders to these people? We have the resources to accommodate them, but that is really not the problem. What we see here is a kind of show game of borders where the various European actors want to play on this notion of threat and position themselves as the strong people who protect Europe from the threats that come both from these migrants and from Belarus. This is an opportunity for Europeans to assert their power by protecting the border “for” the European population.

Of course, migrants are not a threat per se, in this example as in any other. It is not migrants who are a threat to the European Union, but it is precisely this security discourse that arouses anxiety among populations. It is security practices, which threaten migrants, that cause anxiety among populations, and there is a direct link between European migration policies and the increase in the deaths of migrants: these are policies with very severe consequences. 

Do you think it is really possible that Belarus organised this migratory flow? Is it concretely possible to manipulate migratory flows as we please to use them as “weapons”, or is it a construction linked to a European fear? What is the process behind this idea of a migratory flow that would be manipulated to bring it to the European border?

I do not know exactly what happened. It is true that Belarus has opened certain borders, set up planes, but we cannot completely manipulate the flow of migrants. Of course, because visas have been abolished, individuals from the Middle East could come to Belarus without a visa. It is a way for them to come closer to Europe in order to eventually enter it. This does not mean that all the people who took the plane intended to come to Europe: there is an imaginary, in the European Union, that everyone wants to come here, because we live well, etc. But we know very well that in practice, this is not the case. If we take the case of a Syrian subject following the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, according to the figures, most Syrian refugees were received in countries neighbouring Syria: Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan.

Of course, some wanted to leave those countries, perhaps to come to Europe or to go elsewhere, but there were also many who wanted to stay there for different reasons. Migrants, as has been said, are human beings. They think they reflect, they have their own ability to act, their own ambitions, and goals in life. We cannot put them all in the same box and that is why it is problematic to speak, for example, of transit migrants, because we do not take into account the place of individuality in this notion of migratory flux. I think we should also be wary of this notion of flow: what does this term designate concretely?

Let’s continue on this question of diplomatic instrumentalisation. Should we see in this practice of the instrumentalisation of migrants an inevitable consequence of the work of externalisation of the European Union, of its own border?

There is a whole literature on what is called “migration diplomacy”, which deals with this question. Yes, we know very well that for the last twenty years and especially since the so-called migration crisis of 2015, there has been a lot of externalisation, that is to say, cooperation with third countries, on the migration issue. It is a policy that tries to stem the flow of migrants before they arrive in Europe. Why are they doing this? Precisely because the European Union has far fewer obligations vis-à-vis these people if they are not on its territory. For example, to apply for asylum, in 90% of cases, you have to be on the territory. You can apply in a third country, but the European Union welcomes very few of these people. This was a small discrepancy, but I think it’s important to understand the context of externalisation a little better.

We see the construction of a threat with these partners. They are given an important role in European migration policy, which gives the European Union a certain leeway, which offers in exchange for the control of migration flows, development aid and/or cooperation in various fields far removed from the migration area. This is becoming a central issue in diplomacy, and relations between the European Union and other countries. This is something that is extremely publicised today. We often take the case of Turkey, or currently Belarus, but migration in diplomacy has always been present. We can observe the agreements of 20 years ago which, precisely, imposed conditionality vis-à-vis many African states. If they did not play the game to prevent their nationals or other people from Africa from coming to Europe, they received less development aid, if any.

To continue on the subject of how Europe implements decisions on migration policies, we would have a question about the decision-making system. Today, the European External Action Service is based on consensus. In your opinion, should it be reformed, as has already been suggested by several leaders, including Angela Merkel, perhaps in favour of a majority rather than consensus decision-making, to avoid, for example, that a country blocks a migration policy decision out of purely personal interest?

Yes, but I would say that is not just that which will change things. We have a structural problem. You evoked the imaginary of the migrant threat: this problem will not be changed with different types of decision-making. We do not need to make a small change in policies, but we really need something much more revolutionary, which will make it possible not to see migrants or refugees as a threat, but as people who can also contribute to our society. It is true that there have been many problems in recent years with certain countries that did not play the game in terms of cooperation, but one can ask: for what type of cooperation? We often talk about European solidarity for the member states which cooperate together on migration policies, but it is cooperation to strengthen borders, to prevent migrants and refugees from coming to Europe. Very little is said about solidarity with migrants and refugees.

How can we change this imaginary? Because if it is something structural and if simply changing the way decisions are made at the European Union level is not enough, how can we manage to structurally change a collective imaginary? Wouldn’t this change rather be achieved by raising people’s awareness through popular media? Or through other actors on the border, and what does this change look like?

This is a very complicated question and I do not think it is something that will happen overnight. How does one change an imaginary? To begin, the media, depending on the way they portray migrants, often feed this imaginary. The migrant is often presented as a problem or a victim, but rarely as someone who can contribute in a good way to society. I think the media have a very important role to play and of course politicians as well. We talked before about the importance of the way in which policies are constructed, and indeed policies play a very important role in the construction of our imaginary. If we had politicians/policies who would treat migrants in a more dignified manner, or who would not create a sense of chaos or death at the border, it would impact our imaginary.

We are in a situation where these securitarian practices are creating a certain imaginary of chaos at the border. For example, we are being shown images of a boat that cannot find a port for two weeks, with 300 migrants on board, as if this boat could have a very threatening impact on European territory: this is obviously not the case. If we had another image of this boat, or if the people on this boat could quickly get off, it would feed our imaginary in a different way. We very well know that it is the imaginary that is at play here. When we look at who vote for far-right and very anti-immagration parties, it is often people coming from regions where there are no migrants. I think that the media and these practical and securitarian policies have a major role. A paradigm shift is possible.

Now, I think we need to stop using this notion of migrants. Indeed, as we saw earlier, when we talk about different types of categories such as exchange student, expatriate, mobility, we are appealing to a completely different imaginary.

Given that we are talking about the discourse and the imaginary around migration, we will talk about France. A few days ago, the former presidential candidate Arnaud Montebourg, from the left-wing, proposed, before retracting, to freeze the transfer of private funds towards countries whose governments do not accept the return of nationals whose asylum applications have been refused. According to you, what does this say about the ideological line of European left parties?

There is no real pro-immigatrion party. Perhaps it was the case with the Greens, especially in Germany a few years ago. But I think that today, it is not quite the case anymore. We can see it even within far-left parties. Of course, the left proposes different types of policies. There is a much less explicitly racist discourse compared to what we can see within the right or the far-right, but what we see in left-wing parties is also this idea that mobility is something bad and that we are better at home. The idea is that it is never good to cross the border. Yes, it is a good thing for tourism, but still we are always better off at home. We can notice this phenomenon in political speeches, for example with [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon, who said we should give more development aid so that people do not flee from their homes and can stay in Africa. We see this idea, even on the far-left, that migration is something harmful.

We see a similar discourse with international organisations, which frame mobility not so much as a threat but as a problem, even though they claim to be apolitical: technically, we also see this same framing of mobility as something bad.

As we are talking about international organisations, could you describe the role of the IOM, the voluntary returns it puts in place, and how this changes the imaginary of migrants, rather than the one of Europeans, regarding deportation, a phenomenon that I believe you call the “deportation twist”?

This is an article that was just published two months ago (October 2021), which I wrote with William Walters, an academic from Canada. At the IOM, as in all international organisations, there is no right-wing or racist discourse that constructs migrants as a threat, but migration is still seen as a problem: we are better off at home. IOM stands for International Organisation for Migrants, but many people call it the International Organisation against Migrants. We were interested in this practice of voluntary return. It is a very important practice today in the European Union, but also elsewhere, to induce rejected asylum seekers, undocumented people, to return to their so-called country of origin. If they do not accept these programmes, the alternative is deportation, expulsion: there is no real choice. Many studies show that it is not really a voluntary return, as even if people are not put in cells before leaving, there is still a form of obligation to return to the country of origin. What we can see with the IOM is a kind of continuation of expulsion, not exactly similar to a classic expulsion with a lot of explicit violence, but we see a process that is definitely very related and we see that the IOM finds ways of framing these practices as being humanitarian, that would be in the interest of migrants. The IOM talks a lot about family reunification: “Migration was bad, you were far from your family, we are going to help you return to your parents”. There is also another discourse, aimed at helping the migrant who has returned to build their business: the IOM is also a development actor. Therefore, there are different types of discourses used to construct this practice of expulsion as something positive, humanitarian and in the migrants’ interest.

On 1 January 2022, France took over the presidency of the European Union. Emmanuel Macron said that he hoped to unblock the migration situation in Europe by reforming the rules of the Schengen area and particularly by applying the principle of non-admission, as opposed to the principle of non-refoulement. In 2015, an experiment was already conducted in the Maritime Alps, consisting of the establishment of a 20 km zone from the French-Italian border inside the French territory, within which migrants who would be stopped would be directly expelled to Italy as if they had never entered the French territory. Do you think that the will to systematically apply the principle of non-admission to all the territories of the European Union is symptomatic of the direction of future developments in European migration policy?

Yes, this is symptomatic of something broader. It is in line with this policy of externalisation, which tries to delegate increasingly further. We can also see this within the European Union: there are many conflicts between the different member states because of what is called the Dublin regulation. When an asylum application arrives in Europe, it is first made in the first country where the person has set foot, which of course is neither France nor Germany. It is rather Greece, Italy, the border countries. So this idea of creating a border lawless zone to avoid having to assume our responsibilities is indeed symptomatic of what we see in the European Union today. To give an example, in order to apply for asylum in Europe today, you have to break the law, because it is almost impossible to come to the European Union without using a smuggler or taking an illegal route. The European Union and the political actors of the European Union justify this by saying that we bring the real, honourable and deserving refugees to the European Union, but we know very well that this applies to very few people, not even a few thousand refugees per year. If we take a look at the figures for the number of refugees received in countries such as Turkey or Libya, where many refugees are not named as such because they are not signatories to the Geneva Convention, the figures in Europe are minimal. This policy, which is absolutely linked to the example you gave earlier, aims to delegate these responsibilities by assigning them to another actor. We see this in the framework of Dublin, with Germany saying “it’s not our responsibility, it’s Italy’s responsibility”, and Italy saying “it’s not my responsibility, it’s Libya’s responsibility” and so on. We see the same thing with the example you mentioned in France.

Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union makes it possible to take action against a member state for violating the constitutional laws of the European Union, including the principle of non-refoulement. However, in other contexts, such as the erosion of the rule of law in Poland, it is difficult to activate this article 7 because of the decision-making mechanisms within the European Union. Ultimately, it looks like these sanction mechanisms cannot be mobilised. What guidelines would you give to the political leaders of the European Union in order to ensure the enforcement of migrants’ human rights, taking for example the situation at the border between Poland and Belarus?

To speak more broadly, there are no European rescue practices today, this practice does not exist. We have Frontex surveillance, but there is no active rescue practice: that would be the first thing to implement, because, as I said, there is an increase in the number of migrants who die while coming to Europe, which is a problem. We must also open legal channels for migrants, but also for refugees. For example, we can give humanitarian visas to these people, so that they do not have to take a dilapidated boat, but rather can take a plane ticket with their wife and family. This would be a second short-term solution. Third, I was talking about resettlement. We need to put emphasis on this policy. We are talking about very low numbers, but we can also imagine something like that. I think we have to imagine something to stop the deaths of migrants, so that they do not have to face death to come to Europe. We see refugees fleeing persecution having to deal with other problems as they attempt to resolve their situation. A lot has also been said about cooperation with different countries, third countries, and I have stressed this kind of delegation. We can imagine a cooperation that would not be a security one, aiming at preventing migrants from coming to Europe, but rather a cooperation to let people cross with dignity. Similarly, with European cooperation, we can imagine cooperation not only to delegate responsibilities, but also to welcome migrants.

Your answer highlights the need to deconstruct the concepts of migrants, borders and limitations, and instead to ask the question of migrants’ rights. Ultimately, what you are talking about is potentially of a right to mobility. Could you elaborate on this question? What exactly would such a right look like?

The right to mobility is quite simple: today, a large part of the population does not have the right to cross the border, for example to come to Europe. We can consider mobility as a fundamental right, somewhat like the fact that everyone should have enough to eat, or that everyone should have access to education. We can imagine that everyone should have a right to mobility. Why should this be reserved for a small part of the population? This echoes feudal practices, whereby one individual had certain privileges because he was born in a certain place while another had fewer. Today, there is no right to mobility, but when you think about it, this situation does not seem very coherent, and it is certainly not very fair.

Nowadays, the consequences of climate change are a real issue that worries European leaders, all the more so because of the intensification of migratory flows and its consequences. One question arises, that of climate refugees. Do you think it would be relevant to create a specific status for climate refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention?

Of course, I think it would be very relevant. In fact, there are more and more people who have to flee their homes because of climate change. I think we are very far from that. We can see very well today that the types of persecution valued by the Geneva Convention are very limited. I often give the example of someone who is fleeing from hunger, who is not considered a refugee according to the Geneva Convention, because for this one, poverty is not a legitimate reason to flee. The Geneva Convention is more focused on individual persecution. So I think that climate change is also a very big matter to include in the Geneva Convention, but I think we are quite far from it. Of course, it is extremely important and will be more and more important in the years to come.

François Gemenne1 argues that creating this specific status in the Geneva Convention would be somewhat meaningless, since climate migration and political-economic migration overlap. In his opinion, it is difficult to identify the real origin of migration. Rather than adding an additional status to the Geneva Convention, would it not be better to reform it, given that it is based on perceptions of migration dating from the 1950s and that realities have completely changed today?

It is not just about changed realities. The Geneva Convention was created in the context of the Cold War. It was not just a policy of humanitarian kindness from some countries, it had a strategic dimension which was to exert some power over the Soviet Union, and that is why the emphasis today is on the issue of individual persecution. At that time, there were individuals who should have deserved protection who did not, and that is not the case today either. This system, the Convention, is a very limited policy. Its existence and the possibility of obtaining refugee status are praiseworthy, but its selective nature is really problematic. Only some individuals are protected, and this is highly political. Today, for example, there is a proliferation of “safe country” practices within some countries, particularly in Europe. People from countries considered “safe” have less access to asylum, since by definition they are not considered to be endangered in their country of origin. We talked today about different practices (Dublin III regulation, externalisation practices) that make it difficult to access asylum, as well as their regulation, but of course we also see a border dimension within the Geneva Convention that only protects from a certain type of persecution and not from others.

To focus on your own research, you are a specialist of Turkey, you have been there several times, if I am not mistaken, and you have written a lot on the subject. Do you intend to continue working specifically on Turkey? What will you write about and what do you want to write about?

Indeed, I am working on Turkey right now, on an article. Also, in terms of research, I am working with a colleague on the question of the law in the justification of violence against migrants. We discussed earlier the way in which countries delegate to other countries, saying “we would like to help, but it is not our responsibility”. We see a lot of violence as a result of this type of policy. For example, it has been said that there is no longer any practice of sea rescue today and the defenders of the European Union have been saying that it is rather the responsibility of Libya. So we see the different ways in which the law is invoked in order to legitimise certain policies towards migrants, and it is the police officer who often leads to the death of these people. So I am interested in how the law is used to justify this type of policy.  When we resort to the law, we think that it is neutral, moral, a force for good: we try to deconstruct all that to show that in reality, the law is not always moral, is not always something positive and that it is actually something very political, which leads to a lot of violence.

Do you have any works that are accessible to everyone and that could help to deepen this topic?

Humanitarian Borders by Polly Pallister-Wilkins, published by Verso. I think it is a book for everyone, fairly accessible, but also a very good critique of migration policies.

Link to the online bookshop where the work can be purchased:

1 François Gemenne is a professor of environmental geopolitics at Sciences Po Paris and at the Université libre of Brussels. He is a specialist of migration issues, population displacements linked to environmental changes and climate change adjustment policies.

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