Ascension Island. Moldova. Morocco. Papua New Guinea. St. Helena. These are some of the far-flung destinations where the British government have considered sending asylum seekers once they have arrived in the UK or have been intercepted on their way here.
Such proposals are emblematic of externalization, a migration management strategy that has won increasing favour among countries in the Global North, denoting measures taken by states beyond their borders to obstruct or deter the arrival of foreign nationals lacking permission to enter their intended destination country.
The interception of asylum seekers travelling by boat, before detaining and processing them in offshore locations, is perhaps the most common form of this strategy. But it has also been manifested in a variety of other ways, such as information campaigns in countries of origin and transit, designed to dissuade citizens of developing countries from attempting the journey to a destination country in the Global North.
Visa controls, sanctions on transport companies and the outposting of immigration officers at foreign ports have been used to prevent the embarkation of unwanted passengers. Wealthy states have also done deals with less prosperous countries, offering financial aid and other incentives in return for their cooperation in blocking the movement of asylum seekers.
While the notion of externalization is a recent one, this strategy is not particularly new. In the 1930s, maritime interceptions were undertaken by a number of states to prevent the arrival of Jews escaping from the Nazi regime. In the 1980s, the US introduced interdiction and offshore processing arrangements for asylum seekers from Cuba and Haiti, processing their claims to refugee status on board coastguard vessels or at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay. In the 1990s, the Australian government introduced the ‘Pacific Solution’, whereby asylum seekers on their way to Australia were banished to detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Over the past two decades, the EU has become increasingly eager to adapt the Australian approach to the European context. In the mid-2000s, Germany suggested that holding and processing centres for asylum seekers might be established in North Africa, while the UK toyed with the idea of leasing a Croatian island for the same purpose.
Such proposals were eventually abandoned for a variety of legal, ethical and operational reasons. But the idea lived on and formed the basis of the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey, whereby Ankara agreed to block the onward movement of Syrian and other refugees, in exchange for financial support and other rewards from Brussels. Since then, the EU has also provided vessels, equipment, training and intelligence to the Libyan coastguard, providing it with the capacity to intercept, return and detain anyone trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat.
The Trump administration in the US has also joined the externalization ‘bandwagon’, refusing admission to asylum seekers at its southern border, forcing them to remain in Mexico or return to Central America. In order to implement this strategy, Washington has used all the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal, including the threat of trade sanctions and withdrawal of aid from its southern neighbours.
States have justified the use of this strategy by suggesting that their primary motivation is to save lives and to prevent people from undertaking difficult and dangerous journeys from one continent to another. They have also argued that it is more efficient to support refugees as close to their home as possible, in neighbouring and nearby countries where the costs of assistance are lower and where it is easier to organize their eventual repatriation.
In reality, several other - and less altruistic - considerations have been driving this process. These include a fear that the arrival of asylum seekers and other irregular migrants constitutes a serious threat to their sovereignty and security, as well as a concern among governments that the presence of such people might undermine national identity, create social disharmony and lose them the support of the electorate.
Most fundamentally, however, externalization is the result of a determination by states to avoid the obligations they have freely accepted as parties to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Put simply, if an asylum seeker arrives in a country that is party to the Convention, the authorities have a duty to consider their application for refugee status and grant them permission to stay if they are found to be a refugee. To evade such obligations, a growing number of states have concluded that it is preferable to prevent the arrival of such people to begin with.
While this might suit the immediate interests of potential destination countries, such outcomes do serious damage to the international refugee regime. As we have seen with respect to the refugee policies pursued by Australia in Nauru, the EU in Libya and the US in Mexico, externalization prevents people from exercising their right to seek asylum, puts them at risk of other human rights violations and inflicts serious physical and psychological harm on them.
Furthermore, by closing borders, externalization has actually encouraged refugees to undertake risky journeys involving human smugglers, traffickers and corrupt government officials. It has placed a disproportionate burden on developing countries, where 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are to be found. And, as seen most starkly in the EU-Turkey deal, it has encouraged the use of refugees as bargaining chips, with less-developed countries extracting funding and other concessions from wealthier states in exchange for restrictions on refugee rights.
While externalization is now firmly entrenched in state behaviour and inter-state relations, it has not gone uncontested. Academics and activists around the world have mobilized against it, underlining its adverse consequences for refugees and the principles of refugee protection.
And while UNHCR has been slow to respond to this pressure, dependent as it is on funding provided by states in the Global North, change now seems to be in the air. In October 2020, the High Commissioner for Refugees spoke of ‘UNHCR’s and my personal firm opposition to the externalization proposals of some politicians, which are not only contrary to the law, but offer no practical solutions to the problems that force people to flee.’
This statement raises a number of important questions. Can externalization practices such as interception and arbitrary detention be subject to legal challenges, and in which jurisdictions might they most effectively be pursued? Are there any elements of the process that could be implemented in a way that respects refugee rights and strengthens the protection capacity of developing countries? As an alternative, could refugees be provided with safe, legal and organized routes their destination countries?
The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who as former UNHCR chief knows all too well the plight of refugees, has called for a ‘surge in diplomacy for peace’. Indeed, if states are so concerned about the arrival of refugees, could they not do more to resolve the armed conflicts and prevent the human rights violations that force people to flee in the first place?