The human cost of sealed borders

Published: October 11, 2013
The writer is a London-based independent researcher and analyst focusing on migration issues and the nexus between forced migration and security, principally in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She tweets @ atnussan

The writer is a London-based independent researcher and analyst focusing on migration issues and the nexus between forced migration and security, principally in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She tweets @ atnussan

Last week, near the island of Lampedusa, off the Sicilian coast, over 300 migrants, mainly Somali, drowned while attempting to cross what has de facto become Europe’s frontier, the point of entry into a continent rather than into a country. The previous weeks, a world away from Sicily, off Australia’s shores, another boat carrying asylum seekers sunk killing scores of migrants. In what has become a tragic, regular occurrence during the last years, thousands of people have died at sea in desperate bids to leave their home countries.

While messages of sympathy for the deceased abound across the board, where policy is concerned, both Europe and Australia remain uncompromising, determined to curb the influx of asylum seekers and immigrants at any cost. One wonders how many people have yet to die before decision-makers acknowledge that there is something profoundly wrong in the way the West understands and responds to migration movements.

With all the attention focused on policy solutions on how to deter migrants, little attention is paid to the dynamics governing people’s decision to migrate, let alone the circumstances at the place of origin that shape individual realities and choices. Hostage of a black and white picture defining contemporary migration as a matter either of an economic or of a forced nature, the West has de facto, created categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people. For low-skilled, poor individuals, the chances to be given asylum are nill, or very low, at best. Fleeing a war zone or an impoverished place does not entail the right to be given protection, as the case of Syrian refugees who were denied entry in the UK a few days ago, clearly demonstrates.

At the same time, Western governments regularly spend thousands of dollars on dubious campaigns aimed at dissuading people from leaving their countries. The UK, one of the countries most affected by moral panic over a supposed ‘flood of immigrants’, has attracted wide criticism both from activists and from the general public over the ‘Go home or face arrest’ campaign directed at undocumented migrants.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, Australia funded, with the IOM, a $500,000 campaign, producing a video aimed at Afghan and Pakistani nationals attempting to reach its shores. The video warns potential asylum seekers planning to embark on a journey by boat that detention is what they should expect, whether they are women, children or men. Interestingly, the video depicts Hazara people, the same people who in Pakistan are regularly persecuted by extremist, sectarian outfits for being both from a different ethnic group and for being Shia. It is difficult to fathom how such an advert could impact on the decision-making of an individual living with a daily fear of being killed: the risk of dying at sea or being detained is less than that of dying at home.

Western governments might also be mistaken when they focus their attention disproportionately on smuggling rings, since it is proven that for every route neutralised by the authorities and for every smuggler taken out, a new one materialises in near to no time. Enough evidence on smugglers’ networks and cross-border routes shows that they are both extremely adaptable to changing circumstances. Meanwhile, it should also be noted that the criminalisation of smugglers often adds a further layer of risk for boat migrants. For example, while the most recent tragedy was unfolding off Lampedusa, several fishing boats abandoned people to their destiny for fear of being caught by the Italian police and persecuted for favouring ‘illegal migration’. Although smugglers do expose people to risks, Sigona, a scholar and an expert on irregular migration, says that attention should not be diverted from the fact that people are forced to take such risky journeys in the absence of legal routes available to low-skilled migrants wanting to reach Europe.

Unfortunately, a change of approach towards undocumented migrants does not seem to be anywhere in sight. Quite to the contrary, fortress Europe on the one hand and Australia on the other, are adopting increasingly restrictive policies and are resorting to arguably excessive means every day. Protecting borders from unwanted people has become such a major anxiety that the newly-elected Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has put in place ‘Sovereign borders’, a military-led operation under the command of a three-star general.

Europe, on the other hand, seems still far from devising an immigration policy capable of protecting migrants’ rights while at the same time, satisfying its obsession with lowering the numbers of arrivals. The Dublin Convention, the principal legal tool adopted in Europe and first implemented in the ’90s, requires undocumented people to lodge their application at the port of entry, forbidding them to travel to a country of their choice. The underlying political dimension of the Convention was that, easing the pressure on the countries with the largest refugee and immigrant communities, namely northern European countries, would entail shifting the burden to peripheral states, like Italy, for example. Ultimately, we are dealing with Europe’s frustrated ambition to behave like a single (state) entity, rather than as a collection of nation states implementing disparate policies. However, southern European members, already under pressure because of political instability and a failing economy, have been unable and unwilling to absorb such a large influx of people, which in Italy alone reached 30,000 between January and September 2013. Europe cannot manage any more to protect its fortress at such a high price, in terms of human cost. Exclusionary immigration policies and those aimed at combating illegal migration, are eventually bound to fail, since they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to fight, co-director of the International Migration Institute in Oxford, Hein de Haas, says.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • darbullah
    Oct 12, 2013 - 3:49AM

    This problem started when illegal migrants from a particular culture didn’t want to mingle with host culture and were very violent in their new country.


  • incensed_aussie
    Oct 12, 2013 - 4:27AM

    The author says “The previous weeks, a world away from Sicily, off Australia’s shores, another boat carrying asylum seekers sunk killing scores of migrants.”
    This is NOT correct. The boat sank 50 meters off Indonesian shores. Do not blame Australia for this tragedy.
    Pakistan can help to reduce the human cost by protecting Hazaras from extremists’ violence.


  • A reader
    Oct 12, 2013 - 6:11AM

    So what you’re trying to say is open borders for all? Wow, if that happened the whole of India, China, Mexico and Pakistan would move to the US in a heartbeat. Then the United States of America would have to change its name to the United States of Third Worldistan. I’m not interested in that happening. No thanks.


  • Ali
    Oct 12, 2013 - 11:35AM

    Well migration is as old as first human appear on earth. Neanderthal man went to Europe for safe heaven and in the second wave of migration was killed by the raiders that happened in Australia also. Black Aussies were persecuted by the settlers of British descendant who were mainly criminals forced to perform duty in Australia. So don’t come up with your fabulous idea of blaming other rather than accepting people. You seems like Neo Nazi !!!!


  • Toticalling
    Oct 12, 2013 - 1:39PM

    The views expressed by the author are what many liberals are demanding from various governments to relax restrictions on immigration. So they do not have risk lives to enter Europe. Lately more conservative majority who want to restrict immigration has muted their voices.
    Although political correctness, does not permit to express what many conservatives think, but the message is clear. Many are afraid that since most of the arrivals are Muslims, they bring another culture and faith with them, which seem to bother them. We know Jews were persecuted in last centuries and this obsession with non-Christian religion encouraged Nazis to kill millions of Jews. With terrorism associated with Muslims, many think that we are importing undemocratic forces with new arrivals. The words like: illegal immigration has become a threat to our national security, is heard more often when the media is not around.
    I think Europe has changed from monolithic societies to a multi cultural society. AS long as all respect local laws and human rights there should be no problem. But many fear that when the % of these groups increase to over 20, they start demanding change of laws to suit their background. That is scary to some


  • Ark
    Oct 12, 2013 - 3:31PM

    @ali ,

    What a joke First give Asylum to Pakistanis , Who themselves don’t believe in Equal Human Rights , Noe-Nazi Country . Laden lives by side of National army But Christens are on Death row for Blasphemy . They go to Western countries try to Convert it into Pakistan .

    Tenancy ” What we do is Religion and if you do something it’s Racism”

    shame on you.


  • Adrushya
    Oct 12, 2013 - 7:40PM

    The problem with migrants especially muslims percive adopted nations as their enemies, They roit for silly reasons , want to impose Islamic sharia , and none of their home countries dont allow freedom of speech and religion or atheism. They want to dominate the world.
    Australia cant forget the protests where 7yr olds were holding “beahed non-muslim” boards.

    They should respect other humans . If they want to be in civilised nations.


  • Oct 12, 2013 - 8:02PM

    How many countries would want to take citizens of countries who refuse to assimilate. Once these so called refugees have established themselves, they want to change the foreign policies, the culture and way of living of the people of their new home. One has to only look at the sorry state of Britain France & Belgium where refugees/immigrants from a certain faith and part of the world now want to destroy the very country that gave them refuge and new life, If borders should be opened, why should the west open it first. Let sparsely populated Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar open their border to the refugees from the Muslim world first. They would not for they fear what they will let into their own countries.


  • Insaan
    Oct 12, 2013 - 10:39PM

    Boston Bombers came to USA as Asylum seekers and paid back by attacking Americans. Muslim countries should try to give asylum to Muslims who are suffering because of Muslim wars.

    Most of these asylum seekers will live on welfare, free food, free apartment and free medical. After few years they would want Sharia in the land that gave them opportunity for better life.


  • Yasin
    Oct 12, 2013 - 11:04PM

    @Jag Nathan

    I agree with the general direction of your post. But what bothers me is the plight of those Muslims who do not subscribe to religious fundamentalism and still suffer at the border of the countries of their choice while migrating.


  • Observer
    Oct 13, 2013 - 3:36AM

    Bleeding-heart liberals like the author are sure to destroy the economic, social and cultural lives of these countries.

    Why blame the western countries for protecting their borders? It is their right to determine who they want to allow into their country. As for these asylum seeker, 99.999% whom are bogus economic refugees, if they die trying to sneak in illegally, it was purely their choice. I have no sympathy for these people.

    Why not the bleeding-heart liberals force the native countries of these bogus asylum seekers to improve economic and social conditions in their own countries? After all, isn’t it the responsibility of these countries to improve the lot of their citizen?


  • Observer
    Oct 13, 2013 - 3:42AM


    “I agree with the general direction of your post. But what bothers me is the plight of those Muslims who do not subscribe to religious fundamentalism and still suffer at the border of the countries of their choice while migrating.”

    Why can’t the Muslim countries provide asylum for these so-called asylum seekers? Better yet, why not agitate for equal rights for all and stop all discrimination, especially the religious kind, in their mother countries?


  • darbullah
    Oct 13, 2013 - 9:40AM

    Those people can be counted on the fingers of your hand. They can convert to less violent ideologies and then they will be considered.


  • Np
    Oct 13, 2013 - 12:19PM

    The. Sealed borders would not extract such a high human cost if some countries did not oppress their minorities. There is one thing common among most asylum seekers wonder what that is…


  • genesis
    Oct 13, 2013 - 5:07PM

    That was in the time before religion became a tool of intimidation.Now when they migrate they demand their way of life in the host countries and create a whole lot of problems which the host nation can do without.why go other countries when your nations are great and wonderful.


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