The Politics of Providing Humanitarian Support to Migrants
This week’s guest blogger, Ed Martin, considers ‘The politics of providing humanitarian support to migrants.’ He is currently completing his MSc in Migration, Mobility, and Development at SOAS.
Before coming to SOAS, I was living in Marrakech, Morocco. The city had a history of hosting West and Central African students, who would sometimes settle after completing their studies. In more recent times, Marrakech saw a growing number of migrants from the same regions as the students, but in much more precarious situations. The reasons for which they had left their countries often involved a complex intersection of cultural, economic, political and social reasons. The methods they used to travel were diverse, some had flown to Morocco, others had embarked on risky journeys across the Sahara Desert. Their destinations were not fixed, but changed based on the constraints and opportunities found along the way. A friend and I had met many of the individuals in this situation. We witnessed the great precarity that some faced. So, we decided to collect financial contributions and gifts in kind (clothing and food) from our social networks to provide support. As we started gaining greater knowledge of humanitarian efforts to support migrants, we started to understand that such efforts can be used to legitimise the very policies which place migrants in precarious situation in the first place.
The realities that migrants face in countries such as Morocco are heavily shaped by the European Union’s migration policies. Since the 1990’s, the EU has attempted to reduce irregular migration into its member states by controlling migratory flows beyond its borders. The process, known as externalisation by certain scholars, has seen the EU use development funding and legal migration opportunities as negotiation chips to pressure third-countries into preventing migrants from leaving or passing through their territories (Yildiz, 2016: 165). As a result of this pressure, nine countries have signed Mobility Partnerships and three countries have signed Common Agendas on Migration and Mobility with the EU. These agreements translate the EU’s migration priorities, as set out in its Global Agreement on Migration and Mobility (GAMM), to the contexts of the particular third-countries to which they apply. Beyond the framework of the GAMM, third-countries’ migration policies are also influenced through other means, including financial support through instruments such as the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and projects carried out by institutions such as the EU External Action Service.
Scholars have highlighted the fact that EU externalisation efforts have played an important role in making migration towards Europe so dangerous. As Collyer (2012: 671) highlights, until the 1990s most migrants could board planes bound for Europe as migration controls were mostly carried out after arriving at official ports of entry (such as the destination country’s airport). As the decade progressed, European countries started preventing migrants from boarding these planes through tactics such as sanctioning airline companies for carrying undocumented migrants. The reduced accessibility of air travel was an important reason for the emergence of alternative routes to Europe, passing through the Sahara and North Africa.
Brachet (2018: 22-24) explains that these routes were not initially as dangerous as they currently are. Migrants traveling through Saharan countries such as Niger could rely on truck drivers who carried goods across the desert. They could also pass through North African countries with relatively limited harassment from local authorities. However, the situation changed, largely as a result of EU pressure. Saharan states such as Mali and Niger were pressured into prohibiting migrants from crossing their territories. As a result, migrants increasingly had to turn to smugglers that used more remote and dangerous routes through the desert to avoid security checkpoints (Molenaar, 2017: 13). Migrants living near the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa also faced increased repression from local authorities.
The EU can partially justify its migration policies based on the perceived necessity of preventing irregular migration. But, for these policies to remain legitimate (both within the EU and internationally), it is essential that they do not appear too harsh on migrants. Deaths along migratory routes to Europe, whether they occur at land borders, in the Mediterranean or in the Sahara Desert do not reflect well on the EU, especially when they are, at least in part, caused by its efforts to control migration. To maintain the legitimacy of its policies, the EU has attempted to portray its approach to managing migration as one that saves lives. This portrayal is based on the underlying narratives that migratory routes are inherently dangerous (overlooking the fact that EU policy has contributed to making them dangerous), and that migrants embark on them because they are poorly informed about these dangers.
Building on this narrative, the EU can highlight the fact that it supports humanitarian efforts aimed at protecting migrants as proof that its approach to managing migration also takes the wellbeing of migrants into consideration. Through its financial instruments, the EU funds a range of civil society and third-country public initiatives that aim to provide migration in precarious situations with essential support. An example of this process includes the EUTF funding Save the Children to reduce the vulnerability of migrants in North Africa. Through this project the EUTF can emphasise the fact that it is working to reduce the vulnerability of migrants in North Africa, overlooking the fact that, through its broader strategy for managing migration, the EU significantly contributes to this vulnerability in the first place.
The fact that humanitarian efforts can be used to cloak EU externalisation efforts does not mean that such efforts should be abandoned. There are organisations that play crucial roles in protecting migrants while simultaneously highlighting the negative impacts of EU migration policy. An example is Doctors Without Borders (MSF) which, in collaboration with SOS MEDITERRANEE, patrols the Mediterranean Sea to rescue migrants. MSF clearly highlights and denounces the EU policies which put migrants at risk of drowning in the first place. There are also organisations that focus on protecting migrants’ rights locally, and do not engage in international advocacy. But even these organisations can adopt neutral language which, at the very least, does not amplify EU narratives. An example is the Plateforme Nationale Protection Migrants. The organisation focuses on improving the protection of migrants in Morocco. Directly challenging the EU’s externalisation policies is not one of its main goals. But it nonetheless avoids amplifying the narrative that legitimises EU migration policy by not portraying migratory routes as inherently dangerous nor portraying migrants as naïve individuals that embarked on them without realising the associated risks.
Whether humanitarian initiatives decide to engage in direct advocacy against the EU’s externalisation policies depends on a range of factors, including their resources and the political context in which it operates. Regardless of whether or not these initiatives decide to challenge the EU, however, it is essential that they avoid amplifying its narratives surrounding migratory routes and migrants. They may otherwise contribute to legitimising the policies that place migrants in precarious situations in the first place.