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Old wine in new bottles: Understanding and historicising EU migration policies as population control

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Picture by Jannik on Unsplash.

‘It is worrying that at least 6,000 people, a big number of them children, have been swimming to Ceuta. Putting their life in danger. Many had to be rescued. One person died. The most important thing now is that Morocco continues to commit to prevent irregular departures and that those who do not have the right to stay are orderly and effectively returned.’

 – Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, 2021, on Twitter.

EU migration policies take the shape of laws and regulations which aim to control migration to the EU. They constitute an attempt at maintaining a hierarchy of populations differentiating between insiders (EU nationals and other legal residents) and outsiders (all others). This article moves away from the technocratic understanding of EU migration and refugee admission policies as just another field of policy, toward grasping it as a tool of population control. Population control depicts an essential part of modern nation- and state-building processes and therefore lies at the heart of the European integration project.


EU migration policies entail physical instruments like border control, administrative instruments like admission criteria, as well as ideational elements like information campaigns for potential migrants. They are effective tools to select who, among non-EU citizens, is allowed to enter the EU based, for example, on economic productivity. However, people still migrate to the EU despite being excluded by EU migration policy instruments. So-called irregular migration not only disturbs the EU’s aim to only attract desired immigrants but it questions the order of belonging: who may reside in the EU, and who needs to stay outside? Hence, all possible measures like deportation (or, as Commissioner Johannsson put it so euphemistically, ‘orderly and effectively return’) are adopted by EU states to reinstall this selection process. 


Population politics is closely connected to the introduction of demographic science. While population politics seeks to create the perfect population in terms of size, age or ethnicity, demography provides the necessary tools to measure, categorise and hierarchise populations to plan a desired type of population. The introduction of the concept of nation-state in the late 19th century established the idea of a single, unified, and homogenous nation and ethnicity within a state in order to be accepted and treated as a nation-state by the international community and to maintain sovereignty over land and people. To this date, societies are still understood as being bound to the nation-state, as we speak of the ‘French’ or the ‘Gambian’ society. This omnipresent imagination of a homogenous unity between state, territory and society is grasped by the concept of methodological nationalism.


In her book The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, Tara Zahra argues that, after the First World War, undesired parts of the population (e.g. ethnic minorities) were encouraged to leave certain European countries, while the desired part of the population (being part of the envisioned homogeneous nation-state) was prevented from emigrating. In this way, the interwar years were regarded as a chance to balance European populations, aligning them with the nation-states they were presumed to belong to. After the Second World War, population control gained new momentum through the relocation of populations, Zahra continues. Nation-states were able to select which uprooted populations they would allow in, based on their racial desirability and economic productivity. Finally, in recent years, an ageing population in certain European countries raised fears of a demographic crisis, which fuelled a shift in EU migration policies towards opening borders to those deemed skilled and useful enough for the European economy. The differentiation between refugees and migrants, according to Zahra, had already been introduced after World War I, to fit labour market demands. 


This differentiation and discrimination have deepened in the last decades. Through labour migration and visa restrictions, the EU is able to shape its population as desired. However, these desirability measurements, such as economic productivity, do not apply to the case of asylum. Asylum depicts an inalienable right to remain in the country of asylum where one is protected from persecution in their country of origin. Hence, asylum contributes to a higher diversity of populations in EU member states because refugees do not have to prove their desirability but their well-founded fear or experiences of individual persecution in the country of origin. The evidence must be comprehensive and credible, something that is checked rigorously by EU countries. As European states cannot decide independently on granting asylum but are bound by international law, they seek to prevent asylum-seekers from migrating to EU countries in the first place, for instance through information campaigns. In a nutshell, it is harder for EU member states to turn the European asylum system into a tool for population control, leading to an escalation of attempts at preventing forced migration into the EU entirely.


As the EU erects more and more barriers for asylum-seekers to reach Europe, why then do people not obtain visas and travel safely by plane instead of enduring the dangerous and often lethal routes that lead to Europe by foot and boat? People from certain countries in the Global South have nearly no chance of obtaining a Schengen visa and therefore are not allowed to board flights to Europe. This so-called ‘Schengen visa regime’ already establishes who is desired in the EU and who is not. Even tourist visas are denied to many people in the Global South because of fears that they will overstay their visa, go underground or seek asylum. Cynically, deaths in the Mediterranean Sea can be seen as an additional instrument of selectivity. Those who act against the EU’s population control approaches because they are deemed undesired but still migrate have to risk their lives. On the other hand, highly skilled workers, professionals, students, investors and other desired people are able to obtain visas to live and work in the EU. They do not have to risk their life to enter the EU and enjoy social protection. Moreover, migration within the EU is not problematised at all but regarded as normal, and treated separately under the term ‘intra-EU mobility’. The decision of who is allowed to move to and within the EU answers the question of who is a desired part of the population and who is not.


The logic of today’s EU migration policies is at least partly shaped by population development projections and the idea of a perfect population. I find the perspective of population politics very useful to make sense of the many physical and administrative barriers that some people encounter on a daily basis, while others like me, as an EU citizen, remain invisible. In my opinion, the EU migration policy is a central part of the whole EU project as it decides who is part of the project and who is excluded. The EU still derives its ideas of sovereignty from a time when the concept of homogenous nation-states and single nation-state identities came into being. While in the late 19th and early 20th centuries policy measures focused on encouraging the emigration of undesired populations, today’s EU migration and refugee admission policies concentrate primarily on immigration, because the undesired parts of the population reside mainly outside the EU. However, attempts by the EU and other international organisations (such as the International Organisation for Migration) at dealing with migration to prevent potential migrants from crossing borders outside the EU (as in the Sahara Desert where the EU has subsidised African border control measures) can be understood as new forms of immigration control. Hence, population control and migration policy are fundamentally connected. However, as reality shows, migrants and refugees are not simply playthings of EU migration policy, but resisting and independent human beings with agency to overcome the imposed barriers of EU migration policy.

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Dominique Haas

Dominique Haas is a Master's student in his final semester at the University of Osnabrück where he studies International Migration and Intercultural Relations. His academic interest lies both in the study of specific migration policies and instruments, especially in Southern Africa, and general patterns of migration control and management. For his master thesis, he investigates information campaigns of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which aim to discourage people in the Global South from migrating. Apart from his studies and work at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, he is a passionate table tennis player and cook.

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