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Troubling horizons: Catching a glimpse of Europe’s future in migration control

JOHANNES WALTER  |  23 JULY 2021  |  ISSUE #16
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Building Fortress Europe cover art. Image by Sorrel Milne, courtesy of Johannes Walter.

Across the European travel and tourism sector, sighs of relief are in the air these days. Just in time for the busiest season of the year, restrictions are eased, with airlines and holiday destinations hoping to catch up on lost business. But while tourists are desperately awaited by Mediterranean countries, measures to reduce migrants arriving at their beaches have been reinforced in the shadow of the pandemic. As public life rushes to return to a post-pandemic normal, it becomes evident that humanitarian emergencies at Europe’s borders and beyond will remain part of this normality. 


To get a sense of where the EU and its member states are headed in terms of migration management, it helps to understand their previous strategies.

With the goal of creating a platform that collects migration data and curates it in a narrative, I gathered a small team and over the past two years, we created Through interactive maps and graphics, the project leads along the main migratory routes and explores how landscapes have changed for migrants since the Summer of Migration in 2015. Beyond Schengen borders, Europe’s financial involvement abroad is laid open to demonstrate how perpetrators of human rights violations expand their border regimes with EU funds. The main points I raise here are two: border militarisation within the Schengen Space has experienced a comeback; and, over the past years, the EU and its member states individually established an international network of actors who crack down on migrants for them. By outsourcing migration control to authoritarian governments, the EU strengthens and legitimises their actions while protecting its own image of the human rights defender. 

With the onset of the pandemic, measures against migrants quickly harshened at the borders. In Greece, pushing back migrants of all age groups has become common practice; allegedly the Hellenic Coast Guard drags migrant boats back out to sea and leaves them drifting in disabled boats. Italy temporarily closed its ports in 2020 and since they re-opened, Search and Rescue (SAR) vessels are repeatedly kept from operating. In the West, tensions arose between Spain and Morocco, after the Maghreb state deliberately slacked on its migrant retention obligations. Since January 2021, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates a total of 898 people (last checked on 11/07/21) dead and missing in the Mediterranean Sea – more than double the count of 2020. The number even surpasses the total count of 2019, although almost 130,000 migrants arrived by sea that year, while in 2021 there have been only 55,000 arrivals so far. With Italy keeping NGO vessels from departing and with no involvement in rescue operations from the European border agency Frontex or the EU naval mission IRINI, the EU intends to leave the work solely to the coast guards of North African states, most of all Libya, which the Union funds and technologically upgrades.


That this status quo is in line with Brussels’ vision for the future becomes evident in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed in 2020. Partnerships around migration management with non-European countries should be extended by both the EU and its member states, according to the proposal. Entry points to the EU would become zones of detention, transit, and return for those categorised as not eligible for asylum, in order to speed up procedures without having to give asylum seekers access to the country and its support structures. 

It does not come as a surprise that, across all processes, from bilateral relations with other countries to maritime surveillance, SAR coordination, border management and return, Frontex is foreseen as a key actor. The fact that the agency is currently being investigated for its involvement in pushbacks and has been criticised for its close relationship with the arms industry may be problematic for the agency, but not problematic enough for Brussels to re-evaluate this strategy. 


The future of European migration management appears to be one of distancing. Surveillance tech will distance Frontex officers from migrants. Border hotspots will distance asylum seekers from societies and job markets they might otherwise integrate into. Externalising migration control to other countries will create further distance between migrants and Europe, between the EU and acts of human rights abuse.

Regardless, in desperation, there will always be people risking their lives for a chance to make it. Today, merely a fraction of the world’s asylum seekers reside in Europe, where, counterintuitively, most migrant deaths worldwide are recorded. It comes as a bitter realisation that with the EU’s current direction, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

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Johannes Walter

Johannes Walter is the creator of the web-based storymap Building Fortress Europe ( and works in the reintegration of voluntary returnees from Germany. He also volunteers in an asylum reception centre. Johannes graduated in Anthropology (BSc) from the University of Kent.

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