A Faustian approach to migration: how long can it hold?

13 December 2016 Tuesday Reitano

The morally ambiguous deal that the EU has made with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stop the surge of migrants across the Aegean is a mere eight months old, and it is already failing on multiple fronts.

The EU’s €6 billion pact was a Faustian agreement: it may have dampened down the extreme levels of movement that characterised the latter half of 2015, but it has not stopped people risking their lives at sea in an attempt to migrate to Europe. A pivotal component of the agreement – return of even successful asylum candidates to Turkey – that was meant to deter the flow has become mired in overwhelmingly comprehensive and complex Greek asylum procedures. Only around 700 people have so far been returned – a mere four per cent of the total population waiting in squalor in Greece for a decision – while 600 people a week continue to land on the Greek Islands, even now as weather worsens, and countless more stream undetected into Europe through Istanbul’s airports on fake passports

For those committed to building peace and the resilience of communities, however, the EU-Turkey deal has set a disconcerting precedent. It has placed migration control ahead of other security and development priorities, and as a consequence, it looks likely to exacerbate fragility in a number of vulnerable contexts by resourcing and empowering conflict actors. Moreover, it has criminalised migration itself making migrants and refugees more vulnerable, and it has undermined the moral integrity of Europe as an actor on the global stage.

In return for border control on its Aegean coast, the EU has been forced to turn a blind eye to the growing authoritarianism of the Turkish regime and militant policies on its Syrian land border. Since March 2015, the 1,580km land border has been double fenced and land-mined, seriously restricting the capacity of refugees to escape the Syria conflict and allowing the build-up of communities of tens of thousands of displaced people behind the border. Following the coup attempt in July 2015, the Turkish regime has been accused of mass arrests, further repression of the media and civil liberties, as well as forced disappearances. Yet, for fear Erdogan may relax his vigilance over migrant routes, the EU must remain mute.

While arguably buying the EU only a bit of breathing space, the closure of the Turkish route has pushed migrants and refugees further east into the far more professional and violent networks facilitating sea crossings from Egypt and Libya. The result is that this year has just become the deadliest on record for sea crossings in the Mediterranean, with more than 4000 people known to have died. Countless more have died attempting to cross the Sahara, or are held in brutal conditions in situations of extortion and abuse.  The enormous profits have been diverted into the pockets of Libya’s militias, further receding the opportunity of a swift or successful end to the violent maelstrom that Libya has become.

Despite its obvious flaws, the EU is keen to replicate this effort at outsourcing its external borders, prompting it to seek out deals with a sheaf of the world’s most recalcitrant states, including in the Horn of Africa. There are numerous reasons for concern. Under the Khartoum Process, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan - a group composed of former Janjaweed fighters at whose hands lie many of the atrocities in Darfur - are being empowered by Khartoum to serve as border guards. Their force commander recently promised an end to irregular migration if the EU would end the decade of sanctions against the regime. Ethiopia has also become a privileged partner to the EU, despite the increasingly violent response to the nationwide protests. Even Eritrea is being offered EU funds to reinforce its border control and intelligence capacity, despite its national policies and punitive military conscription being the largest reason migrants give for fleeing the country (and also ignoring the fact that skirmishes have broken out recently with Ethiopia over border control, highlighting yet another layer of incoherence surrounding the EU’s approach).  

Unable to criticise their state ‘partners’, EU politicians and policymakers have turned to smugglers as the universal bad guy, repeatedly declaring they are ‘at war’ with the smugglers and that they intend to ‘break the smugglers business model’. However, the evidence from our research, presented in our new book Refugee, Migrant, Smuggler, Saviour, suggests that smuggling is driven, rather than broken, by EU policy. The closure of borders and investments in state security regimes has significantly increased the demand for, and use of, smugglers who have become the only option for those unable to leave their countries or enter countries in which protection might potentially be available to them.

Whilst we focus on the danger, the violence and the costs of smugglers, for the migrants they are by far the more manageable risk and reliable solution than capricious EU policies. Lodging a legitimate asylum claim through the proper channels may take years of waiting in limbo with no guarantee of a positive outcome. Smugglers will provide end-to-end transport in a matter of weeks. More importantly, as the popular rhetoric in the West is openly hostile and suspicious of migrants, this undermines the credibility of humanitarian agencies. Migrants have said that they see registering with UNHCR, for example, not as a way to seek protection, but instead as a scheme set up by the West to block people from achieving their aspirations, register their identities and prevent their departure from camps. Smugglers, by contrast, are there to help the people – they are a lifeline, protectors and guides. 

Fatima*, an educated young Syrian widow with a young son whose husband had died in the war, could never have escaped Syria without her smuggler: “I tried to continue my life in Latakia and take care of my child, but the explosions, the battles and the disappearances of people didn’t stop,” Fatima said, “Many women were kidnapped and raped. The city’s security was handed over to the government militias, constituted mainly by criminal gangs.” Her smuggler helped her flee the city with all of her possessions, helped her safely navigate checkpoints controlled by militant group Jabhat Al Nusra, protected her from harassment by Turkish soldiers by posing as her husband.  She gives all thanks to him that her young son now has hope of a future.

The EU-Turkey deal set a bad precedent, and a sharp change in approach is needed.  The EU has doubled-down on short-sighted, short-term policies that are more costly and that sacrifice peace, security and development at the altar of preventing immigration.  In doing so, they exacerbate the insecurity and poor governance that prompts much of these mass movements, and have compromised the trust that migrants should have in the institutions and organisations intended to protect them. To protect migrants, improve migration management and redress the insecurities and inequalities that have generated it in the first place, the EU needs to empower a much wider set actors with an interest in sustainable peace, open channels for dialogue, and invest in safe-havens for those whose reason for moving is more than justifiable.

Tuesday Reitano is the deputy director at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, a Geneva-based expert network. She has undertaken extensive research and analysis on the role of smugglers in irregular migration, and has co-authored with Peter Tinti, a book recently published by Hurst, Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour.  

*Names have been changed.


“The EU-Turkey deal set a bad precedent, and a sharp change in approach is needed. The EU has doubled-down on short-sighted, short-term policies that are more costly and that sacrifice peace, security and development at the altar of preventing immigration.”

Tuesday Reitano