Introduction: The role of #distance
The externalization of European border control can be defined as the range of processes whereby European actors and Member States complement policies to control migration across their territorial boundaries with initiatives that realize such control extra-territorially and through other countries and organs rather than their own. The phenomenon has multiple dimensions. The spatial dimension captures the remoteness of the geographical distance that is interposed between the locus of power and the locus of surveillance. But there is also a relational dimension, regarding the multiplicity of actors engaged in the venture through bilateral and multilateral interactions, usually through coercive dynamics of conditional reward, incentive, or penalization. And there are functional and instrumental dimensions too, concerning the cost-effectiveness of distance-creation (in both ethical and legal grounds) vis-à-vis the (unwanted) migrant, who, removed from sight, is no longer considered of concern to the supervising State, and the range of externalizing policy devices at the service of externalising agents in terms of purpose, format, delivery, and ultimate control. European borders thus (re-)emerge as ubiquitous, multi-modal and translational systems of coercion – as an interconnected network of ‘little Guantánamos’. This, in turn, creates a distance, both physically and ethically, that is utilized to shift away concomitant responsibilities.
Distance, as the next sections will demonstrate, plays a crucial role as a mechanism not only of dispersion of legal duties, blurring the lines of causation and making attribution of wrongful conduct a difficult task, but also as an artefact of oppression and displacement in itself. It does not prevent (unwanted) migration but rather makes it unviable through legally sanctioned, safe channels, diverting it through ever more perilous routes. The immediate effect of this distance that externalization engenders is at least threefold. First, it leads to the disempowerment of migrants, who are left with no options for safe and legal escape, being instead coerced into dangerous courses operated by smugglers. Second, it legitimizes the actors enforcing externalized control on behalf, and for the benefit, of the European Union and its Member States. Repressive forces in third countries gain standing as valid interlocutors for cooperation, as a result; their democratic and human rights credentials becoming secondary, if at all relevant, as the Libyan case illustrates below. Third, legal alternatives, like the relaxation of controls or the creation of safe and regular pathways, are rejected; perceived as an illogical concession to the failure of the externalization project.
The final outcome, and what constitutes the focus of this contribution, is the ‘border-induced displacement’ effect, resulting from the combination of the processes of extraterritorialisation and externalization taken together. Border-induced displacement is not equivalent to the original reasons forcing people into exile, but rather functions as a second-order type of (re-)displacement, produced precisely via (the violence implicated in) border control. This then leads to forms of ‘engineered regionalism’, that is, politics re-producing displacement in certain areas closest to the origin of flows. ‘Safe third country’ rules and practices are the main vehicle of this development, discernible also within the EU, where the Dublin System has ‘rulified’ an asymmetric allocation of responsibility for asylum claims to peripheral countries situated at the external common frontiers of the Union, like Spain, Italy and Greece. In the case of externalization, border-induced displacement is then imposed upon already-displaced persons by non-European actors implementing the EU’s pre-emptive control agenda, reinforcing prevailing patterns of exploitation and existing hierarchies of exclusion and subordination.
The ethical and legal consequences of ‘distance-creation’ are what we turn to analyse in the remainder of this article. Section 2 pays attention to the assumptions and ethical and political-economic dimensions behind this strategy, discussing exit control, coercion, and the democratic legitimization of unelected actors enforcing the EU border within third countries. Section 3 investigates the legal impact of externalization and extraterritorialization, centring on the apparent accountability gaps that it generates, contesting the legality of responsibility dispersion mechanisms. The overall conclusion we reach is that the ‘rulification’ of externalization at EU level does not render it ethically and legally tenable under international law. The ‘lawification’ at EU level of practices inconsistent with human rights is insufficient to render them compatible with international legal standards.
2. Ethical distance-creation: Examining attempts to justify externalization and border-induced displacement
Although immigration ethics has thrived as a discipline since its late arrival in the 1980s, debates on border control between cosmopolitanism and liberal nationalism have often remained at an ideational level and generally based on liberal democratic foundations, thus overlooking the composite ways through which border control is realized and experienced on the ground. This includes practices of externalization and extra-territorialization. Often, the assumptions guiding ethical debates on border control have reproduced a territorially trapped gaze, circumscribed by methodological nationalism, which, through a set of idealized premises, reduces the complex and transnational dynamics of displacement and border control to a phenomenon of mis-placement between territorially bordered societies. Such reduction is marred by what can be called reactive and regionalist postulations. These view border control, first, as a manifestation of State agency, and, second, as only a response to migration flows. Third, they naturalize the containment of displacement within certain regions, perceiving the phenomenon as geographically and morally distant from Europe.
But immigration ethics is far from alone in reproducing methodological nationalism and reactive and regionalist conjectures, as these mirror prevailing paradigms about the relationship between displacement and borders. However, it is instructive, nonetheless, to examine European externalization by applying existing ethical debates about the democratic legitimacy, coercion, and rights of border control to the issue of externalization.
2.1. The democratic legitimacy question
One fundamental debate has concerned the democratic legitimacy of border control as such. Assuming that freedom and democracy are instrumentally valuable for securing individual autonomy, a principled concern is that the coercive aspects of border control amount to violations of autonomy when they happen without the consent of those exposed to them. In order for border control to be legitimate from a liberal democratic perspective, it would have to be justifiable to non-members – however the demos may initially be defined – through a deliberative process. Yet, proponents of border control might argue that access to asylum procedures can resolve this concern, if asylum applications are seen as granting such deliberative voice to them. Although this debate has only concerned an undifferentiated notion of border control, we can extend it to the politics of externalization, if we imagine proponents to argue that, if externalized control is able to respect individual autonomy, it might also be deemed democratically legitimate. The strength of such an argument will then depend on the meaning and function of externalization.
European externalization processes occur when European Member States, through bi-, multi- or supranational venues, complement policies of controlling cross-border migration into their territories with pre-emptive initiatives realizing such control extra-territorially and/or through sub-contracting to actors and agencies other than their own. Externalization has been discussed in terms of policy transfer, issue-linkages, and ripple effects, but, crucially, its dynamics apply also to intra-European relations. For many years, the Dublin system has served to transfer the border control burdens of North-Western Member States to South-Eastern ones, causing heated discussions about lacking solidarity, similar to those between European and non-European countries.
Justifications offered for externalization oscillate between grammars of securitized control and humanitarian care. For instance, the June 2018 proposal by the EU ministers about ‘controlled centres’ and ‘regional disembarkation platforms’, whereto ‘boat migrants’ can be deported, is framed as an innovative idea allowing Member States both to ‘stem illegal migration’ and simultaneously save vulnerable migrants by breaking the ‘business model’ of smugglers and traffickers purportedly in accordance with human rights and the rule of law.
Yet, the 2018 externalization proposal is not as innovative as it may seem. Between the 1980s and mid-2000s, five very similar – and similarly controversial – externalization proposals were put forth by the British, Danish, Dutch, and German governments and by the European Commission. And they all revolved around externalized centres in Eastern Europe and North Africa whereto EU Member States would send asylum seekers or interdicted ‘boat migrants’. The terminologies varied from ‘regional protection areas’ by the British, ‘processing centres’ by the Danes, ‘reception centres’ by the Dutch, ‘EU reception centres’ by the German, and ‘Regional Protection Programmes’ (RPPs) by the European Commission. All but the RPP proposal focused on administrative deportation from European territory, so that, as put by the Blair government, ‘refoulement should be possible and the notion of an asylum seeker in[land] should die’. By 2005, the German proposal had dropped any talk of extraterritorial asylum processing and moved on to identifying Libya as a promising collaborator for pre-emptive containment. In light of the concurrent dysfunctional intra-European dynamics of the Dublin system, the proposals between 1986 and 2018 illustrate how the externalization logic has long been invoked as a magic remedy to the Dublin ills, always couched in crisis-laden and emergency-driven rhetoric, while also holding out vague promises of protection.
Externalization can be criticized for co-opting protection in favour of methods of ‘consensual containment’ that re-produce displacement in regions neighbouring the EU. For instance, especially since 2017, Italy and the EU have pursued a policy of transferring search and rescue to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard (LYCG), thereby effectively turning missions into operations of exit control. It is due to their material contribution and close involvement in the internal command-and-control structure of the Libyan forces that the LYCG performed 19,452 pull-backs in 2017. Political discourses on externalization can, however, be seen as arguing that this kind of regionalist engineering creates ‘protection elsewhere’ based on three claims, popular in ethical discussions on border control within liberal national regimes. In the following, we analyse them through standing ethical debates about coercion and prevention, peoples’ rights to enter and exit territories, and democratic legitimacy.
2.2. Coercion: From ‘protection elsewhere’ to ‘protection nowhere’
First comes the claim that border control, and thus also its externalized manifestations, is not illegitimately coercive, because it is only preventive. Here, coercion has been referred to as when individuals are forced to do a specific thing, while prevention is taken to mean when they are forced not to do a specific thing. Second comes the aforementioned argument that border control can be legitimate when agreed upon democratically. Third follows the statement of an entry/exit-asymmetry signifying that people’s rights against one State not to prevent them from exiting its territory is held to be morally paramount, but that it does not entail an equally forceful obligation on any other State to let them enter their territory.
Combining these claims, we then arrive at a ‘protection elsewhere’ argument maintaining that externalization is legitimate, since agreed to by all governments involved, and because it preserves displaced persons’ rights through extraterritorial asylum processing. Even if the policy may block their movement, this argument goes, it only prevents them from entering European territory, while still allowing them to find protection elsewhere, after having exited their own country. The zero-sum game effect that the generalisation of this policy would generate goes unaverted – if all countries did the same there would be ‘protection nowhere’.
But this argument is categorically flawed. Its definitions of coercion and prevention are problematic and rest upon a disconnect between abstract assumptions about border control guiding liberal nationalistic immigration ethics and the actual reality of displacement and European border surveillance, discounting its concrete effects on the ground. EU externalization practices yield extremely coercive checks amounting to violent regimes of exit control, also contravening the legally-sanctioned right – assumed in debates on immigration ethics – to leave one’s own country. That is, even if one, for the sake of argument, assumes the right to exit to hold more value than that of entry – since at international law one is universally applicable while the other is only opposable to one’s own country – actual externalization practices still violate not just the latter, but also the former. The containment of migrants in Libyan detention structures, for instance, reveals an abusive regime that bars access to asylum. Amnesty International has counted twenty reports from reliable monitors, including UN and EU sources, attesting to this reality. The abject brutality facing displaced persons, contained and circulated through externalization, can only be labelled non-coercive prevention from a Eurocentric, and extremely abstract vantage point. In truth, they cause suffering on such a scale that they may amount to atrocity crimes, according to the ICC Prosecutor, and, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has put it, they constitute ‘an outrage to the conscience of humanity’ – at least as far as the situation in Libya is concerned. Collaborative border infrastructures are endowed with the power to coerce at a distance, with externalization leading to practices of ‘remote control’ that extraterritorially negate access to the European asylum systems to those (theoretically) entitled to international protection, literally ‘trapping’ migrants in a constant ‘cycle of abuse’.
Nevertheless, even if the ethical ‘protection elsewhere’ argument must be rejected as an invalid justification for current European externalization policies the reasons for it are instructive. Seeing how externalization produces highly coercive collaborative regimes of exit control makes clear the problematic ramifications of the reactive and regionalist assumptions on which it rests. Conventional views on international relations and forced migration see the displacement to which borders respond as induced by conflicts or developmental or environmental factors. Yet, while attention to the causes of displacement is important, this model embraces borders as only reactive to – rather than also constitutive of – displacement. But this is wrong. A range of border practices and infrastructures, performed at or beyond the physical frontiers of the EU, such as interdiction, detention, and deportation, do not just react to, but also in themselves cause displacement, by diverting flows towards increasingly dangerous routes and by multiplying death ratios at sea and at border zones. This ‘border-induced displacement’, therefore, challenges the regionalist and reactive premise that the production of forced migration is primarily a problem created outside European territory and agency and contests the structural incorporation of (foreseeably lethal) coercion as a legitimate mechanism of border control.
EU-Libyan relations, since the 2000s, illustrate how externalization has built the infrastructures enabling this kind of coercive re-displacement. This problematizes prevailing assumptions still dominating immigration ethics and politics, namely that the agency of border control consists of States’ discretion over movement across their territorial borders. Externalization underscores the need to consider more composite notions of agency – and thus responsibility – decoupled from national territories, and spanning several governments, organisations as well as non-state actors.
The decades-long European-Libyan collaboration on border control is a case in point. After the European Commission decided to lift its arms embargo against Libya in 2004, two ‘technical missions’ followed. The first, in 2004, was meant to ‘identify concrete measures for possible balanced EU-Libyan cooperation particularly on illegal immigration’ and the second, in 2007, to develop ‘an operational and technical partnership’ for extraterritorial border control. The case of Libya is but one example of how European externalization policies have facilitated the transformation of European border control into a flourishing market of violent deterrence and containment, with little to do with a rights-based protection paradigm, and also how third countries’ control apparatuses have become a lucrative export venture for the arms-, security-, and IT-industries of the EU Member States.
2.3. Trading in rights for border control
Companies like Spanish Indra, British BAE Systems, Italian Leonardo, French Thales and Ocea, Dutch Damen, German Rheinmetall and Airbus all compete for contracts to expand the capacity for surveillance and control of not just Libya, but also other Eastern European, North African and Middle Eastern countries collaborating on EU externalization. In 2012, an industrial consulting actor valued the global border industry at €25.8 billion, projecting an increase to €56 billion by 2022. And European sales of patrol boats, jeeps, planes, drones, satellites, helicopters, radar systems and whole surveillance mechanisms for border control purposes were part of the EU export licenses worth €82 billion to the Middle East and North Africa between 2005–2014. This political economy of externalization also applies to the industries of EU partner countries. For instance, in 2016, the EU channelled more than €83 million to contracts with Turkish Aselsan and Otokar to provide heavily armoured vehicles placed, respectively, at the Greek-Turkish border and the newly constructed 911 kilometre border-wall between Turkey and Syria.
The dynamics reshaping third-country border infrastructures elucidate how borders can function as engines of, rather than just responses to, displacement. This means that arguments for externalization appealing to democratic legitimacy face more problems than merely the barring of access to asylum procedures: First, because when EU Member States use their political-economic leverage to make externalization deals with non-EU countries, they are effectively asking them to replace their own public interest with the EU preference of avoiding asylum seeker flows towards the Member States. Second, because several examples, like the EU collaboration with Libyan actors, including militias and former traffickers, as further discussed in the next section, illustrate how the EU’s externalization partners very often lack democratic legitimacy. EU border externalization entrenches forms of undemocratic governance in third countries, empowering undemocratic actors, transforming their relative weight within domestic structures, and weakening democratic channels of scrutiny, accountability, and power control. Externalization thereby risks creating a vicious cycle, where the influx of arms and funds to those actors willing to enact the European containment agenda grants them political validity, which is then used to undermine not only migrant rights, but also to repress domestic opposition and dissidence and thus destabilize internal democratisation processes. The short-term European goal of preventing asylum seeker flows thereby risks compromising the stated long-term goal of tackling the root causes of displacement, which is sacrificed in the altar of externalised ‘integrated border management’.
3. Legal distance-creation: The juridical implications of externalization and border-induced displacement
Externalization has not only been encapsulated in political and policy arguments and practices, but has also been embedded in law through the ‘protection elsewhere’ model. The ‘protection elsewhere’ model ultimately rests on the assumption that refugees and migrants are best served ‘at home’, whether it be in their countries of origin or in the neighbouring region (but away from the EU at any rate). ‘Onward movements’ defy this logic and are thus seriously penalized. Responsibility for reception and asylum has accordingly been delegated (or redirected) to countries proximate to the source of flows, via targeted rules on ‘safe third countries’ and readmission agreements that legalise the practice. But, as stated above, this (re-)allocation of protection duties to peripheral States is also part and parcel of the Common European Asylum System within the EU. The Dublin Regulation enshrines and ‘rulifies’ this vision for the Member States, allowing non-external border countries to deflect responsibility in a legal manner.
Against this background, EU countries feel legitimized to claim their own irresponsibility vis-à-vis non-Member States, projecting the model onto their external relations and imposing compliance with EU control rules as a matter of course. Fatalities at sea and elsewhere are then presented as the result of disorder and illegality; something avoidable if only (EU) rules were observed and effectively enforced by non-EU partners. The structural conditions imposed by the externalization apparatus, and the injustice that ensues, are usually disregarded or downplayed as unintended collateral damage. The fact that illegality is the only way out of a situation of want or persecution, and that smuggling is the only remaining vehicle to reach safety, is routinely silenced. It is the smugglers who profit of the precarious situation of ‘boat migrants’ – the argument goes. So, the eradication of smuggling and a return to (EU) law and order is portrayed as the solution. The option to relax border control rules and adapt them to the imperatives of human dignity, decriminalising the irregular movement of forced migrants, is not even contemplated. That would be perceived as an illogical concession; a descent into chaos and the negation of the rule of (EU) law. This EU-centric conception of the law is what sustains the externalization edifice and nurtures the collaboration with third countries.
At the legal-strategic level, externalization politics are accompanied by at least two degrees of ‘irresponsibilitization’, enshrined in, and sanctioned by, EU law: responsibility diffusion and responsibility denial. ‘Diffusion’ refers to the relational dimension of externalization, to situations of multi-actor alliance where the causation chain and attribution operation become unclear, with different agents and organs of different States contributing to a particular (unlawful) result. By contrast, ‘denial’ captures scenarios of outright disclaiming of responsibility, where this is said to belong to a different actor altogether, according to the (usually EU-based) rules in place (or their self-serving interpretation).
3.1. Responsibility diffusion
The creation of physical distance, via exit control, disembarkation platforms, holding sites, or reception camps abroad, contributes to ‘irresponsibilitization’ through diffusion. None of the proposals put forth so far clarifies exactly who should be considered responsible for those intercepted in, and repatriated to, Libya or any alternative location hosting the centres. The overall supposition appears to be that EU Member States would ultimately escape the task. But there is some residual notion that European countries could not completely ‘circumvent’ their obligations – albeit without elaboration, even the Legal Service of the European Parliament concedes that migrants sent to disembarkation platforms located outside the territory of the Member States ‘should benefit from the guarantees provided for in the 1951 Geneva Convention […] and in the European Convention of Human Rights’, including the principle of non-refoulement.
Actually, under international law, ‘no State can avoid responsibility by outsourcing or contracting out its obligations’. Cooperation with third countries does not exonerate EU Member States from their non-refoulement and related duties – both under general customary law and as per the relevant international Conventions. According to the Strasbourg Court, ‘[w]here States establish […] international agreements to pursue cooperation in certain fields of activity’, whatever their legal nature, validity, and intent, ‘there may be implications for the protection of fundamental rights’. With this in mind, it would be ‘incompatible with the purpose and object of the [European Convention of Human Rights] if Contracting States were thereby absolved from their responsibility under the Convention in relation to the field of activity covered by such [agreements]’. As a result, ‘[i]n so far as any liability under the Convention is or may be incurred, it is liability incurred by the Contracting State […]’. Despite its cooperation with Libya or any other third country, the independent responsibility of each EU Member State participating in the scheme of externalized migration controls subsists, ‘where the person[s] in question […] risk suffering a flagrant denial of the guarantees and rights secured to [them] under the Convention’.
Nor would Member States be able to evade responsibility by transferring functions to the UNHCR or the IOM – whatever their support and potential separate liability. ‘Absolving Contracting States completely from their Convention responsibility in the areas covered by such a transfer would [again] be incompatible with the purpose and object of the Convention’, as Strasbourg clarifies. The final effect would be for ‘the guarantees of the Convention [to] be limited or excluded at will thereby depriving it of its peremptory character and undermining the practical and effective nature of its safeguards’, negating the basic premise of the pacta sunt servanda principle. And the same is true in regard to other instruments of international human rights law.
Even though several actors combine to produce re-displacement, individual responsibility for its effects cannot be deflected. The principle is well established in international law. Article 47 of the ILC Articles on Responsibility of States for International Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA) contemplates precisely the scenario where several States participate in the same internationally wrongful act, stipulating that in such cases ‘the responsibility of each State may be invoked in relation to that act’. Each State retains responsibility and, according to the ILC Commentary, ‘is separately responsible for the conduct attributable to it’. The fact that one or more additional States also contribute to the same act in no way reduces the responsibility of each single country. So, any orders or transfers performed, or orchestrated by, EU Member States will engage their responsibility for any resulting breaches of their international commitments.
Neither the ‘disembarkation platforms’ proposal, nor any other of the similar initiatives emerged since the 1980s explored above specifies where exactly those repatriated or ‘pulled back’, whether to Libya or other third countries, would be accommodated. It is conceivable that proponents envisage offshore reception centres to be closed, since the ultimate aim is to contain and deter irregular movement. This then entails large-scale, and potentially long-term, detention, in breach of Article 5 ECHR guarantees, which have been recognised to apply extraterritorially, extending to cases of deprivation of liberty abroad. Yet, the border-induced displacement effects of externalization practices, like involuntary retention in international waters, forcible transfer to warships, coercive escorting or imposing of a certain course, constitute restrictions of physical freedom and need to accommodate the legal safeguards of the Convention.
It is not known whether the ‘disembarkation platforms’ proposal foresees transfers to the country concerned to be automatic. Should that be the case, EU Member States risk incurring direct and indirect violations of the prohibition of collective expulsion and the (non-derogable/non-limitable) protection against refoulement. Regarding the latter, the Strasbourg Court attaches paramount importance to country information contained in reports from independent sources, so that when reliable accounts of the circumstances prevailing in the receiving State make it ‘sufficiently real and probable’ that the general situation entails a ‘real risk’ of ill treatment in the sense of Article 3 ECHR, a refoulement presumption is activated and removal cannot be performed. What is more, on account of the absolute character of Article 3, Contracting Parties must undertake the relevant investigation proprio motu and abstain from actions/omissions that put individuals at risk. As the Court asserted in Hirsi, ‘it [is] for the national authorities, faced with a situation in which human rights [are] systematically violated […] to find out about the treatment to which the applicants would be exposed after their return’. So, the Member States concerned are to comply with their non-refoulement obligations proactively, regardless of whether the persons in question seek protection or specifically alert of the dangers faced upon return. The fact that potential applicants fail to request asylum or to formally oppose their removal does not absolve Contracting Parties of their Convention duties, and especially their positive due diligence obligations.
This includes the requirement to provide access to adequate procedures. Member States must offer a real opportunity for individuals to submit and defend their claims, including an ‘effective remedy’. This requires that the remedy in question be able to ‘prevent the execution of measures that are contrary to the Convention and whose effects are potentially irreversible’. Therefore, ‘it is inconsistent with Article 13 [ECHR] for such measures to be executed before the national authorities [of the Member State concerned] have examined whether they are compatible with the Convention’. In these cases, appeals must have ‘automatic suspensive effect’. And screening on board interdicting vessels or somewhere else offshore cannot satisfy these requirements. Procedural responsibilities, just like substantive guarantees, cannot be deflected, postponed, or negated. The ultimate guarantors of ECHR safeguards are the Contracting Parties, which must ‘secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in [the] Convention’.
Due diligence commands the dual duty to refrain from any conduct that may result in arbitrary violations as well as the obligation to enact laws and policies that effectively protect individuals against abuse. Following the Human Rights Committee’s recent General Comment on the Right to Life, by analogy, State Parties are required to ‘organise all State organs and governance structures through which public authority is exercised in a manner consistent with the need to respect and ensure [human rights]’. This includes a duty of ‘continuous supervision’ in order to ‘prevent, investigate, punish and remedy’ any harm. As a result, actions such as the ‘sale […] of […] weapons’, and presumably other similar law enforcement and border control equipment, must be preceded by a conscientious examination of its foreseeable impact on human rights. As members of the international community and as subjects of customary law, States must take into account
‘their responsibility […] to protect lives and to oppose widespread or systematic attacks on [human rights]’ – like those sustained by migrants in Libya. And, in particular, States have an obligation under general international law ‘not to aid or assist activities undertaken by other States and non-State actors that violate [human rights]’.
All these reasons should lead to the rejection of ‘disembarkation platforms’ and similar initiatives as ‘externalization fantasyland’. EU Member States should not invest in a formula that promotes cooperation with human rights perpetrators and impedes the fulfilment of their pre-contracted obligations – such a course would hardly qualify as a good faith implementation of their binding commitments. Instead, domestic systems of territorial protection should be reinforced, including the necessary intra-EU solidarity and responsibility-sharing mechanisms to make them effective. Physical distance-creation, through off-shoring and outsourcing, does not translate into an erasure or diminution of legal duties. EU rules on ‘safe third countries’ and readmission cannot (unilaterally) undo international standards.
3.2. Responsibility denial
Besides tools of responsibility deflection, mechanisms of outright denial of obligations are equally challenging. Usually, the capacitation of third countries’ control infrastructures, mimicking the Schengen ‘integrated border management’ system, is framed as unproblematic. The transfer of funds, know-how, and equipment, as in the cases referred to in the previous section, are considered to emanate from a spirit of solidarity with non-EU partners and to be fully in line with the relevant criteria. The ethical distance between the EU or Member State gifting assets, ceding resources, or providing training and any potential human rights violations that may ensue is taken to preclude liability. There is no intent – no dolus specialis – intervening in the operation. Thus, the denial of responsibility on the European side for the atrocities in Libya, the abuses in Turkey, or the fatalities at sea associated with border-induced displacement, commonly recurs.
Yet, international law paints a more complex picture. If one considers that it is ‘thanks’ to Italy, for instance, that the LYCG continues to exist in any functional form in the post-Kaddafi period, an outright denial of responsibility becomes difficult.
Especially since the signature of the Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and the Libyan Government of National Accord in February 2017, the delivery of training, equipment, and assets (including the four main patrol vessels employed by the LYCG) has intensified. Italy has created a dedicated ‘Africa Fund’, € 2.5 million of which has been allocated to the maintenance of LYCG boats and the training of their crews. The EU, too, has committed € 46 million to prop up Libyan interdiction capacity. It has been calculated that the total combined investment by Italy and the EU will be € 285 million by 2023, with the EU alone providing € 282 million – most of which via programmes administered, coordinated, or supervised by Italy. In addition, an extension of the Mare Sicuro Operation, named NAURAS, was approved by the Italian Parliament in August 2017, consisting of four ships, four helicopters, and 600 servicemen, of which 70 per cent are deployed at sea, with the other 30 per cent stationed in Tripoli harbour. Their key mission, as declared by the Italian Navy itself, is to ‘establish [the] operational condition[s] for LN/LNCG [i.e. Libyan Navy and LYCG] assets and develop C2 [ie command-and-control] capabilities’. Meanwhile, an ‘ITN [ie Italian Navy] naval asset in Tripoli Harbour [is] acting as LNCC [ie Libyan Navy Communication Centre] and logistic assistance/support hub’, thus assuming the function of a floating maritime rescue coordination centre.
The nature of the LYCG as a proxy for Italian interdiction has furthermore been confirmed by the judge of Catania adjudicating on the related case concerning the rescue ship Open Arms of the NGO Proactiva. In his decision, the judge takes as proven the crucial role played by Italy in leading LYCG operations. The judge goes so far as to affirm that the interventions of Libyan patrol vessels happen ‘under the aegis of the Italian Navy’ and that the coordination of rescue missions is ‘essentially entrusted to the Italian Navy, with its own naval assets and with those provided to the Libyans’. This corroborates the ‘high degree of integration’ between the two, and the ‘effective control’ exercised by Italy over LYCG operations, making ensuing violations attributable to it.
The subsequent abuse of those pulled back to Tripoli happens despite Italy’s knowledge of the desperate situation facing migrants in Libya, including widespread and systematic torture, rape, inhuman and degrading treatment, and enslavement. The Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs himself admitted that ‘taking [migrants] back to Libya, at this moment, means taking them back to hell’. Nonetheless, the interdiction by proxy policy of Italy continues. Amnesty International estimates that there are over 10,000 persons currently held in official detention centres in Libya – all of which funded through EU/Italian money. And, virtually all of them have been brought there as a result of their interdiction at sea by the EU/Italian-equipped and -trained LYCG. Consequently, the combination of control exercised – though ‘contactless’ – and the knowledge of the circumstances migrants face should be understood to render Italy answerable for the resulting human rights violations, even if the LYCG is used as a surrogate.
As per Article 8 ARSIWA, ‘[t]he conduct of a person or group of persons [such as the LYCG] shall be considered an act of a State [i.e. Italy in this case]’, when the group in question ‘is in fact acting on the instructions of, or under the direction or control of, that State in carrying out the conduct’. Taking the Italian Navy and the Judge of Catania’s assertions at face value, the LYCG are to be considered ‘auxiliaries’ of the Italian border machinery deployed extraterritorially, ‘instructed to carry out particular [interdiction] missions abroad’. The Italian Navy conducts the specific operations through its NAURAS effectives exercising coordination as well as command-and-control functions, meaning that the (wrongful) conduct of the LYCG shall be considered ‘an integral part of the operations’ aimed at impeding departures across the Central Mediterranean and thus be attributed to Italy. It is the Italian authorities that locate targets, relay maritime coordinates, and equip and mandate the LYCG to proceed to the interdiction of migrant boats. It is Italy that ‘directs’ the operations in a way that ‘does not encompass mere incitement or suggestion but rather connotes actual direction of an operative kind’. Italian intervention is a sine qua non for the ‘pull-backs’ at sea to materialise, which could not be carried out autonomously by the LYCG. Italy exercises ‘such a degree of control […] as to justify treating the [LYCG] as acting on its behalf’.
Italy’s involvement in Libyan search and rescue (or rather, interdiction) operations, in different ways and throughout time, rather than just an instance of complicity, engaging indirect responsibility, can thus be characterised as a breach entailing direct responsibility, consisting of a ‘composite act’. Article 15 ARSIWA establishes that an international obligation (of non-refoulement, for instance, and of non-arbitrary interference with the right to leave) may indeed be violated via ‘a series of actions or omissions defined in aggregate as wrongful’. The financing or training of the LYCG alone may be harmless and perfectly licit, but, when taken together and alongside the infiltration of the command-and-control chain of the LYCG by the Italian Navy, the whole, in light of the final outcome of pull-backs, becomes an illicit under international law.
Italian jurisdiction may indeed be engaged not only in relation to action occurring within its territory and in other areas subject to its ‘effective control’, but, as the Human Rights Committee has stated, also regarding conduct ‘having a direct and reasonably foreseeable impact on the right[s] […] of individuals [abroad]’. The obligation to respect and protect human rights extends beyond territorial domain to all persons subject to its jurisdiction, that is, to ‘all persons over whose enjoyment of the right[s] [concerned] it exercises power’, including ‘persons located outside any territory effectively controlled by the State, whose [rights are] nonetheless impacted by its military and other activities’ – the transfer of money, equipment and enforcement capacity thus acquiring a significance of its own as a possible trigger of independent responsibility for wrongful conduct. Not only the aiding and abetting of human rights violations is of relevance, whatever the form the assistance provided to the LYCG may take (whether commercial, financial, political, or logistical), but also actions (or omissions) that impede the effective enjoyment of human rights – counting the right to leave any country, to seek protection from harm, and to non-refoulement – matter too, from a legal perspective. Following the Legal Service of the European Parliament in the context of its viability analysis of ‘disembarkation platforms’, engagement in any formal or informal arrangement with third countries – including Libya – to finance or contribute to the functioning of externalized structures of migration control ‘have to respect the prescriptions of the relevant provisions of international law’ – presumably including those under the ECHR, the ICCPR and general customary norms. Failure to do so flouts the obligations concerned. Direct perpetration of an international wrong is not a pre-requisite for legal responsibility. Indirect contraventions – including via proxy – incur liability as well.
Distance-creation, through the ‘rulification’ of ‘irresponsibility’ in legal texts or self-seeking effectuations, does not do away with international obligations, nor does it legitimize the suffering it provokes. The EU and its Member States must come to recognise the predictable effect and implications of their externalization agenda. And, alongside the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, acknowledge that, as currently designed, their ‘migration policies can amount to ill-treatment’. Actually, ‘[t]he primary cause for the massive abuse suffered by migrants […] is neither migration itself, nor organised crime […] but the growing tendency of States to base their official migration policies and practices on deterrence, criminalisation and discrimination’. It is this distinct strategy that causes border-induced displacement, breaches human rights obligations and triggers international legal responsibility.
4. Conclusion: ‘Rulification’ as the co-option of protection
‘Rulification’ does not represent a paradigm shift in European politics, but rather an up-scaling of the logic observable also in proposals pursued from the 1980s and onwards and which have led to the integration of the concepts of ‘first country of arrival’, ‘safe third country’ and maritime interdiction within the legal architecture of the common borders and asylum acquis, the primary purpose of which has been the avoidance of asylum seekers on EU territory. It is the abuse and exploitation entrenched within externalization strategies that engenders border-induced displacement in Europe’s border-region. With EU Member States viewing the opening up of legal escape routes as an irrational concession, the side-effects of externalization are exacerbated as the systemic logic of asymmetric, diffused, and denied responsibility for displaced persons is reproduced further and further away from Europe, and closer and closer to the repressive regimes people attempt to escape from.
The reactionary and regionalist assumptions underpinning externalization arguments and practices tell a securitized tale of displacements constantly generated and managed far removed from European territory and agency. However, distance-creation strategies, whether ethical, spatial, or legal, belong to the category of ‘policies based on deterrence, militarization and extraterritoriality’, denounced by UN Special Rapporteurs and others, ‘which implicitly or explicitly tolerate [and perpetuate] the risk of migrant deaths as part of an effective control of entry’. As the previous sections demonstrate, the structural nature of externalization problematizes traditional assumptions and debates in immigration ethics and politics. It traps migrants in a ‘vicious circle’ of more control, more danger, and more displacement, where they must rely on facilitators to escape life-threatening perils.
But smuggling and trafficking is the consequence, rather than the cause, of suffering. Suffering is embedded in the externalization system by design through the vehicle of ‘rulification’, which serves to launder the pernicious (and perfectly foreseeable) impact of extra-territorialised/externalised coercion into ‘law-ified’ (and purportedly unintended) side effects. At the same time, the European transfer of equipment and capacity for control outwards also risks undermining processes of accountability and democratic legitimacy in regions bordering Europe. And the ‘rulification’ of border-induced displacement does not make these implications any more palatable. In the words of UN Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard, it is simply ‘not acceptable’ to deter entry by endangering life. The fallacy of coercion-based protection needs to give way to an ethically grounded and legally sustainable rights-honouring paradigm. This is not to contest the legal existence of borders or their enforcement, but to challenge the legitimacy of mechanisms through which they are presently enacted in a manner incompatible with the most basic requirements of international law.