Building Bridges to Block Borders: How international coalitions often fail to address refugees’ human needs.
It is essential that countries work together in response to increasing global migration. As refugees cross between territories to find safety, international cooperation can facilitate support systems for refugees in the liminal spaces between nations or even continents. At the 72nd annual Executive Committee meeting at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi stated ‘None of us can do this alone. But if we work together – together! – with courage and humility, and in a true spirit of solidarity, putting the common good before individual and national considerations, then we have a chance to succeed.” As Grandi recognises, international cooperation must place ‘common good’ above ‘national considerations’. However, recent instances of increased international cooperation have failed to prioritise the needs of refuges over those of a nation.
The recent tragedy in Melilla can be seen as an example of how international cooperation can fail to work towards the ‘common good’. On the 24 June 2022, 23 migrants died at the border fence between Moroccan territory Nador and the Spanish province of Melilla situated on the northern coast of Morocco. This caused outrage among human rights organisations, as it is one of the highest mortality rates triggered by recent attempted crossings .
Both Amnesty International and The New Humanitarian have noted that immediately prior to these events, Spanish and Moroccan relations improved when Spanish Prime minister Pedro Sánchez sanctioned Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara in March 2023, an issue which had caused tensions between the two nations in the past. Although such correlations remain the subject of speculation due to the lack of a sufficient formal investigation into the events, the EU Observer notes Sanchez’ statement on the Western Sahara led to Moroccan forces strengthening their police force on the border and increasing punitive measures against migrants. Paradoxically, then, newly improved relations between the nations may have triggered the opposite effect for refugees in the area, as it led to increased draconian measures against them from border forces. Both Spanish and Moroccan border police have been accused of using ‘unlawful’ force during the incident which contributed to the stampede leading to the deaths.
In Dr. Kenneth Acha’s list of the 7 fundamental human needs, the first is Safety/security and survival. The increased use of police force against migrants not only fails to cater to this need among the refugees involved, but also actively threatens a migrant’s safety.
Months on, human rights groups have criticised the lack of sufficient investigation into the tragedy, noting how both Spanish and Moroccan forces seem allied in a joint effort of cover-up. Amnesty International and Walking Borders are among the groups which have asserted that the death toll was likely as high as 37, despite the official statistics. Both Morocco and Spain have denied responsibility for the incident and blamed migrants for the deaths, further criminalising the victims of the tragedy.
The correlation between improved international relations and migration policies which adopt a punitive stance towards vulnerable migrants has precedent. In a statement to the New Humanitarian, Judith Sunderland, the associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Asia Central Division, asserted: ‘[There are often] crackdown[s] on undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in those countries on the heels of renewed declarations of partnership’.
Within the last few weeks, Britain has formed a ‘renewed’ cooperative relationship with another nation. Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron have signed a new deal addressing migration between the French and English border. Reports of the deal have emphasised the amicable relationship between the two political leaders: The Politico reports Sunak’s observations that ‘There’s a shared desire to strengthen the relationship’, and how ‘The UK and France share a special bond and a special responsibility’. This comes after Macron and Johnson’s poor relationship and failed negotiations over migration in the past few years.
The UK government’s press release on the new deal states this ‘Enhanced cooperation aims to increase the interception rate for attempted crossings’ of the border between France and England. The UK will give France £478 million to fund increased border controls. In the deal, the French border police force is set to more than double and patrols will increase by 40%.. Additionally, drones will be used to increase surveillance, and the UK’s funding will contribute to the construction of a new detention centre for illegal migrants in France.
This deal comes in tandem with the UK’s new Illegal Migration Bill, which will make any migrant who travels to Britain illegally unable to attain asylum, including children. This can be seen as a breach of Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ Both the Bill and Sunak’s new deal with Macron approach asylum seekers as criminals who need to be stopped, failing to recognise the situations of migrants which may lead them to attempt illegal border crossings.
Macron and Sunak’s new deal focuses almost entirely on controlling the border between the two nations. There is almost no information on the human refugees such policies will affect and no detail about how their needs will be addressed. The government press release describing the deal states that resources for illegal migrants to help ‘rebuild their lives’ will be provided in ‘another safe third country’, thus displacing responsibility for these support networks onto other nations. The UN’s online guide addressing how we can maintain human rights at international borders states that while law enforcement does have ‘an important role’ it ‘should not be central to border control’. It states ‘A militarised response, including through the deployment of military equipment, to people seeking to cross international borders is at odds with efforts to ensure safe migration’. Sunak and Macron’s deal breaches these guidelines, as law enforcement has been placed at the core of their policies. The promised deployment of drones and other military equipment, according to these guidelines, may also, similarly to the situation in Melilla, endanger the safety of the migrants at the border.
In fact, Macron and Sunak’s deal has been condemned as a violation of human rights. Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian calls the policy ‘a disgrace’. Similarly, Amnesty international has launched a campaign encouraging readers to email their MP to prevent the Illegal Immigration Bill from passing, describing it as ‘using lies and hate-filled language that could end with more division, hatred and violence’. In a statement reported on the High Council for Human Rights Website, Mohammad Asif, an Afghan refugee and director for the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, accused the UK government of displacing blame for the crisis from themselves onto the ‘easy target’ of refugees.
Equally, many have pointed out that the deal may not even fulfil Sunak’s promise to ‘stop the boats’ crossing the channel. Asif says the deal ‘will not stop the boats but drive asylum-seekers underground’. Theresa May is among the Tory MPs who have echoed Asif’s observation. Similarly, the UN guidebook on international border policies states deterrence policies often do not stop crossings and can even be seen as ‘purposely funnelling the migration routes into more hazardous terrain’. It says ‘Those policies increase the likelihood that migrants will be in vulnerable situations during their journeys’. Sunak and Macron’s amicable relationship contrasts with their policies which likely will not only fail to stop illegal immigration, but also make the process more dangerous.
While the UK’s policies prioritise stopping border crossings into the UK, Britain’s intake of asylum seekers is below the average numbers of EU27 countries. The UK Parliament’s Asylum statistics report published on 1 March reports that in 2021 the UK had 9 asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK, compared with the 14 applications per 10,000 people across the EU27. Not only does this new deal fail to cater to the ‘common good’ of refugees, but its attempt to minimise the numbers of asylum seekers in the UK also does not fulfil any pressing need for our nation to reduce the numbers of those seeking asylum.
Both the relationship between Spain and Morocco and the UK and France have failed to address the human needs of refugees. Moving forward, Sunak and Macron’s renewed amicable relationship needs to be extended to the people crossing these borders. Nations must cooperate to improve the safety of migrants, rather than to support punitive policies centred on increasing border controls which are often both dangerous for migrants, and ineffective for the countries involved.
Cassia is a third year English student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.