Viewpoint: The legal and illegal businesses of Fortress Europe


Border controls are big business - for the companies supplying the fences, technology and equipment used to put them in place, and for the smugglers who seek to circumvent them, argues Ana González-Paramo.

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Op-ed originally published in El País: 'Los negocios legales e ilegales de la Europa fortaleza'. Translated with permission by Ana González-Paramo and Statewatch.

There is a widespread and self-interested perception that migration can be stopped. But every euro invested in hindering unavoidable human movement has undesirable consequences. Fortress Europe is not only a massive business for the companies, institutions and ideologues that make up the migration control industry - it also supports criminal groups and migrant smugglers, whose business is increasing in line with the public investments made in shielding EU borders. They are two sides of the same reality that feed each other. A system that traps origin, transit and destination countries in a reactive spiral in which a few people make a fortune while most of us lose.

From the Sahel strip or the Sahara wall, the Southern border is dotted with successive tolls or pre-frontiers, where 90% of migrants use facilitation services at any of the multiple stages of their route to Europe. After months with hardly any mobility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling are eager to make up for lost time and offer deadly journeys, re-using previous routes such as through the Canary Islands or Portugal. Five years after the 2015 migration crisis, the business of shielding and circumventing borders has become a well-established industry.

According to the United Nations, in 2016 more than 2.5 million migrants were smuggled for an economic return of five billion euros, equivalent to all EU spending on humanitarian aid worldwide in that same year. The tightening of border control laws and policies not only means more profits for smugglers, but also contributes to their proliferation.

Secondary movements of migrants, asylum seekers and stateless persons who move irregularly within the Schengen area’s walled borders also provide a profitable business for smugglers, who contact them through their respective diasporas, in detention centres or through social media. Although the ethnic and linguistic ties between smugglers and migrants are evident, this overlap disappears as one moves up the criminal chain. Indeed, out of 65,000 traffickers identified in 2018, 63% were European.

In 2017 and 2018 alone, it is estimated that smugglers may have pocketed 299 million euros exploiting the Central and Western Mediterranean routes. These networks tend to be organised in complex ways that make monitoring and prosecution very difficult. Transactions in cash or through informal payment systems  based on trust (for example, hawala), hinder judicial investigations and the tracing of proceeds. According to Europol, it is a large, profitable and sophisticated criminal market, comparable to the European drug markets.

But not all facilitators are large organized criminal groups. According to Gabriella Sánchez, a researcher at the European University Institute, there is a dominant perception of facilitation as an exclusively exploitative, inherently criminal, violent, male-dominated and non-European activity. This perception hides a much more complex reality in which local populations’ interaction with migrants in migration corridors have become a way of life and a livelihood, with little intervention by large criminal groups. The self-interested assimilation of these local networks to those of the smuggling mafias serves to justify the policies of border shielding and criminalization of migration.

Among the many resources devoted to outsourcing border controls, the current support to the Libyan regime is particularly telling. European funds end up directly supporting the systematic abuse of migrants and asylum seekers stranded in Libya to prevent and deter them from reaching Europe. It is like the wolf taking care of the sheep - a wolf that interacts with criminal groups that recruit, violate, extort and trample the rights of those seeking to be smuggled, or who may end up victims of trafficking. When European funds feed the local and tribal interests of a devastated country, the result is the normalization of brutality under the sacred mantra of security.

A recent United Nations report denounces the commercialization and mechanisation of migration management, causing a distancing from and dehumanization of migrants. The industrialization of migration controls impacts not only the routes and the human suffering, but also pushes migrants into the hands of smugglers, increasing the risk of falling into human trafficking networks. As Fundación por Causa[1] points out in its 2020 report on the Immigration Control Industry, a legal business underpins a criminal one. A perfect symbiosis enriched by policies that are clearly out of alignment with the reality and the needs of citizens.

This tale of sound and fury in which the migration narrative is hijacked has an alternative: to focus EU political and financial efforts on the real social threats on borders, such as terrorism, human trafficking, or the fight against the weapons and drugs trading. The clamour of fear-mongering and anti-migration narrative circumvents the real and necessary debate on a better migration management, based on legal, orderly and regular migration.

Ana González-Paramo is a senior resarcher at Fundación por Causa.

Further reading


[1] Migration Control Industry (report 2020):

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