Finland and Italy want more military involvement in migration control


The Finnish and Italian governments last month presented a plan on “countering instrumentalization of migration and migrant smuggling” to the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, calling for “innovative ways” to address the issues – including by increased cooperation between the EU and NATO.

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Countering "hybrid threats": the Polish army deployed at the border with Belarus in 2021. Image: , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Finland and Italy want more military involvement in migration control

The Finnish and Italian governments last month presented a plan on “countering instrumentalization of migration and migrant smuggling” to the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, calling for “innovative ways” to address the issues – including by increased cooperation between the EU and NATO.

Hybrid threats

The “non-paper” (pdf) argues that the EU and NATO “should further develop their means of responding to hybrid threats,” a military term that in recent years has come to encompass the “instrumentalization” of migrants by non-EU states.

The Finnish government became particularly keen on the topic after around 1,300 asylum seekers arrived at its border crossings with Russia between August and December, leading to Finland to shut the crossings and accuse Russia of “instrumentalising” migration.

In what has become something of a standard practice in such situations, a visit by Ursula von der Leyen followed, during which she was given a helicopter tour of the border region and referred to the situation as a “hybrid attack.”

The Finnish government is also working on “temporary legislation that will allow authorities to block asylum seekers arriving from Russia,” alongside other measures that will limit the rights of refugees in the country.

The country has hosted the joint EU-NATO “European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats,” since it was set up in 2017, and von der Leyen recently asked former prime minister Sauli Niinistö to draft “a report on how to enhance Europe's civilian and defence preparedness and readiness.”

The Italian government, for its part, has long sought to find new ways to crack down on irregular migration, in particular by stepping up cooperation with the Libyan coast guard and finding new ways to crack down on the activities of civilian rescue ships.

While the note highlights both countries’ support for the new Crisis and Force Majeure Regulation, which cements the concept of instrumentalisation in EU law, they also consider that more should be done to address “hybrid threats” in the form of people arriving at Europe’s borders.

Send in the troops

Under the heading “instrumentalisation of migration,” the non-paper calls on the EU and NATO to “use all tools available in a flexible manner and develop, inter alia, situational awareness and threat assessments.”

Elsewhere, it proposes using the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions “to provide strategic advisory and capacity building support to the partner countries to address irregular migration.”

“Civilian CSDP Missions in Africa, such as EUBAM Libya and EUCAP Sahel Mali, are key tools also in this regard,” says the document.

The two countries also want to step up information operations abroad.

“Strategic communication should be directed at third countries, which are being targets of influence communication by malicious actors,” they argue. “Countering foreign information manipulation and interference is most effective by strengthening our own communication and narratives and communicating proactively.”

Violent partnerships

The paper also sets out ideas on how the EU might better deal with the phenomenon of migrant smuggling.

The two states say “it is essential to conclude strategic partnerships between the EU and non-EU countries that contribute towards developing the law enforcement and border control capabilities but also the migration management competences of these countries,” highlighting the memorandum of understanding with Tunisia as “a good template.”

The note does not mention the violence and abuse that has been meted out to black people in Tunisia since the government of Kais Said began espousing its own take on the European far-right’s “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

That violence has continued unabated: over the weekend hundreds of black African migrants were deported to the desert border with Algeria after informal settlements in Sfax and other towns were raided by police.

According to Finland and Italy, the deal with Tunisia sets the standard “for further balanced, comprehensive, mutually beneficial partnerships with third countries,” and highlights “the importance of ensuring its full implementation.”

Doing so will require a more prominent role for Europol and Frontex, says the note, which asserts a need to “harness all the capabilities of Frontex in line with the whole-of-route concept through effectively deploying the Agency in third countries.”

The note does not consider any possible downsides to this approach, but not everyone is convinced. The academic Mariana Gkliati has argued that:

“While the EU sees instrumentalisation as an existential threat that should allow for the derogation of even the most basic rights, it continues to feed the phenomenon by strengthening the role of third States and increasing its dependence on neighbouring and other third countries and its own vulnerability towards such measures of coercion.”

More deportations

The paper also raises some suggestions on how to increase deportations from the EU, though none of the proposals are new.

It calls on the co-legislators – the Council and the Parliament – to finish negotiations on the revamped Returns Directive, and to ensure it is aligned “with the New Pact on Migration and Asylum as well as the reformed Schengen Borders Code.”

They also reiterate their call for “a network of comprehensive partnerships with key partner countries of origin and transit,” and for the EU “to use all available leverages, including development, visa and trade policy, and external relations in a more strategic way to improve concrete readmission cooperation but also to support the creation of a sustainable common return policy.”

All these instruments are already being deployed in one way or another by the EU – substantial amounts of development aid are being spent on migration control projects, visa sanctions are being put in place against countries that do not cooperate with deportations, and negotiations on a revised trade tariff scheme also include provisions on readmission cooperation.

Discussions on a “common return policy” are also ongoing. As highlighted in the new Statewatch bulletin Outsourcing borders, the topic has been on the agenda of Council working parties frequently over the last few months, along with discussions on the EU’s “reintegration” programmes.

What reception the Finnish-Italian “non-paper” received from other EU member states remains unknown. It was on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council on 22 April. A press officer for the council told Statewatch that “it was mostly an information point and no formal decision was taken.”


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Further reading

16 December 2021

EU: Asylum and borders proposals: the only attack taking place is the attack on peoples’ rights

In response to the arrival of thousands of people at the EU's borders with Belarus, the European Commission has published a raft of new proposals that would weaken asylum rights and strengthen border surveillance and controls. Described as “temporary” on 1 December, proposals published this week would allow their enactment whenever the Council deems migrants are being “instrumentalised” to “attack” the European Union.

10 November 2021

EU: The ‘weaponised migration’ discourse dehumanises asylum-seekers

Following the arrival of a substantial number of people in Poland and Lithuania after having crossed the border from Belarus, the EU and its member states have accused the regime of Alexander Lukashenko of "weaponising migration" - a discourse that legitimises the treatment of asylum-seekers "as other than human".


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