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Why Spain is a Window into the E.U. Migration Control Industry

Spain’s migration control policies in North Africa dating back over a decade are now replicated across the E.U. Gonzalo Fanjul outlines PorCausa’s investigation into Spain’s migration control industry and its warning signs for the rest of Europe.

Written by Gonzalo Fanjul Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A man who recently arrived on the Spanish Canary island of Tenerife as part of the “cayuco” crisis in 2006. DESIREE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

There was a problem and we fixed it.” For laconic President José María Aznar, these words were quite the political statement. The then Spanish president was speaking in July 1996, after 103 Sub-Saharan migrants who had reached Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, were drugged, handcuffed and taken to four African countries by military aircraft.

President Aznar lay the moral and political foundations of a system based on the securitization, externalization and, increasingly, the privatization of border management. This system was consolidated by subsequent Spanish governments and later extended to the rest of the European Union, setting the grounds for a thriving business: the industry of migration control.

Between 2001 and 2010, long before Europe faced the so-called “refugee crisis,” Spain built two walls in its North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, signed combined development and repatriation agreements with nine African countries, passed two major pieces of legislation on migration, and fostered inter-regional migration initiatives such as the Rabat Process. Spain also designed and established the Integral System of External Surveillance, to this day one of the most sophisticated border surveillance mechanisms in the world.

The ultimate purpose of these efforts was clear: to deter irregular migration, humanely if possible, but at any cost if necessary.

Spain was the first European country to utilize a full array of control and cooperation instruments in countries along the migration route to Europe. The system proved effective during the “cayuco crisis” in 2005 and 2006. Following a seven-fold increase in the number of arrivals from West Africa to the Canary Islands by boat, Spain made agreements with several West African countries to block the route, forcing migrants to take the even riskier Sahel passage.

Although the E.U. questioned the humanitarian consequences of these deals at the time, less than a decade later officials across the continent have replicated large parts of the Spanish system, including the E.U. Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and agreements between the Italian and the Libyan governments.

Today, 2005 seems like different world. That year, the E.U. adopted its Global Approach on Migration and Mobility, which balanced the “prevention of irregular migration and trafficking” with promising language on the “fostering of well-managed migration” and the “maximization” of its development impact.

The combined effect of the Great Recession – an institutional crisis – and the increased arrival of refugees has diluted reformist efforts in Europe.

Since then, the combined effect of the Great Recession – an institutional crisis – and the increased arrival of refugees has diluted reformist efforts in Europe. Migration policies are being defined by ideological nationalism and economic protectionism. Many politicians in Europe are electorally profiting from these trends. The case of Spain also illustrates that the system is ripe for financial profit.

For over a year, Spanish investigative journalism organization porCausa mapped the industry of migration control in Spain. We detailed the ecosystem of actors and interests facilitating the industry, whose operations rely almost exclusively on public funding. A myriad private contractors and civil society organizations operate in four sectors: border protection and surveillance; detention and expulsion of irregular migrants; reception and integration of migrants; and externalization of migration control through agreements with private organisations and public institutions in third countries.

We began by focusing on securitization and border management. We found that between 2002 and 2017 Spain allocated at least 610 million euros ($720 million) of public funding through 943 contracts related to the deterrence, detention and expulsion of migrants. Our analysis reached two striking conclusions and one question for future research.

Firstly, we discovered the major role that the E.U. plays in Spain’s migration control industry. Just over 70 percent of the 610 million euros came from different European funds, such as those related to External Borders, Return and Internal Security, as well as the E.U. border agency Frontex. Thus, Spanish public spending is determined by the policy priorities established by E.U. institutions and member states. Those E.U. institutions have since diligently replicated the Spanish approach. With the E.U. now driving these policies forward, the approach is likely to be replicated in other European countries.

Spanish public spending is determined by the policy priorities established by E.U. institutions and member states. Those E.U. institutions have since diligently replicated the Spanish approach.

Secondly, our data highlights how resources are concentrated in the hands of a few businesses. Ten out of the 350 companies included in our database received over half of the 610 million euros. These companies have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Spanish government in other sectors such as defence, construction and communications, and are now gaining a privileged role in the highly sensitive areas of border surveillance and migration control.

Our research also surfaced a troubling question that has shaped the second phase of our inquiry: to what extent are these companies influencing Spanish migration policy? The capture of rules and institutions by elites in an economic system has been documented in sectors such as defence, taxation or pharmaceuticals. That this could also be happening to borders and migration policy should alarm public opinion and regulators. For example, the key role played by private technology companies in the design and implementation of Spain’s Integral System of External Surveillance demonstrates the need for further investigation.

Spain’s industry of migration control may be the prototype of a growing global phenomenon. Migration policies have been taken over by border deterrence goals and narratives. Meanwhile, border control is increasingly dependent on the technology and management of private companies. As E.U.-level priorities intersect with those of the highly-concentrated – and possibly politically influential – migration control industry, Europe risks being trapped in a political and budgetary vicious circle based on the premise of migration-as-a-problem, complicating any future reform efforts towards a more open migration system.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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Refugees Deeply is designed to help you understand the complex web of geopolitical, human rights, environmental, legal and other factors combining to make the refugee issue one of the most challenging of our lifetimes. Our editors and expert contributors are working around the clock to bring you greater clarity and comprehensive coverage.

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