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Europe’s Border Policies Are Sacrificing Migrant Lives for Corporate Profits

The EU’s militarized strategy only exacerbates the immigration debacle, while undermining human rights and democracy.

French gendarmes stand guard at night in front of demolished buildings in the shantytown of "Talus 2" district in Koungou, as part of Operation Wuambushu on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, on May 25, 2023. Authorities in Mayotte are carrying out Operation Wuambushu ("Take Back" in the local language) to clear slums, demolishing the makeshift settlements and sending migrants back to neighboring Comoros.

This February, France’s Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin unveiled plans for a large-scale military operation against migrants in Mayotte. The island chain hosts a major French naval base in the Indian Ocean. Since France converted Mayotte from a “territorial collectivity” to an overseas department in 2011, authorities have deported thousands of undocumented residents.

Most come from the surrounding islands seeking work. Yet ironically, French control — which the UN condemns — not only severed Mayotte from the Comoros, but turns arriving Comorians into foreigners in their own archipelago.

Last April, France already initiated what the Human Rights League called “a military-police operation of massive destruction” against refugees on the islands. Now, Darmanin promises “extremely strong” measures to curb immigration, including an end to birthright citizenship. Increasingly, European soldiers storm poor communities, raze houses and enforce identity checks against African residents.

Yet the operation signals only the latest step in the militarization of European immigration policy. This winter, the EU also elaborated plans to construct a network of migrant detention centers, and member states are deepening cooperation with African countries to crack down on asylum seekers.

Indeed, officials across Europe have long tried to seal off their borders, adopting punitive measures that enlist defense contractors, security agencies and foreign partners in a ruthless war against refugees. But their militarized strategy only exacerbates the immigration debacle, while undermining human rights and European democracy.

Imagined Enemies

Over the past three decades, arms makers have constructed both border walls and the narratives that justify them. After the Cold War, Western defense contractors faced shrinking defense budgets. In response, they reframed immigration as a national security issue, while targeting civilian law enforcement. “We were in a delicate period in terms of opportunities,” an Airbus employee recalled. “So domestic security kind of became the goose laying the golden egg: we all seized on it because there was enormous economic potential.”

Following the 9/11 attacks, military contractors consolidated this trend by stacking the expert committees advising the European Commission with company directors. They also helped spearhead the creation of the European Defence Agency in 2004, which allows states to coordinate security spending. The Transnational Institute called this collusion “a case study of backroom policy-making.” Arms makers such as Airbus maintain offices in Brussels only minutes from EU headquarters. And they publish studies that promote a hard line on immigration — portraying migrants as threats that only rising defense budgets, sophisticated technology and their own expertise can contain.

Amid a global refugee crisis that U.S.-led wars accelerated, the European Parliament released a devastating report in 2014 suggesting that corporations had seized control of policy. The document echoed Cold War anxieties about the military-industrial complex, while revealing the power of private capital in the “war on terror.” Deputies warned that arms makers were “over-represented in high-level venues that have yielded lasting influence.” By then, defense contractors and officials composed half the members of the EU security advisory group. Consequently, deputies anticipated that security research would “be mainly put at the service of industry rather than society.”

Their analysis was spot on. Between 2003 and 2013, large tech and arms corporations led at least 39 European research projects focusing on immigration control. The European Commission allocated €791 million alone for its Smart Borders program before parliament could even vote on it. A parliamentary staffer noted that deputies often find themselves with their backs “against the wall.” Stopping programs like Smart Borders or the European Border Surveillance System is almost impossible, “when there are already tens of millions earmarked for projects.” The commission even rammed through the development of robotic dogs, arguing that they are the “most effective method for finding humans hidden in vehicles.”

Defense conglomerates such as Thales, Finmeccanica and Airbus do not just benefit from border control. They are also among the largest European arms exporters to the Middle East and North Africa. In other words, they fuel the very immigration crises that they promise to solve — and profit from both.

From January 2020 to January 2023, EU members awarded almost €94 billion in arms exports licenses to the Middle East. Thales advertises its “expertise in the field of border surveillance,” while boasting that its biometric technology has allowed the EU to drastically reduce asylum applications in recent years. By portraying foreigners as threats, arms makers have taught the public to see immigration as a national security issue, turning walls into weapons and migrants into enemies to combat.

Pushing Back

Beyond enriching defense conglomerates, punitive immigration policies concentrate political power in security bureaucracies — placing refugees in the hands of unaccountable and violent institutions. To cut off access by sea, the EU launched Operation Sophia in 2015, its first naval operation in the Mediterranean. At its height, 27 countries contributed ships, airplanes and submarines to the prowling sea wall. Officers portrayed it as a humanitarian force. But in private, they argued that personnel should be “exempt from search and rescue when actively conducting anti-smuggling operations.”

They also recognized that Sophia made the Mediterranean more dangerous for migrants. By destroying smugglers’ wooden ships, authorities encouraged them to use flimsy rubber boats. One memo confides that these vessels are distress cases “from the moment they launch.”

Eventually, journalists revealed that the EU border control agency, Frontex, systematically expels immigrants from Europe, violating their right to seek asylum. Le Monde and The New York Times have even caught Greek officials cramming refugees into broken boats before abandoning them in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Such revelations forced Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri to resign in 2022. Previously, Leggeri denied that the agency performed illegal “pushbacks.” After his resignation, he all but acknowledged them. “Between the imperative not to allow people to cross irregularly and the other, the principle of non-refoulement (which forbids pushbacks) as everyone in need of protection has the right to asylum, how should we act?” he vented. “No one can give me the answer.”

Since the Cold War ended, European countries have built over 1,000 kilometers of border fencing — the equivalent of six Berlin Walls.

This February, investigators revealed that Frontex shares the positions of asylum seekers at sea with Libya, so authorities can haul them back to Africa. Director Hans Leijtens admits that since 2021 the agency has sent 2,200 emails with the coordinates of migrants to Libyan officials. Moreover, Leggeri recently launched a campaign for a seat in the European Parliament, brandishing the banner of the French far right and promising to “combat migratory submersion.”

In recent years, European security budgets have ballooned, and Frontex receives more funding than any other EU agency. Yet such institutions are turning the Mediterranean into a wall that swallows refugees. Ultimately, immigration bureaucracies militarize borders, while promising to keep Europe safe from people who are actually the victims of its policies.

Building Up

Along the Mediterranean, immigration enforcement drives a military construction boom. Since the Cold War ended, European countries have built over 1,000 kilometers of border fencing — the equivalent of six Berlin Walls. Spain became a bulwark of EU policy by managing the Integrated System of External Surveillance (SIVE), the first “virtual border” in Europe. The invisible network of thermal cameras, sensors and satellites stretches from Tarragona to the Canary Islands.

Authorities also funded fence construction in Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in North Africa, while enhancing immigration enforcement with Morocco. Both cities enjoy representation in Spain’s parliament and attract migrants seeking asylum in Europe. Between 2000 and 2015, Melilla alone received over half of the €77 million that European leaders dedicated to wall construction in three key states.

But the punitive turn in policy proved deadly. In 2005, Moroccan forces killed at least five migrants and injured 100 others trying to scale the razor wire perimeter around Ceuta. Another massacre transpired in 2014 when the Spanish Guardia Civil attacked a crowd of immigrants floating off the coastline. Many in the water could barely swim, desperately gripping the waves as gunshots reverberated overhead. Fifteen died under the hail of bullets and canisters oozing smoke.

Images of migrants straddling the walls with bloody hands and feet — as if living icons of the crucifixion — sparked a public outcry, forcing the government to remove the razor wire. Yet officials still mobilize tanks and armored vehicles to repel immigrants.

The repression reached its climax in June 2022, when Spanish and Moroccan forces assaulted migrants climbing the walls around Melilla. Authorities deployed rubber bullets and tear gas, killing at least 37 and injuring hundreds.

Spanish personnel denied aid to the wounded, while illegally transferring 470 people to the other side of the border. The dead and injured lay jumbled together, while officials spread trash on them. “We were laying down with our face on the ground, if you tried to raise your head, they beat you,” a Sudanese youth recalled, who also said Spanish soldiers “dragged me to the ground” and across the border. Many waited three to five hours for medical attention under the open sun, as empty ambulances idled nearby.

European policy makers claim that beefed up security forces and borders protect migrants from the high seas, smugglers, and other dangers. Yet the Melilla massacres and Operation Sophia reveal an underlying contempt for their human rights. Rather than defending migrants, institutions such as Frontex and the Spanish Guardia Civil cast them as threats, turning borders into battlefields. At heart, EU policy reinforces inequality — sealing off Europe from the Global South.

Hidden Borderlands

What’s more, the cooperation between Spain and Morocco reflects a broader trend in European strategy toward “externalization.” In recent years, EU authorities have delegated immigration control to foreign governments, in order to prevent migrants from ever reaching Europe. By leveraging security assistance, they turn entire countries into borders, outsourcing law enforcement to governments with appalling human rights records.

Despite its bare-knuckled approach, Morocco is a leading partner, routinely earning EU praise for its border patrol policies. Ironically, the Moroccan monarchy has created its own refugee crisis by colonizing the Western Sahara. In 1975, Morocco illegally occupied the region, displacing the Indigenous Sahrawi population and eliciting the condemnation of the United Nations. Currently, Rabat maintains one of the longest walls in the world — a 1,700-mile network of military bases, mine fields and sand barriers that slices through Sahrawi land. Between 2015 and 2021, the EU granted at least €234 million in migration assistance to Morocco — financing the annexation of the Western Sahara, displacing Sahrawis and legitimating its moving borders.

Likewise, Algeria cooperates with the EU, while erecting a sand wall to block refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 50,000 soldiers patrol this vast chain of trenches and earthen barriers. And as with Morocco, human rights violations are rampant. Investigators report that Algerian forces separate children from parents and abandon migrants in the desert. An Ivorian refugee, Rokia Tamara, recalls police bursting into her home. “I explained that I was recovering from a Caesarian operation, but they took me anyway,” Tamara recounted. “The children were sleeping, and they took them too.” Before dumping her in the Sahara, they stole her baby’s clothes.

Yet over the past decade, the most important — and notorious — EU partner in the region has been Libya. The Italian nonprofit organization Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana (ARCI) estimates that European authorities have funneled over €100 million in aid to the Libyan coast guard. Italy alone has provided dozens of ships to Libya, while helping push over 40,000 migrants back to North Africa.

European leaders insisted that the country was a safe place for processing asylum applications. Yet Libya was in the middle of a civil war that EU members themselves exacerbated in 2011 with NATO airstrikes. In July 2019, a bomb slammed into a migrant detention center near Tripoli, killing 53 people and injuring 130 others.

Government abuse is also endemic. Film footage captured coast guard officer Abd al-Rahman Milad beating a migrant in September 2016. Six months later, Milad helped lead negotiations between Libyan and Italian authorities over immigration control. Later, investigators discovered that he sank migrant vessels by shooting them. Another UN report concluded that local officials perpetrate “unlawful killings, torture, and other ill treatment” — including rape and human trafficking. Authors found that migrants “are systematically subjected to starvation and severe beatings, burned with hot metal objects, electrocuted and subjected to other forms” of abuse to extort money from their families.

Even worse, European officials knew about it. A leaked EU study acknowledged that militia leaders ran detention camps, and Libyan authorities assigned thousands of migrants to “conflict areas” — in other words, the war zone. The document called immigration control “a profitable business model” for Libya, while noting evidence of corruption and slavery. Nonetheless, the study praised the “progress achieved” in reducing migrant crossings to Europe, underscoring the violent logic and core priorities underpinning EU policy.

Drifting Right

This process of militarization fails to resolve refugee crises, yet erodes European democracy. By framing immigration as a security issue, centrist politicians have not only cast migrants as threats, but unintentionally paved the way for conservative populists to win power. In a stunning shift, the far right now represents the second most powerful political force in half of Europe.

In France, the National Rally under Marine Le Pen functions as a model for right-wing populist leaders throughout the EU. The party argues that nonprofit groups assisting migrants are “the accomplices of the smugglers.” Le Pen even claims that the left publicizes the suffering of refugees to boost immigration: “throwing the death of a child in your face to advance their sinister project!”

This extremist rhetoric has fueled nativist violence. In March 2023, conservative activists registered their opposition to a migrant center in Saint-Brevin-les-Pins by setting the mayor’s house on fire. Since then, right-wing leaders have proposed extreme measures to curb immigration, including a naval blockade in the Mediterranean.

Attempting to placate the right, President Emmanuel Macron introduced a restrictive immigration bill to parliament. Yet conservatives seized the initiative, loading it with draconian provisions. As a result, legislators passed a version in December that imposed migration quotas, cut social services for migrants and allowed authorities to strip dual nationals of citizenship if sentenced for serious crimes. Le Pen demanded even tougher measures, while claiming an “ideological victory” for her party.

But ultimately, the reform satisfied neither the right or left. Popular indignation prompted Macron to reshuffle his cabinet this January. Yet he still insists on a militarized border policy. In Cherbourg, the epicenter of the refugee crisis, he exhorted security contractors to seek new business opportunities, noting that firms “sometimes missed out on contracts, which I regret.” That same week, at least five migrants died nearby, while trying to cross the English Channel to Britain.

Days later, protests opposing the bill erupted across France, and the Constitutional Council gutted dozens of its provisions. Yet on January 26, Macron passed what remained into law. Few noticed the immediate context: While enacting the reform, Macron was lobbying in India for Airbus and Dassault Aviation — arms makers that hold major border control contracts.

To satisfy extremist demands, Darmanin then announced plans for a deportation drive against refugees in Mayotte this February. The initiative reflects the militarized undercurrent of immigration policy: While promising to deport thousands, Darmanin has exploited the crisis to justify deploying security forces like CRS 8, an elite police unit that uses live bullets, stinger grenades and tear gas against children in Mayotte. French politicians even cite an influx of African refugees to rationalize maintaining a colonial naval base .

But their heavy-handed policy reflects broader European trends. For decades, the EU has turned the Mediterranean into a ravenous grave, as over 29,000 migrants have died or gone missing at sea since 2014. Above all, officials have defined European identity in opposition to migrants, portraying them as threats to justify security budgets and amass political power.

Yet ironically, the structural violence underlying immigration policy is transforming Europe itself. The walls they build are suffocating European democracy, as politicians promise to defend “Western values” by violating migrants’ rights. Now more than ever, the future of Europe depends on how its leaders treat those driven to its borders.

The author would like to thank Sarah Priscilla Lee of the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University for reviewing this article.

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