Can Asylum Seekers be Deterred?

Refugees in Lesvos, Greece, October 8, 2015. Photo via Marienna Pope-Weidemann.

By Anna Oltman for Denver Dialogues.

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom decided to end the “Dubs Amendment,” a program for bringing unaccompanied child migrants to Britain. To justify this move, Home Secretary Amber Rudd provided a familiar justification: such programs act as a pull factor for migration. By promising a legal path to resettlement in the UK, she argued, the Dubs scheme actually encouraged migrants to engage in reckless behaviors like employing human traffickers to help them reach the UK.

Explanations for why people migrate from one country to another often fall into the categories of either “push” or “pull” factors. Generally speaking, a person may migrate either because they are fleeing intolerable conditions in their country of origin (being “pushed” from their home) or because they are tempted by the promise of certain benefits in a new country (being “pulled” to a destination). Extending the pull factor logic slightly further suggests the possibility of “deterrence” policies: by denying the hope of legal status, state-sponsored benefits, or safe passage, policymakers hope to make their country a less desirable destination for migration and thereby deter individuals from attempting to reach their territory.

With global displacement at record high levels, there is no shortage of state sanctioned efforts aimed at deterring potential migrants. Australia intercepts migrants at sea and detains them in neighboring countries—often in appalling conditions—while their claims for asylum are processed. It has also put up billboards in Sri Lanka, where many Australia-bound migrants originate, informing potential migrants that they will not be welcome. The US has engaged in similar behavior in Latin America, and has a long history of intercepting and detaining migrants offshore. Similarly, UK migration policy is steeped in the language of deterrence, particularly focusing on the public benefits that immigrants expect to receive in Britain.

Moreover, policies aimed at deterring migrants are often easy to justify at home. In addition to the unpopularity of immigration in Western countries, concerns about the entry of radicals or potential terrorists create a receptive audience for deterrence policies. The perception – primarily unfounded – that immigrants are a drain on public resources also lends support to deterrence efforts.

But does deterrence actually work? The answer depends on the precise goals that these policies seek to achieve. Australia’s “stop the boats” policy has considerably decreased the number of asylum seekers and other migrants reaching its shores and, the government claims, therefore reduced the number of deaths at sea. Countries like Hungary and Bulgaria, which have explicitly attempted to deter asylum seekers by creating a hostile environment for migrants in general, have seen a decrease in arrivals. And if nothing else, attempts to deter migration by cutting state benefits to immigrants have been politically popular.

Yet if the goal of deterrence is to curb undocumented immigration overall, or to ensure that only those in true need of protection can enter a country through its asylum system, the optimism over Australia’s “success” is misplaced. Research on border control has shown that efforts to obstruct or deter border crossings by constructing physical barriers or intercepting migrants at sea have primarily served to redirect migration flows towards increasingly dangerous alternative routes, and have encouraged—not deterred—the employment of human traffickers. As a deterrent, then, the effect of interdiction and physical barriers is minimal and in many ways is offset by the material and human costs of such policies. In addition, campaigns to discourage potential migrants from leaving their countries of origin overestimate the impact of such information. Migrants are often ill informed about immigration policies in receiving countries, and even accurate information about policies that are meant to deter must compete with the counter-narratives of smugglers, whose businesses depend on continued migration.

Meanwhile, deterrence policies are rife with negative externalities. A recent report by the Council of Europe states that detaining child asylum-seekers increases their risk of radicalization. In this sense, deterrence policies are fundamentally at odds with international peace and security. No matter how much Western countries try to eliminate pull factors of migration, the fact remains that the global refugee crisis is not about the promise of free health care in the UK or a warm welcome on the shores of Australia. Rather, refugees are pushed from their homes due to the devastation of war, oppression from dictators, and poverty that is incomparable to anything found in Western Europe. Deterrence, therefore, will likely do little to rectify the global displacement crisis.

In sum, the UK’s decision to end the Dubs Amendment program and renege on its promise to thousands of refugee children in camps across Europe is unlikely to prevent others from seeking safety in the developed world. Rather, the evidence suggests that even where deterrence is effective at denying migrants access to a country’s territory, it is both an impractical and unjustifiable approach to the refugee crisis. While tempting, the short-term political gains should neither overshadow the long-term damage to international security, nor the moral repugnancy of mistreating the world’s most vulnerable people.

Anna Oltman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research examines the foreign policy of humanitarianism, with a focus on refugee protection, human rights, and border control.

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