Should we be worried about the global migration arms race?

CBP checking authenticity of a travel document. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


By Tendayi Bloom

As the smoke dispersed from New Year’s fireworks displays around the world at the start of 2015, the realities of the migration arms race were playing out.

In the Mediterranean on the 31st December and 2nd January, two unmanned cargo ships full of people were left to drift towards Europe. In Thailand, 50 people of the Rohingya ethnic group were detained after they were abandoned by their traffickers. Nigerian women continued to work against their will in the sex industry in North Africa and Europe, and families in El Salvador paid smugglers to bring their children to the United States. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, along the world’s frontiers, agents of G4S, Prosegur and other private security firms continued to guard borders for their state customers. State officials worked with companies such as Thales, Finmeccanica and EADS to ensure the latest in border security technology  from the Mediterranean to Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq.

The global migration arms race is a race between migrants ­— and potential migrants —  and states to outwit, outgun and outmaneuver each other.

The migration industry is huge and complex. Indeed, it’s hard to understand its significance without looking at the industry as a whole. On the one hand, there is control, on the other facilitation. From the states’ side, control starts with visa processing companies private border guards and entities supplying security infrastructure. There are the corporations managing detention centres and the airlines that support deportations. There are also private agents running official recruitment and integration schemes.

From the migrants’ side there are agents to help navigate the complicated legal structures. For those unable to go this route, there are visa and passport forgers, irregular travel facilitators and labour agencies. As the migration control industry grows, it pushes growth in the facilitation industry, and vice versa.

Understanding the mechanisms of the global migration industry is crucial. For example, international measures to cut down on human trafficking usually include increasing migration control. As migration control increases, people are less able to find their own means of moving and turn increasingly to the services of smugglers and traffickers. Smugglers and traffickers in turn develop increasingly sophisticated tools, enabling them to charge higher rates to customers. If trafficking is really to be addressed, and it needs to be, another approach is needed.

Nor does it stop there. Other international mechanisms are involved, such as the banks that support both sides to invest in these private sector enterprises. Writers like Tanya Golash-Boza and Deepa Fernandez have also started to describe what they call a ‘migration industrial complex’ after Eisenhower’s 1961 ‘military industrial complex’ speech.

Golash-Boza writes that the military, prison and migration industries all have three things in common:

  1. A rhetoric of fear;
  2. The confluence of powerful interests; and
  3. A discourse of other-ization.

The private actors in the migration industry have an interest in maintaining a fear of migrants among states and their populations, and a belief in the migration project among migrants. Both controllers and facilitators have interests in maintaining their monopolies on capability in this area and in maintaining a system in which migrant human rights are hard to enforce.

As usual, it is the most vulnerable that suffer most. As I explain in more detail in a longer piece available later this year, this leaves private entities taking the role of decision-maker, user of force, and impacting on the lives of noncitizens in ways usually assumed the purview of states. This can also effectively put these activities outside the checks and balances of international law and public scrutiny, and, as Thomas Gammelhoft-Hansen has argued at length, undermines asylum systems.

There are other losers too. Katy Long speaks of ‘the other immigration scam’, describing how those employed in immigration industries in disadvantaged parts of wealthy countries are not treated fairly by their private sector employers. And others raise concerns about levels of training, available resources and job security. Meanwhile, as money is directed into the migration control industry, it is unavailable for social projects, for the arts, and other State endeavors. In trying economic times, this is no small matter.

Despite academic work in this area, contributions made by academic actors to international policy debate and statements submitted, this huge and growing industry is yet to be adequately addressed by those involved with policy at both local and global levels. There are efforts to include private employers of migrants in international processes, and there are attempts to formalize ‘Norms’ and ‘Principles’ to guide those in the private sector involved in the use of force more generally. Yet, despite advances in international interest in the rights of migrants and the inclusion of new actors in discussion, the international migration industry is yet to be addressed directly. Is this something we should be worried about? I think so.


Further Reading

Robert Harney (1977) ‘The Commerce of Migration’, pp42-53 in Canadian Ethnic Studies 9.

John Salt (2001) ‘The Business of International Migration’, pp86-108 in MAB Siddique (ed) (2001) International Migration into the 21st Century, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

Gallya Lahav (2006) ‘The Rise of NonState Actors in Migration Regulation in the United States and Europe’, pp290-314 in Anthony Messina and Gallya Lahav (eds) (2006) The Migration Reader, Lynne Rienner Publishers.

See also essays in Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen and Ninna Nyberg Sorensen (eds) (2011) The Migration Industry and the Commercialization of International Migration, Routledge.

Tendayi Bloom is a Research Fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility. She writes on questions of noncitizenship, statelessness and privatized migration control from the perspective of legal and political theory and international law and policy. The views she expresses are her own.



One comment

  1. […] here that ‘border control is out of control’. And elsewhere, I warned of what I called a ‘migration arms race’ such that as private companies make irregular migration increasingly difficult, smugglers and […]


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