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The business of migration control in Spain

The migration control industry is a complex business. It carries out and influences a system designed to stop the flow of people, not to handle it. Español

Photo: Ilias Bartolini/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published, a few weeks ago, the complete list of the 33.293 deceased migrants identified since 1993 on their way to Europe, its goal was a very simple one: to highlight the fact that each line in that somber list "tells a story": the story of Faisal, Frederick, Zhang, Pape or Safi, who died holding her baby. They are - like many others who are mistreated on their way and are considered delinquents or legal ghosts at destination - the losers of this migratory system.

The question, then, is an obvious one: if they lose, who is winning? This was the starting point of the research project that PorCausa Foundation launched more than a year ago. The result is the first mapping of the migration control industry in Spain, a complex and extraordinary business that feeds almost exclusively on public resources and that carries out and influences a system designed to stop the flow of people, not to handle it.

Our analysis started from a double hypothesis: the first is that in Spain - as in the rest of the European Union - an ecosystem of economic actors who receive increasing amounts of public money for carrying out the policies of migratory control has been consolidating over the years. The second is that these same actors have come to acquire a position of strength within the system that enables them to influence the drift of the norms and political decisions which affect them. This phenomenon - known as political or regulatory capture - is similar to the one occurring in other industries, such as the pharmaceutical or defense industries.

If they lose, who is winning?

The map of the migratory control industry in Spain displays four sectors: border and border area control and surveillance, which includes both the construction and maintenance of the Ceuta and Melilla fences and a high-cost technological deployment on the coasts and in the Mediterranean; detention and forced return of immigrants in an irregular situation, which includes some symbols of immigration repression, such as detention centers for foreigners (CIE) or transfer flights to their countries of origin or transit; programs for the reception and integration of immigrants, mostly managed by non-governmental organizations; and activities related to the outsourcing of border control, a broad category including, among others, the training of third-country control forces or financial compensation to their governments, but also the development of programs directly related to the reduction of migratory flows towards Europe.

The research undertaken by PorCausa focused on the first two of these sectors, which account for 97% of the public contracts to private companies for migratory control activities between 2002 and 2016. In all, our database includes nearly 350 companies which benefited from 943 public contracts for a total amount of more than 610 million Euros. Ten companies (led by the Spanish technology and defense company Indra) account for more than half of this amount. However, despite the large number of contracts we have managed to locate, the administrative haze over this sector has made it impossible, for now, to identify all of them.

The release of the contracts and companies database is a piece of news in itself and has already begun to raise uncomfortable questions about the origin and the use of resources, as shown by a recent example. A few days ago, different media outlets highlighted the contradiction between the Spanish Ministry of the Interior stated intentions regarding the building of new CIEs and their funding, which had already been negotiated and approved by Brussels: while Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido, a few months ago, indulged in the Senate in rhetorical considerations about the convenience of building three new detention facilities, these had already been listed as priorities in the national budget since 2012.

The case of these three CIE illustrates a fundamental conclusion of our analysis: European migration policy - in which Spain, as EU southern border and connection with Africa, plays a leading role - has been construed on the basis of a political principle of caution, according to which the arrival of foreigners is perceived, first, as a threat and, then, as an economic burden. In other words: they must be stopped before they reach our territory, or expelled if they manage to get here. The preventive control strategy implies increased investment in detention and surveillance infrastructure, but also decisions which are hard to explain, such as fixing an a priori objective for forced returns - in the case of Spain, 53.000 between 2014 and 2020.

The migration control industry is not only financed by European funds, but it also responds to a political logic that spreads like a plague throughout the continent

In other words, the migration control industry is not only financed by European funds, but it also responds to a political logic that spreads like a plague throughout the continent. Spurred by self-induced collective hysteria, Europe has responded to the arrival of refugees by accelerating the building of a common migration policy that had been in the fridge for decades. The problem is that this political impulse has not considered the wider perspective of the migratory phenomenon – that is, a perspective encompassing unprecedented opportunities for the countries of origin, the countries of destination and the migrants themselves, which is what the European Commission plans in 2005 took into consideration - , but has chosen instead to expand to the point of hypertrophy the tools sustaining the fantasy of impermeable borders.

The consequences of this drift are the loss of and threat to human lives, but also a distorted model of international mobility that harms European interests. As Frontex data show, for each person who accessed Europe in 2016 through the dramatic and hyper-publicized sea routes and fence jumps, another 206 did so legally through authorized paths on highways and at ports and airports. The obsession for controlling a minority of irregular movements undermines the practical interests of the majority of people who access EU territory legally, pollutes European external action in neighbouring states and dilutes Europe's commitment to the rules of international protection, in the building of which it had invested so much effort.

How much of all this is here to stay? What chance does Europe have to open a fact-based conversation about the true risks-and-opportunities balance of international mobility and the smartest way to optimize it?

The answers to these questions are partly linked to the second hypothesis of porCausa’s research, which is the one related to the effects of political capture. On the basis of available information, we cannot assert that the migration control industry in Spain has taken over a relevant part of public policy control. As in other areas of this research, the absence of transparency that characterizes the relationship between the private sector, political parties and institutions (in the form of revolving doors and financial donations) is a fundamental obstacle to accountability and informed public debate.

We need to know who is driving what appear to be increasingly unstoppable policies

But this does not mean that we dismiss its influence at all. In the course of our research we have identified different factors which encourage us to investigate further: the extreme opacity in which a part of the industry operates, the existence of informal and indirect channels of influence (such as fairs and congresses, media relations), and the prominence achieved by some companies within a sector that has left in the hands of private firms the development and management of technologies on which a key aspect of State sovereignty, such as border control, depends.

We need to know who is driving what appear to be increasingly unstoppable policies. As in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the narration of migrations as a threat is feeding the proliferation throughout Europe of xenophobic movements demanding ever more costly and comprehensive control measures. The electoral margin left to the political alternatives is narrowing and the political drift in other major geographical destinations (such as the United States and Australia) is not of any help. This is precisely the breeding ground the migration control industry needs.

Breaking the system’s vicious circle will require not only a much more lucid and unequivocal position on the part of moderate parties, but also the building of unlikely alliances between all the actors - from private companies to large NGOs – which base their values and their results in the existence of a globalization that is open but governed for the benefit of the common interest. This is the spirit driving some remarkable (though uncertain in terms of results) international initiatives such as the Global Migration Pact which is now being negotiated at the UN. For regions in full migration boom such as Europe, however, this type of agreement may be too little, too late. What we need is a citizen revolution from within - starting today.

About the author

Gonzalo Fanjul y Virginia Rodríguez pertenecen al equipo de investigaciones de la Fundación porCausa, Madrid.

Gonzalo Fanjul and Virginia Rodríguez are both members of the research team of Fundación PorCausa in Madrid.


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