How debt may help explain the political economy of European migration policies

31 August 2023 by Felipe Milin , Irene Valde

Auteur : Jim Black


The year 2023 brings once again a catastrophic toll in terms of the victims of European migration policies. On 22 June 2023, a decrepit trawler from Libya sank off the Peloponnese, leaving hundreds of victims. On 13 July 2023, another migrant boat from Sfax in Tunisia capsized off Lampedusa, killing around forty. A few days later, a mother and daughter from the Ivory Coast were found dead in the desert as they tried to reach Tunisia. In fact, the central Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy became the new route adopted by the majority of migrants that aim to reach European soil. This route is also the most dangerous in the world, with more than 20,000 deaths since 2014 according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) [1]. Unfortunately, these tragic deaths were expectable. They are the consequence of the securitarian policies of the EU and its Member States since the late 1990s, which have fueled the ’letting people die’ policy through its inability to deal with migratory phenomena in a structural way that focuses on the reception and inclusion of exiles.

In order to approach the issue of migration, it is essential to destigmatise a phenomenon that has been a feature of human societies for as long as they have existed, by firmly defending the right to migrate. On the other hand, it is also crucial to understand the economic issues at stake in this phenomenon. Although the emphasis is often placed on the massive ’illegal’ or ’clandestine’ immigration arriving on European soil, it is important to bear in mind that this represents only a tiny percentage of migratory movements on a global scale. While the total number of international migrants is increasing, rising from around 150 million in 2000 to 280.6 million in 2020, its ratio to the world population remains stable. International migrants will represent 3.6% of the world’s population in 2020, compared with 2.8% in 2000 and 2.3% in 1970. In 2020, 96.4% of the world’s population was living in their country of origin [2]. While criminalizing and exaggerating migration as a phenomenon, the media and political saturation of images suggesting an invasion or a conflict between civilizations only serve the fantasies of racist and reactionary ideologies. Most migration does not involve paths from the global south to the global north (including Europe). Most of it actually involves countries surrounding the country of origin.However, it is on these fantasies that the migration policies of rich countries, and the European Union in particular, are built. These migration policies are part of a whole system of international economic and political relations based on the accumulation of wealth in the countries of the global North.

How the debt mechanism creates inequalities between countries and condemns part of the population to migrate : the result of structural adjustment Structural Adjustment Economic policies imposed by the IMF in exchange of new loans or the rescheduling of old loans.

Structural Adjustments policies were enforced in the early 1980 to qualify countries for new loans or for debt rescheduling by the IMF and the World Bank. The requested kind of adjustment aims at ensuring that the country can again service its external debt. Structural adjustment usually combines the following elements : devaluation of the national currency (in order to bring down the prices of exported goods and attract strong currencies), rise in interest rates (in order to attract international capital), reduction of public expenditure (’streamlining’ of public services staff, reduction of budgets devoted to education and the health sector, etc.), massive privatisations, reduction of public subsidies to some companies or products, freezing of salaries (to avoid inflation as a consequence of deflation). These SAPs have not only substantially contributed to higher and higher levels of indebtedness in the affected countries ; they have simultaneously led to higher prices (because of a high VAT rate and of the free market prices) and to a dramatic fall in the income of local populations (as a consequence of rising unemployment and of the dismantling of public services, among other factors).

policies over the last 40 years

Firstly, it is important to point out the links between murderous migration policies and the whole system of international economic relations between rich countries (and especially European countries) and their neighboring countries. In the second half of the twentieth century, under the pretext of contributing to the development of formerly colonized countries, Western countries and international financial institutions built up frameworks for economic exchange in which debt played a major role. These frameworks perpetuate and even exacerbate inequalities and the dependence of these countries on rich countries.

By seeking to transpose the models of economic development experienced by developed countries onto the dependent countries, the ideology of these institutions overlooks the fact that the conditions for unequal development are mutually reinforcing and that inequalities in the global currency market make the dependent economies subordinate to the developed economies. Thus, the lack of national capital in the dependent countries has led to massive borrowing from the countries of the global North [3]. Moreover, these loans are generally denominated in dollars, making the cost of the debt dependent on variations in US monetary policy. Precisely, the rise in interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
during the 1970 crisis that caused the debt of developing countries to explode, forcing them to implement structural adjustment programs that reinforced their dependence on developed countries. This situation was repeated again in 2022 as a result of monetary policies aimed at countering inflation Inflation The cumulated rise of prices as a whole (e.g. a rise in the price of petroleum, eventually leading to a rise in salaries, then to the rise of other prices, etc.). Inflation implies a fall in the value of money since, as time goes by, larger sums are required to purchase particular items. This is the reason why corporate-driven policies seek to keep inflation down. , where the ‘debt trap’ once again acted upon numerous countries. In short, the countries of the South find themselves enriching the economies of the North through debt mechanisms.

The impact of adjustment policies on certain countries of origin of migrants to Europe

Pakistan. Pakistan has been financially asphyxiated since 2022. The country owes $45 billion to multilateral institutions (equivalent to around 14% of its GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
), while also owing $27 billion to China and $8.5 billion to Paris Club Paris Club This group of lender States was founded in 1956 and specializes in dealing with non-payment by developing countries.

members, including Germany and France [4] [5].Servicing this debt is plunging the country into a deep crisis. Rising interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. rates following the Federal Reserve FED
Federal Reserve
Officially, Federal Reserve System, is the United States’ central bank created in 1913 by the ’Federal Reserve Act’, also called the ’Owen-Glass Act’, after a series of banking crises, particularly the ’Bank Panic’ of 1907.

FED – decentralized central bank :
’s restrictive monetary policy have increased the cost of repaying this debt, making it the largest budget item for the Pakistani government.

Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has been plunged into an economic crisis for years, which worsened in 2022 with shortages incertain essential goods such as access to electricity. This economic crisis culminated in the collapse of the government in 2022 [6]. The country’s solvency problems prompted the new government to seek an agreement with the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
(International Monetary Fund) to receive emergency financial aid that would enable it to emerge from its $51 billion bankruptcy [7] [8]. While China has taken advantage of Sri Lanka’s dependence on it to expand its hold over the area, acquiring key infrastructure such as the Colombo airport and port, the IMF’s support of $3 billion would enable it to meet its most urgent payments to its biggest creditors.

Ghana. For its part, Ghana, one of the world’s largest producers of gold and cocoa, is facing an unprecedented crisis following the shocks associated with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The country is facing debt restructuring through the Paris Club at the end of 2022 [9] [10], whose members held 18% of the country’s total debt. These bilateral debts are generally provided by other governments or guaranteed by them. Ghana’s deep economic crisis has prompted the country to request additional support from the IMF, which should give it access to a further $3 billion. In exchange, the government is committed to reducing public spending in order to better repay its debts [11].

The reproduction of North-South inequalities through European migration policies.

The profound inequalities between poor and rich countries, and the dependence of the former on the latter, are therefore a continuation of the domination of former colonized regions by old and new imperialisms. The difference between these old and new relations of domination is that the latter are structured around the apparent equality between countries in international markets. This formal equality for the circulation of capital contrasts with the criminalisation of the ability human beings may have to move. Since the Schengen agreements were put in place to accompany the creation of the European Union, the policy of free movement of individuals within the EU has been combined with the blocking of its external borders. Migration from outside Europe has thus become a key political issue, under the logic of protecting the territorial sovereignty of member countries. Fearing the return of a new ’migration crisis’ following the accumulation of crises (economic, geopolitical, ecological, health, etc.), in early 2022 Italy, Spain, Malta, Cyprus and Greece (the Med5 group) called for the introduction of an ’appropriate mechanism for the distribution of migrants’ between Member States [12]. Acknowledging the failure of the prior distribution mechanisms put in place after the 2015 reception crisis, the Med5 group’s main demand was the compulsory redistribution by the EU of exiles arriving in these countries. The result was the approval of a voluntary solidarity mechanism by the European Commission in June 2022. This mechanism was supposed to reduce the pressure on those countries which (due in particular to the Dublin system) are mainly responsible for receiving, taking charge of and receiving asylum seekers in the European Union. However, this mechanism has not worked and the objectives of increasing the number of transfers of asylum seekers to the northern states have not been achieved. According to Statewatch, at the beginning of 2023, only 207 asylum seekers had been transferred outside the member states in the front line of reception [13].

The introduction of this distribution mechanism is also taking place in the context of the negotiation of the new pact on migration proposed by the European Commission. This pact, which is currently being discussed by the EU Council and the European Parliament, plans to take up this demand for greater solidarity between Member States by making it ’compulsory’ [14]. Last June, the Council of the EU proposed an agreement on two essential pillars of the reform of asylum and migration: the Regulation on asylum and migration management (RGAM), which covers in particular Member States’ solidarity efforts towards countries of first entry and the so-called Dublin rules, and the Regulation on asylum procedures (RPA), which organises responsibility and creates a border asylum procedure [15]. This compulsory solidarity mechanism will be flexible in its arrangements. Member States would have to choose, according to a defined distribution key :

  • Either to participate in the effort to relocate people identified as eligible for international protection from external borders to take charge of examining their asylum applications;
  • Or to take part in the new concept of ’return sponsorship’, which enables states that do not wish to receive migrants to show ’solidarity in another way’,by becoming actively involved in implementing the expulsions of those whom the EU and its Member States wish to remove, with the possibility of concentrating their efforts on those nationalities for whom their prospects of successful expulsion are greatest;
  • Or to contribute materially, logistically, financially or politically to the external dimension of European migration policy (deployment of personnel, capacity-building measures in border management, etc.).

According to the Council,“Member states have full discretion as to the type of solidarity they contribute. No member state will ever be obliged to carry out relocations’ [16]. We can see that this system of compulsory solidarity does not seem to address the issues raised by the Med5 states. If the pact is adopted in these terms, it will be a question of cosmetic solidarity, or States will be able to choose to replace the reception of exiles on their territory with the financing of the return of exiles to their countries of origin or by investing in the militarisation of borders.

There are many other proposals in this pact that raise questions and are of concern to NGOs specialising in migration issues. As currently envisaged, its content promises to reuse old recipes that are deadly, ineffective and costly. Moreover, it could exacerbate inequalities between EU countries in terms of refugee protection by introducing compulsory border procedures, reinforcing the notion of ’first country of entry’ as a criterion of responsibility, and introducing extremely complex procedures. The widespread use of ’tailor-made agreements’ with third countries to keep migrants away from the Schengen borders and the proliferation of detention, sorting and file systems at the Schengen borders and beyond could also become the norm.

The ’à la carte’ reception model for member countries contrasts with the dogmatism that has characterised the application of the fiscal rules on which the single market was founded. The inequalities in the burden of managing migration policies echo the unequal relationships between member countries, which became apparent following the 2008 crisis. The peoples of countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain have had to cope with adjustment policies imposed by the Troika Troika Troika: IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank, which together impose austerity measures through the conditions tied to loans to countries in difficulty.

(IMF, European Central Bank Central Bank The establishment which in a given State is in charge of issuing bank notes and controlling the volume of currency and credit. In France, it is the Banque de France which assumes this role under the auspices of the European Central Bank (see ECB) while in the UK it is the Bank of England.

and European Commission). At the same time, these countries find themselves in the front line of the ’defence’ of ’Fortress Europe’. In the case of Greece, access to EU investment has been made conditional on the reception of migrants.

The example of the ’Global Partnership’ with Tunisia

Alongside the Pact negotiations, the European Commission is also in discussions with Tunisia to implement a ’global partnership’ comprising 5 pillars, including migration and mobility [17]. According to Giorgia Meloni, the Italian Prime Minister,who monitored the negotiations alongside the President of the European Commission and Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, this partnership between Tunisia and the European Union (EU) ’can be considered as a model for the establishment of new relations with North Africa’. It is an agreement in the same vein as the EU-Turkey agreement signed in 2016 [18]. Tunisia, which has replaced Libya as the main country of departure from the African continent, is of particular concern to Brussels and the Member States because of the proximity of its coastline to Italy. According to Frontex and the IOM [19] [20], entries via the Italian peninsula have risen sharply (+158%) since the beginning of 2023. This increase can be explained in particular by the deterioration in living conditions in Tunisia and Libya.

The sums pledged to Tunisia by the European Union for migration include a package of 105 million euros for migration management for 2023 [21]. This European aid is partly linked to a credit of 2 billion dollars (1.83 billion euros) currently being negotiated by the IMF, with conditions attached [22]. The EU plans to deliver boats, mobile radars, cameras and vehicles to Tunisia by the summer to help it strengthen control of its maritime and land borders. Increased police and judicial cooperation is also planned to combat smuggling networks. The aid package also includes substantial resources for the return to Tunisia of Tunisian nationals illegally resident in the EU. The EU is also financing the ’voluntary’ return of sub-Saharan African migrants from Tunisia to their countries of origin: 407 returns have been financed in this way since the beginning of the year, according to the Commission [23].Tunisia could therefore be considered a ’safe’ country for the return of Tunisian exiles in an irregular situation on EU soil. The unprecedented socio-economic crisis following the implementation of repeated adjustment programs, the autocratic drift, and the state xenophobia specifically directed at sub-Saharan exiles promoted by the Tunisian head of state make it difficult to understand on what basis the European Commission seems to want to identify Tunisia as a ’safe country’ [24]. Numerous cases of violence and human rights abuses have also been reported recently by NGOs and the press [25].

An extension of the logic of ’tailor-made’ agreements in the service of border outsourcing

The European Commission intends to extend this logic to other countries in North Africa and is currently proposing new action plans for the outsourcing of borders. Externalisation took on a widespread dimension with the construction of the Schengen area, where freedom of movement is accompanied by strict control of external borders. Since the 1990s, this policy has consisted of transferring this control to neighbouring countries, particularly those of the Maghreb and more recently Turkey. In return, it finances surveillance facilities, detention centres and coastguards, facilitates visas, demands that they sign agreements obliging them to readmit ’illegals’ and toughens their immigration legislation. In November 2022, the Council adopted the EU Action Plan for the Central Mediterranean[EU action plan for the Central Mediterranean (], 13 of whose 20 measures focus on strengthening cooperation with North African countries (in particular Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Niger) and Bangladesh.

This action plan provides for the training and assistance of border guards in the target countries; the signing of readmission agreements to facilitate expulsions to these countries; the setting up of expulsion operations with the support of Frontex; cooperation in rescue and recovery operations and the disembarkation of people rescued at sea in the ports of southern Mediterranean countries; etc.Three other EU action plans are due to be adopted in 2023 for ’the Atlantic, Eastern Mediterranean and Western Mediterranean routes’[Conclusions du Conseil européen, 9 février 2023 - Consilium (]. European states are gradually making development funding for their non-European partners conditional on ’securing’ migratory movements in these countries.

As an example, the EU has pledged 152 million euros to Morocco to control migration and help people return home[Migrations : l’Union européenne veut multiplier les accords de coopération donnant-donnant (]. In Libya, the EU and its Member States continue to maintain agreements aimed at encouraging and maintaining the efforts of this North African country to intercept migrants at sea and return them to its detention centres, even though abuses against migrants in this country are known and documented[Torture de migrants en Libye : le rôle honteux de l’Europe - Amnesty International Belgique]. The pattern is similar within the EU: the investigation by Apostolis Fotiadis published on Thursday 15 June 2023 by the Solomon website reveals that the European Commission has more than doubled the amounts allocated to Greece for the period 2021-2027 to strengthen equipment, surveillance systems and human resources for border control compared with the previous period. The budget for border surveillance amounts to 800 million euros, while only 600,000 euros are earmarked for search and rescue operations[EUR 800 million in Greece for border management. Just 600 mm for search and rescue. - Solomon (].

In short, conditionality in North-South relations is increasingly being used to manage migration. In order to limit the number of exiles entering the Schengen area, the EU and its Member States are securitising and criminalising migratory phenomena that have always existed, and shifting the responsibility for receiving and hosting migrants beyond their borders. Conditionality is used in a relatively assumed way in development cooperation, economic and trade agreements, investment, readmission and visa policies, as well as in partnerships and political and diplomatic relations.This logic already existed, in particular in the case of the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (ETF), designed to control migration, and it is now being extended and developed with new funding instruments, such as the Neighbourhood, Development Cooperation and International Cooperation-Europe in the World Instrument [26]. It is worrying to observe that development cooperation funds are currently focused on border control and externalisation, which are far removed from their primary objectives of eradicating poverty and improving people’s living conditions. More worrying still, this logic is spreading and establishing itself as the reference model for the management of human mobility towards the European Union.

Like a vast spider’s web, the EU’s borders begin in Mauritania, Niger or Chad. They extend into Turkey, Libya and Morocco. Seen as militarised, ultra-secure spaces,they separate areas where only death can filter through. One wonders against whom the EU countries are fighting when they spend millions to install war materiel on their doorsteps. What war are they waging, and to protect themselves from what? By focusing its policies on criminalising exiles rather than ensuring safe passage routes, the EU is fuelling increasingly extreme public discourse and policies. The construction of border walls and increasingly outspoken anti-migrant rhetoric are the direct consequences of a deeply racist ’emergency’ approach to population movements.

In practice, and beyond the European Union itself, these policies are profoundly altering the socio-economic landscapes of faraway regions and shaping the geopolitics of countries of origin and transit. The secondary effects of these policies are visible at every port of call: at the EU’s external borders, but also well before, the presence of thousands of undocumented migrants and people deprived of their rights, cast into a kind of social nothingness, ghettoised and marginalised, characterise this web woven from the countries of the North by the collective psychosis of a ’massive and uncontrollable influx of migrants’. At the same time, this spider’s web is the product of the relationships of domination and financial dependence that European countries and international financial institutions establish over third countries (with the complicity of their governments).

The externalisation of European borders destabilises the economic and social relations of the regions affected

Ever since the borders of the Schengen area were gradually rolled back, heads of state exercising autocratic power at the gates of the EU have been using these policies of ’blackmail’ or ’conditionality’. The role of watchdog that the EU and its Member States encourage them to take on also gives these countries the means to exert pressure in negotiations. In 2020, the Turkish president manipulated migrants by pretending that the EU border was open in order to obtain the negotiation of the 2016 agreement under which Ankara undertook to block the EU’s path to Syrian refugees in return for 6 billions euros [27]. Morocco suddenly opened its border with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in May 2023, allowing some 8,000 of its nationals to leave for the European Union (EU) in order to put pressure on Madrid over the Western Sahara [28]. Immigration is thus being used as the ultimate weapon by certain governments in these southern countries.

Finally, from the perspective of view of the sending and transit countries, these policies are disrupting long-standing population movements that have helped to build economic, social and geopolitical relations between countries in the same region, as in the case of Niger and Algeria in the region between the Sahel and the Sahara. The Eurocentric vision and the way in which the movement of certainpeople is seen as a threat, or even a danger, to the societies and cultures of the countries concerned have served to justify these increasingly strict policies in the region. Back in 2014, Algeria signed a repatriation agreement with Niger, which was intended to cover only people who engage in begging. In 2016, this agreement was extended to all sub-Saharan migrants present in Algeria, with no distinction being made between specific cases, even though Algeria already has a law on these issues [29]. As a result, these exiles are first deported to Tamanrasset in southern Algeria and then sent back to Niger’s first border post, Assamaka, where the IOM has opened a transit centre with facilities that do not provide a dignified welcome for exiles whose asylum applications have been rejected.

These legislative changes in Algeria and Niger are the result of cooperation with the EU. In Niger, a law drafted with the help of European experts was passed in 2015, criminalising all those who help migrants in the country [30]. From the European point of view, migrants who cross the Sahara are bound to head for Europe. In practice, they do not take into account intra-African migration, which represents the majority of migratory movements on the continent. In fact, these migrants will stay on the continent to work in Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco, as they have been doing for decades. According to many researchers working on the subject, it is difficult to know whether these repressive laws have led to a reduction in attempted crossings. What is certain, however, is that this securitarian approach, applied directly to sending and transit countries, is condemning a large number of people to clandestinity. Whereas before the introduction of these externalisation policies, people used to move around officially, by means of crossing taxes (with the possibility of estimating the number of crossings), this route is now much more complicated, as exiles now take different, longer, riskier and more expensive routes. So the consequences for the local social and economic fabric of these migrant convoys going underground are significant. In the Agadez region of Niger, there is a migratory transit economy developed since the 1960s, based in particular on seasonal labour migration, which gave rise to activities linked to accommodation, transport, catering, mobile telephony and money transfers, but which is now doomed to disappear.

This contradiction between rhetoric based on disruptive exceptionality and political and economic structures also crystallises around the figure of the smugglers. In public discourse, many governments are trying to impose the idea that the fight against illegal immigration involves the fight against people smugglers. This would be the culprit behind all the exiles. However, it should be made clear that illegality is a concept that fluctuates in politics, meaning that today’s illegal migrant may not have been one yesterday and may not be one tomorrow. In the same way that the figure of the smuggler presented today by the EU and the press as a trafficker inhuman beings or an exploiter, was a trader who fitted seamlessly into the socio-economic fabric of a past era [31].

Outsourcing borders and private debt

Finally, the migratory journey is also closely linked to the indebtedness of those wishing to reach EU soil. The criminalisation of immigration makes the journey not only dangerous and even deadly, but also extremely costly. In 2015, it was estimated that a place on a makeshift boat from the Turkish coast to Greece cost $1,000, compared with the $20 cost of a ferry ticket for the same journey [32]. Finally, the cost of crossing the Channel from Calais to the UK was estimated at $5,000.

In order to raise these colossal sums, families and communities are forced not only to make major sacrifices, but also to go into debt, in the hope that those who have migrated will be able to arrive on European soil and work in order to support them. Left to an arbitrary fate and in the total absence of rights, migrants may also have to go into debt during their journey, remaining trapped in transit countries or even subjected to slavery, as has been reported in the case of Libya. In this sense, the migration policies put in place by Western countries, and particularly by the European Union, play into the hands of a highly lucrative migration economy that results in debt and misery not only for migrants but also for their families and friends in the countries of origin.


While some governments, such as Pedro Sánchez’s executive in Spain, boast about the drop in illegal migrant arrivals in Spain, the real impact of European policies is measured in the number of deaths they produce and the suffering they cause. This article explores the political economy behind these murderous migration policies and their relationship with the machinery of debt.

Migration policies generally emphasise the disruptive nature of borders and the social order in Europe. These disruptions call for exceptional and emergency measures and policies on the part of a large part of the political class. However, this appearance of urgency and exception reveals a systemic character: the distancing of exiles and the shifting of responsibility for receiving, hosting and/or returning them to poorer third countries. In addition, the informal cooperation frameworks through which the EU and its Member States organise the distancing of people considered undesirable and the procedures for expelling those who have reached Europe are beyond any parliamentary, democratic or judicial control. In a capitalist system in crisis, these policies have become one of the mechanisms through which states, and in this case the EU, seek to divert attention from the major contradictions facing these economies. We have seen in this article how migration policies and various forms of indebtedness generally go hand in hand. The exceptional regime applied to ’manage migrants’ contrasts with the system of exploitation and extraction of wealth increased by debt.

By replacing colonial relations, relations between countries in the North and South are now governed by the mechanisms of debt and migration policies. In this sense, making the granting of funds to third countries conditional on commitments in terms of migration management is the most concrete expression of this policy of externalising borders and maintaining the dependence of the countries of the South on the countries of the North. Thus, while the shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and the migration policies of the EU and its Member States are often presented in the press as independent, in reality they are the other side of the same coin. They are also embedded in a set of economic relationships based on debt. The systemic aspect of this relationship also reflects a political economy of migration policies that serves to maintain relations of dependence through debt, as well as opening up new areas of enrichment and accumulation.

The political and social polarisation around the migration issue is the product of the inability to share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. value within European societies. In an economic system in crisis, the focus on migration acts as a safety valve and a scapegoat. To break with this polarisation, we need to remember the net transfer of wealth from the countries of the South to the rich countries. We also need to remember that the logic of structural adjustment is linked between the North and the South. The EU countries need to rethink their approach in order to put in place policies that are worthy and commensurate with the importance of migration for our societies. It is time to change the public discourse that spreads a false vision of people in exile. Sometimes presented as threats to Western civilisation, sometimes as victims of trafficking of all kinds, neither of these two visions will allow us to think of migration as what it is: a long-standing movement of people that needs to be anticipated and supported.

The dynamics of structural adjustment and austerity are as much those which plunge dependent countries into misery as those which motivate criminal conditions and the unequal sharing of hospitality within the EU. Not only must safe routes be put in place so that people can travel without fearing for their lives, but it is also necessary to ensure that official development assistance ODA
Official Development Assistance
Official Development Assistance is the name given to loans granted in financially favourable conditions by the public bodies of the industrialized countries. A loan has only to be agreed at a lower rate of interest than going market rates (a concessionary loan) to be considered as aid, even if it is then repaid to the last cent by the borrowing country. Tied bilateral loans (which oblige the borrowing country to buy products or services from the lending country) and debt cancellation are also counted as part of ODA. Apart from food aid, there are three main ways of using these funds: rural development, infrastructures and non-project aid (financing budget deficits or the balance of payments). The latter increases continually. This aid is made “conditional” upon reduction of the public deficit, privatization, environmental “good behaviour”, care of the very poor, democratization, etc. These conditions are laid down by the main governments of the North, the World Bank and the IMF. The aid goes through three channels: multilateral aid, bilateral aid and the NGOs.
resources meet certain criteria in order to effectively ’promote economic development and improve living standards in developing countries’ [33]. While the EU misuses the objective of official development assistance for the benefit of external cooperation on migration control, in particular by making this aid conditional on the collaboration of the third country in the expulsion of illegal immigrants, international cooperation should never be conditional on participation in a policy of externalising borders.

Finally, it is essential to break the economic mechanisms that underpin the whole racist approach to migration. A process must be launched to cancel the illegitimate debts of dependent countries, enabling people to escape the perverse logic of structural adjustment.

Following the military coup in Niger on 26 July and the fear of a deteriorating situation in the region, particularly between ECOWAS and countries already ruled by the military, the migration phenomenon we have described between Niger and Algeria could increase, leading to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis if these policies of distancing exiles are maintained as they stand.


[3For more information we recommend the book The World Bank: A Critical Primer by Éric Toussaint

[14Within the Commission’s political directorate, this dossier is managed by Margaritis Schinas (Vice-President and Commissioner in charge of ’promoting our European way of life’) and Ylva Johansson (European Commissioner for Home Affairs).

[26NDICI-Global Europe in English

[32]. The cost of the journey from Nigeria to Europe via Libya was estimated in 2017 at an average of between 4,000 and 6,000 dollars[[



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