The EU’s external borders remain as leaky as ever

Copyright: "Leaky Faucet 153/365: Sink" by Jer Kunz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For a long time, the pressure exerted by irregular migration on the European Union’s external border was felt almost only by Spain, Italy and Greece. Now, it’s the EU’s Eastern flank which is bearing the brunt, as rising numbers of irregular migrants have arrived in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland from Belarus in recent weeks.

“Weaponizing” migration

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been accused by the EU of “weaponizing” migration, in response to the sanctions the EU has imposed on Belarus. It is reminiscent of suspicions of Russia being behind similar pressures on Norway in 2015 and 2016.

The situation is forcing several EU member states to strengthen their border protection. Lithuania has decided to build a fence on part of its border with Belarus. It is also temporarily restricting the ability to apply for asylum to designated locations, like border checkpoints or embassies, instead of at any point on Lithuanian territory.

50 times as many irregular migrants have crossed into Lithuania this Summer as compared to last Summer, totaling more than 4000 now. Also Latvia is feeling the brunt and has even declared a state of emergency in its border region with Belarus. Just like Lithuania, it has engaged in so-called “pushbacks” of migrants trying to enter, which is ‘incompatible with the Geneva Convention”, according to the Red Cross. However, the question here is whether Belarus can be considered unsafe for those migrants.

Following EU pressure on Iraq, from where many of the irregular migrants that have used the “Belarus route” stem, the country is now cooperating, as flights to Belarus have been mostly cancelled and a few hundred Iraqis have been repatriated.

Still, the EU’s approach to irregular migration has once again been exposed as confused and vulnerable to manipulation by authoritarian neighbors, with Turkey able to make demands on Greece, Morocco able to make demands on Spain and even those in charge in Libya able to make demands on Italy.

In a joint letter written last week, nine EU member states warn the European Commission that “There is no doubt that if the European Union fails to collectively respond to this new tactic by third states, the problem will not just persist but could increase.”

No migration policy change is in sight at the EU level

Obviously, irregular migration is a very complex challenge, but the EU’s flat out refusal to even consider Denmark’s new approach, which involves trying to process asylum requests outside of its own territory – by negotiating with another country, notable Rwanda, to serve as the host for this – is telling. The UK on the other hand, has also adopted the Danish policy stance.

Also, there is the fact that the European Commission does not seem interested to use all the cash it transfers to the likes of Morocco as leverage to get them to at least negotiate demands by EU member states to welcome back their nationals denied asylum, even when they have been involved in crime. When the Dutch government attempted to get Morocco to cooperate, Morocco has basically boycotted this. At least the EU has now been putting some kind of pressure on Iraq, apparently threatening with a stricter visa regime.

Naturally, the big question is whether the EU is able to succeed in convincing non-EU countries to cooperate with off-shore asylum processing. In any case, Australia managed to do so, despite its much smaller financial leverage over third countries than the EU, which is the world’s biggest development aid donor. In this context, it’s useful to recall a report by Carnegie Europe which has pointed out that “its current funding of various authoritarian-leaning regimes overseas sits uneasily with the EU’s internal efforts to condition funds on political values and clashes with the union’s goals for international development and foreign policy.” In other words, there is no need to shy away from using the billions of euros the EU spends outside of Europe as leverage.

Since 2013, when it was introduced, Australia’s policy not only managed to stop illegal migrants from entering, but it also reduced the number of drownings at sea to almost zero. It is legitimate to criticize the conditions in Australia’s “offshore” reception centers, but this is not an argument against reception centers outside the territory per se. As long as asylum seekers are being hosted in a humane manner and as long as they receive a prompt response to their asylum applications, no one can be against this.

The objective must above all be to destroy the business model of human smugglers, given that at the moment, it is a reality that as soon as one enters the EU illegally, one is almost certain to be able to stay. In the longer term, one should also start thinking about full-fledged “refugee cities”, which Hong Kong basically once was.

For once, when the EU can actually make a big difference by acting as a bloc, it’s a good idea to have the “common European action” described hereabove, but the European mandarins aren’t interested, not even in the face of possible new disorderly migration flows from deeply troubled Afghanistan. They continue to focus on attempting to spread migrants within the EU, which is nonsensical, given how the Schengen agreements allow passport-free travel within the EU.

Also large-scale goods smuggling remains problematic

Belgian daily De Standaard quotes an experienced Lithuanian border guard recalling how the irregular migrants “are being brought to the border by Belarussian smugglers, just like they are also smuggling cigarettes.” This points at how the EU’s external borders remain not only leaky when it comes to irregular migration but also when it comes to goods smuggling. A new report by KPMG compares tobacco smuggling between 2019 and 2020 and concludes how there has been “increasing EU27 illicit [tobacco] consumption”, “driven by an increase in counterfeit [cigarettes] which almost doubled to reach the highest level recorded”, despite all the Covid restrictions. Together with France and Greece, Lithuania features amongst the top three in the EU.

Interestingly, some EU member states seem to be able to improve the efficiency of border checks. Malta, for example, saw its illicit market for cigarettes drop from 17.2 percent in 2016 to 6.4 percent last year, which however also was caused by tax stability, according to KPMG. France, on the other hand, which hiked tobacco taxes not less than three times in 2020, witnessed a 609% increase in counterfeit during that year. The morale of the story: proper border checks can go a long way, but hiking taxes on tobacco or other kinds of “sinful” products really boosts shady markets.

As Belgian customs chief Kristian Vanderwaeren put it during what was the biggest Belgian customs operation ever to counter illegal tobacco smuggling, conducted earlier this month: “When you know that a package of cigarettes costs 8 euro, of which 6 euro are taxes, then you know how lucrative it is to dodge these taxes”. This is in line with estimates that if cigarettes become 10 percent more expensive, there is on average 7 percent more illegal trade. Vanderwaeren also added that “health standards are often not respected in the case of counterfeit tobacco. Sometimes, there are certain metals found in counterfeit cigarettes and the filter is often not of a high quality”.

It is reminiscent of the illegal drug trade, which the authorities continue to fail to get under control at the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. For goods, these are the two largest gateways to Europe. According to Antwerp’s mayor Bart De Wever, both ports are “leaking like a sieve“. In previous articles, I have argued that legalization should be considered, first and foremost because the number of addicts does not increase with a more tolerant approach. One argument is also that it would reduce the huge black market for illegal drugs to more modest proportions, which in theory should make it more feasible to control everything that is being transported through Europe’s big ports.


Both when it comes illegal migration and smuggling of goods, the EU’s external borders remain leaky. In both cases, policy changes exist that have already been successfully applied in practice.

Illegal migration could be tackled in a similar manner as Australia has done, by telling people to apply for asylum at – humane – reception centres outside the EU’s territory. Rampant smuggling of goods could be countered by reducing high taxes on “sinful” products that are popular, or by no longer banning them. Completely watertight borders are of course an illusion, but there is much room for improvement.