Border-induced displacement: The ethical and legal implications of distance-creation through externalization

Violeta Moreno-Lax, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

717 Downloads (Pure)


The externalization of European border control can be defined as the range of processes whereby European actors and Member States complement policies to control migration across their territorial boundaries with initiatives that realize such control extra-territorially and through other countries and organs rather than their own. The phenomenon has multiple dimensions. The spatial dimension captures the remoteness of the geographical distance that is interposed between the locus of power and the locus of surveillance. But there is also a relational dimension, regarding the multiplicity of actors engaged in the venture through bilateral and multilateral interactions, usually through coercive dynamics of conditional reward, incentive, or penalization. And there are functional and instrumental dimensions too, concerning the cost-effectiveness of distance-creation (in both ethical and legal grounds) vis-à-vis the (unwanted) migrant, who, removed from sight, is no longer considered of concern to the supervising State, and the range of externalizing policy devices at the service of externalising agents in terms of purpose, format, delivery, and ultimate control. European borders thus (re-)emerge as ubiquitous, multi-modal and translational systems of coercion – as an interconnected network of ‘little Guantánamos’. This, in turn, creates a distance, both physically and ethically, that is utilized to shift away concomitant responsibilities.
Distance, as the next sections will demonstrate, plays a crucial role as a mechanism not only of dispersion of legal duties, blurring the lines of causation and making attribution of wrongful conduct a difficult task, but also as an artefact of oppression and displacement in itself. It does not prevent (unwanted) migration but rather makes it unviable through legally sanctioned, safe channels, diverting it through ever more perilous routes. The immediate effect of this distance that externalization engenders is at least threefold. First, it leads to the disempowerment of migrants, who are left with no options for safe and legal escape, being instead coerced into dangerous courses operated by smugglers. Second, it legitimizes the actors enforcing externalized control on behalf, and for the benefit, of the European Union and its Member States. Repressive forces in third countries gain standing as valid interlocutors for cooperation, as a result; their democratic and human rights credentials becoming secondary, if at all relevant, as the Libyan case illustrates below. Third, legal alternatives, like the relaxation of controls or the creation of safe and regular pathways, are rejected; perceived as an illogical concession to the failure of the externalization project. The final outcome, and what constitutes the focus of this contribution, is the ‘border-induced displacement’ effect, resulting from the combination of the processes of extraterritorialisation and externalization taken together. Border-induced displacement is not equivalent to the original reasons forcing people into exile, but rather functions as a second-order type of (re-)displacement, produced precisely via (the violence implicated in) border control. This then leads to forms of ‘engineered regionalism’, that is, politics re-producing displacement in certain areas closest to the origin of flows. ‘Safe third country’ rules and practices are the main vehicle of this development, discernible also within the EU, where the Dublin System has ‘rulified’ an asymmetric allocation of responsibility for asylum claims to peripheral countries situated at the external common frontiers of the Union, like Spain, Italy and Greece. In the case of externalization, border-induced displacement is then imposed upon already-displaced persons by non-European actors implementing the EU’s pre-emptive control agenda, reinforcing prevailing patterns of exploitation and existing hierarchies of exclusion and subordination.
The ethical and legal consequences of ‘distance-creation’ are what we turn to analyse in the remainder of this article. Section 2 pays attention to the assumptions and ethical and political-economic dimensions behind this strategy, discussing exit control, coercion, and the democratic legitimization of unelected actors enforcing the EU border within third countries. Section 3 investigates the legal impact of externalization and extraterritorialization, centring on the apparent accountability gaps that it generates, contesting the legality of responsibility dispersion mechanisms. The overall conclusion we reach is that the ‘rulification’ of externalization at EU level does not render it ethically and legally tenable under international law. The ‘lawification’ at EU level of practices inconsistent with human rights is insufficient to render them compatible with international legal standards.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
JournalQuestions of International Law
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)5-33
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • Externalization
  • border-induced displacement
  • Libya
  • EU
  • border control
  • responsibility
  • distance-creation
  • rulification
  • legal rights
  • human rights
  • freedom of movement
  • liberal nationalism
  • border control industry
  • market for border control
  • military companies
  • security companies


Dive into the research topics of 'Border-induced displacement: The ethical and legal implications of distance-creation through externalization'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.
  • Security, industry and migration in European border control

    Lemberg-Pedersen, M., 11 Jul 2018, The Routledge Handbook of the Politics of Migration in Europe. Weinar, A., Bonjour, S. & Zhyznomirska, L. (eds.). Routledge, 12 p. (Routledge International Handbooks).

    Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)
  • Effective Protection or Effective Combat: EU border control and North Africa

    Lemberg-Pedersen, M., 1 Nov 2016, EurAfrican Borders and Migration Management: Political Cultures, Contested Spaces and Ordinary Lives. Gaibazzi, P., Dünnwald, S. & Bellagamba, A. (eds.). Palgrave Macmillan, p. 29-60 35 p. (Palgrave Series in African Borderlands Studies).

    Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review

    Open Access
  • Unravelling the Drivers of EU Border Militarization

    Lemberg-Pedersen, M., 1 Oct 2015

    Research output: Other contributionNet publication - Internet publicationCommunication

Cite this