A Taxonomy of Externalization Policies

We put forward a taxonomy of externalization policies, distinguishing the spaces in which states control human movements and limit their legal obligations towards people seeking protection as well as the means by which they exercise power. Essentially, states have strived to control territorial space, legal space, diplomatic space, and mental space. The evolution of these four layers of externalization supplements biopolitics based on external migration control measures with transnational psychopolitics aiming to disincentivize departure by internalizing control.


Refugee externalization policies have regained traction in many liberal Western democracies. Such policies intend to control human movement as well as to evade or, at least, reduce Western states’ responsibility in refugee protection through territorial and legal externalization. Whereas territorial externalization aims to keep people seeking protection away from the territory of potential destination states, legal externalization aims to shift legal responsibility for refugees outside of the reach of the state’s jurisdiction. Despite policy innovation in refugee externalization in recent years, the idea of circumventing state responsibility towards people seeking protection in this way is far from new.

While we have witnessed a flurry of research on the history, politics, and legality of externalization policies, conceptual work has been relatively scarce. Against this backdrop, we put forward a taxonomy that captures the different forms of refugee externalization. We identify four layers of refugee externalization, differing by the spaces in which states strive to exercise control and the means by which states employ their power. First, states have aimed to control the territorial space preventing border-crossings of unwanted migrants by physical obstacles such as walls and fences or digital innovation and biometric databases. Second, states operate in the legal space when establishing procedural barriers or using their legislative power to hinder people from accessing asylum procedures and refugee protection. Third, liberal democracies are increasingly using their international standing and asymmetric economic power in the diplomatic space to close agreements allowing them to outsource both migration control and refugee protection. Finally, states are disincentivizing the departure of people in main countries of origin and transit through media and peer campaigns, targeting mobility aspirations and the mental space of potential asylum seekers.

Rather than replacing each other, the different layers of externalization policies can be understood as overlapping dimensions of migration control that complement each other. Also in conjunction, these are not instruments leading to the full exclusion of people seeking protection but function as a series of filters inducing selection processes. Overall, we can observe an evolution from visible and direct state control measures to more sublime, indirect forms of state power that aim to establish mental barriers and manipulate mobility aspirations. This development implies supplementing biopolitics based on external control measures with transnational psychopolitics, focusing on the headspace of potential migrants in the Global South. At the same time, externalization policies have turned refugee policy from a matter of domestic affairs to a matter of foreign affairs, shifting control upwards and outwards: to the intergovernmental sphere and towards countries in closer proximity to humanitarian crises. Thereby, we witness a widening of the gap between what liberal democracies practice within their own borders and what they tolerate outside of their borders.


Controlling access to national territory

The first layer of externalization is reflected by the aim of states to control their territorial space using both physical and digital infrastructure to hinder unwanted migrants from accessing national territory. Rather than replacing physical border infrastructure the “digitalization of border control” has complemented it with extensive digital archives and transnational biometrical databases. Border control measures exercise compulsory power as they are based on states’ direct application of coercive means.

Physical barriers, such as walls or fences, are seemingly medieval means but also the most visible representation of national borders. There are many examples of the continuous importance of such physical border infrastructure: the fences built around the Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla after Spain joined the Schengen Agreement in 1991, attempts by Poland to build a wall to secure the Polish-Belarusian border in 2022, or the fragmented yet growing border infrastructure at the US-Mexican border. Such border infrastructure is sometimes complemented with the use of push-backs on land or with maritime interception. Reporting on the use of such practices has become notorious in Europe and overseas.

Physical barriers go along with paper walls. The invention of the passport as well as entry and visa requirements that must be presented in departure countries is arguably the most common tool used by states to this end. While visa requirements have been lifted in many Global North states over the past few decades, they are still a popular instrument to filter South-North movements, leading to a “global mobility divide”. In a similar way, states have introduced carrier sanctions on transportation companies should they not provide details about travellers and implement migration control measures.

Technological change has advanced digital infrastructures, turning physical obstacles into “smart borders”, and equipping border patrols with technical devices. These feed into extensive transnational biometric databases such as Eurodac and the Schengen Information System. Artificial Intelligence accelerates digital innovation and perpetuates control via robot dogs with video cameras and sensors, operating alongside groups of automated ground vehicles or networks of drones. Despite the digitization of border control, the physical border infrastructure is not expected to lose importance any time soon.


Controlling access to asylum law

Besides controlling the access to national territory, states have also used different means to control the access to asylum law. By introducing unilateral policies of inadmissibility and using their discretionary power when interpreting laws, states control the legal space to evade protection responsibilities. Power unfolding via the (non-)use of laws and administrative discretion can be described as institutional power – it draws on formal and informal rules affecting individuals directly.

Most states worldwide have not only ratified international protection frameworks such as the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol but also established national asylum frameworks. They thereby formally recognize legal responsibility towards people seeking protection. From the 1980s onwards, states have subsequentially limited this responsibility by introducing (safe) third country policies. These policies allow states to deny access to refugee status determination and refugee protection based on a connection of an asylum applicant with another country.

Next to policies of inadmissibility, states have circumscribed their legal responsibility by interpreting existing laws in evasive ways. A particularly inventive move has been the exclusion of border or transit zones – such as airports, harbours, or coastlines – from state territory. In doing so, states seek to avoid accountability and aim to evade fulfilling their obligations under human rights and refugee law. These special international zones enable states “to roll back human rights while leaving police powers in place” – or substantially increase them.

Such policies allowing Western liberal states to exploit legal gaps whilst at the same time formally adhering to the principles of protection obligations have been coined as hyper-legalism and obfuscation. Hyper-legalism describes an overly formalistic bad-faith approach used by state officials when interpreting legal obligations towards people seeking protection. Obfuscation, in contrast, is based on secrecy about the actions that states are taking and the purported legal justifications.


Indirect control through migration diplomacy

Besides direct and unilateral measures frustrating access to their territory and asylum systems, states also use indirect means. Capitalizing on their economic power and international standing, Western states have increasingly engaged in what has been dubbed migration diplomacy. In addition, informal inter-state consultation networks have proliferated in which states share “best practices” on asylum governance. Given that power is exercised indirectly and on the basis of economic predominance, these agreements can be interpreted as an example of structural power.

The evolution of readmission agreements is arguably the clearest expression of intensifying migration diplomacy. Facing a “deportation gap” states have increasingly sought to close bilateral agreements with main states of origin and transit to return irregular migrants. However, the conclusion of formal agreements often faces opposition in the target states and even once concluded agreements have proved ineffective. Turning towards informal cooperation on return and readmission, Western states have tried to make use of issue-linkages, connecting demands for readmission with incentives in trade, security, human rights, and development cooperation.

Particularly informal bilateral cooperation such as migration partnerships or memoranda of understanding focuses not only on the return of third-country nationals but also seeks to prevent the arrival of unwanted migrants. While informalization may have motivated some transit and origin states to enter into such arrangements, destination states can also use informalization as a means for “breaking the legal link” with their own jurisdiction. In response, human rights lawyers have increasingly filed complaints to international courts such as the International Criminal Court for “breaking the cycle of impunity”.

Another form of migration diplomacy consists of agreements that shift responsibility for asylum processing and, in some cases, refugee protection to another country. Such (safe) fourth country policies date back to the 1980s and have, until the time of writing, only been put into practice by Australia, Israel, and the United States. Despite their continuous failure in the face of legal and practical challenges as well as human rights violations, they have an enduring appeal for politicians of Western states. While Denmark was the first European state to introduce a legislative amendment allowing for such international agreements in 2021, it is the United Kingdom that has concluded the first such agreement with Rwanda in 2022. These externalization schemes follow the example of Australia’s “Pacific Solution”, which itself took inspiration from the offshoring of asylum processing by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But while these agreements primarily aim (but generally fail) to deter asylum seekers from seeking asylum in the West, they are often framed as humanitarian projects by their defenders.


Controlling mobility aspirations

The fourth layer of externalization consists neither of territorial nor legal or diplomatic means to preclude access to Western states’ asylum systems. In contrast, it targets the ambition to migrate in the first place. Addressing the narratives of migration, this more subtle form of externalization refrains from the open use of force and instead operates via concealed and indirect ideational mechanisms masked as neutral “information campaigns”. Such influence conforms with the notion of productive power. It mirrors the attempt to overcome the biopolitics that characterizes other forms of refugee externalization aiming to control the body and movement of potential migrants. Due to its sublime and permissive nature and because it targets the mental space of people rather than their body it can best be described as a form of transnational psychopolitics.

The past decades have witnessed a proliferation of so-called “information campaigns” that essentially aim to disincentivize potential asylum seekers from moving by disseminating reports about risks on the journey and in destination countries. The Australian government, for example, has built up an extensive social media campaign disseminating the message to people without valid visa: “You will never set foot in Australia”. While other states have chosen different channels and more subtle ways of communication, they are often built upon the principle of “negative nation branding”. Despite that research gives little support to the deterrent effects of such campaigns, their popularity is growing. Part of destination states’ strategy is to send such messages indirectly via seemingly “neutral” international organizations like IOM, which are using, among other means, peer-to-peer messaging such as the “migrants as messengers” project based on which returnees shall disincentivize the departure of their fellow citizens.

Next to deterrent information campaigns, Western states also make use of symbolic or performative cruelty to discourage people from moving. While the emergence of illiberal policies and practices is often attributed to right-wing parties, mainstream parties also play their role when using accommodative strategies. This is particularly stunning given that research shows that such strategies are, on average, rather likely to deflect voters to the radical right. While many Western governments have built hostile environments for unwanted migrants on their territory, they collaborate with transit countries to set up safe zones in refugee’s regions of origin. Yet both the hostile environments in destination states and presumably safe zones in the region of origin ultimately aim to keep people seeking protection away from potential destination states in the Global North, simultaneously using and strengthening regimes of (im)mobility.



This contribution has put forward a novel taxonomy of refugee externalization policies. It shows that refugee externalization has many layers and that states are using their influence in territorial, legal, diplomatic, and mental space to limit human mobility and their protection obligations.

The focus on illiberal externalization policies by Western democracies does not imply that states in the Global South have refrained from adopting similar strategies to imitate irresponsibility in refugee protection. States in the Global South are also limiting the movement of South-South migration using visa policies. Likewise, (safe) third country policies have increasingly become popular beyond the Global North and some states in the Global South are using strategic non-regulation to avoid legal responsibility toward refugees.

Hitherto, liberal democracies have been cautious not to openly refrain from their commitment under the 1951 Refugee Convention. States may do so not only to prevent reputational damage but also because reducing their responsibility toward people seeking protection is only possible if they find protection elsewhere. However, extending responsibility to other countries and actors cannot work without maintaining responsibility in liberal democracies. When Western states undermine liberal protection norms within and beyond their borders, they erode the substance of the international refugee regime. Doing so by exploring legal grey zones or threatening to withdraw from international courts, not only affects people seeking protection but also erodes the very foundations on which the liberal international order rests.


A longer version of this article was originally published as part of the initiative Externalizing Asylum: A Compendium of Scientific Knowledge.

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