Why deportation is not an easy migration policy solution

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In recent political and public debates across Europe deportation has become a political ambition shared by many mainstream political actors. Many of the arguments brought forward in these debates side-line the various problematic dimensions that deportation enforcement brings about, but which are discussed in an extensive academic literature on the topic. We are increasingly concerned about this knowledge gap and therefore aim to provide an overview of the key issues in academic debates concerning deportations that illustrates that the topic is much more complex than recent political and public debates suggest.


In the wake of the so-called migration crisis, the fiction of a “seamless” and “efficient” deportation system is put forward as the only way to safeguard a common European asylum system, EU cohesion and democracy. Politicians and policy-makers frequently call for increased deportations, like German Chancellor Scholz in a Spiegel interview in October 2023. Plans to include increased deportations in asylum proceedings have become regular news items, not least the planned outsourcing of asylum procedures from the UK to Rwanda, as well as from Italy to Albania. Similar ideas are currently under discussion in Germany and a new law was recently passed facilitating some aspects of deportations. The reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), adopted in April 2024, also seeks to make deportations to so-called safe third countries easier. Many of the political strategies and their implementation are directed towards African countries, with Sub-Saharan Africa understood as a main source of problematic migration, and North African countries being transit countries. In our discussion, we therefore concentrate on literature that is concerned with EU-African migration, though many of the findings also reflect the conditions in other regional contexts.

The political push for increased deportations disregards incompatibilities with human rights, European and national law obligations. Moreover, it discounts the costs involved in forcing non-EU countries to accept deportations, as well as the overall hegemonic geopolitical order grounded in racism that shapes migration governance and creates deportation in the first place. In order to make academic knowledge on deportations more visible, we outline some of the major academic debates on deportations.


Imaginaries and practices of deporting states

A central work on understanding deportations comes from an edited volume by Nicholas de Genova and Nathalie Peutz, the Deportation Regime, in which various authors unpack this form of state control as not only the physical expulsion of those who are actually deported, but additionally the deportability – which is the constant threat of removal. States thus no longer use deportations as exceptional measures in times of crises. Instead, deportation has become ‘normalised’ and perceived as ‘essential’ instrument not only to deport, but also to discipline immigrants with a constant threat of removal. Though deportations are complicated, time-consuming and expensive, and often at odds with human rights obligations of states, governments have long found ways to navigate their way around their own liberal norms to enforce something that may otherwise make this seem like a bad policy choice. This is what Matthey Gibney and Randall Hansen describe as the “deportation turn”.

The most established deportation-related literature covers various aspects with a focus on deporting states (mainly in Europe), including deportation practices and the construction of imaginaries. Research on practices has highlighted corporeality of forced removal, involving calming, monitoring, medicating, consoling, dressing, undressing, inspecting and often: violence. Other work focuses on the bureaucrats carrying out the deportations, who show a broad range of responses to their work, including creative and eccentric ones. Even studying paperwork shows the rationalising mechanisms created by states to legitimise violent and discriminatory actions, which is essential to the coercive state powers of deporting states. Researchers have additionally pointed to the inner workings of deporting infrastructures, including (profit-making) detention centres and transportation modes, especially aviation. Infrastructures and practices are linked to imaginations on, of and about deportation: for example, the manipulation of the hopes and dreams of deportees (in detention centres) as a governing technique. Scholars have shown how an aura of suspicion permeates the individual and structural level of migration control, pervasive even in law, practice and control technologies. Deporting states also transfer some of their imaginaries and practises to origin contexts, for example the idea of ongoing criminality and threats of deportees. Ultimately, the different practices and imaginaries sustain and normalise racialized global inequalities of mobility.


A construction of racialized il/legality

Research has long underlined the structural violence reproduced by deportation practices. Critical work has cautioned that deportation maps onto racialized ideas of exclusion all over the world, frequently with distinct post-colonial overtones. The exclusion of “the migrant” serves to define the privileges of citizenship and underscores the historical aim of population control. This takes place in a socio-political process of “illegalization” which effectively produces migrant “illegality” or the categorical difference between migrants and refugees. Race-making is central to deportations. For Barak Kalir, deportation mechanisms are based on Apartheid-like reasoning of racialisation and segregation – coining the term “departheid” – underlined by a sense of moral superiority rooted in white supremacy. The common agenda in the EU in particular has been guided by the idea of unwanted mobility (from so-called “others”) as a threat only to be resolved by securitised approaches in migration governance since its inception, argued by Jef Huysmans in a seminal piece from 2000. The consequences of such securitisation can even “illegalize” movements beyond the borders of Europe. This sets the scene for the geopolitical dimensions of deportations.


The geopolitics of deportation

Institutionally, deportations have been a central policy field in Europe following the reconfiguration of the common European migration approach, the CEAS, which emerged from the 1995 Schengen agreement. Increasingly, the onus has been on trying to regulate migration before arrival in destination countries in so-called “remote control practices”. Yet instead of hindering people to move, who act within a range of distinct mobility regimes anyway, such practices result in a range of ethical, political and legal issues.

The EU focus on “cooperation” instruments with non-EU countries centres on leveraging EU migration interests, putting high priority on the acceptance of deportations. Especially from 2015 onwards, migration partnerships have aimed to make deportation more attractive to non-EU states by linking them to visa facilitation agreements and so-called border capacity building. However, the EU as an institution is also affected by internal limitations including the multi-level structures and competing interests of individual member states that can impede their negotiation role.

In addition, non-EU states can be reluctant to cooperate, and cooperation practices are full of brokering spaces, as Nora El Qadim highlights, allowing  actors in deportee-receiving states to challenge and resist the dominant influence of deporting states. Moreover, countries on the receiving end of deportations, like Senegal or Ghana, face multiple interests ranging from international pressure to their own more domestic concerns, including wanting to appease the domestically important diaspora. A newly emerging literature – tied to the policy attention from 2015 onwards – looks to how countries react to receiving deportations, including how institutions act in the face of unexpected and challenging returns like from Libya to Ghana, or how a country like the Gambia imposed a moratorium refusing to accept deportations from the EU in order to forestall political destabilisation in their own country. Given the asymmetric position of many states on the receiving end of deportations, incompliance strategies can be reluctant and reactive, such as refusing to comply with identification missions for ‘rejected’ asylum-seekers awaiting deportation in the EU along other forms of ‘micro-refusals’. West African states will also use identity-related justification frames like ‘neo-colonial resistance’ to show their opposition to cooperation on deportations.

As many ‘countries of origin’ refuse to agree to formal migration agreements that include binding deportation cooperation mechanisms in the post-2015 environment in particular, informalization of agreements has since marked the growing policy field, increasing the absence of public scrutiny. Considering the geopolitics of deportations means not just looking at states and their interests, but also non-states actors, spaces and practices that shape return regimes. For example, the International Organisation for Migration, by co-operating in terms of ‘voluntary return’, helps in constructing a positive political imaginary of deportation. In fact, international organisations have a history of involvement in norm-building around the acceptability of ‘state-induced’ returns. The effects of deportations for deportees (and their social environment) themselves is seldom considered when deportation is discussed.


Life for deportees and their families

Deportation is experienced as a highly unjust measure that punishes (potential) deportees, as well as their social environments at both destination and origin. Deportation is experienced on a long-term scale. Before the actual removal, deportable migrants have to adapt their lifestyles, attitudes and emotions. They might be kept in detention centres under prison-like conditions without having committed a crime before being deported or released again, sometimes for indefinite periods of time, facing de-humanizing racialization there.

Empirical records on what happens after deportation are filled with testimonies of negative effects as outlined in an edited volume by Shahram Khosravi. These include the loss of home and belonging, invested biographical time, money earned, and possessions acquired abroad. Economic deprivation is further manifested through lacking access to income opportunities and adequate material or healthcare provision, followed by destabilized economic conditions and income prospects also in the longer run. Overall, it is highly unlikely that persons successfully reintegrate when returned against their will. Part of the high hurdle is their stigmatization, as for example Liza Schuster and Nassim Majidi show for deportees from Europe to Afghanistan. Deportees are held responsible for their failure to repay families’ migration investments and their inability to fulfil their social roles. Consequently, they can lose access to family-based social networks, having to reinvent themselves socially. Therefore, research has shown that the negative consequences of deportation encourage deportees to leave again.


Activism around deportation

Due to the factors outlined so far, immigration control and deportation have always been fields of contestation involving a range of actors. Resistance against deportation takes place on a variety of levels and in different shapes. As the most basic and common form of resistance, migrants regularly withdraw from removal practices through avoidance strategies. Public protest receives more visibility, which turns the public into a watchdog. Citizens of the host state often organize protests in solidarity with non-citizens, for example to prevent individual deportations. Since the mid-2010s, migrants themselves increasingly strategize and organize protest on their right to stay. Anti-deportation protest also happens after deportation, though rarely, and deportees hardly address their origin country governments. To a much lesser degree, anti-deportation resistance can also be conducted from within state institutions, for example through migrant-friendly interpretation of existing law through magistrates, or within deportation infrastructures, for example, when pilots refuse to transport deportees.


Alternatives to deportation

The idea of deportation abolition, introduced by legal scholar Angélica Cházaro, seeks to denaturalize the common sense of deportation in the law system on a more general level. This would need to be translated into general legal practice, because currently the factually existing legal avenues to circumvent deportations based on destination states’ rule of law are highly dependent on migrants’ – often lacking – access to (good) legal support on an individual basis. Thus, advocacy work is limited to a case-by-case basis and with it, remains patchy.

Many European countries were, are and will be shaped by immigrants and their descendants, which can be identified according to Naika Foroutan as post-migrant societies. Acknowledging this would mean to develop a guiding principle of a “Plaza Europe” instead of a “Fortress Europe”. This would be necessary to ensure Europe’s ethical and economic stability. Also from a Global South perspective, it is necessary to avoid performative policy-making that does not acknowledge the problematic nature of deportations. For Tendayi Achiume, the colonial interconnections between countries and people could be reinterpreted as a right to free movement, especially between former colony and master countries, just like the latter’s citizens once migrated to the ‘colonies’ as their unquestioned right.

In this brief overview of a complex field, we tried to sensitize audiences to the multifarious intricacies that current political and public debates largely overlook. Because of these, deportations simply cannot be a go-to political solution across the spectrum.

An overview of the literature is available in a reading list we have recently compiled (together with Leonie Jegen and Laura Lambert) to invite journalists, students, migration management practitioners and the wider public to critically question the current proclamations of inevitable deportation increases.

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