Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Block the borders, fuel the crisis

Written by Clare Cummings


As winter sets in and the numbers of people seeking to enter Europe shows no sign of abating, several European countries took the sudden decision to only allow entry to migrants from the most war-torn nations. Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia are all reported to have shut their borders to migrants unable to prove Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi nationality.

This drastic and reactive decision-making fundamentally undermines international principles on granting refuge, ignores the realities of the migration crisis – and will only serve to intensify, not quieten, the chaos.

An asylum seeker is a person seeking refuge from persecution, and their case is judged on their personal situation, not on their nationality. To block borders to all ‘economic migrants’ based on nationality is a crude, desperate measure which tries to solve a complex situation with simplistic rules.

Underlying this knee-jerk decision is the deeper problem of categorisation. Dividing people into ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘economic migrants’ masks the real reasons why and how people migrate. In fact, the factors motivating an asylum seeker or an economic migrant are often the same; the need for greater safety, a secure livelihood, and better life prospects for themselves and their family. Asylum seekers need more than just asylum. The decision to open and close doors based on ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘economic migrant’ overlooks the causes creating migration flows, and suddenly refusing entry to particular nationalities is blunter still.

Overnight decisions to close borders reflect increasing panic and unproven accusations that Syrian refugees pose a terrorism threat. An assumptions that one of the Paris attackers was travelling as a Syrian refugee and strong political opposition in the US to the entry of Syrian refugees is testament to the climate of fear influencing political decision-making. At the heart of this crisis is a powerful and dangerous myth: that tightening border control and restricting entry can reduce migration, and that this would somehow limit terrorist attacks too. It can’t.

Numerous studies show that restricting entry to Europe simply displaces people from being regular migrants to irregular migrants. People who would have entered safely and legally instead turn to dangerous means, and the overall number of migrants does not change.

Shutting down borders instead of agreeing a rational EU response has turned migration into a crisis situation, requiring emergency aid, creating public alarm, and overwhelming border security systems. At a time of acute public fear of further terrorist attacks, greater chaos is the last thing European governments need.

European countries need to raise their heads from the sand and look honestly at what is happening at their borders, and also at the borders of many other wealthy countries. Politicians are stubbornly refusing to recognise that towing migrants into the sea (Thailand), allowing vigilantes to patrol borderlands (USA), and reportedly paying smugglers to take migrants back (Australia) does not disable human mobility. Mobility has brought – and continues to bring – individuals and nations greater prosperity.

Barricading people out does not stop them coming or increase a nation’s security. Supporting people to rebuild their lives when they arrive would be a far better and more sustainable long-term solution.