Asylum and migration policy: When states become bouncers

By Felix Braunsdorf, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) humanitarian advocacy officer.

Governments around the world are making deals to prevent refugees and migrant communities from accessing security and safety. Immense sums of money flow into walls, barbed wire, surveillance and questionable deals. The militarisation of border protection is advancing – both in Europe and in the USA.   

MSF’s medical humanitarian response at the US-Mexico border has shown that erecting barriers does not stop migration. Instead, people are forced to face dangerous and cruel situations.  

Title 42 – a deportation law  

Since May 11 the COVID-19 emergency in the US was officially over. With it, a regulation introduced under the Trump administration disappears: To deport to Mexico any person who crosses the border into the US, known as “Title 42”. Although the COVID-19 regulations in the US have long since been relaxed, the government under Biden had retained Title 42 until recently.  

As recently as January, Mexican President López Obrador, at the urging of the USA, agreed to “take back” up to 30,000 deported migrants from four countries – Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela – every month. At the same time, the USA promised to take in the same number of people from these four countries. But only under very specific conditions: Migrants must apply from abroad and prove that they are US citizens. This emergency rule is now being given a legal basis as a migration agreement between the USA and Mexico.  

Time is running out 

The implementation of the announced measure now means that people would have to stay longer in places where their safety is not guaranteed. Many of them are already significantly affected by previous experiences of violence and unsafe living conditions. 
Felix Braunsdorf
MSF humanitarian advocacy officer

In the border region, MSF mostly treat patients with respiratory, gastrointestinal and skin diseases. In addition, there are injuries resulting from long and dangerous walks.  

In addition, due to the uncertainty of their situation and the separation from family (including the travelling children), many develop emotional disorders such as stress, excessive anxiety, constant worry and, in severe cases, mental disorders. Due to the enormous delay caused by the new measure – the “deal” – they now face additional significant restrictions in accessing healthcare and other basic services.  

We know this kind of deal politics from Europe  

The best-known example is the EU Türkiye deal of 2016, when the European Union (EU) paid for the care of Syrian refugees in Turkey. It also helped Turkey to strengthen its border protection and stop boats leaving Turkish shores for Europe.   

In return, all refugees arriving in Europe from Turkey were to be deported back to Turkey as of a cut-off date. The plan was that for every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey, the EU states would take in another Syrian refugee from Turkey.   

Why did the EU-Turkey deal fail 

The one:one mechanism of the deal did not work from the beginning: on the one hand, because the deportations often did not pass in court, and on the other hand, because Turkey soon refused to take people back. Since 2020, Turkey no longer takes back rejected asylum seekers and has thus de facto cancelled this part of the deal. However, because the arrival figures in Greece actually fell, a distorted image of theeffective deal” emerged in public.

The EU-Turkey deal sent an appalling signal to the world  

Médecins Sans Frontières warned in an open letter to the heads of state and government of the European Union of the dramatic consequences of the EU-Turkey deal. The deal not only damaged the rights of those seeking protection and instrumentalised humanitarian aid. It also sent an appaling signal to the rest of the world: countries can buy their way out of their responsibility towards those seeking protection.
Felix Braunsdorf
MSF humanitarian advocacy officer

The shadows of the law  

Now new rules are to apply at the border between the US and Mexico. The only other legal wayif you are not one of the 30,000 exchange migrantsto apply for asylum in the USA from now on is via an app. With its help, people seeking protection are supposed to book an appointment with the US immigration authorities. What sounds practical at first, however, means long waiting times in reality because the few appointments are booked up quickly. In addition, you have to have a certain affinity for technology and meet clearly defined requirements. For many of the people who endure precarious living conditions at the borders, this is an almost impossible task. The new rules in practice mean the end of individual access to an asylum procedure at the border  

A dangerous trend  

Using states as gatekeepers, essentially bouncers, along the escape routes by means of deals is a dangerous trend. People on the run are taking ever greater risks to flee persecution, violence and a lack of prospects. The human rights achievement of refugee protection has so far been to guarantee a fair trial for people in search of safety. This right must continue to be defended - worldwide.
Felix Braunsdorf
MSF humanitarian advocacy officer

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