Webinar: How does crime serve immigration enforcement? Counter-terrorism, migrant-smuggling and border control

By Anna-Lena Baumeister and Adriana Parejo Pagador (GMD students)

Student initiative

With the support of the LDE centre, GMD students organised an online seminar to engage more closely with the nexus of counter-terrorism and immigration. Fifteen students joined in a discussion with guest-speakers Sarah Leonard from UWE Bristol and Javier Vázquez from the Europol European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC). Sarah is a professor for international security at the University of the West of England who specialises in counter-terrorism in connection with migration, asylum, and border issues. In her presentation, she explains that the connection between security and migration precedes the post-9/11 counter-terrorism discourse.

Next to concerns of national security, migration also fosters sentiments of cultural or social insecurity, allowing mass migration to be instrumentalised or even ‘weaponised’ by states as a tool of their political propaganda or as a form of leverage. As the EU increasingly externalises border control into Third-Countries, states like Turkey and Libya are in possession of strong political leverage as gatekeepers of the migration flow from the Middle East and Africa. Next, Sarah warns against the widespread belief that the Mediterranean is a ‘backchannel of terrorism’, reminding us that the instances of terrorism that asylum-seekers are involved in are extremely small.

Because of the powerful impact that the connection of migration and terrorism has on the public and political discourse, guest-speaker Javier from Europol, says the agency tries to circumvent linking the two where possible. At the same time, it is important to be aware of the overlaps to effectively combat organised crime and terrorism. He emphasises that Europol is not a migration agency: the focus is on the criminal groups behind migrant smuggling or the trafficking of human beings. It is Europol’s position that migrants are victims of these crimes and their false criminalisation should be avoided. Europol’s role lies in the support of Member States and Third Operational Partners. Javier highlights that the agency operates through its analytical function as a criminal information hub to its partners in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.

To this end, Europol launched several initiatives to tackle migrant smuggling and terrorism, such as the EU hotspot approach, the Common Risk Indicators, and the Secondary Security Checks upon arrival to the EU in Member States of first arrival. Once indicators of radicalisation or involvement in criminal activity arise, Europol, in close cooperation with the host country, performs checks against available databases and provides information to competent Law Enforcement agencies to assess the risk posed by the incoming irregular migrant. In addition to his, Europol promotes cooperation and information exchange amongst Member States to unearth involvement of criminal structures in the irregular migration events.

In a Q&A, students could ask the two guest-speakers follow-up questions, and questions that were handed in in advance were answered. One student was curious about whether or not, global traveling from high-risk COVID-19 areas could be considered a form of ‘bio-terrorism’. The speakers linked this back to the ‘weaponisation of migration’ in which the alarmist tone steers up public debate and serves political interests. Regarding a question that was submitted in advance in light of the (mis-)representation of migrant criminality in media, Sarah mentioned that there are certain crimes that de facto only migrants can commit such as overstaying a visa. This can lead to an additional distortion of public representation. The speakers trod very lightly when asked about the weighing of human versus national security at the example of the push-back allegations against Frontex. It was stressed that the work of EU agencies is restricted and closely monitored and that the Member States often shift the blame to Frontex.  The presentation and discussion tied in well with the curriculum of the GMD master, which allows students to critically reflect on matters of public discourse and the interests behind the political actions of the various stakeholders involved.