The externalisation of EU migration policy analysed from migrants’ perspectives – Ellen Desmet and Ruben Wissing

The PhD project approaches EU migration policy from a – for legal scholars – rather unconventional perspective. It investigates the consequences of this policy outside Europe, in bordering countries such as Morocco, in combination with other relevant dynamics at work. There, many refugees and other forced migrants experience the consequences of these externalisation policies, even though they did not enter the EU. With data collected through fieldwork in Rabat, Morocco, the project follows a users’ perspective, focusing on the lived experiences of migrants beyond their contact with formal law. This analysis is enriched by the combination of three disciplinary perspectives:

  • The traditional doctrinal approach to international law;
  • the political science approach;
  • the socio-legal approach.

This combination aims to paint a more nuanced picture of migrants’ encounters with the law and other norms and institutions. This analysis may in the future serve to inform policy and practice in the field of migration law.

The project follows a users’ perspective on the issue of externalisation, a methodology that focuses on people’s experiences of using the law, rather than on the legal instruments in question. This innovative approach was developed by the supervisor in the context of human rights research. Rather than starting from the relevance of the law a priori, a users’ perspective in this project entails:

  • asking what people understand as protection, and what the importance of law therein is
  • analysing a variety of institutions, norms and discourses;
  • adopting a socio-legal analytical approach.

Asylum law is a field where this is particularly important, as migration policies are rarely developed bottom-up, but rather sees the nation state as the central stakeholder. By looking at the perspectives of users of migration law, it also calls into question methodological nationalism, which often prioritises nations from the Global North, but ignores the plurality of stakeholders, in particular those from the South

The data for this project was mainly collected during a two-month fieldwork period in Rabat, Morocco, during which Ruben Wissing was able to interview and extensively observe 25 sub-Saharan migrants, mainly amidst a small but vocal community of Congolese migrants. Most of them had arrived in Rabat in two periods: some had spent more than 20 years in Morocco; others had arrived more recently, since Morocco announced a new migration and asylum policy in 2013. They also had different residence statuses and varying economic and political problems in their home countries: some could be considered as refugees under international law, others as forced migrants due to socio-economic coercion; some had residence papers, others did not. Eight of these 25 participants were women, 7 of them single women with children. Overall, the sample enabled the researcher to focus on a variety of circumstances that influenced their experience of the law. Interviewing and observation overlapped during this period, as the researcher spent quite some time in this small community, where people also heard about the research and were eager to share their thoughts on the issue spontaneously.

The researcher plans to return to the field soon and discuss his findings with the participants. Contact with Moroccan academics, activists and NGOs and migrant associations in Morocco, also provided valuable information and access to the research participants. These actors, and policymakers and other key stakeholders will also be interviewed: in this way, input is not only received from refugees, but also from other ‘users’ of migration law. In terms of output, the findings will be published in three international academic publications: one on the international law perspective, one on the socio-legal findings, and one on the political analysis.

As the research focuses on the externalisation policy of the EU, it is clearly of interest to European institutions involved in migration policy. However, this European hegemony is also questioned. The researcher stresses the importance of humility that he has learned in the field: while scientists consider themselves the experts in EU policy or migration law, it is humbling to come into the field and realise that people’s experiences of the law are much richer and more complex, and that they have their own unique expertise about it. In this sense, the research can be useful for policy makers in Morocco and other countries bordering the EU, which, as the researcher emphasises, have their own functioning laws and institutions, their own political consciousness and their own reality.

It is also important to bring the issue of EU’s external migration policy to the attention of Belgian academia, policy makers and the general public. This motivated the creation of a working group on the external dimension of the EU migration policy, composed of young scientists from different universities. This multidisciplinary group is a place where researchers can present their work in progress and reflect constructively on the development of the field in Belgium. Teaching is another way to achieve this. At Ghent University, the researcher has given guest lectures on this project in the courses ‘European and international migration law and policy’ and ‘Legal anthropology’.

In cooperation with 11.11.11., the Flemish coalition of international solidarity, and with support of the Global Minds Fund at Ghent University that fosters research cooperation with the Global South, Ruben Wissing and Ellen Desmet also organized some events to promote awareness on the topic, targeting different audiences. An online Ph.D. Master Class on the socio-legal aspects of this externalization policy, has been held in November 2020. Professor Barbara Oomen from Utrecht University was the central guest, approaching the issue from a law and society perspective to an audience of early career researchers who also presented their work-in-progress. Moreover, an online panel debate for a broader public was hosted in June 2021 on  the EU Commission’s announcement of a New Pact on Migration and Asylum and the impact on EU-Africa cooperation. The panel included, different expert voices:  from migrant associations working in the field, development cooperation agencies and  academics There are plans to organise a conference in 2022 focusing on ‘the EU migration policy and its implications for regional and bilateral policies, for states’ responsibility for human and refugee rights under international law and, of course, for the lives of migrants themselves’.

One of the greatest strengths of the project is that it abandons the law and its institutions, which is made possible by the interdisciplinary framework. This allows the researcher to ask not how the law works, but what, including but not limited to the law, offers protection and justice to migrants in this situation. The research also tries to influence policy-making in an unconventional way. It questions how researchers from the Global North should engage with different stakeholders when researching the Global South, promoting local solutions and the involvement of a variety of actors from a bottom-up perspective. The links that are created between Belgian universities, experts, practitioners, and policy-makers, and that are connecting those working on this topic, also have the potential to create further awareness. This means demonstrating the need for such collaboration between research and practice, with the experience of those in the field at the centre.