All over the globe migrants face considerable dangers while in transit. In the Mediterranean, the European Union and Italy provide financial training, equipment, and funding to the Libyan coastguard, which in turn apprehends and detains asylum seekers in punitive conditions risking exposure to militias, traffickers, and even airstrikes by the Libyan government. It has also been reported that the Libyan coast guard has shot at migrants as well as civil society rescue boats. In Australia, the conservative Liberal National Coalition government has reportedly paid smugglers carrying migrants to turn back their boats, has detained asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for over six years, and recently repealed  “medevac” laws that granted significant powers to doctors to send migrant detainees to Australia for medical treatment. Amidst record numbers of asylum seekers from Central America, President Donald Trump has continued to pursue his planned border wall with Mexico, separated children from their families, and most recently struck agreements with Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to summarily return many asylum seekers who make it to the U.S. Scholars and policymakers have referred to these collective practices as a strategy or paradigm of deterrence. But while some border policies deter, not all control policies can be counted as “deterrence.” Instead, many are more accurately described as forms of “defense.” 

Why Do States Claim to Pursue Migration “Deterrence”?

Western liberal democracies are the major founders of the current global refugee regime, the framers of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and represent the top donors to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yet even as these countries invest resources to ostensibly improve the plight of refugees, they simultaneously invest massive resources in preventing asylum seekers from accessing their territories. In the past, these Western states worked to reduce the irregular entry of migrants into their territories, while still allowing for a modicum of access to their asylum systems through specified processes. But in recent years, the West has shed much of the normative restraint it observed in the post-World War II era in relation to the treatment of migrants, and border and migration restrictions have taken on new harsh dynamics that affect both asylum seekers and migrants indiscriminately. Some of this renewed emphasis on erecting barriers to migration occurred after the 2015 European refugee “crisis,” but many of these restrictive practices were systematically put in place over the last three decades. During this period, in order to stop people from entering their territories, while appearing to stay true to the liberal values enshrined in their constitutions, Western states sought to control their borders using an array of new control measures which they argue “deter” immigration.

Across the globe, the rhetoric of “deterrence” has been used to describe border control policies as diverse as immigration detention and raids on employers, curbing access to social benefits, using maritime interdictions to turn back individuals arriving by sea, and the proliferation of physical border walls and “floating barriers.” Yet this broad labeling of recent actions as “deterrence” policies is incorrect. Deterrence is an established concept with a focused definition and meaning; it is about changing an individual’s preferences, not their capacity to achieve those preferences. Generations of International Relations scholars have stressed the need to distinguish between deterrence and defense. Deterrence-based policies aim to change the motivations of actors, whereas defense-based policies are designed to limit actors’ capabilities. In other words, while deterrence leaves individuals with the ability to choose an action or response, a strategy of defense is about physically preventing or impeding an individual from achieving their objective.

In an article recently published in International Studies Review, we analyze the theoretical and practical differences between deterrence and defense and apply them to migration governance and control, finding that while some border policies deter, not all control policies constitute deterrence. Both types of tactics—defense and deterrence—can occur at different points in a migrant or asylum seeker’s journey. Building physical walls or employing carrier sanctions that do not allow migrants and asylum seekers to leave a country is a form of defensive border control, whereas development aid or other approaches that address the “root causes” of migration constitute deterrence, since they seek to change motivations. While en route, boat patrols that pick up migrants and forcibly return them to a home or transit state are a form of defensive border control, while not allowing rescue boats to operate in certain areas (such as in the Mediterranean) or disallowing aid operations (as has occurred along the U.S./Mexico border) constitutes deterrence. Lastly, within an arrival country, deportation is a type of post-hoc defensive policy since it confronts the capability of a migrant to remain in a host state, while preventing access to social services or making it difficult to earn a livelihood qualifies as deterrence. Regardless of where a policy is implemented, labeling tactics as deterrence that are actually forceful exercises of state defense whitewashes their true nature and blurs the line between policies that might be considered legally acceptable versus those that violate domestic and international commitments to human rights.

Defense Today, Deterrence Tomorrow?

Of course, there are close linkages between deterrence and defense. Many would argue that defense today works as deterrence tomorrow. But looking to analogies in the nuclear weapons or criminology spheres, there remains a clear distinction between the two tactics. Building a counter-strike capacity changes a nuclear adversary’s motivations to attack by increasing the anticipated costs: If you attack us, you will likely be attacked in return. By contrast, a missile defense system physically removes the capability of a nuclear adversary to successfully attack in the first place. Granted, if the adversary knows that this system is in place, they are more likely to think twice about launching expensive nuclear weapons only to have them preemptively shot-down. But a missile defense system is first and foremost—as the name implies—a tool of defense, not of deterrence.

Similarly, one might try to deter someone from robbing a business by legislating mandatory jail time for robberies, which constitutes a strategy of deterrence. It changes the would-be burglar’s cost-benefit assessment of attempting the crime even before the state physically engages with the person. But this should be distinguished from a defensive strategy of hiring armed guards that are empowered to shoot anyone attempting a robbery. Granted, a burglar may learn of the armed guards ahead of time, thus raising the potential risks of carrying out the robbery, thereby giving the armed guards an additional deterrent function. Yet calling armed guards who are empowered to shoot an intruder “deterrents” merely sugarcoats a much more brutal reality.

Policy Implications

Incorrectly labelling all border and migration controls as deterrence has at least two significant policy implications. First, without adequately defining migration deterrence, policymakers risk misunderstanding the impact or effectiveness of deterrence. A number of recent reports have suggested that the Trump administration’s border policies have had the effect of deterring the arrival of future asylum seekers and migrants, including the administration’s controversial decision to detain children separately from their parents. The number of arrivals has indeed decreased, with apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley down 56 percent from their unprecedented high in May of 2019. But the policies that the Trump administration has pursued at the Southern border are overwhelmingly defensive, rather than deterrent in nature. Second, migration deterrence involves a range of policies, many of which are legally and normatively acceptable and even desirable for states. For example, amidst the contemporary challenges of mixed migration, deterrence could theoretically play an important role in discouraging economic migrants from attempting an irregular journey by addressing their supposedly voluntary motivations to depart. Likewise, by not impeding an individual’s ability to migrate, an important pathway is preserved for refugees who are forced from their homes and who are legally entitled to access asylum systems. But by labelling defensive policies such as the construction of border walls, turn-backs, and restrictive visa policies as deterrence, we risk losing the “positive” dimension of deterrence.

Because policymakers have been ambiguous about which policies constitute deterrence versus defense, it has been very difficult to tease out the effectiveness and legality of these vastly different approaches to border control. Even the proposed border wall along the U.S./Mexico border has been cited as a deterrent for migrants and asylum seekers. But walls do not deter, they defend. They physically prevent individuals from moving from one side of a border to the other, thereby restricting a migrant or asylum seeker’s physical capabilities to move across borders and are hence, one of the most recognizable and paradigmatic forms of defense. President Trump’s rhetoric has also been credited for independently decreasing the number of border-crossers, but it is unlikely that his words would carry any weight if they were not accompanied by brutal defense measures such as physically preventing individuals from accessing U.S. territory in order to claim asylum, separating children from their parents, and even summarily returning would-be asylum seekers to their countries of origin without due process under the pretext of their home states being unilaterally declared as “safe.” Labeling these and other highly militarized, defense-based policies as forms of migration “deterrence” masks their true nature and prevents us from having informed discussions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of deterrence as it applies to migration governance and border control.

Image: Central American immigrants walk between a newly built Bollard-style border fence and the older “legacy” fence after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on February 01, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. The migrants later turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents, seeking political asylum in the United States. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images