Externalisation: The failed attempt to reimagine asylum

27 Jul 2023  –  Written by Akshithaa Sellvarajah


  • Externalisation of the asylum process has resulted in a shifting border, moving borders inwards or outwards depending on the state’s desired effect, being either deterrence or prevention.
  • The humanitarian crisis that ensues is complex, and it is essential to examine the role of externalisation in exacerbating the challenges faced by asylum seekers.
  • The EU must focus on social policy solutions that prioritise human rights, safety, and cooperation, to move towards a more just and sustainable approach to asylum and migration management.



Externalisation has reimagined and transformed borders, paralleling the asymmetric relationships between states and social hierarchies, and intended to culminate social closure and ultimately shift borders. Externalisation shifts the border beyond and inside state/country territories by creating constitution-free zones and virtual borders, in which asylum seekers are scrutinised with intense surveillance and are in direct danger of injury and death. This paper will be split into two sections. Section one will outline the different forms of externalisation to the asylum process: paying a country of the first arrival; mass systematic expulsion; and the interception of asylum seekers usually travelling by boat. Section two will argue that the shifting border has reimagined and transformed borders to be pulled inside and pushed outside state territories. This paper will ultimately conclude that the externalisation of the asylum process has manifested itself into a humanitarian crisis in which asylum seekers are tortured and violated. The once static physical border has almost become a utopian dream which asylum seekers intend to get to but are stunted by highly digitalised virtual borders and jurisdictions. There is essentially an invisible border that screens and prevents asylum seekers from ever reaching the physical border in the first place.


The Forms and Consequences of Externalisation on the Asylum Process

States have many ways in which externalisation can be used to reduce access to asylum. One way is to pay the country of first arrival to curb the migration flow (Frelick et al., 2016). This reimagines the border as being the refugee camps where mobilities are contained, and rights are often violated, whilst also serving as the border between ones hopes of seeking refugee status or being sent back home. The 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement is one example of this. The EU-Turkey Agreement is a declaration of cooperation between European countries and Turkey’s government. The accord stipulated that anyone landing on the Greek islands irregularly, including asylum seekers, would be deported to Turkey (McEwen, 2017). In return, the EU member states would accept one Syrian refugee from Turkey for each Syrian repatriated from the islands. The EU offered Turkey $3.6 billion in aid for this settlement (Lehner, 2018).

Consequently, the surrounding Greek islands, especially Lesvos, Chios and Samos, have become the EU’s buffer zones, and thousands of people are trapped in overcrowded and under-resourced camps while waiting for their claims to be processed, which could take months or years (Lehner, 2018). These asylum seekers are subjected to unhygienic and unethical conditions, as shown in Figure 1 which shows the Moria camp which, as of 2019, which houses 18,000 asylum seekers, 15,000 more than the maximum capacity of just 3000 (Rescue, 2021). The conditions in these camps are so dire that since March 2018, 79% of the residents have been diagnosed with depression and almost 48% of those interviewed admitted they had considered suicide since leaving their home (Rescue, 2021).

Figure 1: The refugee camp Moria in Lesvos, Greece (Rescue, 2021)

Another form of externalisation is systematic mass expulsions. Mass expulsions are carried out using procedures that do not consider each individual case. They do not provide sufficient assurances that a person will not be returned to a country where one’s life or freedom is under threat of torture or other serious human rights violations (Frelick et al., 2016). For example, under Spain’s ‘alien legislation’ (Ley de Extranjeria), a person who reaches the Spanish border might be denied admission and expelled without having the chance to articulate their reasons for wishing to enter the nation (Euskadi, 2013). This practise can affect asylum rights and prohibitions against refoulement as stated by the 1951 Refugee Convention (UNHCR, 2007). Under refoulement everyone has the right to leave any country, even their own; refugees and asylum seekers have the right to seek and receive asylum, and they are not penalised for doing so unlawfully (Frelick et al., 2016). The key obligation of non-refoulment is that it restricts states from returning an asylum seeker or refugee to territories where their life or liberties are jeopardised.

Furthermore, third-country enforcement pressures can make it more difficult for asylum seekers and refugees to cross borders, as well as to seek or access processes for assessing refugee status (Duffy, 2008). Given that states are prohibited from practising indirect or chain refoulement, this form of externalisation can jeopardise the fundamental human rights of asylum seekers and is illegal.

Finally, the most common way externalisation takes place is through the interception of transportation carrying asylum seekers, usually travelling by boat. They are then detained or processed in offshore sites (Frelick et al., 2016). For example, since 2013, the Australian Government has reported having turned back 771 asylum seekers on 31 boats from Australia’s territorial waters (Doherty, 2017). Thus, the border has transformed outwards into Australia’s waters instead of a static physical border such as airport security gates. The turning away of boats has dangerous consequences for the asylum seekers, with many pushed into challenging drug and human trafficking courses run by smugglers. Europol reported that nearly 90% of migrants that entered Europe irregularly in 2015 did so with the help of a smuggler (Hodal, 2017).

Further, a study conducted by the University of Queensland found that during forced returns by the navy and customs there were numerous cases of drownings and fatal explosions (Crock & Martin, 2013). This may be due to engine sabotage and mechanical breakdowns in unseaworthy boats hauled at great distances. For example, on 25 November 2021, more than 27 people drowned trying to cross the English Channel (Lee and Faulkner, 2021). The turning back of boats has resultingly reimagined borders to be the waters themselves and has life-threatening consequences to the asylum seekers.

The above mentioned are just a few forms in which externalisation takes place. The process of externalisation not only reimagines borders to be pushed outwards into waters and inwards through the creation of refugee camps, but it also manifests itself into dangerous routes taken by asylum seekers to reach safety.


The reimagining, transforming and changing border

The shifting border, coined by Ayelet Shachar in the book The Shifting Border: Legal Cartographies of Migration and Mobility, refers to a changing border that moves outwards or inwards dependent on a state’s desired effects (Shachar, 2020). Externalisation has moved borders from their fixed location at the country’s territorial edges into the interior through the creation of constitution-free zones. Unlike a strengthened physical barrier, this changing border is not fixed in time and space (Macías-Rojas, 2018). This shifting border means states can keep unwanted people out, in this case, asylum seekers, by moving the borders, outward or inward, dependent on the desired effect instead of a specific frontier location. These borders are heavily governed by legal jurisdictions and law. Not only does the shifting border stretch the state’s borders to control mobility, but it also extends deep into the interior, producing constitution free zones or waiting zones. In these zones, constitutional rights are partly suspended or finite, particularly to those who lack proper documentation or legal status (Shachar, 2020). These geographical and temporal settlements and appendages have profound consequences for the range of rights and security accessible to asylum seekers. The suspension of rights exposes the means to which governments and states will go to deter asylum seekers from entering their territories.

Moreover, externalisation has transported borders into the cyberspace, leading to the creation of virtual borders in which the conventional static border is reimagined as the final point of contact rather than the first. Virtual borders aim to drive the border out as far from the existing territorial border as possible. The concept, which has received eager support from governments in relatively wealthy and stable parts of the world, is to analyse people at the source or the start of their journey instead of their destination country, and then at every potential checkpoint on the travel continuum, visa screening, airport check-in, points of embarkation, transit points, international airports, and seaports (Shachar, 2020). The delay in the country of origin adds danger to the people that don’t always have the tech infrastructure or means to complete these requirements. Consequently, the typical static border has been reimagined from being the initial point of contact to the last point of contact. This approach could potentially reduce the number of people who end up in detention camps or face challenging conditions while attempting to cross borders illegally. However, the effectiveness and ethical implications of such an approach depend on how it is implemented, the protection of human rights, and the collaboration and responsibility-sharing among nations. It’s essential to strike a balance between border security and humanitarian considerations to ensure a fair and just approach to immigration management.

The European Union and its representative states have advocated the lead of these increasingly digitalised border control systems. At the European level, two central systems have been put into place, the Eurosar and Eurodac. The underlying logic through drones and biometrics results in two very different consequential effects on the border. Eurosar for example, reinforces the external borders by classifying people into groups. It pushes the physical border outwards, as the usage of satellites and drones are designed to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers and illegal migrants before reaching the continent in the first place. Contrastingly, Eurodac emphasises the internal borders by identifying the individuals, thus making claims faster. Eurodac forces the border inwards as biometric information technologies carve the border into the bodies of each asylum seeker in Europe. Individual EU member states are mirroring the European approach, as they increasingly turn to the analysis of social media to identify and classify individual migrants and asylum seekers (Brouwer & Renate, 2002).  The “analysis of social media” in the context of border control and immigration refers to the practice of monitoring and examining publicly available information from social media platforms to gain insights into the profiles, activities, and backgrounds of individual migrants and asylum seekers (ibid.).

The discriminatory effect of digital technologies on refugees starts before they even reach the border. The EU border agency Frontex, for example, is suspected of using surveillance technology to monitor illegal pushbacks of migrants before they can request asylum, as well as to support its current air operations, which have been connected to thousands of migrants being held in custody by the Libyan coast guard and returned to detention camps in Libya (Neal, 2009). It is interesting to note that Frontex and the EU coast guards have received an increase in budget, which has been used to fund projects such as Eurosar and Eurodac, rather than patrol ships capable of rescue and the helping of asylum seekers. This is evident of how externalisation has reimagined and transformed borders paralleling the asymmetric relationships between states and social hierarchies intended to produce social closure. For example, less technological advanced countries such as India are getting more asylum seekers resultant of not being able to externalise at their physical border (Shanker & Raghavan, 2021).



To conclude, externalisation of the asylum process has resulted in a shifting border, shifting the border inwards, or outwards depending on the state’s desired effect, being either deterrence or prevention. The externalisation of the asylum process exposes European countries’ unwillingness to burden share by exercising their monetary power and paying poorer countries to take in asylum seekers on their behalf. Governments and states have created highly digitalised systems and implemented laws to securitise their borders, ultimately creating an invisible border before the actual border is reached. The once-physical border has become a utopian dream for asylum seekers, as their legal status prohibits them from this goal due to screening technologies, instead pushing them back to their countries of origin, or into dangerous refugee camps.

The humanitarian crisis that ensues is complex, and it is essential to examine the role of externalisation in exacerbating the challenges faced by asylum seekers. While externalisation contributes to the physical risks and dangers each individual asylum seeker faces, it may not be the sole cause of the crisis. The root of the issue lies in the push factors driving people to seek asylum in the first place. Addressing the underlying causes of displacement and migration is crucial to mitigating the overall humanitarian crisis.

To improve the situation, the EU must consider better alternatives. A more effective system would require addressing the root causes of migration, investing in conflict resolution, and supporting development initiatives in source countries. Additionally, the EU should adopt a more compassionate and humane approach to asylum seekers, ensuring their safety and dignity throughout the migration process.

The EU can also focus on creating fair and efficient asylum processing systems within its borders. Instead of pushing asylum seekers away, the EU should prioritise fair and thorough assessments of asylum claims, ensuring that those in genuine need of protection are granted refuge. Furthermore, international cooperation is essential in sharing the responsibility of hosting and supporting asylum seekers. The EU can work with other nations to establish burden-sharing mechanisms, promoting solidarity and collective action for this global problem.

As externalisation plays a key role in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, it is crucial to recognise that addressing the root causes and adopting more compassionate policies are also important. By focusing on social policy solutions that prioritise human rights, safety, and cooperation, the EU can move towards a more just and sustainable approach to asylum and migration management.




Brouwer, E., Renate, E. (2002) Eurodac: Its Limitations and Temptations. European Journal of Migration and Law, 4(2), pp. 231-247.

Crock, M., Martin, H. (2013) Refugee rights and the merits of appeals. The University of Queensland Law Journal, 32(1).

Doherty, B. (2017) Australia’s asylum boat turnbacks are illegal and risk lives, UN told, The Guardian, 29 October. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/oct/30/australias-asylum-boat-turnbacks-are-illegal-and-risk-lives-un-told [Accessed 24/06/2023].

Duffy, A. (2008) Expulsion to Face Torture? Non-refoulement in International Law. International Journal of Refugee Law, 20(3), pp. 373-390.

Euskadi, C. (2013) The Externalisation of borders: migration control and the right to Asylum, Idcoalition.org. Available at: https://idcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/INCIDENCIA_OK_ENGLISH.pdf [Accessed 26/06/2023].

Frelick, B., Kysel, I., Podkul, J. (2016) The Impact of Externalization of Migration Controls on the Rights of Asylum Seekers and Other Migrants, Journal on Migration and Human Security, 4(4), pp. 190-220.

Hodal, K. (2017) Traffickers and smugglers exploit record rise in unaccompanied child refugees. The Guardian, 17 May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/may/17/traffickers-smugglers-exploit-record-rise-unaccompanied-child-refugees-migrants-unicef-report [Accessed 26/06/2023].

La-Neuve, L. (2021) European Court of Human Rights [GC], decision on Admissibility of 5 may 2020, M.N. and others v. Belgium, appl. no 3599/18, UCLouvain. Available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20210411045750/https://uclouvain.be/fr/instituts-recherche/juri/cedie/actualites/european-court-of-human-rights-gc-decision-on-admissibility-of-5-may-2020-m-n-and-others-v-belgium-appl-no-3599-18.html [Accessed 20/06/2023].

Lee, D., Faulkner, D. (2021) Channel deaths: More boats arrive after 27 people drown, BBC News, 25 November. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-59412329 [Accessed 26/06/2023].

Longo, M. (2018) The Politics of borders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macías-Rojas, P. (2018) The Prison and the Border: An Ethnography of Shifting Border Security Logics. Qualitative Sociology, 41(2), pp. 221-242.

McEwen, M. (2017) Refugee Resettlement in Crisis: The failure of the EU-Turkey Deal and the Case of Burden-Sharing, Swarthmore International Relations Journal, (2), pp. 20-32.

Middleton, S. (2019) Raymond Williams’ “Structure of Feeling” and the Problem of Democratic Values in Britain, 1938–1961, Modern Intellectual History, 17(4), pp. 1133-1161.

Neal, A. (2009) Securitization and Risk at the EU Border: The Origins of FRONTEX, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 47(2), pp. 333-356.

Pistone, M. R., Hoeffner, J. J. (2005) Rules Are Made to Be Broken: How the Process of Expedited Removal Fails Asylum Seekers, Geo. Immigr. LJ20, p. 167.

Rafferty, Y. (2007) Children for sale: Child trafficking in Southeast Asia, Child Abuse Review, 16(6), pp. 401-422.

Rescue. (2021) What is the EU-Turkey deal?, Rescue. Available at: https://eu.rescue.org/article/what-eu-turkey-deal [Accessed 25/06/2023].

Rijpma, J., Vermeulen, M. (2015) EUROSUR: saving lives or building borders?, European Security, 24(3), pp. 454-472.

Shachar, A. (2020) The Shifting Border: Legal Cartographies of Migration and Mobility. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Shanker, R., Raghavan, P. (2021) The invisible crisis: Refugees and covid-19 in India, International Journal of Refugee Law. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8344940/ [Accessed: 26/07/2023].

Svensson, S. (2020) Book Review: Matthew Longo The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen after 9/11, Political Studies Review, 19(3), pp. NP1-NP2.

UNHCR. (2007) UNHCR. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/4d9486929.pdf [Accessed 24/06/2023].

UNHCR. (2019) Global trends forced displacement in 2019, UNHCR. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/be/wp-content/uploads/sites/46/2020/07/Global-Trends-Report-2019.pdf [Accessed 25/06/2023].

IDRN does not take an institutional position and we encourage a diversity of opinions and perspectives in order to maximise the public good.

Recommended citation:

Sellvarajah, A. (2023) Externalisation: The failed attempt to reimagine asylum, IDRN, 27 July. Available at: https://idrn.eu/externalisation-the-failed-attempt-to-reimagine-asylum/ [Accessed: dd/mm/yyyy].