The European Union’s Migration Management: Extraterritorial Responsibility?

 As opiniões expostas neste artigo vinculam exclusivamente os seus autores.

Saying that the European Union’s approach to refugees and migrants in general is controversial is not a revelation at all; however, when one starts exploring the topic thoroughly – by analysing its different layers –, one then becomes aware of how problematic the situation is. 

The idea of an area of free movement – the Schengen Area – was established in 1985, according to which Member States would abolish their internal controls, thus creating a space without controls, where citizens could move freely. Nonetheless, this led to the creation of a paradox between a safe inside in opposition to a dangerous outside, which ended up being an excuse to build a “fortified” zone and to strengthen the rules for those wishing to enter (Costello, 2016). From that moment onwards, the protection of those inside the walls was accompanied by the perception that migrants were a threat to this “sacred space”, paving the way for discriminatory policies: besides militarising external borders – through the presence of the European Border and Coast Guard in border between Poland and Belarus –, one of those measures was the externalisation of border security to third countries, with whom the EU has celebrated agreements. The latter is exactly the main point of the present article. 

Albeit describing such cooperation with non-EU countries as a mandatory step to prevent and reduce irregular migration, the European Union’s method consists of creating partnerships with third countries providing monetary and military assistance, building-up their border guards’ capacity, aiming to contain forcibly displaced persons from even reaching the borders of EU(Mark Akkerman, 2018). Although the most famous deals are with Turkey and Libya, the Partnership Framework on Migration (2016) identified many more: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, Sudan. 

These agreements have been highly criticized mainly because, apart from the fact that 48% of the countries are authoritarian regimes and the vast majority demonstrate bad records on human rights (Mark Akkerman, 2018), these agreements do not need the European Parliament’s approval, since they have no formal status, which clearly indicates that these processes are led without any transparency nor accountability. 

Let us look closer into the example of Sudan. Under the “Better Migration Management” program, Sudan – a country that rates as the fourth worst country in human freedom indexes (Freedom Index by Country, 2022) – beneficiated from training, technical assistance and equipment for migration and border management. However, it is worth noting that the country’s borders are patrolled by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), consisting of former Janjaweed militia fighters, one of the most abusive paramilitary groups in the country (Suliman Baldo, 2017). While this partnership was a great opportunity for Sudan to improve relations with the EU and then use it as leverage against the US to lift sanctions that had been imposed in the 1990s for its role in supporting international terrorism and human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch had found that serious crimes have been committed by the RSF: destruction of wells, food storage and infrastructures, and even “torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes”(Ohanesian, 2015)

From the above, it follows that the externalisation of border controls to authoritarian regimes such as Sudan outlines that the EU is prepared to sacrifice its principles when it comes to migration control (Mark Akkerman, 2018). As a result, there is the risk of militias being associated with European policies, the risk of supporting – even if indirectly – forces that may perpetrate abuses against migrants. Deals like the one with Sudan, but also Nigeria, Ethiopia (Mark Akkerman, 2018), etc, only legitimises and strengthens dictatorships and put migrants in unsafe situations. 

Indeed, all of this reflects the result of dealing with migrants as a security matter rather than a humanitarian concern, a tendency that will only grow with the rise of right-wing populist parties around EU: strengthening authoritarian regimes by injecting money and providing resources, supporting repression and human rights abuses. Apart from that, by delegating certain activities and responsibilities to third states in order to prevent people from accessing EU’s territory, then the violations of human rights committed by those third countries’ agents fall under the Member States and EU’s responsibility. In this case, the concept of jurisdiction extends beyond territorial terms, an idea developed by Marco Savino (Savino, 2018), who claims that, even when the sponsoring states does not act directly, its responsibilities for aiding and assisting another state may emerge. 

Although such connection is not so black and white, it is interesting to see how people are treated differently in respect of their origins: a parallelism with the Ukrainian situation ought to be done, since countries with a past of “no refugees policy” are openly welcoming those fleeing from the recent war. And this is not to say that Ukrainian refugees should not be accepted – they must be –, it is simply to demonstrate the ongoing contrast between this situation. 

Nonetheless, it is also important to highlight that, while it is true that some countries within the EU have looked at refugees as a security threat and dealt with them as simply objects, there are others prone to address the situation as it really is, a humanitarian matter. 

Inês Martins
Mestranda em Direito – Especialização em Direito Internacional e Europeu

Nova School of Law



Valetta Summit Action Plan (2015, November 11-12).

Border Control from Hell: How the EU’s migration partnership legitimizes Sudan’s ‘militia state’. (2017, April 6). The Enough Project.

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: The Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (2011).

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council and the European Investment Bank on establishing a new Partnership Framework with third countries under the European Agenda on Migration, (2016).

EU announces 100 million Euros for Sudan to address irregular migration and forced displacement [EN/AR]—Sudan. (2016, April 6). ReliefWeb.

Costello, C. (2015). The Human Rights of Migrants and Refugees in European Law. Oxford University Press.

Freedom Index by Country 2022. (2022, April).

Mark Akkerman. (2018). Expanding the Fortress: The policies, the profiteers and the people shaped by EU’s border externalisation programme. Transnational Institute, Stop Wapenhandel.

Ohanesian, A. (2015). Civilians displaced by attacks of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces seeking safety in caves in Jebel Marra, Darfur, March 2, 2015. 24.

Regulation (EU) 2019/1896 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 November 2019 on the European Border and Coast Guard and repealing Regulations (EU) No 1052/2013 and (EU) 2016/1624, 295 OJ L (2019).

Savino, M. (2018). Refashioning Resettlement: From Border Externalization to Legal Pathways for Asylum. EU External Migration Policies in an Era of Global Mobilities: Intersecting Policy Universes, 81–104.

Schengen Area. (n.d.).

Tubiana, J. (2018). Multilateral Damage: The impact of EU migration policies on central Saharan routes. CRU Report, Clingendael, Netherlands Institute for International Relations.

Ty MccormicK. (2017, October). Highway Through Hell. Foreign Policy – Europe Slams Its Gates: Imperiling Africa — And Its Own Soul.–intro