What Trump’s travel ban reveals (and obscures) about the EU’s own border politics Photo by Michael Vadon

What Trump’s travel ban reveals (and obscures) about the EU’s own border politics

EU external border control has for years produced similar exclusions as American travel bans under the Trump administration. The EU policy hasn't been subject to spontaneous upheavals of protest by European citizens comparable to Trump’s measure.

On 27 January 2017 President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning nationals from Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya from entering the United States (US). The measure initially applied to citizens with a dual nationality from these countries as well, thereby affecting a number of European citizens. But this restriction was quickly dropped. The banning order aimed ‘to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States’. Commentators were quick to point out that only a few perpetrators of terrorist acts carried out between 1975 and 2015 actually came from these countries. Out of the 82 individuals identified by the US government that were allegedly inspired by a foreign terrorist group to (attempt to) undertake violence, more than half of them were American-born citizens. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated in a leaked document that nationality is an ‘unlikely indicator’ of whether someone will commit acts of violence. Trump’s travel ban had by then already been struck down by a judge. On 6 March 2017, the Trump administration introduced a new version of the travel ban, initiating the temporary blocking of all refugee travel to the US from the aforementioned countries with the exception of Iraq.

The original travel ban was met with fierce criticism, both inside as well as outside the US where in many cities, including in The Hague, demonstrations were organized. That citizens take to the street to protest against a blunt and ill-conceived instrument for allegedly preventing terrorism testifies to the vibrancy of (transnational) civil society and the political consciousness of citizens worldwide. However, the willingness of European citizens to protest the travel ban also raises an uncomfortable question about the conditions under which these citizens take to the streets to protest.

It seems self-explanatory why Trump’s travel ban inspired such strong reactions. The bold claiming of the measure in the name of national security, its overtly exclusionary nature in applying to Muslim majority countries only, and its apparent disproportionality in terms of the measure’s counter-terrorist aims (rightfully) opened up the ground for sustained criticism. Besides, the effects were highly visible with passengers being stranded at airports in trying to reach the US. However, EU external border control has for years produced exclusions as well. A recent well publicized example is the 2016 EU-Turkey deal which made possible the return of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece back to Turkey and has been criticized as violating legal standard (see here and here). But EU border politics has hardly been subject to the same kind of spontaneous upheavals of protest by European citizens comparable to Trump’s measure. And this is exactly where the uneasy part of protesting against Trump’s travel ban comes into being.

That EU external border control can be blunt, despite the humanitarian language that accompanies it (for a critique see here and here), was illustrated in a 2016 report which strongly criticized the EU’s shortcomings in saving the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The report labelled this shortcoming as a form of ‘institutionalised neglect’. What preceded this was an Italian Search and Rescue mission called Mare Nostrum to alleviate migrant distress at sea. After Italy decided to end the mission in late 2014, operation Triton, led by the EU border agency Frontex, took over. But the spatial area covered by Triton was substantially less compared to that of Mare Nostrum.

The consequence was a higher rate of migrant fatalities at sea, something that several (international) organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a Member of the European Parliament as well as internal forecasts by Frontex had all predicted. But this prediction was not heeded in the actual EU decision making process concerning the spatial reach of operation Triton. The 2016 report documents that indeed many more refugees died at sea. Triton’s geographical reach was extended afterwards.

Although Trump’s travel ban deals with legal migration and the EU’s Triton operation covered irregular mobility, both are nevertheless about the politics of border control. It regulates who can move under what conditions with what effects. But here’s the puzzle: whenever did EU border politics spark a protest as vivacious as that against Trump’s travel ban? Reactions to the tragic death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in September 2015 as the boat he and his family were travelling on to reach Europe capsized near the Turkish coast, did produce awareness among citizens concerning the plight of refugees and led of certain European countries to take in more refugees, but hardly triggered the kind of street protests comparable to that in response to Trump’s measure.

European outrage about how Trump seeks to regulate the mobility of entire populations for security reasons by significantly restricting their legal travel is hardly matched by similar displays of anger about the efforts of European political institutions to save migrant lives at sea. Trump’s directness and visible manner of acting (reinforced by disproportionate attention devoted by European politics and media to US politics and media) apparently makes for an easier public rallying cry than EU border politics. This is all the more troubling in terms of the potential for political protest and critique here in Europe.