In the Age of Illegal Mass Migration, Border Protection Starts Next Door

Providing support for transit countries’ own border protection to prevent aliens from entering can be more beneficial for all participants, likely in a cheaper manner than pure—and costly—blackmailing and bargaining.

By Viktor Marsai on April 26, 2023

National Interest, April 26, 2023

When it comes to illegal mass migration, it is almost impossible to successfully protect a thin border line stretching for hundreds and thousands of miles. Thousands of people—concentrating their efforts on short border sections — can easily overrun the equipment and guards, as has happened from the Spanish exclave of Ceuta to the small city of Yuma, Arizona.

Neighboring states are reluctant to deter people from crossing because they do not want to serve as a “parking lot” for illegal migrants, as Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has said. It is much simpler for transit countries to simply let people go—a win-win situation both for the migrants and the transit country.

Similar patterns are visible not only in Europe, but also in Mexico, which—after the end of pressure and threats from the Trump administration—has begun refusing to permit Customs and Border Protection to expel families with children under the age of seven, citing a new law relating to the treatment of migrant children since the Biden administration took office.

Yet it is not only the “carrot and stick” policy—which does not save transit countries from becoming parking lots—that can bear fruit for both transit and destination countries. Providing support for transit countries’ own border protection to prevent aliens from entering can be more beneficial for all participants, likely in a cheaper manner than pure—and costly—blackmailing and bargaining.

During the current migration crisis in Europe, more and more countries recognized the need for closer cooperation with transit countries in a way that makes them also interested in combating illegal border crossings. One of the possible solutions is to help them with their own border security. In November 2022, Austria, Hungary, and Serbia signed a trilateral agreement in which the two EU member states offered to help Belgrade organize deportations by plane for people who arrived in the Balkan nation from safe countries and are not eligible for asylum. Furthermore, they pledged a police contingent equipped with vehicles, thermal vision goggles, and drones to strengthen border protection along the North Macedonian-Serbian border. So, what actually happened was that the three countries shifted the focus of border security to the south, from the Hungarian-Serbian border to the Serbian-North Macedonian one. It made Belgrade interested in participating in the collaboration and perhaps it is closer to a durable solution than the constant debates between Belgrade, Vienna, and Budapest. And this may be just the beginning. As President Vučić emphasized, “we are ready to move further south together with North Macedonia and thus protect both Europe and our own country.”

Due to the increasing number of illegal border crossings across the Western Balkan routes toward Italy, a similar plan emerged through the participation of Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy in late March. According to the preliminary negotiations, Slovenia and Italy will send joint police forces to their neighbor to combat illegal migration within Croatia, while local authorities can concentrate their efforts on the border area. The measure could make available hundreds of additional law enforcement personnel to strengthen border protection, while it can also reduce the flow of irregular migrants to Slovenia and Italy.

Similar solutions are not unknown on the other side of the Atlantic: certain U.S. administrations also realized that it was much cheaper and more efficient to provide assistance for Mexico to police its own southern border than focusing only on the American one. For instance, the Southern Border Plan aimed to construct a network of communications towers along Mexico’s southern border region in 2014–15 to help security and migration forces to communicate despite gaps in radio coverage. According to a report by WOLA, most towers had been built by 2019, even if final construction was delayed by Mexico’s lack of issuance of a deployment plan.

But physical infrastructure is not the only thing. In the drug war, U.S. DEA agents are deployed to Mexico to facilitate the fight against cartels. The United States could follow similar patterns against illegal migration, sending Border Patrol agents to the southern border of Mexico. Even if they could operate—similarly to their European counterparts—only with the presence of local law enforcement agencies, it could increase the protection of the Mexico-Guatemala border and, from a humanitarian perspective, could make the procedure easier for people who are really escaping from persecution and war.

Furthermore, we should not forget that the length of the southwest border of the United States is 1,954 miles, while the Mexico-Guatemala one is just one-quarter of that, 541 miles, which makes more concentrated efforts possible.

Of course, this will not mean that the United States can neglect its own border security in the southwest. Even with enhanced support from Mexican border authorities, thousands will manage to reach the United States—not to mention people who fly directly to Mexico with valid tourist visas, and later move north. But preventing illegal migrants from crossing into Mexico from the south is also in the interest of Mexico City, which does not want to be “a parking lot.” Therefore, similarly to the European examples, it can lead to a mutually-beneficial collaboration and a win-win situation for both participants.