The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel discussion on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, discussing the present and future role of “gatekeeper countries” in controlling illegal immigration to destination countries in both Europe and North America.
The number of illegal arrivals to a country is partly determined by the policies of its neighbors (the “gatekeepers”) in trying to stop, or at least slow, the transit of migrants. In the age of mass illegal migration, gatekeeper states must be part of any durable solution – even if it requires attention, and sometimes financial investment, from the destination country.
From Turkey and Egypt to Niger, Senegal, and Morocco, Europe has an extended network of agreements, cooperation, and common policies with states that have tools to stem illegal migration toward the European Union. Perhaps the most famous example is Turkey, which hosts at least 3.6 million Syrian nationals and hundreds of thousands of other refugees. In comparison, the United States has had more limited agreements with its gatekeeper countries – for instance, the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as “Remain in Mexico”.
Christopher Landau: former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico (2019-2021)
Viktor Marsai: Director, Budapest-based Migration Research Institute and Visiting Fellow, Center for Immigration Studies
Nikolett Pénzváltó: Director of Research, Migration Research Institute
Mark Krikorian: Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies (moderator).
Date and Location:
April 26, 2023
MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank here in Washington that examines the impact of immigration on the United States.
What we usually do is focus just on U.S. immigration policy, but what we’re going to be talking about today is something that’s applicable more generally. It is relevant – very relevant – to U.S. policy, but also relevant to immigration policy of other migrant-receiving countries. And what that is is this issue of gatekeeper countries. In other words, the migrants leave, obviously, the countries that they’re leaving, and they’re going to the destination countries like the United States, like Western Europe, Australia, Israel, other places, but there are countries they travel through on the way there. And cooperation with those countries – those countries helping to control the flow of migrants and prevent illegal immigration – is an essential part of any country’s strategy to limit illegal immigration.
And so we have three people who are going to be talking about this issue who have thought about it, and actually lived it in some cases. And it’s – this is an issue that I think in the United States maybe we haven’t addressed enough or thought through certainly in any systematic way; as opposed to Europeans, which have, I think, given it a good deal more thought and applied it more.
Our first speaker is Viktor Marsai. He’s the director of the Migration Research Institute in Budapest and a visiting fellow here at the Center. And he’s going to talk about the kind of theoretical conceptual issue of gatekeeper countries and their relationship with the receiving countries.
Our second speaker is going to be Nikolett Pénzváltó. I probably butchered that, so those of you who are Hungarian, pardon me. She’s the director of research at the Migration Research Institute in Budapest and the focus of her research is Turkey. And she’s going to be talking about how the Europeans have gotten Turkey’s cooperation to try to limit illegal migration through Turkey into Europe.
And then finally, last but not least, Christopher Landau we’re honored to have. He’s the former ambassador – U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2019 to 2021. He is – obviously, he was head of the largest diplomatic mission the United States has and dealt with, among many other issues, this issue of how do we cooperate with our neighboring/nearby countries to work together to control illegal immigration.
After each of them speak, we will have some Q&A. So, Viktor, why don’t you kick it off?
VIKTOR MARSAI: Thank you very much, Mark, not only to be here but the possibility to get CIS hosting this institution in Washington, D.C., for more than five months. And in general, the topic I would like to tell that everything you can blame on me because it was my concept and, actually, my research topic which is conducted here in the CIS.
And just to shift the research question, the hypothesis, the main question for me was in the comparison of the U.S. and European migration crisis. In the fiscal year of 2022, more than 2 million illegal border crossings happened in the south border of the United States. In the last year, 2020, in the European Union external borders, not more than 330,000 illegal border crossings happened. So the difference is almost eight times. And the question for me rose that what is the main reason behind this? Because last year was also, let’s say, a tragic year in Europe – a huge increase, almost 70 percent increase, in the number of illegal border crossing(s) – and still the numbers are much lower in the European Union. Why we can see that Europe actually has a more open border comparing with the United States, many sea borders which is easy access. We can see how easily, and sometimes in a tragic way humanitarian, can be passed by illegal border crossers.
There’s a problem crisis since 2013, when actually the – first, the – (inaudible) – and across the center Mediterranean route the Africans started to arrive in a big number to the European Union. And there is a huge crisis in the direct European neighborhood which actually started with the Arab Spring and COVID-19; some state collapse that happens, for example, in Syria and Libya; but also the food crisis, which is in Africa very, very visible – the inflation, economic woes. And it’s also important to underline the lack of consensus between certain EU states. And still – still, as I mentioned – the number are much lower. And according to my own (standing ?) research, which was – also supported my stay, and the interviews and research conducted in D.C., it’s definitely the role of gatekeeper countries in this context.
A little bit about conceptual framework, which is of course very boring for an ordinary audience but for us as researchers was the most important part of the whole study, that in practice and policy this gatekeeper issue is very old in the case of the European Union, but it’s almost unknown in migration studies in the whole academic literature. If you try to Google and try to find articles and theoretical background, you can easily find what is not a gatekeeper issue. It’s not the gatekeeper states of Africa, you know, which is a much more political term, nothing about migration. It’s not Operation Gatekeeper, which perhaps sounds more familiar for the American audience because it was conducted by the United States itself. And even the role of small EU states within in the Schengen zone.
What is much, much more gatekeeper issue is somehow geographic approach. We can make a distinction, of course, between countries of origin, transit countries, and destination countries. Gatekeeper countries are concentrated on transit routes, as Mark mentioned, so somewhere mid between the countries of origin and countries of destination, even if they can serve as countries of origin. There’s a thematic approach. Gatekeeper issue is definitely the path of migration critique/migration realist approach, which underline the importance of stop or reduction of the flow of irregular arrivals, which is not natural in all aspects of migration studies to say it least. It’s definitely the path of externalization of migration policy, somehow outsourcing of the combat against illegal migration. And in certain extent it’s also the path of the securitization because, of course, who wants to stop illegal migration consider that the arrival of huge amounts of people is not only an opportunity, for example, the economy – if it is at all – but also demonstrates challenges and threats for security – as Todd Bensman, you now, argued, for example, in his book – books, we can say. Yeah, and it’s also policy practice how EU and European states, and also the United States, started to implement policies in collaboration with third countries to mitigate the flow of illegal migrants.
So what we can state, that gatekeeper countries are entities that – which lies on the transit routes to other transit countries or – sorry, toward destination countries or region. They are relatively close, or in most cases in the direct neighborhood, of destination countries. And they have some capacities and intention to mitigate the flow of illegal mass migration because (there can be big stakes ?) there but it’s almost impossible, you know, to cooperate them if they – if they don’t want. They can be also the countries of origin, as I mentioned, but it’s not their main characteristics. But the main question how they can help to stop the flow of third-country citizen(s).
And if you have a look at the certain countries, in the context of Europe they are Turkey, Morocco, Libya, Serbia, or even Niger. This is why we should be very cautious when we say that – when we state that the gatekeeper countries are in the direct neighborhood of certain states. But in the case of the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, actually the Northern Triangle countries.
What are the practical considerations, ladies and gentlemen? It’s almost impossible to defend just a thin red line on the map. So border protection, physical border barriers are very important and an integral part of any border protection, but only with fences stopping arrival of hundreds of thousands or million people, it’s almost impossible. Another important consideration that if people manage to get in the European Union or the United States, after it it’s almost impossible to somehow relocate them back to third countries or the countries of origin. In the case of the EU, it’s very evident independently, whether they have any legal background to get any form of protection or refugee status, if you have – are already in the Schengen zone you have between 80-85 percent chance to stay there, actually, for years if not forever.
Gatekeeper countries can help to outsource long and costly asylum procedures, and it demonstrates a lower expenditure for maintenance. It’s easy to realize that maintaining a family in the middle of the United States or in Mexico or in Egypt is much, much lower, and there are huge differences between them.
It’s also about the – and back to the arriving people – it’s the part of the deterrence policy, because you know if there are a significant chance that you will be stopped in the – in the transit countries without reaching your destination countries you will consider twice whether you are paying thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars and euro to leave your country and try to get in a certain other state. There is higher possibility for return because these countries are much closer, and not only geographically but also in many cases in culture and social term(s) to their - to the countries of origin. So it’s also a possibility for return which, for example, from the United States or the European Union it’s less and less possibility for this – for this.
Also among the practical consideration is that it’s a huge toolkit and very wide to collaborate with states because, in this context, states and negotiating with states, not with NGOs, not with other organization, which sometimes is extremely complicated. And from diplomacy across development assistance, trade, and humanitarian assistance, there are many instruments on the table during these negotiations.
In general, there are two possible way(s) and approach for these negotiation. One is the stick-and-carrot policy, which was very evident in the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Remain in Mexico program – offering something and threatening something. Or it was similar, also, in the EU-Turkey statement, which is, of course, not the natural way of politics, but sometimes these are the things how it’s going – which can be more fruitful, perhaps. And it’s – there are more and more example for this, and which can (lead somehow ?) winning situation is assistance for the gatekeeper countries to stop arrivals and people even before they reach these countries. Austria, Hungary, and Serbia just made a tripartite agreement in October to support the defense of the Serbian border patrol not in the Serbian-Hungarian border – in which case, of course, Belgrade was reluctant because they didn’t want to be a parking lot for illegal migrant(s) – but in the North Macedonian-Serbian border, which is also interest for Serbia. And we saw similar agreements one-and-a-half year between U.K. and France. But there are also examples from the U.S. migration policy, for example, in this southern border plan between 2014-15 when the United States provided assistance for Mexico to strengthen border security in its southern border – literally, the Mexican-Guatemalan border.
How about the implementation? Perhaps it’s the most interesting part and the part where you can debate – (inaudible). The EU and member states has long history and tradition that the outside world arrive to Europe. We can mention the Poles, the Germans, Arabs, Hungarians of course, Mongols, Ottoman, Russians. And we should mention also colonization, which established a very strong connection between Europe and the neighboring world. So, actually, what is definitely on the table that in the strategic thinking of European policymakers the cooperation with third countries, gatekeeper countries – even if they don’t call them as gatekeeper countries – is always on the table. We can mention different example. Nikolett will speak about Turkey. But just about the effectiveness of it.
Currently now, ladies and gentlemen, they’re at 9 million immigrants in Egypt. And it’s 3 million people plus if you compare the numbers before COVID-19 pandemic, which jeopardized a lot of economy not only in the developed world but also in the developing world. And still, Egypt is ready to cooperate with the European Union and stop these people.
In Libya, there are between 600,000 and 1½ million. And they are not just keeping people there, but for example the Moroccan coast guard is very active to stop people crossing. Just last year, 40,000 people was captured by the Moroccan coast guard on the sea and they were brought back to the shores of Morocco. And if you compare the number of, ladies and gentlemen – for example, the EU provides a half-a-billion-dollar – a little bit more – development assistance to support the migration policy of Morocco. And if you compare that hundreds of thousands of people for this money are stayed and kept in Morocco, perhaps it’s a – it's not a very costly deal for us.
What about the United States? This is my last slide. It’s interesting to see, but in the whole subject thinking and theoretical thinking of the United States mass illegal immigration is a relatively new challenge because it emerged in the ’80s. So if you compare these decades and the centuries of European Union, it’s understandable why in some respects Europe is much further into solutions, even if sometimes we don’t feel it.
The ocean shield concept – and this is my experience in D.C. – is still very strong in the strategic thinking of the United States, and there’s limited geopolitical attention towards the south. It’s changing in the last 10 years, but still the feeling that, you know, the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean provides a lot of defense, you know, it’s still in the – in the mind. And as I mentioned, there are efforts in the last – mainly in the last decade to start to collaborate with these third countries. And we can mention also, you know, the root-causes issue – we’ll see how it works – or the latest Darien agreement. But there’s no(t) any systematic consideration how to help and support these gatekeeper countries.
So a long-term solution and a mid-term solution is needed. Long-term strategy is needed. And both the EU and the United States should focus more on these gatekeeper countries and the win-win solution part of this story. So thank you very much. I’m finished now.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Viktor.
NIKOLETT PÉNZVÁLTÓ: Thank you, Mark, and thank you for the opportunity. It’s a great honor for me to be here today. And as Mark has mentioned, I bring in a European perspective and I will talk about Turkey as a gatekeeper country.
First, I provide you a brief geographical and a recent historical overview, and then I will introduce the March 2016 EU-Turkey statement on migration. And in at the end, I will evaluate the deal a bit.
So Turkey has a unique geostrategic position, which makes it important for both the United States and Europe for defense reasons. As for Europe, Turkey plays a dual role. On the one hand, it is a very important bridge or transit country. It’s enough to think of energy policy and the transit of oil and natural gas from the post-Soviet region and the Middle East. And on the other hand, when we think about different kind of flows – for example, mass irregular migration – Europe wants Turkey to play the role of a buffer, or more like an insulator state, rather than a bridge.
Turkey’s geographical location has also contributed to the fact that the country has become the host of the largest number of refugees in the world. According to the data of UNHCR, 3.8 million refugees are residing in Turkey. Most of them, about 3.5 million people, are from Syria. Turkey’s a neighboring country of Syria. That’s why it is affected so much from the war that started in 2011. And the others are mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.
The European Union realized the significance of Turkey as a transit or insulator state in 2015 quite quickly at the peak of the European migration and refugee crisis. As you can see on the map, in the year of 2015 more than 885,000 irregular migrants arrived from Turkey to the continent via the so-called Eastern Mediterranean migration route. Most of them, about half a million people, were from Syria, but there were about 200,000 Afghans and almost 100,000 Iraqi citizens as well.
This mass wave of irregular migrants caught Europe completely off guard. It soon became obvious that it was necessary to come to an agreement with Turkey to stop this inflow. This led in March 2016 to the so-called EU-Turkey statement. This nine-points-long document was a political statement and not a legally-binding treaty. The statement stated that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands will be returned to Turkey and Turkey agreed to take any necessary measures to prevent illegal crossings. After the signing of this agreement, the number of irregular arrivals dropped significantly, as you can see it on the slide as well. The blue line is for 2015 and the orange one is for 2016, and it is in a monthly breakdown.
What did Turkey get in exchange? Well, money and vague promises. As for the letter, I, unfortunately, don’t have the time to go into details. The remaining points of the statement are about the acceleration of Turkey’s visa-liberalization roadmap, its EU accession process, a voluntary humanitarian admission scheme that will be activated by the EU, and cooperation in Syria. And let’s say that what happened in these regards has not fulfilled Ankara’s expectations.
But what they have received is the money, 3-plus billion euros under the facility for refugees in Turkey. And this is done in 2020, an additional 3 billion euros are allocated for the same humanitarian purposes. It is important to note that assistance provided within the framework of the facility is project-based, so this money does not go directly to the Turkish government. These are – the funds is managed by a steering committee chaired by the European Commission and with the participation of representatives of member states. Most of the projects are implemented by international NGOs, so their process is very transparent, thoroughly planned, and – (inaudible).
What was this money spent for? You can see several examples. An important background information is that Turkey provides Syrians under temporary protection free access to education and health care. And (that example is ?) – for example, more than 113 new schools were built, 7.2 million vaccination doses were provided to refugee children – and these are not COVID-19-related vaccination. There is a debate on whether this amount of money is much or not. I would argue that, taking everything into account, it is not that much at all.
And I just will add several more pieces of data. About 45 percent of Syrians are under 18 years old. And almost about 90 percent of the working Syrians work in the informal economy, so they don’t pay taxes and don’t contribute to the state budget this way.
Of course, the EU-Turkey agreement was not the sole measure introduced by the EU as a reaction to the migration crisis. (Inaudible) – Greece and several other member states strengthened border patrol. Fences were built along – all around the continent. This also contributed to the closing of the so-called Balkan migration route. And, since 2015, Turkey has also built walls on its eastern borders with Syria and Iran.
(Inaudible) – Turkey suspended readmissions due to COVID-19 in 2020. And then, as a response, Greece designated Turkey as a safe third country for the citizens of, for example, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, which means that it doesn’t accept asylum applications from the citizens of these countries if they are coming through Turkey.
However, what is the most important for the EU is that the number of irregular crossings has remained relatively low. In 2020 and 2021, it was about at 200,000 irregular crossings. And last year, it was a little bit above 142,000. These relatively low numbers can be partly thanks to the EU’s financial support that helps Syrians to start a new life in Turkey, which they don’t want to risk – (inaudible) – and just also the result of the stricter border control introduced by most of the actors concerned. And of course, it is thanks to a great extent to Turkey’s hospitality.
Why I emphasize this last one? Because there is a growing dissatisfaction in the Turkish society with the presence of the refugees. We have surveys clearly showing this tendency. The refugee issue has become one of the topics of the ongoing Turkish election campaign as well. The Turkish people don’t want to be desperate and alone forever, which is totally understandable, I think, even more so because Turkey has been stuck in an economic crisis right now. And at some point, this situation may drive the country’s leadership to request move, for example, repealing the temporary protection regime. So I think this is something we should definitely watch out for in the future.
To sum up, the EU has outsourced the Syrian refugee crisis to Turkey. From the EU’s point of view the deal has been effective, but it can be criticized from a normative point of view. It is also important to keep in mind that this will – this deal will most probably not last forever. So we should need to think about how we could make the EU-Turkey cooperation on migration sustainable.
And at the end, I think, not surprisingly, as Viktor already also mentioned, the right combination of sticks and carrots are required. And that’s what I wanted to share with you. Thank you for your attention.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you. Thank you, Nikolett.
Chris? Now we’re crossing the Atlantic, coming to our side.
CHRISTOPHER LANDAU: Thank you, Mark. And thank you to CIS for inviting me to talk about this important topic.
When Mark first asked me to discuss gatekeeper countries, I have to admit I was a little bit hesitant not because I don’t think that it can play a vital role in a comprehensive migration strategy, but because I don’t think it is a silver bullet. And I’m always concerned when the United States has an issue, a problem, and tries to outsource it, to use the word that Nikolett just used. I am firmly of the view that we need to be in control of our own destiny and do what we can within our own borders where we don’t have to be asking people for favors, and certainly I think it’s important as part of a comprehensive strategy to try to reduce illegal population flows, which I think are going to be continuing in the 21st century, kind of taking the long view of things as transportation gets easier. But I think, in essence, as long as people can come to the United States illegally and obtain very high-paying jobs and other benefits, those programs are – those flows are going to continue.
So I certainly think that gatekeeper countries is a piece of the puzzle, but I don’t think it should ever be viewed as some kind of silver bullet to solving it. And I – you know, the same issue kind of goes for drugs, that we kind of – I think a lot of times we have problems in this country and we say, well, you know, really, this is Mexico’s problem and, Mexico, you need to fix this. I don’t think the fact that all these people are entering the United States illegally is Mexico’s problem, although Mexico certainly has, you know, a lot to do with it.
Just thinking about gatekeepers in particular and Mexico, I think it’s an interesting concept because until very recently I don’t think anybody would have thought of Mexico as a gatekeeper on migration issues. Historically – and mass illegal migration, I think as Viktor pointed out, is a relatively recent phenomenon overall. And then for most of the ’80s, ’90s, into the 2000s, it was overwhelmingly a Mexican issue on our southern border. The people who were coming across were Mexicans and the system was kind of set up to deal with Mexicans coming into our country.
One of the big changes – and I think this really started in the Obama administration with the underage, unaccompanied minors crisis in about 2014-2015 – is that people started coming from all over the world, particularly from the Guatemala-El Salvador-Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America, but really from all over. And actually, non-Mexicans for the first time ever starting in the last few years have actually – you know, it varies from month to month, but become a majority of the people crossing our southern border. So all of a sudden, we have a very new migration issue that is not kind of your father’s or your mother’s migration issue from 30 or 40 years ago. And I don’t think we have in place the tools or even, really, the mindset to deal with that, and I don’t think we’ve come to terms with that.
So I think I’d like to focus for a moment on what happened in 2018-2019 and I think some of the opportunities it opens. Because certainly as ambassador to Mexico starting in 2019 this was the way I looked at the issue, to say one of the reasons I wanted to be ambassador to Mexico was that I thought it was important for the United States to talk to Mexico in the sense of saying: This is a shared problem now. You are no longer just a migrant-producing country, but you are a migrant-transit country. So all of a sudden, there’s a whole new set of issues for you, Mexico, and a lot of common ground for us to work together on issues that you might have seen before as a U.S. versus Mexico issue.
There’s still a sense in Mexico that, you know, it is a migrant-friendly country, and you know, lots of Mexican politicians even from the party of President López Obrador, you know, still insist, you know, there’s a human right to migration. I used to say, well, where does that come from? I thought one of the – I’m a lawyer. One of the basic characteristics of sovereignty of any country is the ability to control its borders. I may love French culture and identify as a Francophile; that doesn’t give me the right to go and live and work in Paris just because I want to. I mean, every country has – that is one of the inherent attributes of sovereignty, is the right to control who comes into your country. So I said it’s important that the discourse in Mexico, which is obviously very sensitive about its own sovereignty issues, include these kinds of dimensions and include the fact that it is not a humanitarian or compassionate approach to be putting policies in place that encourage people to come illegally. I mean, as I think Viktor mentioned, this is something that is extremely costly to people. They’re often basically entering indentured servitude to put up the money to come – to make this journey, which is also a very, very dangerous journey in which many people are killed.
So it’s interesting just to focus on, I think, the U.S.-Mexico migration crisis of 2018-2019 as kind of an example of what can be done. So President López Obrador was elected in 2018, came into office on December 1st of that year, and you know, from a left-wing party, new party in Mexico. And some of the elements of that party were very much trying to set a different note than the United States and said, you know, our Central American brothers and sisters, you know, you’re welcome in Mexico and we will embrace you with open arms. And so what happened, caravans started forming, mass migration. Even though Trump was still in the United States, you started to see mass migration from Central America, you know, into Mexico. But did they stop in Mexico? No, of course not. They had no intention of just going to Mexico. They used Mexico as a transit point to go to the United States. And so I think President López Obrador then kind of had egg on his face because his kind of open border policy towards the Central American brothers and sisters was obviously just a – something that – a mechanism that made it easier for people to get into the United States.
This is one of the points I make when people say, oh, we got to address root causes. The root causes in Central America didn’t change one bit before and after this migration flow. There was no hurricane. There was no coup. There was no, you know, crackdown along ethnic or religious or political lines. It was simply a change in migration policy, in that case, by Mexico and I said, look, what really drives this fundamentally is just like any other human decision. People are economically rational and they make a choice, you know, how much are they going to have to spend and what are their odds of getting into – you know, into Mexico, across Mexico, and to the United States and successfully getting in there. They’re always making that determination.
And so I think President López Obrador’s strategy in 2018 unleashed this crisis and President Trump then announced in May of 2019 when we started – we were starting to get, you know, a hundred and forty thousand people a month at the border, you know, crossing – attempting to cross illegally. He said, look, enough is enough and he, you know, basically said he’s going to impose these tariffs on Mexico.
And it’s interesting, every single one of my predecessors as ambassador to Mexico signed a letter saying, oh, my gosh, you can’t do this. We never mix migration and commercial issues, which I thought, where does that come from? I mean, since when do you not use leverage that you have in a bilateral issue? Mexico uses migration leverage all the time with us. It just seems ridiculous that we had kind of compartmentalized these various issues in our relationship with Mexico.
Anyway, be that as it may, President Trump did that and, you know, before he knew it the Mexicans had sent a delegation to Washington and we worked out an agreement with them and, you know, that – Mexico was actually really for the first time in its history going to take a more active role in controlling these migrant flows. Again, I think that corresponded to public opinion in Mexico that the Mexicans were not happy either that their country was getting used as a doormat by people from, you know, China, India, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Congo, Cuba, you name it. It’s like the United Nations down there on the border.
So, you know, I think there’s lots of opportunities to work with Mexico. One of the things that was put into place, you know, in late 2018, early 2019, was the Remain in Mexico policy and basically that was a reflection of the fact that our asylum system is broken. Our asylum system, as you know, is kind of a carve out to our normal migration rules. We have normal rules about how you can migrate legally and illegally and then we kind of created this safe harbor for people who were fleeing, you know, a fear – a reasonable, well-founded fear of imminent, you know, death if they were – on the basis of certain characteristics if they remain in their countries.
Well, obviously, that system was getting abused by people who were just economic migrants but who knew what buzzwords to say so that they would get processed into the American asylum system. If enough people do that at once you don’t get a hearing for four years then and then you were being allowed into the United States, which, obviously, was a huge kind of loophole to our entire immigration mechanism and was really incentivizing a lot of these flows.
So Mexico agreed to a system where those people, instead of being allowed into the United States to wait for their asylum hearing, were required to Remain in Mexico. What that did almost overnight is it dried up those flows, and so I think Mexicans had been somewhat concerned that they would be stuck with this, you know, huge migrant population.
Those fears really didn’t materialize because once people knew this, again, their economically rational cost benefit analysis changed. And I think in this sense Mexico may be somewhat different than Turkey and Syria because Syria really was – again, I don’t purport to know a lot about the Syrian conflict but at least initially there was a very brutal war going on in Syria so some of the people might have actually fled for those reasons.
There’s no similar issue in Central America. So, anyway, you know, this is, certainly, a change. You know, once the Biden administration came in and basically indicated that it had no interest in limiting illegal migration, as far as I can tell the Mexicans have basically given up as well. I think their thought is, hey, we’re not going to be, you know, more Catholic than the Pope. If you guys don’t care about this why should we, and so that’s pretty much where we are right now.
You know, I’ve always been a little bit surprised that Remain in Mexico became the outcome because Remain in Mexico, to me, is a kind of second best approach where these people are in the U.S. asylum system and so they’re, you know, just waiting in Mexico for their time to come up.
It would seem to me that if you just think about asylum in terms of what it’s supposed to be doing, it’s supposed to be shelter you give somebody who’s immediately fleeing for their lives, and I think this came up in what Viktor and Nikolett were saying that it seems odd for people to cross third countries where they don’t have those imminent threats of danger and then apply for asylum in their preferred country. That seems to be more of a traditional immigration issue, not an asylum issue, which is just give me immediate shelter from the immediate risk I’m facing.
Anyway, for whatever reason in Mexico the idea of safe third country just became political poison. They would not accept that under any circumstances, even though I thought, in a sense, that is more respectful of their sovereignty to say, look, you guys, you know, you can’t – for our domestic purposes we regard Mexico as a safe third country and that disentitles you to apply for asylum if you cross Mexico and come here. I think that’s a cleaner way than Remain in Mexico. But be that as it may, Remain in Mexico served a very useful purpose and I think the Mexicans could see that as well. So I do think that there is a lot to be said for exploring gatekeepers more as part of our migration policy.
One thing I was saying to Mark just before this started, and this will be my final observation, is that it is important, I think, to recognize that Mexico can play a gatekeeping role. But it shouldn’t all be on Mexico. A lot of people are flying in from Europe to countries like Ecuador or Brazil that have much looser visa requirements and then making their way over land through six or seven countries – Colombia, Panama. I mean, there’s a very narrow, you know, funnel for them to go through. The idea that we kind of wait until they arrive in Mexico where we have a 2,000-mile border to really get serious about stopping these flows seems to me ridiculous. I think this should be the number-one issue in our relationship with Panama, with Costa Rica, with Nicaragua.
What can they do? I mean, there’s so many potential places there where these flows can be stopped and discouraged. So, anyway, I think it’s something certainly worth considering. But I think it is a mistake to think that this is the magic bullet that will solve the crisis, from our point of view. Thank you.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Chris. And actually I wanted to – before we take questions or maybe have reactions from the rest of the panel, I think the point you made is important, that relationships with gatekeeper countries, transit countries, is a complement to our own efforts to control illegal immigration, not a substitute, and I think under the Trump administration it was approached as a complement.
In other words, the administration domestically was doing what it could to limit illegal immigration and then asked Mexico to – and to some degree the Northern Triangle countries, to help out, basically to row in the same direction.
MR. LANDAU: Correct.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And what I think the Biden administration has done for two years is say, domestically we’re not going to do anything to limit illegal immigration but we expect you, Mexico, to stop it for us and they’re not going to do that.
MR. LANDAU: It’s the same thing on – it’s the same thing on energy. They are stopping domestic energy production and going around the world asking Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to pump more oil.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. Exactly. Yeah.
MR. LANDAU: It is a very similar dynamic.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So do – we’ll take questions. I have a whole list of questions myself, but – and I did pay for the microphone, but nonetheless I’ll see if anybody has questions. Jessica?
Q: Thank you. Thank you all for your insight and analysis. Really very interesting.
I have a question for Viktor. Being a gatekeeper country does also seem to provide some opportunity for what you might call blackmail. Can you comment a little bit on how you think that can be dealt with?
MR. MARSAI: Yeah. Thank you, Jessica. (Inaudible.)
Of course, of course, and they are doing this. You know, it’s – Turkey is doing this when they opened the border just before the COVID-19 pandemic, February 2020. But also Morocco did it and let – it was 8,000 illegal migrants to cross within half an hour to the Spanish enclave. So it’s definitely there, so.
And we should mention other – I didn’t want to mention too much definition – the other term, the stabilocracies, which are – stabilocracies. You know, it’s new term in the literature which describe stable countries. Stable is the first one, stabilocracies. Autocracies, you know, authoritarian regimes which, you know, keeping this. And you know, it’s constant blame that which are the countries that the European Union is supporting as the gatekeepers, in the el-Sisi government or the Erdoğan government, whether we are sacrificing our democratic values and norms supporting this kind of regime. So it’s definitely on the table.
This is why I suggest that shifting from this carrot-and-stick policy, which has its certain limits – we could see in the change in the administration, in the White House, then suddenly Mexico realized that some states do not want to maintain the Remain in Mexico anymore for family units, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s always complicating and a very, very quickly changing situation. So shifting from this to this, let’s say, win-win situation, because Mexico, as I mentioned, doesn’t and Mexican people don’t want the country to become a parking lot.
And reacted to the (excellences are ?), let’s say, critics and ideas. When we visited the Yuma sector at the end of March with the border tour, they mentioned that, I think, 130 different citizens were there.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Different countries.
MR. MARSAI: People from different countries, yeah. Sorry. And I think it’s also the part of the gatekeeper story that how – with how many states can you make a deal? In how many countries can you try to handle the root causes?
And just you mentioned Ecuador, Nicaragua, other countries. You know, if you make a deal with Ecuador, perhaps, OK, then the pattern will shift, I know, to the people going to Brazil or Colombia, et cetera, et cetera. So actually, the gatekeeper issue is also about the story to make negotiation and a deal not with dozens of different countries but one, two, three maximum. And in this context, I think the United States is in an excellent position, ladies and gentlemen, because Mexico is the gatekeeper country.
In the case of the European Union, it’s much more complicated. We are surrounded (by) dozens of different countries and they’re utilizing their potential. We could see in ’21 in the Belarusian crisis when they weaponized migration.
So this is, I think, also a strong point of the argumentation, that in this context you have to concentrate on one country. And you can offer a solution for these countries, not the Remain of Mexico because there’s – (inaudible) – smashing it. OK. It’s a burden for Mexico. For example, providing protection for the – if there is openness, of course, from Mexico City for the protection of the southern border of Mexico, perhaps it can be a much, much easier story.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Is a question back there?
This is for Nikolett. You mentioned the financial aid that Turkey receives for the refugee program and I know you had mentioned help from the EU. Are there any other entities that are assisting with the refugee – or that have assisted with the refugee program in Turkey?
MS. PÉNZVÁLTÓ: Of course, there are a lot of different actors, so international organizations and countries outside of the EU. So there are a lot of countries and organizations supporting refugees in Turkey.
But I think the EU is the biggest donor in this sense. So this more than 9 billion euros, I think it’s the biggest contribution.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I think actually that’s an interesting point because the U.N., for instance, and we’ve written about some of this with regard to the flow coming north into the United – toward the U.S. border, the U.N. actually facilitates the flow of illegal migration to the United States.
I mean, they’re funding – they’re giving out, you know, money to illegal immigrants. They’re funding – we’ve written about this. It’s on our site at CIS.org. They’re funding psychological assistance where third country migrants, Central America mostly, apply for asylum in Mexico as a kind of temporary expedient. They get rejected.
Then they go and visit the psychiatrist or psychologist and then they do recovered memory therapy where they realize, no, really, they were persecuted. They just forgot about it. And then they go and go back, and this is all U.N. funded.
We were just – as Viktor mentioned, we were on a border tour. We went from San Diego to Yuma and back and we visited Mexicali. We were there for a day, visited several migrant shelters, which are themselves funded by various U.N.-affiliated organizations.
So to your question, it’s not – sure, there’s a role, it seems to me, for multinational or supranational organizations to assist migrant flow. But for the most part, certainly ideologically and even just as a practical matter what they’re doing is actually facilitating or accelerating the flow, not interfering with it.
Was there another question? Yeah.
Q: Well, I have a question concerning the different domestic dynamic within the United States versus Europe. I mean, in some sense, we know in the United States who it is who takes a dim view of immigration enforcement and thus doesn’t want to pressure third countries.
You know, it’s much of the Democratic Party, the business interests in the United States, and so forth. And so it seems to me that that’s the fundamental question for the United States. We could get the cooperation of these countries but we’d have to push them, and at present this regime and the coalition it represents has very little interest in actually threatening trade or foreign aid and things like that.
But what I don’t have a sense is in Europe what is it – what is the domestic – is there a domestic constituency of people, maybe not in Hungary but in the rest of the EU, who feel like, look, it doesn’t really matter if a million people come illegally here. We need workers. We’re, you know, an aging population, or they see them as just humanitarian migrants.
So does the – Europe seems to be able to not have, like, a fundamental flip in policy. So Trump saw it as a priority. Biden sees it as not important at all to enforce the law. And so but in Europe it seems like – I’m kind of curious. I just don’t understand. What are the interest groups that would play out here a little bit? Can you give us some more? I just don’t know, and I’d like to know.
MR. MARSAI: OK. Thank you for the question, Steve.
I think the fundamental difference between the whole concept of immigration between the United States and the European Union, that actually since the beginning, as I know, the immigration to the United States was actually a labor issue. So these people arrived and they started to climbing in the hiring lane slowly, slowly, slowly, and still are. It’s more or less the case. And of course, there are many, many aspects of the story that Roy Beck wrote on the – how it’s effect the Afro-American population job potential, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s – my impression is it’s not a question that if you are arriving to the United States as soon as possible you have to find something to – some place to work.
In the European Union and in Europe in general, I think there was a huge shift in the late ’80s/early ’90s when the – by the ’60s/’70s, it was also a labor issue. In the ’90s, it shifted to a humanitarian issue – letting people from civil war areas, persecuted people escaping from genocide. And the main focus was a humanitarian focus, which meant that we have to provide them shelter, education, food, et cetera, et cetera, and the whole story of labor force participation – integration into labor market – it was secondary or third in this context.
And I think we made a huge mistake in this story because, you know, in Europe it’s still a big challenge. You know, you arrive. You apply for asylum. The time also years while you get a final decision. And in most cases you don’t have the right to work, which is completely other story what’s going in the United States, mainly after the Trump decision that even you are an illegal immigrant and waiting what will be your story you get the working permission here.
So, actually, what was the – what’s the consequence of this policy, that there are huge communities in all around of Europe, mainly Western Europe, who’s on the social benefits. Even they don’t have the possibility to work even if they want because there’s no work authorization for them. And you know, in the ’90s or early ’20s it seems that, it’s OK, some thousands and tens of thousands, it’s OK. But now it’s hundreds of thousands of people, generation of new kids alienated from the European societies, and there’s no real possibility or idea how to drive them back to the labor market. They’re, as we discussed, making it out of the labor market. And right now there’s no real expectation that they are going to work.
It was the big idea in 2015 that, oh, 1 million people arrived to Germany; oh, they will solve all problem. But these are people not coming, you know, to Guatemala, Honduras – you know, have the family connection, places where they know if I go there I will get some job, perhaps illegal job or gray job but I will get. Syrians arrive. No connections, no any idea how. Don’t speak the language. Very, very different culture. And still now half of the people who arrived in 2015 out of the labor market. So it means and, you know, after eight years the chances, you know, it’s very, very limited.
MR. KRIKORIAN: I had a question regarding – that sort of expands on the gatekeeper country idea and I’d like to hear people’s reactions.
Denmark, if you followed this, did something that – they don’t call it but I call it remain in Rwanda so that if you come in there they would literally send you to Rwanda, and the difference was you weren’t applying for asylum in Denmark but waiting in Rwanda. They sent you to Rwanda and you could apply for asylum in Rwanda.
And the Australians tried the same kind of thing where they put people on several islands of other countries and said. you’re not getting to Australia. Cambodia has agreed to take your asylum requests.
That’s a sort of different – I mean, that’s part of sort of a gatekeeper approach but one that doesn’t have the limitations that you had referred to, Chris, in Remain in Mexico. But presumably a little harder to twist the arms of a country to agree to do that because, you know, then you actually are sending people there to those countries.
Any thoughts on this, you know, the Danish approach and the Australian approach in this regard? Anyone have any thoughts?
MR. MARSAI: Yeah. And then again me. Sorry.
You know, ladies and gentlemen, because, you know, I’m an Africanist so I a little bit know about the background in not only the Denmark but also the U.K., Rwanda there. Ladies and gentlemen, again, if you have the possibility that paying 10,000 euro or dollar for a very risky trip to reach Europe, and you have the possibility that you will be sent back or sent to Rwanda because most people – (inaudible) – Rwanda, you know, you will consider it not twice but three or four times whether you invest this huge chunk of money for the journey.
And the second issue, ladies and gentlemen, also just to know the internal dynamics of African politics. You know, if a European capital calling, I don’t know, Abuja that, OK, there is 20,000 Nigerian(s) arrived illegally, there’s no right to stay, please accept them back, Abuja would say: Oh, no, how you can prove that they are Nigerian? There’s no passports. Oh, no. Actually, the weather is very bad. Abuja saw deportation flights canceled. No. But if Paul Kagame was the leading personality, even if a very controversial personality in African politics, if he – (inaudible) – come on, I will send back 10,000 of your fellow citizens, OK, just send it. OK. Sorry to say, but it’s how politics is working in Africa. It’s very important.
The big problem with the deal is, ladies and gentlemen – and thank you for the progressive development of EU law and whole European law – that it’s definitely illegal, we should say it. Because according the European refugee and asylum law, which are much more progressive than the Geneva Convention – which was implemented after, of course, the EU court but was extended – each person has the right to apply asylum in the territory of the certain states if he reached it or she reached it. This is why Hungary also under the court of the European Union, because there is currently no possibility to apply asylum in the territory of Hungary, only in the consulate or better.
And this is the problem. Even the British minister of interior confessed that, yes, likely it’s against international law to make these – to outsource these refugee – sorry, asylum procedure to Rwanda, even if it’s very funny that last sentence; that, you know, the regulation and the agreement was attacked that Rwanda is not a safe third country and the asylum system is weak, blah, blah, blah. Why the United Nations, the UNHCR, has an agreement with Rwanda bringing people from Libyan detention centers to Rwanda? And yet I understand that U.K. and Libya is very different. But if Rwanda has considered that the refugee system is not – is underdeveloped and the country’s not safe, that how it’s possible that people coming from Libya for them is enough safe, coming from U.K. is not enough safe?
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. I mean, I don’t – I don’t dispute the question. I mean, Chris had pointed out that, you know, why should you even be – anyone passing through Mexico be allowed to apply for asylum. The fact is the law allows it and the law, you know, prevents in Europe sending people to Rwanda.
The question is would the policy work, and it seems to me – and that relates to the question of aid and money because a lot of countries, I mean, let’s face it, they’re run by one person or a small elite. If you bribe the right person then you can get a country to agree.
I mean, you know, just to pick an example, and I have no idea how Cambodia is run but if you – you know, you deposit $50 million into the right person’s Swiss bank account the country will become much more cooperative and it seems to me, you know, this is – this is realpolitik and we need to stop pussyfooting around.
So we’ll take one last question from the back.
Q: Excellent panel.
We get a context on the European Union’s remain in Turkey policy and how it is actually heavily financed by European powers, the EU. But as Nikolett mentioned, nevertheless there is growing resentment in Turkey to this policy that keeps these people in the country and with all the disruption that inevitably comes with that.
And yet, Ambassador Landau gave us great insights on Mexico and my question really goes to Mexico. It would seem that the very fact that the White House policy – the administration’s policy lures hundreds of thousands of people into Mexico already embattled with criminal cartels and other sorts of serious challenges, sovereignty challenges.
The Mexicans are very famous for defending their sovereignty vis-à-vis Washington. They seem to complain not at all. Publicly López Obrador in the policy discussions, the so-called security discussions between Washington and Mexico, they’re not asking for money that I’ve read about. They’re not even complaining about Mayorkas’ policies that have deposited hundreds of thousands of people from outside the continent in their country.
Why is that? What should Americans understand about what’s going on in Mexico that brings about such a lay down policy?
MR. LANDAU: That’s a great question and, certainly, it was – I think it just kind of goes back to the cultural roots of migration in Mexico that I think Mexico still has a pretty strong self-image as a source of migrants, and I don’t think they have kind of come around to a way of thinking for the 21st century that their role now is much more likely to be as a transit point for migrants.
And I think that was one of my challenges as ambassador to kind of say to Mexico, you know, please, you have to update your thinking, in a sense. This is a huge challenge to your own sovereignty. We saw that during COVID when, you know, control over your borders became something that everybody was doing.
Mexico was one of the only countries in the world that even at the height of the pandemic never (interrupted ?) any flights from anywhere in the world – New York City, Milan, and those countries, when those cities were really in the midst of the pandemic. There is still something in Mexican way of thinking about these issues that is kind of reflexively pro-migrant, open borders. Again, I think that will change. I think that’s more maybe the Mexican political elite is still somewhat behind public sentiment. I think it is just hard for Mexico. It’s like having cognitive dissonance or an out of body experience – why should we care more about illegal migration than the United States?
I just think they haven’t wrapped their heads around that. But, you know, I think they should because whatever our policies are the impact on Mexico is going to be dramatic. And so, you know, I think if we have an open borders policy that’s enticing and luring in migrants from all over the world to come through Mexico you would think Mexico would be concerned about it.
So I agree with your question. It is somewhat surprising. I think it’s just – I think that will change and I think it’s important for the United States to engage Mexico on these issues.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And I think it’s interesting that Mexico does seem to have a similar disconnect between its leadership class and its public view on immigration as we have here because when the flow of Central Americans got pretty significant, remember, this was a number – I forget, a number of years ago, there was actually a protest in Tijuana against all the Central Americans who were coming through.
And the mayor at that time, who was politically kind of embattled, saw this as an opportunity. Printed up a red baseball cap that said make Tijuana great again and went to the protest against – the Mexican popular protest against the flow of Central Americans through Tijuana.
MR. LANDAU: I think the one thing is – and this kind of maybe answers your question – I think for Mexico they see the answer to this not as necessarily protesting all the people coming into their country but just shipping them off to the United States as quickly as possible and so, in a sense, I think that is the safety valve.
Now, they don’t have to worry about massive – you know, about, like, what the Turkey situation is. I think as long as the United States is willing to receive them, in a sense, that’s the easiest out for Mexico just to immediately facilitate the transportation to the border and kind of make it our problem.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, thank you for everybody on the panel.
Something I probably should have said at the beginning but it didn’t – it kind of occurred to me as we were talking, in the American context when we talk about gatekeeper we think of Operation Gatekeeper, which was in the 1990s a major Border Patrol initiative in the San Diego area to actually stop illegal immigrants from crossing, which is a radical idea, apparently.
The interesting point, though, is that that term Operation Gatekeeper assumed that the Border Patrol was sort of the first resort in stopping people from getting across whereas the whole theme of our discussion here of gatekeeper countries is, in a sense, that the Border Patrol should be the last resort and that the point is to reduce – in a sense, sort of through attrition reduce the number of people who actually get to the Border Patrol by cooperating agreements with foreign countries and changing the – sort of the calculation of incentives and payoffs because, as Viktor said, you’re not going to pay tens of thousands of dollars and take all of this risk just to end up in Rwanda.
And so I think that it is – in the U.S. discussion of this we need to stop thinking of the Border Patrol agent as the first resort in stopping illegal immigration and rather think of him or her as the last resort, sort of the final person after we’ve done everything else that – that amount of illegal immigration that despite all of that has still come through then the Border Patrol agent’s job comes into – comes into play.
MR. LANDAU: I agree with that and I also – I think I might disagree with Viktor a little bit on this point, that I think even looking to Mexico as the gatekeeper, I think, is problematic because if somebody’s already in Mexico – we have a 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
I think we need to think about – and we also have a very complicated relationship with Mexico that involves security issues, economic issues. There’s a lot on the table. I think countries like Costa Rica, Panama, I think it’s a much simpler thing to say that’s where we got to really stop them. It shouldn’t – the weight should not always be only on Mexico.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right. And as Viktor said in referencing Niger, it doesn’t have to be countries right next door, even for Europeans.
MR. LANDAU: Right. Right.
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK. Well, I’m going to respect people’s time. Thank you, Viktor and Nikolett and Chris, for coming in. This video will be on our website, CIS.org. We’re also going to have the PowerPoints that we saw, and the – I welcome all of you to tune in or come in person even to future events. We do these kind of things pretty frequently. Thanks for tuning in or showing up in person and hope you come in next time. (Applause.) (END)