Global migration is currently at an unprecedented level. In fact, the International Organization for Migration estimates the number of international migrants has increased from 155 million in 2000, to 281 million in 2020, constituting 3.6% of the world’s population (IOM, 2021). Conflict-related migration is now at its highest level since the Second World War, exceeding 50 million people in 2013 (O’Malley, 2018). Meanwhile, climate change and environmental degradation are expected to result in between 50 million to 1 billion climate migrants by 2050 (Burrows & Kinney, 2016). The growth in international migration has shown no signs of slowing down and will if anything accelerate.
This reinforces the issue of international migration as an increasingly important component of International Relations studies. Yet the focus in International Relations and policy-making circles emphasises the "push factors" that cause people to choose to migrate away from their countries of origin, such as war or poverty, and the "pull factors" that attract people to their intended destination, such as greater economic development (Samers, 2010). Less studied are the "transit states" through which international migrants must pass. This article will first provide a theoretical outline of what a "transit state" is in International Relations theory, before investigating the case study of Macedonia during the European ´migrant-crisis´ in 2015-2016. It will then show how Macedonia illustrates the attributes of a transit state and the repercussions of migration policies attempting to 'externalise' border controls.
What is a Transit-State in International Relations Theory?
The "transit state" concept emerged in International Relations from the wider growth of people migrating from the less developed "global south" to the more developed "global north", with this number increasing from 40 million in 1990 to 89 million in 2017 (UN, 2017). Simultaneously, the growing relevance of transnational terrorism and organised crime from the 1980s, culminating in the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, led 'securitisation' of migration to become the dominant political narrative in much of the developed world, with migration and security policy increasingly intertwined (Bali, 2013). The influential Copenhagen School identified 'securitisation' as the process in which an issue becomes presented as an existential threat, justifying extraordinary security measures to handle what is perceived as an urgent danger (Buzan, Waever & Wilde, 1998). This has led to policies attempting to 'externalise' migration border controls, by making agreements with neighbouring countries to slow down or halt migration flows before they reach other borders (Lahav & Guiraudon, 2000).
It is the states that neighbour these developed regions seeking to externalise border controls that have come to be known as "transit-states", to reflect their unique role within international migration flows and their potential to influence international relations. In his study on the impact of securitisation on migration, Gregory White (2011) identifies several key attributes of transit-states. First, they border advanced industrialised countries, or else offer reasonable access to them, while being situated midway through a migration flow. As such, transit-states are defined by their unique geopolitical position acting as a bridge between the "global south" and "global north" within the context of south-to-north migration.
Second, transit states also often act as sending states for their own native emigrant populations, with migration patterns thus consisting a mixture of immigration, transit migration, and emigration. This is due to transit areas also often being less developed than the neighbouring ones seeking to externalise migration controls, so that they often display ´push factors´ such as unemployment or underemployment, with lower living standards (White, 2011). This means transit migrants may find themselves competing with transit state citizens for scarce jobs or state resources, with such economic competition often leading to anti-immigration sentiment within transit countries (Dancygier, 2010). In the worst cases, this may carry the potential for social and political disturbances, including violence (Ibid.).
The final attribute of "transit states" is that they maintain the possibility of actively cooperating with advanced industrial interests to control borders. The potential to assist developed countries allows the use of "migration diplomacy" as a foreign policy tool, so as to increase their bargaining power in international negotiations with more powerful neighbours (Adamson & Tsourapas, 2019). 'Coercive' strategies can see transit states use the "threat" of allowing migration flows to pass unimpeded towards developed states, in order to gain concessions (Greenhill, 2010). Alternatively, 'cooperative' strategies, such as monetary aid in exchange for heightened border controls, can see transit states become valued and trusted international partners (White, 2011).
If transit states successfully block a migration flow passing through their territory, they might find themselves hosting semi-permanent or even permanent immigrant populations that would have otherwise proceeded to reach other regions (White, 2011). This can have severe humanitarian implications for transit migrants, who can find themselves stranded in unwilling and less economically developed host states, short of their intended and more economically prosperous destinations. Because of such situation, they often live with daily uncertainty, in poor conditions, with no residency rights or legal channels for work, subject to exploitation and abuses by security forces, employers, people smugglers and hostile populations (Castles, Haas & Miller, 2014). This can furthermore lead to border violence and instability in the transit state as desperate migrants attempt to force their way past securitised border infrastructure onwards towards their intended destinations (Mileski, 2018).
Nevertheless, it is important to note that the nature of transit migration and the strength of these attributes can vary greatly depending on the size of migration flows, the migration policies of developed nations, the geographical nature of the borders transit migrants hope to pass, and the economic and political contexts of the transit-states themselves (White, 2011). Macedonia will now be used to illustrate a specific example of the attributes of a transit state at a particular moment.
Case Study: Macedonia as a Transit-State, 2015-2016
Macedonia (since 2018 known as “North Macedonia”) became a crucial transit state during the European ‘migrant crisis’ in 2015-2016, as transit migrants originating primarily from conflict zones in the Middle East sought to pass from Greece, through Macedonia and into Serbia towards the borders of the EU (Mileski, 2018). An estimated 815,000 transit migrants passed through the country in total, peaking at around 4,000 entering Macedonia daily – a massive number for a country of only 1.8 million people (Racaj, 2016). Macedonia was one of Europe’s poorest countries, with Europe´s 42nd smallest economy and 39th smallest GDP per capita, with a near 25% unemployment rate (European Commission, 2018). Furthermore, the country's aspirations to join the European Union were hindered by a naming dispute with Greece (Abdullai & Asani, 2018). As such, it operated from a weak position of power. Yet, its condition of transit-state allowed it to pursue ´migration diplomacy´ strategies to increase its negotiating strength with the EU.
Such strategies intended to control transit migration in response to EU policy coincided with varying levels of border violence and insecurity. Macedonia´s initial policy to stem the flow of transit migration from January to June 2015 witnessed repeated violent clashes, with large groups of migrants attempting to cross the Greek-Macedonian border despite police gunfire, apprehensions, and beatings. Those who did cross the border were often detained and subjected to abuse (Veigel et al, 2017). Many thousands more migrants were left stranded at the border with little funds, no winter clothing and having travelled by foot or overcrowded smugglers' vehicles (European Commission, 2018). Furthermore, they were forced to sleep in freezing conditions with little or no shelter (Abdullai & Asani, 2018).
Yet, this initial policy was overturned in June 2015 to instead facilitate rapid transit migration across the country towards the Serbian border, in conjunction with increased humanitarian assistance. The violence quickly stopped, and transit migrants were granted a de facto 72-hour permission to transit and provided special train services to cross (Mileski, 2018). However, such a decision was criticised by several EU member states, particularly Austria and Hungary (Selo-Sabic, 2017). The EU’s growing desperation to stem the migration flow led Macedonia to deploy its army to strengthen border control in August 2015, in the hopes of gaining EU favour. Instead, Macedonia drew criticism from other EU member states who decried the brutality of the country's border security (Kilibarda, 2018).
The country responded by criticising Greece for allowing transit migrants to reach Macedonia’s border, and deploring Germany for encouraging people to migrate to the EU: it then again returned to facilitating transit migration across Macedonian territory towards the EU (Abdullai & Asani, 2018). This return to a ´coercive strategy´ led to the EU announcing €4.7 million in humanitarian funding to Macedonia to help cope with the influx of people, even if this was only a fraction of the EU´s allocated $1 billion migrant aid plan (Abdullai & Asani, 2018). As transit migrants continued to reach the Schengen Zone border, multiple EU member states sent their police forces to Macedonian border security (Selo-Sabic, 2017). Such dynamics led to another ´cooperative´ policy switch in November 2015 to reflect the EU decision to only allow refugees from the warzones of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to enter, as they retained permission to transit Macedonia. In turn, as transit migrants from other destinations waiting at the border continued to experience very poor living conditions, intense border clashes occurred, leading to 27,090 migrants being forcibly deported to the Greek border between November 19th and December 31st 2015 (Mileski, 2018). Subsequent attempts to storm the border marked some of the most serious violence of the European Migrant Crisis, including the deaths and serious injury of both transit migrants and security forces (Abdullai & Asani, 2018).
The Greek-Macedonia naming dispute was finally set aside to agree on a cross-border migration-control policy in January 2016, successfully limiting the cross-border flow from 3,000 people a day, to 1,500 (Mileski, 2018). Simultaneously, Macedonia was invited to regional EU meetings as one of only two non-EU members alongside Serbia, to coordinate efforts to stem migration flows (Selo-Sabic, 2017). This ended the remnants of Macedonia’s humanitarian policies in favour of full EU ´securitisation´ in March 2016, leading to violent pushbacks of illegal transit migrants by the police to the Serbian and Greek borders, including beatings and abuses (Selo-Sabic, 2017).
Conclusions: The Importance of Transit-States
The Macedonian case study illustrates the three main attributes of transit states. First, the country´s geographical position on the Western Balkan Route providing access to more economically developed EU states further North, meant a huge number of migrants arrived at Macedonia´s borders with the intention of passing through. Secondly, Macedonia operated from a weak position at Europe’s margins, as one of Europe´s poorest economies with high unemployment: arguably, then, those transit migrants arriving had little intention of staying, and Macedonia had little intention of encouraging them to stay (Kilibarda, 2018). This meant Macedonia´s migration policy options were either to try and stop migrants from entering in the first place, or else to facilitate the passage of transit migrants through their territory.
Finally, because of the above two factors, the country was perfectly positioned to utilise migration diplomacy. The desperation of several EU states to stem the flow of migration towards their territories meant Macedonia was able to utilise a mixture of ´cooperative strategies´, to halt transit migration in line with EU securitisation policies, and ´coercive´ strategies that threatened to actively assist transit migrants in reaching EU borders, in order to gain concessions from the latter. In the process, Macedonia gained a seat at the EU negotiating tables, became an active EU partner and secured financial assistance it would not otherwise have, were it not for its status as a transit state (Mileski, 2018). Furthermore, migration diplomacy even temporarily overrode the country´s naming dispute with Greece (Abdullai & Asani, 2018).
What Macedonia also illustrates, however, is the humanitarian costs of policies that ´securitise´ the migration issue. The state´s engagement with EU securitisation policies coincided with increased border violence and insecurity at its own borders. The cooperation in halting migratory flows entailed that transit migrants were met with sometimes lethal violence, hostility, abuse, and awful living conditions at the borders - even if the resulting images of violence and suffering sat uncomfortably with the same EU countries pushing externalisation policies (Kilibarda, 2018). On the other hand, when Macedonia interrupted its compliance with EU securitisation policies, transit migrants were instead granted a higher degree of humanitarian aid and state cooperation to assist them in their journeys, lessening their human suffering. It is clear then that developed state policies of ´externalising´ border controls come with important humanitarian considerations for international migrants that need to be considered by policymakers.
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