European Migration Law Between 'Rescuing' and 'Taming' the Nation State: A History of Half-hearted Commitment to Human Rights and Refugee Protection

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Table of Contents: I. Introduction. – II. Primary law: migration management and its limits. – III. Secondary legislation: enhanced protection of migrants’ rights. - III.1. Enhancing the rights of migrants – III.2. Promotion of State interests. - IV. Asylum policy: reform failure and circumvention. – IV.1. “Pushbacks” as an extreme form of non-compliance. - IV.2. Continuity of “organised hypocrisy” over time. – V. Conclusion.

Abstract: EU primary law reaffirms that States have the right to control the entry and stay of non-nationals, but it also entrusts the legislature with deciding, within the confines of human rights, how open or closed the external borders shall be. The ensuing tension between protection and state control is deeply engrained in the history and presence of European migration law. Supranational legislation often establishes a higher level of protection than human rights in the form of individual rights to legal entry or stay; these statutory guarantees considerably curtail the room for manoeuvre of the Member States, albeit on the basis of their “voluntary” consent. At the same time, EU migration law and policy can increase the practical leverage of States by means of inter-state cooperation. These contrasting dynamics coalesce in the contemporary debate about asylum policy. Protective elements exist, but several Member States violate their obligations, notably in the external border control context (“pushbacks”). While such instances of open resistance are unprecedented, they build on a history of half-hearted commitment ever since the signature of the Refugee Convention. EU migration law comprises reasonably generous domestic legislation and contributes to reducing the numbers of arrival at the same time, in particular via cooperation with third states such as Tunisia, Turkey, or Morocco, thus reiterating the simultaneity of “rescuing” and “taming” the nation-state.

Keywords: migration – asylum – Schengen – border controls – pushbacks – visas.

European Papers, Vol. 8, 2023, No 3, pp. 1663-1678
ISSN 2499-8249
- doi: 10.15166/2499-8249/735

* Professor of Public, European and International Law, University of Konstanz,


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