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Despite Europe's mass investments in advanced border controls, people keep arriving along the continent's shores under desperate circumstances. European attempts to ‘secure’ or ‘protect’ the borders have quite clearly failed, as politicians themselves increasingly recognise – yet more of the same response is again rolled out in response to the escalating ‘refugee crisis’. Amid the deadlock, this article argues that we need to grasp the mechanics and logics of the European ‘border security model’ in order to open up for a change of course. Through ethnographic examples from the Spanish-African borders, the article shows how the striving for border security under a prevailing emergency frame has generated absurd incentives, negative path dependencies and devastating consequences. At Europe's frontiers, an industry of border controls has emerged, involving European defence contractors, member state security forces and their African counterparts, as well as a range of non-security actors. Whenever another ‘border crisis’ occurs, this industry grows again, feeding on its own apparent ‘failures’. This vicious cycle may be broken, the article concludes, once policy-makers start curtailing the economies of border security underpinning it – yet the challenges are formidable as the industry retrenches along with the political response to the drama it has itself produced.

More information Original publication



Journal article

Publication Date





1055 - 1075


Irregular migration, borders, Europe, securitisation, illegality