Exposing the Liberal Paradox: Feminist Foreign Policy and European migration control politics

While some Member states commit to Feminist Foreign Policy agendas, its implementation in Europe’s migration and asylum regime remains all but absent. How does Europe square the circle between Feminist Foreign Policy and border control policies?

Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) is gaining traction among left and liberal policy makers in Europe, with some governments increasingly shaping their development, foreign policy and international security agendas according to feminist theory. In early 2023, the German Federal Foreign Office (AA) followed suit with the publication of its guidelines, “Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy: Federal Foreign Office Guidelines”, establishing an explicit framework for feminist practice in German international affairs. Yet in this 80-page handbook, not once is the word “asylum” mentioned, and “migration” only tangentially. This omission garnered considerable criticism upon its publication, with the Heinrich Böll Foundation and 17 further NGOs responding in July this year with a joint position paper.

This is a glaring deficit, especially considering the relevance of migration and flight to virtually all salient fields of foreign affairs and international justice, such as climate change, human rights and development. Migration and flight are not mere afterthoughts, rather cornerstones in conceptions of international law and human rights. At the same time, the German government as well as the EU have doubled down on restrictive asylum politics. Proposed changes to the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) further violate already dwindling access to asylum rights on European soil. In Germany, the coalition government has promised a hardened stance on deportations; right wing and inflammatory discourses are now part and parcel of the political mainstream.

In light of this, are Germany’s Guidelines or similar policies a misuse of feminist ideals, a mere “feel-good package for constituencies”, or is the challenge of implementing feminist migration politics indicative of a deeper conflict between FFP and migration control policies?

Feminist Foreign Policy: a path toward values- and human rights-oriented international affairs (?)

While researchers have analysed international politics through the feminist lens at least since the 1980s, its formal adoption into a national foreign policy agenda first emerged in 2014 with the Swedish government’s handbook on FFP. This agenda broadly aimed to integrate feminist perspectives in all areas of foreign policy, to promote the rights of women and girls worldwide and combat discrimination. In short, Sweden’s FFP was predicated on the “three Rs”: the promotion of rights, representation and resources for women, girls and marginalised groups in all domains of international politics. Though the current right wing government in Sweden has since revoked its FFP agenda, this handbook served as a blueprint for similar policies that followed.

In lieu of any single definition for FFP, researchers, government and non-governmental organisations continuously negotiate its meaning. Most conceptualisations of FFP aim for some reform or diversification of the hitherto dominant goals (national interest), modus operandi (realpolitik) and practitioners (male) in international politics. This often entails redressing global injustice, inequality and discrimination; strengthening the rights of women and girls worldwide; demilitarisation of international politics or even the abolition of the military; the prioritisation of individual security over state interests; employing feminist and intersectional analyses to assess foreign policy; and institutional representation of women and marginalised groups in foreign policy work.

While these are noble goals, FFP is not without critical analysis. Feminist and postcolonial scholars argue that FFP fails to interrogate the global power structures upon which it is based. In absence of real transformation, FFP in practice could strengthen existing global hierarchies and legitimise policies that disempower the very groups they claim to protect. Further, FFP agendas tend to neglect intersectional approaches. These scholars emphasise the need for both intersectional and anticolonial perspectives to accommodate the interests of historically marginalised people worldwide.

Migration control politics: upholding the nation state paradigm

Critical migration scholarship demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between migration control politics and the nation state. The present nationalist world order creates a “universalisation, modularisation, and normalisation of the nation form”[i], transforming individuals with fundamental rights into “homo nationalis”[ii] – avatars of the nation state, a political community with a distinct cultural identity and collective right to self-determination, from which the freedom to exclude non-citizens follows. This fictional ideal depends not only on the construction of a homogeneous geographical and cultural (ethno-)national identity, rather the concurrent exclusion of populations who do not match this imagined identity.

From this paradigm follows the necessity to control and restrict migration and flight. Transnational Human mobility is at epistemological odds with the nation, as it breaks the units of sovereign power that have come to define the present international order. Asylum represents an especially heavy-handed intervention in national sovereignty, as it regulates the entitlement to otherwise illegalised transnational movement for which control strategies are less adapted. The consequence of this is border securitisation in perpetuity.

The ambivalence between collective national interest and individual rights presents a formidable challenge to the nation state paradigm. Values and norms supposedly intrinsic to liberal democracy – the legal state predicated on international law and human rights – clash with the reality of Europe’s migration and asylum politics. Schwenken (2018) coined this dilemma the “liberal paradox”, borrowing the term from James Hollifield to describe how states navigate the cleft between self-perception and national interest[iii]. As a cope, liberal democracies have developed indirect strategies to both fulfill their legal and moral obligations and restrict migration and flight.

Critical migration scholarship convincingly demonstrates how discourses are used to sanitise policies on flight, especially through the paradigm of ‘migration management’. Mobilising a euphemistic managerial language – capacity building, best practices, efficiency –, states frame human mobility as a depoliticised, technical problem[iv]. Further, security and migration management actors like Frontex have successfully embedded human rights discourses, couching their work in humanitarian language[v]. This migration management newspeak marries with the quantification of human mobility in graphs, numbers and tables, which dehumanise the public perception of flight or migration[vi]. Statistics and numbers may also serve as political instruments to manufacture opinion on migration control. A case and point is the conflation of unique border crossings with overall border crossings to artificially inflate numbers of people seeking refuge, which was evidenced to support the restriction of flight to Europe[vii].

Beyond discourse, legal frameworks and the administrative implementation of migration management are important mechanisms for restriction and deterrence. While international legal regimes like the Geneva Refugee Convention (GRC) of 1951 and its 1967 amendment codify rights and protections for the ‘refugee’, this regime is simultaneously demonstrative of “the staying power of the statist paradigm”, as it is predicated on nation state as the primary actor in both creating and protecting refugees[viii]. Internally displaced people (IDP) do not enjoy these protections, as they have not yet traversed national borders and are thus irrelevant to the nation state paradigm. Even in the case of border crossing, asylum requirements exclude significant reasons for flight – civil war, climate change – and are historically rooted in host state’s national interests[ix].

The EU further qualifies the right to asylum through legal constructs that externalise its borders. In part justified by free movement within the Schengen area[x], borders are diffused outward by mobilising state and nonstate security actors (Frontex, Libyan Coastguard) outside European jurisdictions, and capitalising on “legal black holes” at sea. Within the EU, the Dublin Convention practically insulates western European states from people seeking refuge. On the national level, laws and regulations diffuse the border within, controlling and restricting illegalised or non-EU populations. Legal categories like ‘asylum’, ‘subsidiary protection’, or ‘temporary deportation ban’ are “bureaucratic constructions”[xi] of the state, organising refugees into hierarchies of rights, resources and legitimacy. On top of these legal categories, ethnographic research demonstrates how immigration authorities tend to unjustly reject claims in their decision making practice[xii].

The act of flight itself remains especially prohibitive and dangerous for marginalised groups, such as women, children, LGBTIQ+, elderly, and people with disabilities. As the nation state-oriented refugee definition historically sought to protect the politically active, European intellectual man[xiii], gendered human rights violations are systemically under-recognised. Physical barriers to accessing asylum practically advantage young, single and able-bodied adults, who are more likely to traverse the treacherous journey successfully[xiv]. The illegalisation of flight also opens doors for sexual violence and exploitation.

Development aid is a further institution that European states instrumentalise to contain populations on the move. Especially since the so-called refugee crisis of 2015, the marriage of migration control and development aid has proliferated in the EU and Member states. As critical development research suggests, development policy agendas that claim to combat the root causes of migration aim to prevent the mobility of populations with a propensity to migrate or flee to the EU. Such policies, which ostensibly contribute to economic development or human rights protection, serve the nation state by reducing numbers of refugees and organising migration according to economic interests. Furthermore, European states leverage development cooperation for quid-pro-quo migration policy agreements, commonly referred to as conditionality, which tie foreign aid commitments to the control and prevention of emigration from so-called sending countries[xv].

Feminist Foreign Policy and migration control politics: The circle that cannot be squared?

The recent omission of feminist migration and asylum policy in Germany’s guidelines is inductive of a broader field of tension between a feminist, values-guided foreign policy, and the context within which this policy is conceived and carried out. A dissonance is so great that the Foreign Office refrained from mentioning migration and asylum politics and policies altogether. While similar mechanisms may be at work in other areas of foreign policy, migration politics are especially illustrative, as human mobility is at diametric odds with the nation state paradigm. Feminist migration and asylum policies call the nation state as such into question by breaking down the arbitrary territorial jurisdictions of belonging and entitlement under the present international system. At once the framework in which FFP is realised, the existence of the nation state depends on the suppression of transnational human mobility.

As a cope, liberal democratic governments mobilise indirect strategies to limit migration and flight while maintaining their self-image as values-based liberal democracies. These tactics relegate migration and flight primarily to the domestic political domain, depoliticised and distanced from values-based international politics and foreign policy agendas. While this strategy is nothing new, it does continue to serve the state in the era of FFP. The German guidebook elucidates this ‘liberal paradox’, negotiating the fine line between stated goals and national self-interest, and within the structures of governance given by the nation state.

This casts doubt on the potential of genuine FFP without radically reforming the system in which it is established. For some critical migration scholars, this entails the prioritisation of individual rights – freedom of movement, universal equality (as opposed to a birthright lottery), equal democratic participation in society – over collective rights of the nation state[xvi], and as a corollary, the abolishment of borders and the accompanying international system that perpetuates global inequalities on the basis of ethno-national identity.

Yet outside of academic discourse, the proposition that states will voluntarily relinquish their power and existence remains far-fetched. FFP researchers, advocates and policy makers have to contend with this reality as they try to square the circle of feminist migration and asylum policies within existing nation state structures. While this is an ambivalent undertaking, the alternative is an FFP that practically undercuts its original intent, be it by purplewashing foreign policy practices or implementing a superficial, lean in feminism[xvii].

While structures, definitions and categories of the nation state principally serve its own interests, they also have the greatest consequence for migrants and refugees and thus the greatest potential for the immediate advocacy of rights and access material and political resources. Critically reflecting and interrogating the nation state paradigm while leveraging its framework is not a mutually exclusive exercise. Moral grandstanding, on the other hand, is a luxury not afforded to most, and perhaps only open to those who have the nationality and economic resources to effectively render the world borderless.




[i] Genova 2013: 255.

[ii] Celikates 2016: 240.

[iii] Schwenken 2018: 120.

[iv] Geiger & Pécoud 2010: 5-7.

[v] Perkowski 2016: 332.

[vi] Schwenken 2018: 40-41.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Mertus 1998: 323.

[ix] Ibid. 325-326.

[x] Neuman 1993: 506-507.

[xi] Hemmerling 2003: 11.

[xii] See: Eule 2014 and Joubany 2011.

[xiii] Hemmering 2003: 10-12.

[xiv] Genova 2013: 254.

[xv] Schwenken 2018: 118.

[xvi] Celikates 2016: 233-234.

[xvii] The term lean-in feminism, which originates from the book titled “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg, critically refers to an individualistic, careerist feminism that caters to a subset of economically advantaged women rather than challenging broader structural barriers or systems that oppress women and marginalised groups.



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This article first appeared here: gr.boell.org