Thursday, 24 July 2014

Human Migration: Myths, Hysteria and Facts


Migration is a hotly debated but poorly understood issue. Much conventional thinking about migration is based on myths rather than facts. Migration policies often fail because they are based on those same myths. It is therefore time that we learn to see migration as an intrinsic and therefore inevitable part of the broader processes of societal change and globalisation instead of a 'problem to be solved'.

This was the core of my argument of the inaugural lecture 'Human Migration: Myths, Hysteria and Facts' I gave on 27 June to accept the Extraordinary Chair ‘Migration and Development’ at Maastricht University. In this lecture, I discuss seven right- and left-wing migration myths and present recent research findings (particularly from the DEMIG project)  to prove them wrong.





While migration is commonly seen as the result of poverty and violence in origin countries, research shows that growing prosperity in poor countries increases migration and that the level of migration is largely determined by labour demand in destination countries. Because migration research is too focused on answering short-term policy questions, it often fails to adequately map the causes and consequences of migration. A better understanding of the fundamental causes of migration will also enable us to better and more realistically assess what migration policies cannot achieve.

In the lecture, I discuss the following (right- and left-wing migration myths:
  1. We live in times of unprecedented mass-migration 
  2. Immigration restrictions reduce the number of immigrants 
  3. Immigration policies have become more restrictive 
  4. Development in origin countries will reduce emigration 
  5. Migration leads to ‘brain drain’ 
  6. Migrants steal jobs and threaten the welfare state 
  7. Migration can solve the ageing problem
The main facts refuting these migration myths include:

On myth #1: While the number of international migrants has almost doubled between 1960 and 2000, the world population has grown at the same pace. The relative rate of migration has thus remained stable, and less than three per cent of the world’s population is an international migrant. Yet the nature and direction of migration has changed. For the past centuries, it was mainly Europeans who emigrated and colonized foreign territories. Since WWII, Europe has evolved into the world’s most attractive migration destination. However, particularly since the end of the Cold War politicians have increasingly portrayed migration as a fundamental threat to security and prosperity, inflaming a panic over migration. This contributed to the incorrect idea that migation is accelerating.

On myth #2: Recent research shows that immigration restrictions are often counter-productive by interrupting circulation, discouraging return and pushing migrants into permanent settlement.

On myth #3: Although politicians like to give the impression that immigration policies have become more restrictive, research shows that policies have become less restrictive for most migrant groups over the past decades. Tough talk on migration is therefore mainly rhetoric aimed at winning elections.

On myth #4: Economic growth, education and infrastructure enable more people to migrate and increase their life aspirations. This is why migration increases as countries develop (see here and here). Economic growth of the poorest countries will therefore inevitably lead to more migration from those countries.

On myth #5: It is a misunderstanding that the emigration of skilled people (‘brain drain’) causes underdevelopment in origin countries (see here). The money migrants send back home (‘remittances’) dwarfs development aid, and many migrants invest in origin countries, although it is also an illusion to think that migrants can solve fundamental development problems such as corruption and inequality.

On myth #6: Migrants mainly do the jobs that local populations shun or for which they lack the skills. Generally, migration has a positive, but comparatively small, effect on economic growth, although it is predominantly employers, the middle classes and the wealthy who benefit from migration.

On myth #7: While migration is not a threat to prosperity, it is also not a solution to fundamental socio-economic problems such as ageing. The magnitude of migration is too limited, while ageing is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Open and wealthy societies will inevitably experience substantial migration. The trend towards economic liberalisation in recent decades—which has increased the demand for formal and informal migrant labour—contradicts the political rhetoric in favour of less migration. Both the positive and negative effects of migration tend to be greatly exaggerated.

Migration is unjustifiably seen as either a fundamental threat or a solution to fundamental societal problems. It is not migration, but rather the xenophobia fuelled by politicians and the media, that is the problem. The related migration panic and the recurrent scapegoating of migrants stands in the way of a nuanced debate about migration.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Visas reduce immigration ... and return!

The effectiveness of immigration policies is highly contested. While politicians often claim that visas and border controls are necessary to prevent uncontrolled immigration, many researchers argue that immigration restrictions fail to stop migration as they do not affect the fundamental causes of migration, such as income gaps, labour demand in destination countries, conflict, and paradoxically, development in origin countries. Other researchers have argued that immigration restrictions do significantly reduce immigration.

Yet such discussions are limited as they focus on how immigration controls affect inflows and ignore how they affect return. Politicians are generally concerned with net migration – the number of immigrants minus the number of return migrants from one country, which determines the number of migrants who stay.


Faced with the large-scale settlement of low-skilled immigrants, politicians have long been interested in stimulating return migration. This has recently led to much talk about circular migration as the ideal way to marry the interests of migrant workers to gain access to legal migration opportunities and governments of destination countries who often feel public pressure to reduce permanent immigration.

The pertinent question is therefore how restrictions affect the circulation of migrants. This has remained largely ignored by research to date. A new research paper I have written with my colleague Mathias Czaika at the International Migration Institute, I have just published a research paper that looks at this important issue. This is part of the DEMIG (Determinants of International Migration) project, which has received funding from the European Research Council and the Oxford Martin School.

To study the effect of immigration policies on patterns of circulation, we used two new databases DEMIG compiled over the past four years. The DEMIG C2C database tracks country-to-country migration flows between 38 destination countries and a worldwide selection of origin countries. The DEMIG VISA database details travel visa requirements for every country from 1973-2010. In the paper, we treat visa requirements as an important instrument used by governments to prevent the unlimited immigration of people from 'undesired' countries.

Our analysis provides evidence that:
  • Visas reduce immigration and return migration 
  • Visas interrupt circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement 
  • Visas makes migration less responsive to economic opportunities in origin and destination countries
Our statistical estimates show that travel visa requirements significantly decrease inflows (estimated at 67 percent on average) but that this effect is undermined by also decreasing outflows (88 percent on average) of the same migrant groups. We estimated that visa requirements reduce overall circulation by 75 percent on average. Although the real effects vary across countries, the results are statistically significant and provide evidence that immigration restrictions interrupt circularity. 

Importantly, our analysis also shows that visas severely reduce the responsiveness of migration to economic fluctuations in destination and origin societies. This is easy to understand. If migration is free, as is the case between EU countries or US states, people face fewer obstacles to packing their suitcases and moving in search of better opportunities. They will however, also decide to return more easily if they loose their job or if opportunities back home improve. For instance, many Polish migrants in the UK have returned with the rapid improvement of economic conditions in Poland.

If you have invested a lot of effort and money in securing a visa and work permit, it is less likely that you will return if you encounter problems. Immigration restrictions makes returning more risky – if the situation back home is not how you imagined there is a risk of not being able to migrate again. So, what we often see is migrants staying put even in economic crisis and choosing to reunify their families, which partly explains why legal migration continues over formally closed borders.

The irony seems that policies that officially aim to reduce immigration and stimulate the return of 'less desired' low-skilled migrants often have the opposite effect of interrupting circularity, increasing family migration, and encouraging permanent settlement.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Dutch racism


Geert Wilders, the popular leader of the Dutch PVV (Freedom) Party, is well known for his anti-Islam and anti-immigrant viewpoints. Dutch Moroccans are his favourite target, who are systematically put down by Wilders as criminal, extremist, terrorist, and benefit scrounging untermenschen.

The Dutch have now been debating for years whether Wilders' public statements are racist or not (see here). To me, this is somehow puzzling, as what else can you call the stereotyping and scapegoating of entire population groups?

Why this hesitance? Part of the explanation is that most mainstream Dutch politicians have become terrified of Wilders.They have even been taking over many of his viewpoints on immigration in  attempts to win back votes. The right-wing liberal VVD party, in particular, has done its best to copy PVV's anti-immigration, anti-diversity (see here) and 'law and order' viewpoints.These strategies have failed, but have made Wilders' viewpoints respectable.



They also avoid very harsh attacks against Wilders because they may need his party to form the next coalition government. After all, the PVV is now the biggest or second biggest party in national polls.

In other words, politicians are afraid to call Wilders a racist because he has become too powerful. Yesterday, he went one step further during a speech to celebrate his party's victory in local elections in The Hague (see video)


- Wilders: "I ask you. Do you want, in this city, and in the Netherlands, more or fewer Moroccans"
- Audience: "Fewer, fewer, fewer.... " (shouting)
- Wilders:  "Then we will fix this" (audience and Wilders laugh)

Innocent: no. Deliberate:yes. Racist: yes.

Yet once again, PM Rutte of the VVD party stated this week that he does not rule out the possibility of forming a next government with Geert Wilders, who already gave vital support to Rutte's previous government.

To be honest, this makes me angry and scares the hell out of me. Not so much because of what Wilders says (racism is of all ages after all), but because he gets away with it (not in the legal, but in the moral sense), because mainstream politicians lack the moral compass, courage and self-confidence to go in the counter-attack, show solidarity and identify with fellow Dutch citizens of Moroccan origin or Islamic faith.

What we need is a Prime Minister who has the guts to say: "I am a Moroccan". That would be real leadership. What we get is cowardice.

As my colleague Ann Singleton said on Twitter yesterday: "Shocking times across Europe - racist parties are again becoming respectable power brokers". Cynical power politics apparently justify sacrificing any principle.  It is a dangerous slippery slope.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

In Rotterdam we speak Dutch


Tomorrow, the Dutch will vote in municipal elections. In Rotterdam, the VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy), the right-wing liberal party of Prime Minister Rutte, is campaigning with an election poster featuring the text In Rotterdam we speak Dutch ("In Rotterdam spreken we Nederlands"). 


This official expression of intolerance in one of Europe's most diverse cities is part of the general backlash against multiculturalism that has swept over the Netherlands since the early 2000s. The new political correctness is that diversity is bad and that immigrants have problems because they refuse to integrate. In the recent past, some Dutch politicians have even proposed to outlaw speaking foreign languages in public spaces. 

However, is it really about speaking foreign languages? Or only particular languages with even more guttural sounds than Dutch, which most Dutch do not understand and which may therefore sound scary in their ears, such as Arabic or Berber? 

This seems indeed to be the case, if we consider another election poster used in the Amsterdam local campaign by the same party, which proudly states, in English!, Why do expats living in Amsterdam vote VVD? 


This poster targets resident foreigners who have the right to vote in local elections. The answer to the question seems easy: So-called 'expats' (which is really a euphemism for wealthy immigrants who do not like to see themselves as 'immigrants', a term rather associated to foreigners doing unattractive, low-skilled jobs) tend to support the VVD's political agenda of lower taxation, less regulation and a smaller welfare state. The poster even tries to conveys the message to the native Dutch that 'expats' possess some sort of special political wisdom. They are the super-immigrants.

This reveals the double standards that apply to different kind of immigrants. British, Americans and other immigrants from English-speaking countries are never expected to 'integrate'. Those who wish learn Dutch are often even discouraged to do so by the Dutch who are eager to speak English.

Indeed, some languages - as well as the immigrants speaking them - are more equal than others. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

What drives human migration?

Why do people migrate? This question is both simple and difficult. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to assume that most people migrate hoping to find better conditions or opportunities elsewhere, such as jobs, higher wages, safety or freedom of expression. This is the implicit assumption underlying ‘push-pull’ models taught at secondary school as well as neo-classical migration theories. Although few researchers would contest that most migrants have good reasons to move however, this does not really help us to understand the complexity and drivers of real-life migration.

To say that most people migrate to find better opportunities is somehow stating the obvious. Push-pull models usually list factors in origin and destination areas, all of which may contribute to migration, but fail to make clear how the various factors combined together lead to migration. Push-pull models fail to explain why there should be a difference between push areas of and pull areas in the first place, and are therefore “a platitude at best”, as a Ronald Skeldon has aptly stated*.

Advert for bus company, Tineghir, southern Morocco - (c) Hein de Haas 
Neo-classical migration theories assume that people migrate to maximise their income or wellbeing. They see migration as a (temporary) response to development ‘disequilibria’ between origin and destination countries, and assume that migration will decline through a process of wage convergence. However, this view ignores that migration has been a constant factor in the history of humankind and can therefore not be reduced to a temporary by-product of capitalist development. Furthermore, the wage convergence assumption ignores how power asymmetries actually can sustain economic inequalities between central and peripheral countries and areas.

Both push-pull and neo-classical models lack explanatory power by failing to provide insight into the social, economic and political processes that have generated the spatial wage and opportunity gaps to which migration is supposedly a response. It is therefore not surprising that the predictions of push-pull models and neo-classical theories are fundamentally at odds with what is seen in real-life migration patterns. For instance, most migrants do not move from the poorest to the wealthiest countries, and the poorest countries tend to have lower levels of emigration than middle-income and wealthier countries. It is often said that the only way to reduce migration from poor countries is to boost development. However, this ignores that the relation between development and levels of emigration is fundamentally non-linear. Important emigration countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Turkey and the Philippines are typically not among the poorest. Going against popular perceptions of a ‘continent on the move’, Sub-Saharan Africa is the least migratory region of the world.

Analyses of historical and contemporary data show that human and economic development is initially associated with increasing emigration**. Any form of development in the poorest countries of the world is therefore likely to lead to accelerating emigration. Such findings contradict conventional thinking, and force us to radically change our views on migration. In particular, we need explanations that do not confuse individual factors or motivations to move (which indeed often refer to better opportunities) with macro-structural explanations of migration processes.

Such rethinking can be achieved by learning to see migration as an intrinsic part of broader development processes rather than as a problem to be solved, or the temporary response to development 'disequilibria'. For instance, in the modern age, much migration within and across borders has been inextricably linked to broader urbanisation processes. It is difficult to imagine urbanisation without migration, and vice-versa. Rather than asking ‘why people migrate’ – which often begs a simple, all-too-obvious and often quite meaningless answer – the more relevant question for understanding migration in the modern age is therefore how processes such as imperialism, nation state formation, the industrial revolution, capitalist development, urbanisation and globalisation change migration patterns and migrants’ experiences.

For instance, how can we explain why development is often associated to more, instead of less, migration? To understand this, it is important to move beyond sterile views of migrants as entirely predictable ‘respondents’ to geographical opportunity gaps. Seeing migration as a function of people’s capabilities and aspirations to move can help to achieve a richer understanding of migration behaviour. Processes of human and economic development typically expand people’s access to material resources, social networks and knowledge. At the same time, improvements in infrastructure and transportation, which usually accompany development, make travel less costly and risky.

It therefore seems safe to assume that development generally increases people’s capabilities to migrate over larger distances. However, this does not necessarily lead to migration. People will generally only migrate if they have the aspirations to do so. Migration aspirations depend on people’s more general life aspirations, as well as their perceptions of life ‘here’ and ‘there’. Both are subjective and likely to change under the influence of broader processes of structural change. Improved access to information, images and lifestyles conveyed through education and media tend to broaden people’s mental horizons, change their perceptions of the ‘good life’, and typically increase material aspirations. Development processes tend to initially increase both people’s capabilities and aspirations to move, explaining why development often boosts migration. Once sizeable migrant communities have settled, social networks tend to reduce the costs and risks of migrating, with settled migrants frequently functioning as ‘bridgeheads’.

If societies get wealthier, overall emigration aspirations are likely to decrease because more people can imagine a future within their own country, while immigration is likely to increase. Although it is often assumed that technological progress increases migration, easier transportation and communication may enable people to commute or work from home, while outsourcing and trade may also partly reduce the need to migrate. In fact, from a long-term historical perspective, technology has facilitated humankind to settle down. Ever since the Agricultural (‘Neolithic’) Revolution began some 12,000 years ago, technology has enabled people to shift away from hunting and gathering to more sedentary lifestyles. In modern times, technological progress has certainly boosted non-migratory mobility – such as commuting, tourism and business travel – but its impact on migration is rather ambiguous. This may partly explain why the number of international migrants as a share of the world population has remained remarkably stable at levels of around three per cent over recent decades.

Nevertheless, wealthy remain characterized by substantial levels of migration. We see significant migration even between societies with roughly equal levels of development and wages. In this short essay, it is impossible to do justice to the full set theories explaining this phenomenon. However, a major factor is growing social and economic complexity. Economic and human development typically goes along with increasing educational and occupational specialization. This often requires people to move within and across borders to fulfill the desire to match qualifications and preferences with labour market and social opportunities. The higher skilled therefore tend to migrate more and over larger distances.

This shows that it is illusionary to think that large-scale migration is somehow a temporary phenomenon that will disappear once – an equally illusionary – equilibrium is achieved. More generally, such ideas reflect a flawed, ahistorical view on the history of humankind. It is development itself that drives migration. Migration has therefore always been – and will remain – an inevitable part of the human experience.


 *Skeldon, Ronald (1990) Population Mobility in Developing Countries: A Reinterpretation. London: Belhaven press. 
**de Haas, Hein. 2010. Migration transitions: a theoretical and empirical inquiry into the developmental drivers of international migration. IMI Working Paper No 24, International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.
*** For a seminal overview of migration theories, see here the classic paper by Massey et al. (1993). 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Lampedusa: Only the dead can stay

While the hundreds of people who died off the coast of Lampedusa are granted post mortem Italian citizenship, public prosecutors are planning to charge the survivors with ‘illegal migration’. In an excellent article published in El País on 5 October entitled “Only the Dead Can Stay", Pablo Ordaz explains how this absurd situation was made possible by the criminalization of illegal migration in Italian law.

Last Friday, Enrico Letta, Italian Prime Minister, announced that all who died will receive Italian citizenship. At the same time, the public prosecutor accused 114 rescued adults of illegal migration, which is punishable with 5,000 Euros and expulsion. As Pablo Ordaz stated in his article: “The dead, however, will remain. Unabled to be identified, they have been awarded a coffin, a number and a piece of land in cemeteries of Sicily to rest, now with the European nationality for which they risked their lives.”

Can irony get any more bitter than this? In a recent cartoon by Patrick Chappatte, two border guards are standing on a beach next to the European flag, looking out on a half-sunken shipwreck surrounded by floating corpses. They just pulled a dead man ashore, who is lying on the beach. While they look at him, one border guard says to the other “He drowned before we could do anything to expel him”.

                                                            © Chappatte

In his article, Pablo Ordaz exposes the hypocrisy of the proposal by Angelino Alfano, the Italian deputy Prime Minister, to award the Nobel Peace Price to (the inhabitants of) Lampedusa, while many inhabitants and rescuers have become traumatized by the consequences of legislation that criminalizes helping migrants in distress. Several deaths could probably have been prevented. Ordaz wonders why it took Italian Coast Guard longer than two hours to find out that a ship carrying more than 500 people was burning and sinking just half a mile from the island, and why it took so long (one hour) to actually come to the rescue after they had been alerted by local fishermen.

To make matters worse, Ordaz reported that the authorities initially refused to help local fishermen in their efforts to rescue people. A local fisherman, who arrived first at the site of the accident, said that coastguard officers wasted time filming the rescue operation. He told reporters that "They refused to take on board some people we'd already saved because they said protocol forbade it" (see here). As Ordaz points out, Italian authorities actually have the right to stop people who want to rescue migrants at sea since ‘complicity with illegal migration’ was criminalized in 2002 by the Berlusconi government thanks to the pressure by the xenophobic Lega Nord party.

More generally, this shows the dangers of criminalizing migration, which has been a trend in several European countries. Instead of solving a problem, criminalizing migration has made matters worse, as it increased the risks that migrants and refugees have to take and their dependence on smuggling, and it decreases the chances of getting rescued if they find themselves in perilous situations because people are afraid to get prosecuted for assisting 'illegal migrants'.

Deeply embarrassed by the Lampedusa tragedy and the concomitant media attention, Italian lawmakers announced they want to amend immigration laws by withdrawing elements that criminalize irregular migration. However, given their past track record, it remains to be seen how long Italian and other European politicians will be able to resist the perverse temptation to be ‘tough on immigration'.

In fact, we can already see the first signs that the Lampedusa disaster will be cynically abused as an argument to further reinforce border controls and thus to further boosting the budgets of the relevant ministries and international agencies and organisations such as Frontex (the European border agency) that are often asked to carry out such policies.

Over the past few days, several European politicians professed their their profound sadness about what happened and the Lampedusa deaths were officially mourned by observing a moment of silence in the European Parliament on 8 October. However, in the same breath several politicians added that this tragedy showed that the ‘fight against illegal migration’ should be intensified’.

Also IOM (International Organisation for Migration) joined the chorus of governments calling for 'combating people smuggling' in reaction to the Lampedusa tragedy. In an official statement on 4 October 2013, William Lacy Swing, Director General of the IOM stated that “Despite the excellent work of the Italian coast guard and port authorities, who have saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean over the past two decades, at least 20,000 people have died since 1993. Much more must be done to prevent this humanitarian crisis and IOM stands ready to work with its European Union, North African and other partners to improve migration management and combat people smuggling.”

Such statements ignores the criticism on the initially rather lax attitude of Italian authorities, who, by several accounts, could have saved more lives if they had reacted much faster and more efficiently. It is not the authorities, but the fishermen, divers and inhabitants of Lampedusa who deserve the praise. However, what is particularly worrying is the constant recycling of the myth that an intensification of ‘combating people smuggling’ is a solution to the problem, while it is in fact part of the problem.

People smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration. Lampedusa shows us the sad state of affairs after 20 years of 'fighting' a delusional migrant 'invasion'. Several studies have shown that increasing border controls have not stopped but rather diverted trans-Saharan and trans-Mediterranean migration routes, as they have done elsewhere in the world. Border controls have forced migrants and refugees to travel along more dangerous routes and have made them dependent on smugglers, who facilitate border crossings. Even stricter border controls will boost the profits smugglers can make and will cause more migrants and refugees to risk their lives on perilous, long crossings on unseaworthy boats.

European leaders should therefore stop shedding crocodile tears on the Lampedusa disaster as long as they keep on pumping ever more money in border repression. If the concerns of European leaders and international organisation are genuine, they can show this by respecting their obligation to uphold international humanitarian and refugee law.

First, this means that government should do everything to rescue migrants at risk, which requires the withdrawal of current legislation that criminalizes helping migrants in distress and may actually lead to injury and death. Criminalizing irregular migration also means that refugees, who often have no choice but to travel without passports and visas are often blocked access to refugee status determination procedures,

Second, this implies that governments should give asylum seekers full access to refugee status determination processes and, during this procedure, give them access to proper shelter and protection instead of locking them up in prison-like border camps or detention centres under appalling conditions.

Third, with regards to irregular labour migration: If European governments are genuinely concerned about the exploitation of irregular migrant workers in European workplaces, they should create more legal channels for lower skilled migrant labour for which a real demand exists (as recently argued by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malström), to regulate labour markets and target employers who abuse migrants' irregular status instead of criminalizing migrants.

Fourth, this means that European governments should stop encouraging North African countries such as Morocco and Libya to flagrantly abuse migrant and refugee rights, as they have done over the past two decades. This includes suspending most programs for so-called 'assisted voluntary return' which may be well-intended but often serve to justify the violation of migrant rights by North African governments. These policies have not only caused widespread suffering, but have only encourage migrants and refugees who initially considered these countries as destinations, to move on to Europe.

Such a policy shift can only happen if European leaders have the courage to explain to European citizens that they are not dealing with a migration flood or plague of biblical proportions, but with a humanitarian issue of considerable, but manageable size.

This would signify a radical break with the past years, in which European leaders have done their very best to abuse 'migrant tragedies' such as in Lampedusa to create a 'myth of invasion'. For instance, in 2011, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned that Europe may suffer an influx of many as 800,000 refugees if the Ghaddafi regime would fall. Some politicians even predicted that up to 1.5 million Africa migrants would come to Europe as a consequence of the Libyan conflict. Eventually, only a few thousands of refugees arrived in Europe as a consequence of the Libyan conflict, as most preferred to return home.

While organisations such as Frontex have a clear material interest in inflating the 'invasion' myth, for national politicians creating such an 'external enemy' can be an effective strategy to deflect attention away from thorny domestic issues. Recycling of this misleading ‘myth of invasion’ may be politically convenient but undermines popular support for sensible policy reforms that will guarantee the protection of migrant and refugee rights on the European borders. European policy making on this issue is caught up in a vicious circle of 'tougher border controls -> higher risks of migrating -> more dependence on smuggling -> more deaths --> tougher border controls, and so on. This is a dead end.

However, as with any crisis, the Lampedusa disaster can also be used as an opportunity to change for the better, as an opportunity for European politicians to show leadership and gather up the courage to explain citizens that we are not dealing with an invasion, that the repressive policies of the past have failed (or, at the very least, that they have reached their limits), that they have the obligation to give protection to those fleeing conflict and persecution and that they can no longer allow to let people die at the border.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration

The disaster of the sinking of a boat on 3 October 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa, which cost the life to hundreds of refugees and migrants, has already led to calls for a 'smuggling crackdown' among governments and international organisations. Over the past decade, this has been the usual reaction when such tragedies happen on the southern coasts of Europe.

However, such reasoning is turning the causality of things upside down. It is the border controls that have forced migrants to take more dangerous routes and that have made them more and more dependent on smugglers to cross borders. Smuggling is a reaction to border controls rather than a cause of migration in itself. Ironically, further toughening of border controls will therefore force migrants and refugees to take more risks and only increase their reliance on smugglers.


The phenomenon of irregular boat migration across the Mediterranean is anything but new. It has existed ever since Spain and Italy introduced visa requirements for Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and other African nationals around 1991. This forced many people, who previously could migrate and circulate to Europe freely, to cross borders irregularly. Over the past decades, an increasing number of sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees have joined North Africans in their efforts to cross the Mediterranean (see here for a brief historical overview).

While sustained demand for cheap labour in agriculture, services and other informal sectors has been the main driver of this migration, a significant, but substantial minority is fleeing conflict in their origin countries. As long as no more legal channels for immigration are created and as long as refugees are denied access to asylum procedures, it is likely that a substantial proportion of this migration will remain irregular.

It seems practically impossible to seal off the long Mediterranean coastlines. To a large extent, border controls have been self-defeating. Increasing controls at the Strait of Gibraltar in the 1990s have not stopped migration but led to an eastward and southward diversification of African overland migration routes and maritime crossing points over the 2000s.

This has led to an unintended increase in the area that EU countries have to monitor to ‘combat’ irregular migration. This area now included the entire North African coast and various crossing points on the West African coast towards the Canary Islands (see The Myth of Invasion report I wrote in 2007 and the map above, which should be updated to include maritime crossings from the Egyptian coast and increasing migration through Israel and Turkey).

As a consequence of the increasing length and dangerous nature of journeys, migrants have become more dependent on smugglers. Over two decades of costly, mounting investment into border controls and rapidly increased funding for Frontex (EU's border agency) have not stopped migration, but increased the vulnerability of migrants, their reliance on smuggling and caused the deaths of an estimated number of at least 17,000 people over the past two decades. It is particularly worrying that the so-called 'fight against illegal migration' has blocked access to asylum for people fleeing conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

There is a strong parallel between the so-called 'fight against illegal migration' in the Mediterranean and the situation on the US-Mexican border. Research (see for instance here and here) has shown that the toughening of border controls and the erection of walls between the US and Mexico has not stopped migration, but has led to a deflection of migration flows towards longer, more dangerous routes across the desert, an increasing reliance on smugglers (coyotes), a rising death toll, and a reduction of circularity.

As I argued earlier, the actual magnitude of cross-Mediterranean migration (several tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands per year) is more limited than is often believed. Most irregular migrants living in Europe enter legally and then overstay their visas. Yet ‘harsh’ political discourse on immigration accompanying such policies is likely to reinforce the same xenophobia and the concomitant apocalyptic representations of a ‘massive’ influx of migrants to which they seem a political–electoral response. Policy making on this issue is therefore caught in a vicious circle of 'more restrictions - more illegality - more restrictions'.

Policies to ‘combat illegal migration’ are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to 'fight'. It is very disturbing to see how governments casually deploy belligerent terms such as 'combating' and 'fighting' to describe their attempts to stop migrants and refugees from reaching European territory. However, the real scandal is that governments and migration agencies such as Frontex shamelessly abuse tragedies such as the Lampedusa disaster to spend more money on 'combating illegal migration', which is only going to increase reliance on smuggling, block access of refugees to protection, and cause even more deaths at the border.