Thursday 4 October 2012

IOM's dubious mission in Morocco

This week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) launched an appeal to raise 620,000 euros to "help desperate African migrants, including unaccompanied children, return home from Morocco". The money would be used to fly migrants back home and to help returnees to start up businesses in their own country.

At first sight, this may sound laudable, but what seems to be happening here is that IOM tries to make money out of the violation of migrants' rights by the Moroccan government.

Since 2000, Morocco has witnessed increased immigration from sub-Saharan African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While many migrants originally moved to Morocco in the hope to cross to Europe, a considerable proportion of those failing or not venturing to enter Europe prefer to stay as a second-best option instead of returning to their more unstable, unsafe, and substantially poorer origin countries.

An increasing number of sub-Saharan migrants go to Morocco to study or in search of work in sectors such as domestic work, construction and call centres. This defies the stereotype of Morocco as only an emigration or 'transit' country. Although the number of sub-Saharan immigrants is not higher tan several tends of thousands, Morocco is undeniably becoming a settlement country, and Morocco's large cities such as Rabat, Casablanca and Fes now host sizeable immigrant communities.

Yet the Moroccan government and society have difficulties in coming to terms with this new reality. Besides day-to-day discrimination and frequent racist attacks, many sub-Saharan immigrants lack residency rights and access to health care, education and other basic provisions.

Many migrants live in fear for migrant raids and random arrests. This makes them vulnerable for exploitation and extortion by employers, house-owners and state officials. Refugees and asylum seekers lack protection by the Moroccan state, which treats them as 'illegals' or 'transit migrants', and often live in fear to be deported.

So, what is going on here? Because the Moroccan government fails to protect the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees, these human rights abuses are now being instrumentalized to justify a costly repatriation scheme.

In order to stress the urgency of the plan, Anke Strauss, head of the IOM mission on Morocco, stated that "Among the migrants are unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, women with children and others suffering from chronic illnesses who want to go home at any price".

Strauss's statement is misleading, as it makes the false impression that IOM protects vulnerable migrant groups, while this statements and such return schemes are in fact sanctioning human rights abuses and the lack of protection offered by the Moroccan government.

After all, isn't it the duty of the Moroccan government, the IOM and the European governments which have tended to fund such return programmes, to protect the human rights of such vulnerable group while they are on Moroccan soil? Morocco, a self-declared democracy, is signatory to most international human rights treaties, including the UN refugee charter, and is therefore bound to protect migrant and refugee rights.

The IOM may stress that such programmes are 'voluntary', but how long can this be maintained in the case of migrants who face abuse and systematic deprivation of their rights? These migrants are 'desperate' because they lack the most basic protection.

Despite its limited means, the Morocco mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Moroccan human rights activists such as Hicham Baraka have been doing heroic work to protect the rights of African migrants and refugees in Morocco, particularly to prevent their random arrest and deportation. These are examples that IOM should follow.

The unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, migrant women with young children and the chronically ill IOM pretends to care about should first of all be offered shelter, food, schooling and basic medical care in Morocco, before they can make a reasonable and 'voluntary' decision about their future.

But instead of pushing Morocco to protect the rights of African migrants, IOM seeks funds to 'help' the Moroccan government to send them back. How cynical can it get?  

Friday 14 September 2012

Greece is the new Islam

Leading up to national elections in the Netherlands, which took place on 12 September, I have been closely following the debates between party leaders. The most striking observation I made is the near-total absence of the issues of immigration and Islam in the debates.

This was in stark contrast with the previous elections, when these themes were dominating everything, and in which far-right leader Geert Wilders managed to paralyse most other parties with 'telling the truth' about the alleged mass-immigration, the threat of Islam and the failure of multiculturalism.

In short, mass-immigration, particularly of Muslims, was blamed for almost all ills of Dutch society.  Immigration was threatening the Dutch economy, Dutch jobs, Dutch education, Dutch social security, Dutch public health, and, last but not least, Dutch national identity. In Wilder's world, mass-immigration is part of an international jihad aiming to 'islamize' Dutch and European societies. Stopping mass immigration was therefore seen as the solution to solve most problems facing Dutch society.

Although this scapegoating of migrants and Islam lacked any factual basis, and with the exception of the smaller liberal and Green parties, most big were terrified to openly counter this nonsense. On the contrary, out of fear of losing votes, the entire political field moved to the right and adopted restrictionist positions and many did not refrain from pointing fingers at immigrants.

In April of this year, the political scientist Amber Jane Davis successfully defended her excellent PhD thesis at the European University Institute, The Impact of Anti-immigration Parties on Mainstream Parties' Immigration Positions in the Netherlands, Flanders and the UK 1987-2010 . In her thesis, Davis describes this phenomenon in which the entire political spectrum has moved to the right in response to the rise of far-right anti-immigrant parties since the 1980s. Interestingly, she also observed that, when the far-right threat (temporarily) falls away, an opposite movement occurs, with parties adopting less restrictive positions.

In her study, Davis also shows how such strategies are largely ineffective or can even be counter-productive. This is not only because as anti-immigrant voters tend to opt for the 'orginal' instead of the 'copycats' as Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the French Front National, once argued, but also because their zigzagging or flipflopping on immigration issues undermines their credibility in the eyes of many voters.

After the electoral victory of Wilders' PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or Freedom Party) in 2010, the Dutch right-wing 'liberal' VVD party (which basically represents the interests of the well-to-do) and the Christian Democratic CDA party had no qualms to form a minority government which was backed in parliament by the PVV.

However, since then, the Great Recession and the Eurocrisis have entirely changed the political game, as the focus shifted towards economic policies and bread-and-butter issues. Despite his acrobatic ability to blaming immigrants for almost any problem, even Wilders was unable to make a credible link between immigration, or Islam, and immigration.

After Wilder toppled the government in April by refusing to back budget cuts, he radically switched his rhetoric, and started to run an electoral campaign based on a fiercely nationalistic, anti-European agenda, advocating to scrap the Euro, bring back the guilder and leave the EU. Wilders tried to convince voters the only way to reclaim Dutch sovereignty was to leave the EU. 

Instead of immigration, Brussels became the new scapegoat.

And Greece became the new Islam.

Wilders tried to shift the blame of all economic problems to Greece and other southern European countries. "We are paying up for those [sic] garlic countries, whose affairs are in disarray" - he stated in one of the latest debates. Wilders created an image of Dutch tax payers subsidising the sunny lifestyles of lazy, corrupt Greeks, who all retire at the age of 50 to lie on the beach for the rest of their life. Wilders strategy bitterly failed, as he was defeated during the elections.

Europe did not prove to be such a poisonous theme as Islam and immigration.Leaving the Euro and the EU proved one bridge too far for the Dutch. Opinion polls interestingly showed that the election debates have made the Dutch public less Euro-sceptic. This is the good news. The debates made voters more aware of the vital importance of the EU for the Dutch economy. More practically, reintroduction of the guilder and border controls would complicate holiday making for the travel-savy Dutch. That's the good new: the public wants to be informed, and arguments do apparently count.  

It is more sobering that other mainstream politicians, and particularly prime minister Mark Rutte, leader of the right-wing liberal VVD party (who won the election) also shifted the blame of the Eurocrisis to southern Europe, and the Greeks in particular. We see exactly the same Greece-bashing among most German politicians.

Such simplistic accounts of  "it's all their fault" are not only simply wrong (see for instance here and here), as they deny the role of northern European governments and banks in the Eurocrisis. What is more worrying that such fingerpointing goes along with self-righteous attitudes and typical northern European arrogance.

Anti-Greek rhetoric may be attractive to win popular support, they also fuel superiority feelings based on stereotypes of efficient, reliable and responsible northern Europeans versus corrupt, unreliable and sloppy southern Europeans. This in turn, provokes anti-northern feelings in southern Europe, with the Germans symbolising northern European arrogance. In Greece, Germans are being accused of abusing the Eurocrsis to imposing its and to re-occupy Greece, sometimes even comparing it with Nazi practises (for a photo gallery see here).

Both sides are clearly wrong here. But while the anti-German sentiment in southern Europe gets full exposure in the media, northern European political leaders seem little aware or reflective about the damaging effects of their own arrogance, which may serve short-term political goals (of winning elections) but do nothing to solve the crisis, and may in fact endanger such a solution by fuelling intra-European racism.

Friday 20 July 2012

Europeans looking for greener pastures in Africa

Who could have thought this just a few years ago? With the economic crisis hitting many countries hard, and unemployment soaring, Europeans have started emigrating again in large numbers.

While the Portuguese move to France and Brazil, Greeks explore better futures in Germany, Australia and Turkey. At the same time, young Spaniards are moving towards Britain, France and Germany. In Britain, Spaniards even seem to replace Eastern European workers. As a young, Spanish waiter told me smilingly: "We are the new Poles!".

And with the demise of the property bubble of the "Celtic Tiger", the Irish have resumed historical patterns by massively moving out again to English speaking countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia, US and New Zealand.

But who could have thought that Europeans would be looking for greener pastures in Africa?

Yet, this is happening. For instance, Portuguese jobless graduates flee to Africa as they have discovered opportunities in Portuguese-speaking countries like Mozambique and Angola, whose economies are booming and in dire need of young, skilled workers. A recent news report showed that in 2010, 23,787 Angolan visa were issued for Portuguese, against only 156 in 2006.

A recent documentary on Dutch television showed how young Spanish increasingly try their luck in Morocco. It shows young Spanish, who flee unemployment and impoverishment and find work opportunities and more affordable living conditions across the Strait of Gibraltar.

I can warmly recommend the documentary (although the voice-over is in Dutch, much of it is in Spanish), as it shows the world upside down: A young Spanish women crying on a rooftop terrace in Tanger, from which she can see Spain. Working at a Moroccan call-centre, she does not have the money to return regularly. A 38 year old man who has lost all he has who is looking for work in Morocco and who just received 60 euros from his mother in Spain to survive the next few weeks.  Another man working at a small factory making furniture, considering himself "lucky" to have found work in Morocco. Many of them consider Morocco as a country of opportunities.

This does obviously not fit into Europeans stereotypes of Africa as the continent of misery. Who would want to go there? This portrayal of "Africa = misery" is misleading in the first place, and goes back straight to colonial times, when Europeans fabricated stereotypes about African "backwardness", tribalism, chaos and poverty as a justification for their "civilizing" colonial mission.

Although violence and poverty have frequently occurred in several places and regions, other parts of Africa have been relatively prosperous and peaceful, and have in fact attracted migrants.

What many people ignore on top of that, is that some African economies are growing fast, and can nowadays offer better opportunities to skilled, entrepreneurial Europeans than the stagnating economies of Southern and European Europe. In addition, many African economies have been sheltered from the worst effects of the Global Economic Crisis because their banking sectors are less liberalized and therefore better protected.

It is impossible to predict what the future holds. Of course, if European economies pick up again, it is likely that emigration will fall and immigration increases again - Although it remains a question to what extent and when economic recovery occurs, as the current crisis seems to be a protracted one, and may last for many more years. It would also be dangerous to exaggerate African growth and to deny that many Africans continue to live in conditions of extreme poverty insecurity. And it would also be naive to think that Africans will stop migrating themselves.

However, it is important to go beyond colonial stereotypes of Africa as a continent of misery and to stop thinking that the whole world wants to come to Europe. In fact, this hardly concealing the idea the Europeans are superior.

The new European migrations towards Africa can teach Europeans a lesson: We are not the centre of the world. For centuries, Europeans have taken for granted that it is their right to "discover", occupy, conquer, visit and settle in foreign lands - without asking permission.

This continues until the present day. "We" find it normal that Africans need visas to enter Europe, but we think it is our natural right to travel abroad, and get upset when we are asked visas in return.

The irony is that while Europeans talk in belligerent terms of 'combating' illegal immigration from Africa as if Africans are a plague or a threat to security, Europeans can move to and settle in Africa with relative ease and do not even question this situation of inequality.

However, if this new European exodus continues, European governments may well be put under pressure by African governments to ease their own immigration rules.

So let's remind ourselves: With migration, always expect the unexpected.

Monday 26 March 2012

Migration… it’s the economy, stupid!

Politicians like to talk about migration in water metaphors. Migrants always seem to come in flows, waves or tides. They also like to give voters the image that they are “in control” of immigration; indeed, that immigration is a flow that can be turned on and off like a tap.

In reality, politicians are much less in control of immigration than they would like people to believe. For instance, liberal democracies can do little about family immigration, because the right to family life is enshrined in international humanitarian law. Migration is also facilitated through migrant networks, which decrease the costs and risks of migrating.  

Politicans' tough talk on immigration obscures that the economy is the prime driver of migration. In all wealthy societies, there is structural demand for immigrant labour, for the high skilled but also the low skilled, in the official and illegal sectors. Years of neoliberal policies in the form of privatizing and de-regularizing labour markets have hugely expanded the demand for immigrant labour for temporary, unattractive and low-paid jobs in cleaning, catering, agriculture, factory work and care that native workers typically shun.  At the same time, politicians are under pressure by employers and big business to either allow higher quotas of immigrants or turn a blind eye when faced with illegal migration.

This is what happens in practice: Politicians know all too well that migration serves vital economic interests, and cannot stop immigration even if they would want so, but do not dare to tell so to their voters. Their tough talk about reducing immigration is usually nothing more than a smokescreen to hide their inability and unwillingness to stop immigration.

Not convinced yet? Do you think this is just left-wing talk? Please look at the graph above. The blue line shows the average of economic growth (indicated on the right hand axis) in the previous two years in the Netherlands. The red line shows the immigration rate as a percentage of the total population (on the left hand axis). As you can all see, there is an incredibly close relationship between economic growth and immigration rates. Isn’t that a smoking gun?

Migration is a demand-driven phenomenon and the business cycle is an accurate predictor of immigration.  Similar graphs can be drawn for most other Western countries. The irony is that the correlation between economic growth and immigration is particularly high for countries such as Germany and The Netherlands who have long denied being immigration countries. Despite all the anti-immigration rhetoric, such countries have high immigration rates.

Decades of globalization and regularisation have created open societies and economies, which will inevitably attract migrants as long as they keep on growing. In that sense, borders are indeed beyond control to speak with Jagdish Bhagwati. As long as demand persists, migration will continue. If governments try to close legal channels for labour migrants, they will either come as family migrants or as irregular migrants. This is also what makes all these discussions on the economic impacts of immigration a bit artificial, as the assumption is that immigration can somehow be stopped or significantly reduced. This is both denying history and the demand-driven nature of immigration. It is not so much “immigrants come and take our jobs”, but rather “Immigrants: your country needs them” as runs the title of Philippe Legrain’s book.  

Indeed, the only way to drastically reduce immigration is to wreck the economy.  A prolonged economic recession is therefore the only recipe to reduce immigration.   And this is indeed what we are seeing in several south European countries, which are now seeing ‘negative’ migration with more people leaving than coming.

The same may happen in north European countries, such as the Netherlands, if they plunge back into the ‘double dip’ recession. If this happens, anti-immigrant parties will certainly cry out with shouts of victory that this shows the success of their harsh policies, while in reality, it was the recession and unemployment that explain reduced immigration.

But if economies pick up again, immigration will surely pick up again too.

As so often with migration: It’s the economy, stupid!

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Arab Spring and Migration

Last Tuesday, I attended a workshop hosted by the Refugees Studies Centre and the International Migration Institute of the University of Oxford on the consequences of the ‘Arab Spring’ on human mobility and forced migration in North Africa and the Middle East. The workshop also investigated how states and international organizations have responded to these events. A range of researchers and representatives of international organizations shared their expertise. I will summarize some of my observations I made during the day. Please look at this link for a full programme and the list of speakers.

First of all, the workshop dispelled the myth that the ‘Arab Spring’ has led to large-scale migration to Europe. Since the outbreak of the popular uprisings, European media and politicians have been obsessed with the imaginary fear of massive waves of North Africans invading Europe.  These sensational predictions were speculative and lacked any scientific basis, so it should come at no surprise that these have never materialized. The number of refugees moving to Europe in response to the crisis has actually remained very small. 

The presentations at the workshop emphasized that the Arab Spring had much more significant implications for migration and mobility in the region itself. While the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have remained relatively peaceful, the violent conflicts in countries like Syria and particularly Libya have generated large flows of refugees, most of whom gone to neighbouring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt in the case of Libyans and Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and even Libya for Syrians.

The second group of displaced people consist of the migrant workers that have lived in these countries for years, such as the Bengali, Turks, Egyptians, Nigeriens, Chadians and Europeans working in Libya. Most of them have tried to return home in the wake of the conflict.

However, the most vulnerable group consists of migrants and refugees who were not able to return because it was too dangerous and/or because they lack the money and contacts to flee. They have become trapped into a situation, which the migration researcher Jørgen Carling has aptly described as ‘involuntary immobility’.

Others do not necessarily want to return, as they have fled insecurity, persecution and deprivation in their own countries, and they have often been living in North Africa for many years or decades. These include sub-Saharan and Tuareg migrants in Libya and refugees and Iraqis, Palestinians and Somalis in Syria and Sudanese and Somali in Egypt. Political instability, economic crisis, increasing costs of living and unemployment, and the decrease of security (due to decreased policing) have made these groups more vulnerable than they were already.

For instance, due to less effective policing, a city like Cairo has experienced a rise in crime, theft, kidnappings and overall violence, which affect all Egyptians, but which have made refugees and other foreigners particularly vulnerable.

Violation of basic rights of refugees and asylum seekers remain a daily issue in the region .In Egypt, Libya and Syria, the overall climate of insecurity and increasing suspicion against foreigners has also made it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach out to vulnerable refugee and migrant populations. In Libya, sub-Saharan migrants still fear retaliations because they are associated to “Black mercenaries” Khaddafi has reportedly employed, and Tuareg and Tebu populations in the south are equally vulnerable. The revolutions severely disrupted the livelihoods of Tuaregs who fled the violence, and who have ended up in Saharan towns like Tamanrasset in Algeria.

The workshop also emphasized the profound impacts of the Arab Spring on origin countries, an issue that Eurocentric accounts of the Arab Spring have almost completely ignored.  This does not only pertain to the possible role of returnees in the political violence in countries like Mali, but also the fact that many families in extremely poor countries like Niger and Chad are now deprived from vital remittance income since migrant workers returned home from Libya. In many ways, return migrants moved from one to another situation of insecurity.

Notwithstanding the adverse consequences of the violence in particularly Libya and Syria on the situations of citizens, migrants and refugees in the region, the workshop also showed that the Arab Spring has not fundamentally altered the long-term migration patterns and trends, although they might have accelerated them. For instance, although the falling away of policing has encouraged more Tunisians and Egyptians to cross the Mediterranean Sea on fisher boats, these migrations are anything but a new phenomenon, and should certainly not been qualified as ‘refugee flows’.  

In the case of Tunisia, these crossings of prospective labour migrants have been a ‘regular’ phenomenon since south European countries introduced visa requirements in the early 1990s. In the case of Egypt, migration to Italy and other European countries from villages in de Nile Delta and regions such as the Fayyoum oasis south of Cairo has already been increasing over the past decade.

In terms of policy responses, international organization such as IOM and UNHCR have collaborated relatively effectively in responding to the crisis, particularly around the refugee and migrant flows engendered by the violence in Libya. Also regional governments have been relatively collaborative in hosting refugee populations. By contrast, the response from EU countries has been embarrassing. Although European governments continued to pay lip service to “supporting democracy”, policies remain driven by imaginary fears about a “Biblical Exodus” from North Africa, and this obsession stood in the way of offering protection to refugees . Migration continues to be portrayed like a threat to stability and security, and the trend towards externalizing border controls had continued, as if nothing has changed.

It is rather unlikely that long-term migration patterns will drastically change due to the revolutions. In this context, it is important to observe that the same processes that have created the conditions for the revolutions to occur are also conducive to emigration, and both phenomena seem to reinforce each other. A new generation has come of age, who is better educated, more aspiring and more aware about opportunities elsewhere and injustice at home than any other previous generation, but at the same time feels rejected, disrespected and angered due to high unemployment, corruption, inequality, and political repression. This has been reinforced by decades of neoliberal reforms and privatization, which have benefited small elites, but have made lives of ordinary people more insecure.

The coming of age of a new, wired and conscious generation of “angry young men and women” have increased both the emigration and revolutionary potential of Arab societies. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, the idea that emigration will stop is as unlikely as the idea of a “mass exodus” towards Europe. Certainly a populous and deprived country like Egypt seems to have a significant emigration potential for years to come. However, the extent to which these migrants will go to Europe or elsewhere primarily depends on future economic growth in Europe.  At the same time, it is likely that Libya continues to rely on migrant labour, and Egyptian and sub-Saharan migrants have in fact started to return.

An intriguing question in this respect is whether the economic crisis in Europe has played an indirect role in triggering the uprisings in emigration countries like Tunisia.

It is important to remember that, for political elites in the region, migration has fulfilled an important role as a political and economic ‘safety valve’, since the opportunity to migrate abroad relieved unemployment, discontent and internal political pressures for reform. Has this lack of emigration opportunities perhaps turned the attention and anger inwards, and tipped the balance in favour of revolutionary forces? Also, political exiles and emigrants have played an important role in supporting the revolutions, certainly in Tunisia and Egypt.

Another key question is what the impact of political reforms and more democratic modes of governance will be on migration and migration policy. This impact seems very ambiguous, and very much depends on the nature and course of future political reform. Some participants argued that more conservative, religiously inspired nature of current and future governments may possibly increase migration aspirations among secular elites, minorities and women, whose rights might possibly be infringed upon.

On the other hand, possible increases in respect for human rights for their own citizens may also push North African societies to become more reflective and self-critical towards xenophobia and violations of the rights of migrants and refugees. Finally, democratically elected governments may be less enthusiastic about collaborating with European governments in joint border controls and the expulsion of irregular migrants, as preventing emigration may makes them unpopular at home.  

What will happen this is uncertain, and dependent on the future course of political and economic change in the region, but it should certainly not be taken for granted that European governments can continue to conclude ‘migration control deals’ as they used to do with Khaddafi and their other dictator friends in the region.