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 societies 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.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Migrant rights: The pot calling the kettle black

In my previous blogpost, I expressed skepticism on the question whether the upcoming High Level Dialogue (HLD) on Migration and Development will yield any concrete result, mainly because governments of wealthy countries are unwilling to protect the rights of the lower skilled and refugees and to commit to more liberal immigration policies.

In a reaction, Barbara Harrell-Bond, the founder of Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre, wrote to me that it is equally important to remind governments of developing countries that they also receive migrants and refugees.

She pointed out that major emigration countries such as Egypt and Morocco ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families "for very self-interested reasons, because they were concerned with their emigrants, not because they ever expected to deal properly with their immigrants". Governments of emigration countries should therefore be challenged to behave themselves.

Harrell-Bond's argument is based on her experience living in Egypt for eight years, where she established the Refugee Legal Aid Project (now known as AMERA-Egypt), and also through her work with NGOs in Morocco on legal aid for refugees.

I could not agree more. Countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia often have an appalling record when it comes to dealing with immigrants and refugees on their own territory. In Morocco and Egypt, for instance, migrants and refugees often lack access to protection, residency, basic health care, education, and often suffer from racist violence, discrimination and exploitation on the labour market.

In Egypt, refugees from Syria (and elsewhere) meet with open hostility. In Morocco, over the past years police has regularly raided immigrant neighbourhoods, irregular migrants have been arbitrarily imprisoned and deported to the Algerian border. Even recognized refugees have difficulties to obtain residence permits.

In November 2012, the Moroccan weekly Maroc Hebdo ran a cover story representing the few tens of thousands of sub-Saharan immigrants in Morocco as the 'Black Danger' (Péril Noir, see image above), portraying them as a major security threat. Some Moroccan politicians have also started to play the race card by blaming immigrants for problems such as crime and unemployment.

Such harsh treatment, open racism and abuse of the migrant rights in countries such as Morocco and Egypt obviously undermines the case for protection of their own emigrants living in Europe and the Gulf. This is exactly the argument that human rights activists in Morocco have used: It is hypocritical to blame European governments for racism and discrimination as long as we treat our own immigrants so badly.

Perhaps such criticism have inspired the immigration reforms that have recently been announced by the Moroccan king Mohammed VI, following from a report submitted by the National Human Rights Council (CNDH). Although it remains to be seen whether this will result in any concrete policies, the proposed measures include the regularisation of sub-Saharan and European immigrants.

If Morocco really embarks upon these immigration reforms, this would signify a significant breach away from the past decade, during which Morocco was put under pressure by the European governments to take on the role of the EU's 'border guard'. As part of their self-proclaimed 'fight against illegal migration', European governments have been all too happy to turn a blind eye to the bad treatment of migrants and refugees on Moroccan territory.

In the same vein, the EU has not only tolerated but actively encouraged severe violations of migrant rights in other countries in Africa and the Middle East like Senegal, Libya, Egypt and Turkey - through the supply of 'aid', border patrolling equipment and 'technical assistance' on how to best detect, round up, imprison and deport migrants.

It is time to go beyond the false distinction between 'immigration' and 'emigration' countries. Most countries are both. This implies that it is difficult to separate the protection of the rights of emigrants from the rights of immigrants, and from the protection of human rights more generally. Such attempts are ultimately self-defeating, as they undermine the credibility of governments calling for the protection of 'their'  emigrants while violating the most basic human rights of migrants on their own territory.

It would therefore be a major step forward if governments of major emigration countries start to recognize that their calls for the protection of their citizens abroad can only be legitimate if they also behave themselves. 

Tuesday 17 September 2013

More of the Same? High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development

On 3 and 4 October, the General Assembly of the United Nations will hold the High-Level Dialogue (HLD) on Migration and Development. This is the second HLD after the first meeting in 2006. The HLD aims to bring together governments, international organisations and so-called 'civil society organisations' to discuss how migration policies can be improved for the benefit of migrant receiving and migrant sending societies and, last but not least, the well-being of migrants and their families themselves. One of the main stated objectives of the HLD is the "mainstreaming of human rights into all aspects of the migration debate".

As such, it is positive that such meetings take place alongside related initiatives, such as the yearly Global Forum on Migration and Development. However, the real question is whether any real progress will be made. "Mainstreaming of human rights" may sound great, but it is exactly the thorny issue of migrant rights that explains the lack of concrete progress that has been made during such fora over the past seven years, despite all the talking.

Governments of developing countries typically favour more liberal immigration regimes and better protection of the rights of their citizens living abroad. This is based on the idea that migrants who enjoy residency rights and who are successful in education and work and protected from discrimination and exploitation also have a greater capacity to remit money home, to pay regular return visits, and to invest in origin countries.

Conversely, migrants who are in irregular situations, are exploited on the workfloor and live on the margin of receiving societies often lack such capacities to send money, return and invest. In other words: immigration restrictions decrease the 'development potential' of migration, and the real recipe for releasing the development potential of migration is to liberalise immigration regimes for the lower skilled, which would allow them to access better jobs, to improve their skills and earn more money. This resources would also enable them to contribute to engage with the social, economic and political development of origin countries.

However, governments of wealthy countries have been typically reluctant to design more liberal immigration policies, in particular for low-skilled workers from poor countries. As far as these governments are willing to discuss the topic of migration and development, this is done in the context of temporary or 'circular' migration schemes, based on the erroneous idea that that voluntary or forced return will boost 'development' in origin countries. and that this will eventually reduce people's incentive to migrate.

Besides the problem that 'revolving door' migration policies are notoriously difficult to enforce (and often push migrants into permanent settlement), and the paradoxical fact that development often stimulates migration (see my previous blogpost on this), it is a myth that temporary migrants would be the best 'development workers'. Long-term migrants, who enjoy residency and are well integrated in receiving societies, are generally in a better position to contribute to development in origin societies. Most migrants who are sent back, do not aim to 'invest' in origin countries, and often try to return. It should therefore not come as a surprise that such 'co-development' programs generally fail (for instance, see this paper by Anaik Pian on the Spanish-Senegalese Retour vers l'Agriculture project).

The stated development intentions of temporary migration migration policies proposed by receiving states often is a fig leaf for a hidden agenda of forcibly returning irregular immigrants or rejected asylum seekers after providing them some financial assistance (see this paper). The real aim is return, not development. Curiously, receiving country governments use the humanitarian-sounding 'development' argument as a justification of depriving migrants of their rights.

Governments of wealthy, immigrant-receiving countries are unwilling to commit themselves to more liberal immigration regimes and improving the protection of rights of lower skilled migrants. In practice, the same governments often turn a blind eye to continuing irregular migration, because this is a source of cheap migrant labour. From a critical perspective, restrictive policies do not serve to stop immigration, but to facilitate exploitation of (migrant) workers. At the same time, anti-immigration rhetoric and belligerent declarations to 'fight illegal migration' are useful tools to rally political support.

Immigrant-receiving countries can increase the development potential of migration by creating legal channels for lower-skilled migration and integration policies that favour socio-economic mobility of migrants and avoid their marginalization. However, they are not really willing to do so. The unwillingness of receiving states to move forward in this area is reflected in the poor ratification record of the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Only 46 out of 193 UN member states have ratified this Convention so far. These were mainly countries of emigration; immigration countries have not been willing to support measures designed to protect migrants.

Because the position  of immigration and emigration countries on the rights of the lower skilled are totally juxtaposed, there is reason to be skeptical about the outcome of the HLD dialogue on migration and development, despite the multitude of governmental declarations of good intent that we are likely to hear.

Migrant rights are likely to remain the 'hot potatoe' issue - the vital link between migration and development, that will not be tackled unless governments of receiving countries show leadership by accumulating the courage to explain their constituencies that protecting migrant rights is also in the interest of 'native' workers and that offering pathways to long-term residence is in the interest of stability and prosperity of origin and destination societies.

In this context, it is important that receiving societies do not create renewed guestworker-type illusions about ‘temporariness’ by fully accepting and embracing the fact that a significant proportion of migrants will stay, as previous experience has generally shown. Recently renewed hope has been placed on circular migration as a 'solution' to what is perceived as a migration problem. However, this debate wrongly tends to equate circular with temporary migration.

The key to encouraging circular migration is to give migrants the genuine right and opportunity to migrate again if the return is unsuccessful. The paradox is that less immigration restrictions lead to more circulation, while restrictions tend fix migrants at the destination. If migrants are given the right to re-immigration, they will have fewer justified fears of returning, circulating and investing in origin countries. Excluding this possibility will continue to push migrants into settlement in very much the same fashion as the policies of the past few decades have done. 

Friday 21 June 2013

Decline in UK immigration is exaggerated and signals broader crisis

Last month, the British government celebrated the news that net migration to the UK has fallen by a third, according to data released by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS). Net migration was estimated at 153,000 people in the year before September 2012, compared to 242,000 one year earlier. 

Politicians were keen to ascribe this decrease to the toughening of immigration policies, and claimed that the government was on target to reach David Cameron's official target to bring net immigration down to "tens of thousands" by 2015. 

Although it is common practice among politicians to ascribe migration decreases to their own 'tough' policies, policies are only one of the many factors that determines levels of immigration and emigration. Other factors, such as labour demand and the performance of the UK economy compared to other economies, play an equally, and probably much more important role.

A closer look at the data shows that most of the decrease is explained by a 22 per cent decline in student migration (the blue dotted line in the figure above). While politicians have claimed that this is largely the results of tougher immigration rules for non-EU students, other factors such as the high British university fees and growing competition from universities abroad may also play a role. 

UK Business Secretary Vince Cable recently argued that there is a problem of perception here: because overseas students are counted as immigrants, this numbers has been "easily translated into a flood of immigrants". Cable and other observers have argued that the decline in student numbers is not necessarily a good sign, since it also may reflect the deteriorating image of the UK as a potential destination for students and the skilled. This may actually harm British universities and long-term economic growth.

But, apart from this debate, the point remains that the decrease in immigration actually seems relative modest, particularly if we consider the longer term. 

The above figure shows that over the last ten years, UK immigration has remained constantly high over the past decade. While labour immigration has been decreasing since 2008 in the wake of the economic crisis and a major slump in UK economic growth, soaring student immigration counterbalanced this typical 'recession effect' until 2012. Now student numbers are falling, this is translated into an overall decrease in immigration, although this decrease is not as spectacular as politicians would like us to believe. 

Politicians typically exaggerate the extent to which they can control immigration. Economic growth, labour demand and wage levels play a major role in explaining fluctuations and trends in UK immigration over the past two decades. Therefore, as I wrote earlier, the best way to bring down migration is to wreck the economy.

Almost half of immigration to Britain over the past year concerned UK and EU citizens. This migration can hardly be controlled - unless the UK takes drastic measures such as stepping out of the European Union. Also family migration from outside the EU is difficult to curb significantly as long as the UK wants to respect basic human rights. The only categories on which the government exerts significant  influence is labour and student migration from non-EU sources - and these are exactly the categories that have been targeted by recent policies in a desperate and potentially harmful attempt to bring numbers down. 

What will happen to UK immigration in the future will therefore only partly depend on whether the government will sway to the pressure by the education and business sectors to relax immigration rules for students and skilled non-EU migrants. (It is likely they will. As migration scholar Alan Gamlen recently argued, "This government will probably bend to business interests over nationalist ideals - they must look reluctant").

However, the course of future migration will mainly depend on the rate of economic growth and job creation in the UK. To understand the economy, is to understand migration. Currently, Europe is sinking further into an economic quagmire which have brought growth to a virtual standstill (or worse) in most countries including BritainThe few European countries whose economies are still growing, attract more migrants. Over 1 million people moved into Germany in 2012, particularly from southern Europe, which was the largest migration into the country since 1995.

While rising nations such as Brazil and China are increasingly welcoming immigrants, and the US seems at the brink of a major reform which will make labour immigration easier, politicians in the UK and various other European countries loose time and energy on opportunistic anti-immigration rhetoric, which are aimed to rally voters, but do nothing to solve problems.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that migration is a solution to major problems. Numerous studies have shown that immigration is neither a panacea to solve economic or demographic problems, nor the cause of economic decline, mass unemployment or public deficits. The alleged positive and negative effects of immigration tend to get wildly exaggerated in public debates.

My argument is rather that immigration is a bellwether phenomenon that reflects the more general state of the society and the economy. Thriving economies attracted migrants, stagnant economies deter migrants. Rising nations attract migrants, declining nations try to keep them out. Anti-immigration politics reflect a culture of fear and an overall lack of confidence and political courage.

Rather than a cause for celebration, declining immigration therefore signals a more general state of crisis. 

Friday 5 April 2013

How voluntary is voluntary return?

Governments and international organizations often stress how voluntary the return of involuntary migrants is. This begs an important question: what is voluntary?

If you are an undocumented migrant from sub-Sahara Africa living in Morocco or in Libya, and if you have been beaten up, or raped, by the police, are refused entry into hospitals, cannot send your children to school, or if you are starving, or fear to get arrested or arbitrarily imprisoned or deported, you may at some point decide that you want to go back home, or to move on to a safer, more hospitable country.

And, indeed, if the opportunity is offered, you may accept an airfare offered by a government or the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In that sense, any decision to return can be seen as voluntary. But, in this view, most refugees should also be seen as voluntary migrants. After all, we can say that their decision to leave has been 'voluntary', as they could have stayed indeed, to 'voluntarily'  face abuse, imprisonment, or death.

Of course this is a morally unacceptable way of reasoning.

So, stressing the 'voluntary' element of return decisions is often a discursive strategy to conceal the role of abuse and fear in compelling people to take such decisions. The point is that governments are often responsible for creating such fears through either not protecting people against abuse and discrimination or through active persecution and harassment.

In a comment on my blogpost "IOM's dubious mission in Morocco", Anke Strauss, Chief of Mission of IOM Morocco, wrote that:

"The situation of irregular migrants .... has recently become tougher as a result of the Moroccan government’s legitimate drive against crime. As a result, IOM and its partners, including UNHCR, MSF and Caritas have witnessed an increasing vulnerability of irregular migrants in Morocco as well as a sharp increase in the number of individuals requesting voluntary return and reintegration assistance."

To me, this is quite a puzzling statement. On the one hand, it seems to be in line with my argument that the presumed increase in people wanting to return is the result of increased racist violence and abuse of migrants rights by the Moroccan government. This why I doubt the moral justification of such return programmes as they, despite their 'humanitarian' veneer of pretending to help miserable migrants, in fact sanction racist abuse and the lack of protection of migrant rights by governments.

At the same time there is the curious, and worrying, reference to the Moroccan government's 'legitimate drive against crime'. What is suggested here? That sub-Saharan migrants are responsible for rising crime, and that this would legitimate Morocco's abuse of migrant rights? I hope this is not the case, but I just find it difficult to read it in a different way.

Such statements wittingly or unwittingly buy into and justify the discourses of some Moroccan politicians (see here for instance) and media to scapegoat sub-Saharan migrants for problems as unemployment and crime, or even to literally represent them as the 'Black Peril'.

Let me be clear: I am not necessarily questioning the good intentions of agencies like the IOM.

But, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It obviously everybody's plight to help people whose lives and freedoms are threatened in extreme situations of crisis and war. This can involve helping people to flee out of dangerous situation. This is what IOM and UNHCR have been doing in the wake of the Libyan crisis (see this blogpost).

However, this is something else than sanctioning governments' abuse of migrant rights by collecting funding for costly return programmes (instead of defending migrants' right) or, worse, to buy into racist government discourses.