Wednesday 23 September 2015

Don't blame the smugglers: the real migration industry

The billions spent on the militarisation of border controls over the past years have been a waste of taxpayers' money. As we are able to witness during the current 'refugee crisis', increasing border controls have not stopped asylum seekers and other migrants from crossing borders. As experience and research has made abundantly clear, they have mainly (1) diverted migration to other crossing points, (2) made migrants more dependent on smuggling, and (3) increased the costs and risks of crossing borders.

The fact is that 25 years of militarising border controls in Europe have only worsened the problems they proclaim to prevent. As a very useful graph (see below) drawn by the prominent migration researcher Jørgen Carling illustrates, the EU has been caught up in a vicious circle in which increasing number of border deaths lead to calls to 'combat' smuggling and increase border patrolling, which forces refugees and other migrants to use more dangerous routes using smugglers' services. Longer and more dangerous routes means more people who get injured or die while crossing borders, which then leads to public outrage and calls for even more stringent border controls.

Source/author: Jorgen Carling

In the current panic about the issue, it is often forgotten that so-called 'boat migration' across the Mediterranean is a 25-year old phenomenon that started when Spain and Italy introduced (Schengen) visas for North Africans. Before that, Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians could travel freely back and forth to work or go on holiday. And so they did in significant numbers. However, this migration was largely circular. Most migrants and visitors would go back after a while, to be close to family and friends, because life back home is less expensive, and because they could easily re-migrate. This experience exemplifies that open migration doors tend to be revolving doors.

With the introduction of Schengen visas in 1991, free entry into Spain and Italy was blocked, and North Africans who could not obtain visas started to cross the Mediterranean illegally in pateras, small fisher boats. This was initially a small-scale, relatively innocent operation run by local fishermen. When Spain started to install sophisticated, quasi-miltary border control systems along the Strait of Gibraltar, smuggling professionalised and migrants started to fan out over an increasingly diverse array of crossing points on the long Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines. The diversification of crossing points continued over the 2000s, in which migrants started to cross not only from Morocco and Tunisia, but also Algeria, Libya to Italy and Spain, and from the West African coast towards the Canary Islands.

While in the 1990s most people crossing were young Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians attracted by employment opportunities in southern Europe, over the 2000s an increasing number of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees have joined this boat migration. The major upsurge in numbers over the last few years is mainly the result of an increasing number of Syrians joining this trans-Mediterranean boat migration. Over 2014 and 2015, increased maritime border patrolling in the Mediterranean is one of the causes (alongside the worsening of conditions in Syria and neighbouring countries) of the reorientation of migration routes towards Turkey, the Balkans and Central Europe.

So, these policies have been completely self-defeating. While politicians and the media routine blame 'smugglers' for the suffering and dying at Europe's borders, this diverts the attention away from the fact that smuggling is a reaction to the militarisation of border controls, not the cause of irregular migration. Ironically, policies to 'combat' smuggling and irregular migration are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to 'fight'.

It is therefore nonsense to blame smugglers for irregular migration and the suffering of migrants and refugees. This diverts the attention away from the structural causes of this phenomenon, and the governments' responsibility in creating conditions under which smuggling can thrive in the first place. Smugglers basically run a business, a need for which has been created by the militarisation of border controls, and migrants use their services in order to cross borders without getting caught. Of course, in the media stories abound of smugglers deceiving migrants, and such stories are certainly true, but there is good research (for instance by Ilse van Liempt and Julien Brachet) showing that smugglers are basically service providers who have an interest of staying in business and therefore generally care about their reputation and have an interest in delivering.

Certainly, smugglers can be ruthless and regularly deceive migrants, but it should not be forgotten that smugglers deliver a service asylum seekers and migrants are willing to pay for. Without smugglers, it is likely that many more people would have died crossing borders. For many refugees and migrants, smugglers are a necessary evil. For some, smugglers can be heroes. For instance, Al Jazeera quoted African refugees in Sudan who saw smugglers as freedom facilitators, because they enabled their escape toward safer countries. The irony is that European countries have created huge market for the smuggling business by multi-billion investments of taxpayers' money in border controls. There is no end to this cat-and-mouse game, in which smugglers constantly adapt their itineraries and smuggling techniques.

So don't blame the smugglers. Blaming smugglers also diverts the attention away from the vested interests of the military-industrial complex involved in border controls. Under influence of the growing panic about irregular migration and the perception that (supposedly uncontrolled) migration is an imminent threat to Western societies, states have invested massive amounts of taxpayers' money in border surveillance. Border controlling have become a huge industry, and businesses involved in building fences and walls, electronic border surveillance systems, patrolling vessels and vehicles as well as the military have a vested interest in making the public believe that we are facing an impending migration invasion and that we therefore need to 'fight' smugglers, as if we are indeed waging a war.

This reveals the contours of the real migration industry. Arms and technology companies have reaped the main windfalls from Europe’s delusional 'fight against illegal migration'. As has been documented by the Migrant Files, four leading European arms manufacturers (Airbus (formerly EADS), Thales, Finmeccanica and BAE) and technology firms like Saab, Indra, Siemens and Diehl are among the prime beneficiaries of EU spending on military-grade technology supplied by these privately held companies whose R&D programs have been financed by EU subsidies. The staging of uncontrolled migration as an essential threat to Western society has also served the military, who have been in search of a raison d'être after the (imagined or real) 'Communist Threat' evaporated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

In this way, Europe's immigration policies have created a huge market for the private companies implementing these policies as well as smugglers. The main victims are migrants and refugees themselves, through soaring smuggler fees and an increasing death tolls. But also European taxpayers who have been deceived and lured into a delusional 'fight against illegal migration' by fear-mongering nationalistic politicians. While the same politicians fan the flames of xenophobia by insinuating that refugees will be a huge drain on public funds and a threat to social cohesion, they waste billions of public funds on border controls, which have not stopped irregular migration, but created a market for smuggling and increased the suffering and death toll at Europe's borders - at least 30,000 people died in their attempt to reach or stay in Europe since 2000.

This has created a multi-billion industry, which has huge commercial interest in making the public believe that migration is an essential threat and that border controls will somehow solve this threat. According to a series of investigations by the Migrant Files, since 2000 refugees and migrants spend over €1 billion a year to smugglers to reach Europe. European countries pay a similar amount of taxpayer money to keep them out, a few companies and smugglers benefiting in the process. Since 2000, the 28 EU member states plus Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland have deported millions of people, with a price tag of least 11.3 billion euro. A further billion has been spent on coordination efforts to control European borders, mainly through Frontex, Europe's border agency. The real costs are much higher, as these figures do not include expenditures on regular border controls by individual member states.

Across the Atlantic, similar same dynamics can be found on the US-Mexican border, where soaring public expenditure on border controls has fuelled a military-industrial complex consisting of arms manufacturers, technology firms, (privatized) migrant detention centres, the military and state bureaucracies involved in deporting people. In a study entitled Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinerypublished in 2013, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington-based migration think tank, calculated that the US government spent $187 Billion on Federal Immigration Enforcement between 1986 and 2012.

To put this in perspective, the same report showed that $18 billion spent in 2012 are 24% higher, then the combined costs on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies (FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). While these costs are staggering, they have created a huge parallel market for smugglers (coyotes) helping migrants from Mexico and, increasingly, Middle America, to defy border controls.

So, instead of blaming smugglers, it is important to be aware governments have in many ways created their own monster by pouring massive public funds in the migration control industry. Like the mythological Hydra of Lerna, for which each head lost was replaced by two more, each time a migration route is blocked such as through erecting a fence, it will create an ever expanding market for smugglers helping people to get over, under or around migration barriers. This has led to an unintended increase in the area that countries have to monitor to ‘combat’ irregular migration to span the entire European external border, making the phenomenon less, instead of more, controllable.

National politicians arguing that border controls can solve the current 'refugee crisis' are thus selling illusions. The current situation in the Balkans and Central Europe makes this abundantly clear. As long as violent conflict persists in countries like Syria, as well as labour demand for undocumented migrant workers, people will keep on coming, in one way or another. There is no easy 'solution' to this problem, but it should be clear that the solutions of the past have been a counterproductive waste of taxpayers' money and have caused unspeakable suffering.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Europe's disgrace

A general sense of panic is dominating media coverage of what has come to know as Europe's 'refugee crisis'. It conveys the image of a massive exodus going on from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, with European countries struggling to control borders in order to prevent an invasion from happening. To be sure, we are dealing with a grave humanitarian tragedy, that needs urgent addressing. Yet the idea that we are facing a biblical, uncontrollable exodus is sheer nonsense. This idea needs urgent correcting, because the panic and political fear-mongernig around the issue works paralysing on efforts to find a practical solution to deal with the issue.

As I have argued earlier, this crisis is largely self-inflicted. It is not a crisis of migrants or refugees, but a result of entirely counterproductive border controls and Europe's shameful failure to get its act together in sharing sharing responsibility for refugee reception and status determination. As we can now witness on TV screens on a daily basis, the millions of taxpayers' Euros spent on border controls over the past years have been a total waste of money, which mainly resulted in a rising death toll and the geographical diversion of migration routes. For instance, the recent increase in asylum and refugee migration through the Balkan is partly a reaction to increased border patrolling in the Mediterranean, which was in itself a response to increased asylum and refugee migration to Italy and Malta. 

The Economist, 12 September 2015

Ever since the Schengen visa regime was introduced in southern Europe in 1991, which interrupted relatively free trans-Mediterranean movement, migrants and border patrollers have been involved in a constat cat-and-mouse game leading to a constant shifting and geographical diversification of maritime and overland crossing points. Instead of stopping border crossings, it created new markets for smugglers who help migrants to cross borders without getting caught. To correct a widespread misunderstanding, smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration. Ironically, policies to 'combat' (to refer to a common but inappropriate belligerent term used in this context) smuggling only increased the dependence of migrants and refugees on smugglers, thus making matters worse. 

The current crisis in the Balkan region clearly shows that intensifying border controls at one crossing point (such as between Libya and Italy, or through building a fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border) only leads to a geographical reorientation of crossing points.  It is therefore outrageous that politicians still get away with making us believe that border controls can 'solve' refugee crises. The irony is that such policies increase the reliance of refugees and migrants on smugglers as well as the likelihood that people go underground. So, such 'tough' policies make migration less controllable and manageable, while they pretend to do the opposite.

This is why migration hardliners deceive the public. Unless the European Union turns into a closed police state by literally erecting a new Iron Curtain circumventing the entire Mediterranean coastline and Eastern land borders, ignoring all refugee and human rights conventions, and systematically deporting all people arriving at the borders - which is very unlikely - it is an illusion that refugees can be stopped from arriving.

Does that mean that 'borders are beyond' control or that we should abolish immigration rules? Not at all. There are good reasons for states to regulate mobility by determining who has the right to stay and who not, including the right to asylum. Most European other states have developed quite sophisticated and often rather effective rules and institutions which regulate the entry of workers, family members, students, and asylum seekers. Based on the UN Refugee Convention, most European states have set up clear rules and procedures to determine who has the right to asylum and who not, including provisions for the latter to return. The systems are in place, they just need to be implemented based on a European sharing of responsibilities, which might imply adjusting the so-called Dublin Regulations.

The current crisis is therefore not one of real numbers but one of an impotence or, rather, and outright refusal of European governments to get their act together in finding a collective reaction to the increase in the numbers of Syrian and other refugees making their way to Europe. In many ways, European national politicians such as Hungary's PM Orban fall on their own sword of fear-mongering around the current refugee situation. While fence building only worsens the problems they pretend to solve, the accompanying rhetorics about massive (Islamic) invasions paralyse any sensible response and debate. Such fear-mongering may serve to rally electoral support and to deflect attention away from more important domestic political issues, but is totally irresponsible in terms of providing effective ways to deal with the current situation.

It is worth mentioning here that the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Europe in 2015 are large, but by no means uncontrollable. Refugee hardliners commonly argue that we should seek 'regional solutions' for refugee problems. This may sound sensible but also this argument is deceptive as it totally ignores the fact that the large majority of refugees worldwide already find refuge in their own region. Developing countries host over 86% of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago.  This is not only because many refugees lack the resources to travel far, but also because many refugees simply prefer to stay close to home.

This also applies to Syria. As the above map shows, the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees have stayed either in Syria, or in neighbouring countries, particularly Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Of the about 3 million people who have fled the devastating violence in Syria, only about 5 percent (about 150,000) are currently registered in Europe.

What makes the 'regional solutions' argument not only deceptive but also really hypocritical is the extremely lukewarm support of many governments for providing support to refugees residing in the region. There is an acute shortage of international funds to help refugees in the region, which is hampering humanitarian assistance efforts to meet the needs of Syrian refugees as well as in communities hosting hem in neighbouring countries. Against the about USD 4.5 billion needed for such programmes, only one third has been received. This funding shortfall has led to a reducation in food assistance, school attendance and health services. The deteriorating situation in neighbouring countries is one of the direct causes of the rapidly increasing numbers of Syrians moving to Europe.

With regards to numbers, the more than 300,000 Syrians and other nationals who have so far crossed into Europe irregularly over 2015, is certainly a big increase compared to earlier years. This increase has been clearly driven by conflict in Syria and origin countries and the increasingly dismal situation for refugees in neighbouring countries. However, to suggest that Europe cannot deal with such numbers is nonsensical. For instance, Lebanon (with 5.8 million inhabitants) alone hosts more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, or 19% of its population. In this light, the idea that the European Union, which counts over half a billion inhabitants, and is the wealthiest economic block in the world, would lack the resources to host several hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers is simply outrageous. In this context, it is worth reminding that 300,000 asylum seekers is equal to less then 0.06% of the entire EU population, and that legal immigration to the EU alone is about 2.5 million on a yearly basis.

As long as conflict in Syria and other countries persists, it is likely that a relatively small, but sizeable number of refugees will find their way to Europe. To think it away, or to create illusions that 'regional solutions' will solve this problem, will only make matter worse.  Of course Europe can deal with this. Any representation of the current refugee flows as 'massive' is therefore misleading. The current crisis is not one of numbers, but a political crisis, a crisis of the failure of Europe to find a joint response to this issue.

In their short-sighted attempts to please their constituencies, national politicians create illusions that intensifying border controls on national level can solve this problem, while it only diverts migration routes to other countries, expands the market for smugglers and increases the death toll. In this way, 'hardliner' countries such as Hungary and the United Kingdom shift the burden of refugee reception to more welcoming countries such as Germany and Sweden, who bear a disproportional burden.  The only sensible respons to the current situation is a collective one, in which European countries share their responsibility for refugee reception and asylum processing by developing some quota system, largely along the lines proposed by the Angela Merkel and the European Commission.

The real crisis is therefore political one, not one of hordes of refugees invading Europe, which is a product of conscious political fear-mongering and uncritical, sensationalist journalism. As long as politicians get away with making us believe that 'closing borders' will solve this problem, the problems will only get worse. The real crisis is a crisis the unwillingness of European countries to get their act together and formulate a collective response by agreeing on effective responsibility sharing.  Both morally and practically, this is only way to address this crisis. A second  element of a more effective response is to dramatically increase support to help refugees in neighbouring countries, so that they are not forced to move on if they prefer to stay close to home.

Unfortunately, so far no agreement has been reached because such proposals have been sabotaged by national politicians eager to show off their 'toughness' on migration and failing to take their responsibility. Sensible responsibility sharing on the European level and genuine support for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries are the only way forward. There are no quick and simple fixes to this problem, but the least European politicians can do is to stop deceiving the public by going tough on migration, which only fans the flames of xenophobia and does not provide any practical way to stop people suffering and dying at Europe's borders.  

Saturday 16 May 2015

How much do we really learn from history?

"German Jews Pouring into This Country". This is what the The Daily Mail, a British tabloid newspaper, had to say about German Jews seeking refuge from Nazi brutality in 1938. The article quotes a magistrate stating that "The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of the country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest",

The reporter continues by reassuring the reader that enforcement is fortunately increasingly effective: "even if aliens manage to break through the defences it is not long before they are caught and deported".

1938 Daily Mail article

This article did not reflect some extremist, far right-wing sentiment, but a widespread anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe and the concomitant fear of massive immigration of Jewish refugees from Germany, who had been stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazi regime. In the late 1930s, when the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany became increasingly dangerous, European nations and the United States only accepted limited numbers of Jewish refugees

The Nazis initially saw emigration as an important 'solution' to what they called the 'Jewish Problem', including emigration to Palestine. However, European and American countries became increasingly reluctant to host significant numbers of Jewish refugees, while the British closed Palestine to Jewish immigration in 1939. When MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner tried to find a refuge for 915 German Jews, they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada, before returning to Europe, where many were killed during the Holocaust.

Also neighbouring countries like the Netherland and Switzerland closed their borders out of fear of being inundated with Jewish refugees, and many were sent back to Germany. (Although, thanks to smugglers, thousands were able to get out despite tough border controls). Such immigration restrictions were often defended with the argument that the crisis-stricken European countries could not bear the burden of large-scale Jewish immigration, but widespread anti-Semitic sentiment was generally the real reason. 

For instance, in 1938 the Dutch prime minister Colijn argued that allowing in more refugees would cause economic pressures. Wryly, he explained that the border closure was actually in the interest of Dutch Jews themselves, because allowing in more refugees would further fan the flames of anti-Semitism.  In an official statement the Dutch government proclaimed that "a further intrusion of alien elements will be harmful of the maintenance of the Dutch race. The government finds that, in principe, our limited territory should be reserved for its own people". 

How much do we really learn from history? 

Wednesday 6 May 2015


Of course 'expats' are just emigrants. They only don't like to be called that way. These days, in Western Europe, the term 'migrant' is more and more associated to supposedly low-skilled people from less wealthy countries, who often have a darker skin, and/or are of a Muslim background, and who come to work and settle in the countries of the Wealthy, White West, sometimes without asking permission.

Europeans living abroad love to call themselves 'expats', although they are of course migrants. 'Expat' has increasingly become a class marker, a way in which privileged migrants from wealthy countries (and wealthy migrants from poor countries) tend to distinguish themselves from poor, low-skilled and undeserving migrants. Migrants do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning ('3D') and underpaid jobs shunned by many Europeans, but are at the same time often treated as potential job thieves and benefit scroungers or as threats to safety (terrorists!), social cohesion and cultural unity. 

UKIP election graphic encouraging 'Expats' to register for 2015 national elections

All of that of course does not apply to Europeans when they themselves move abroad to work and settle in foreign lands. In sheer contrast to the moral outrage about the 'illegal migrant', 'expats' often do not even bother applying for a residence permit in their host countries. Either because they don't need one, or because nobody bothers them if they don't have one.

Between 1998 and 2000  I lived in Morocco for two years on a string of tourist visas, which I renewed by hopping out and in of Morocco forth and back from the Spanish enclave Ceuta on the same day. It is very unlikely Europeans who overstay their visa in Morocco - and most countries in the world - will end up in migrant detention and get deported. And if they are asked to leave, they are highly unlikely to do so handcuffed. 

This is called privilege. And many Europeans (as wel as North Americans and citizens of a handful of other lucky nations) are hardly aware of it. They take for granted that it is their right to go anywhere, to impose their presence, while not being bothered about how 'locals' perceive them. They have done so since colonial times. It starts at a young age. Students find it completely normal to have gap years, to travel around the world, or to work or volunteer for a year or so in a far away country. We go on holiday wherever we want, and more and more people retire in lands where the sun shines and care workers are cheap.

Wherever Europeans find a job, residence and work permits seem to drop magically out of the air, or we simply don't bother getting one, or it is done for us by our employers. Those working for private companies, diplomacy or as development workers in poor countries tend to live luxurious, but highly segregated, lives as 'expats' in gated communities and compounds. When they interact with 'locals', it tends to be the elites, who speak the same languages and have similar manner and levels of education. 

Looking at migration, we still live in a colonial world order. Double standards are typically applied to the migrant 'other' and the expat 'us'. While migrants are expected to learn the language and to assimilate into 'our' culture and society - and 'we' complain if they refuse to do so, or not fast enough, or not wholeheartedly enough to our taste - 'expats' are generally exempt from such demands.

English speaking citizens of wealthy OECD countries set the international standard. Haughtily, 'expats' often do not bother to integrate at all, and nobody would dare to ask them to do so. They can live for years, if not decades, in other countries without speaking one word of the local language. Because they have the power to do so so and to ignore what others think. 

Such double standards also become visible in the schizophrenic positioning of politicians on migration issues. During the 2014 municipal elections in the Netherlands, the right-wing liberal VVD party of PM Mark Rutte was campaigning with election posters featuring the text "In Rotterdam spreken we Nederlands" ("In Rotterdam, we speak Dutch") to clearly signal the VVD's anti-multicultural credentials. However, the same rules did apparently not apply to 'expat' migrants - overtly shown by another VVD election poster targeting resident foreigners who have the right to vote in local elections, which proudly stated (in English!) "Why do expats living in Amsterdam vote VVD?".

The contrast in attitudes towards expats and migrants was also visible in the graphic (see above) used by the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in a campaign to encourage 'expat' Britons (an estimated  5.5m in total  –  of which about 2.2m live in the EU- almost the same number as the 2.3m EU citizens in the UK) to vote in the 2014 national elections. So, ironically, by "harnessing that xenophobe expat vote" the UKIP tried encouraging British emigrants to vote them in to keep immigrants out of Britain.

Such contrasts in attitudes reveals the double standards applied to the expat 'us' and the migrant 'them'; as well as the superiority thinking underlying this distinction. 

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Will a 'Brexit' curb immigration?

Leaders of anti-immigration parties such as Nigel Farage of the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and Geert Wilders' of the Dutch Freedom Party have often stated that getting out of the EU is the only way to curb immigration. At first sight, this seems logical. After all, as long as countries stay in the EU, they have to respect the free mobility rights of half a billion EU citizens.

This is also why promises by politicians to cut back migration, such as the earlier pledge by the British PM David Cameron to bring UK net immigration down to below to the "tens of thousands" are hollow, since a large share of immigration consists of EU citizens, who are exempt from immigration controls.  For instance, in the 12 months preceding September 2014, about 40 per cent of immigrants were non-British EU citizens, while 13 per cent were British citizens, and 47 per cent were non-EU citizens.

The whole idea that immigration can be controlled just like we turn on and off a tap is a myth. This is once again shown by the increase in net immigration to the UK from an estimated 154,000 in (the year preceding September) 2012 to 298,000 in 2014 - showing the hollowness of Cameron's earlier promise to bring net immigration down below the 100,000 mark.

The recent increase in immigration to the UK is largely the result of a growth in labour immigration, which reflect increasing labour demand and falling unemployment in the UK. In general , levels of immigration are primarily driven by economic growth and labour demand rather than by immigration regulations - no matter how much politicians would like voters to believe that they are in control.

It is therefore unlikely that a 'Brexit' would drastically curb immigration, certainly if the UK wishes to remain an economically open country.

In this respect it may be interesting to look at migration to European countries that are not member of the European Union. Switzerland, for instance, has always insisted on its independence, and has a long-standing tradition of anti-immigration politics. This has been reinforced by the rise of country’s right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) since the 1990s, which favours major immigration restrictions.

However, despite not being member of the EU, migration to Switzerland has soared to unprecedented levels over the last two decades, with yearly net-immigration (immigration minus emigration) of foreign nationals hovering around levels of 1 per cent (see graph).

This structural increase of migration to Switzerland is linked to economic growth combined with an ageing population, which has generated a continued labour demand in higher and lower skilled jobs, for which there is not sufficient domestic supply. These economic demands have put pressure on successive Swiss governments to continue allowing immigrants in.

There is little reason to believe that if the UK  leaves the EU, such structural labour market demands and economic pressures would not persist, and that governments would not succumb to such pressures, as they have always done in the past.

As the graph also shows, since the early 1990s there has been a structural increase of net immigration to the UK. This increase can be largely explained by a combination of economic deregulation, renewed economic growth, decreasing unemployment and a decrease of domestic labour supply because of demographic factors and skill shortages.

It it is therefore inaccurate to link the structural increase of UK immigration since the early 1990s to the decision by the Blair government in 2004 to allow free immigration from new accession states in  Eastern Europe. As the graph clearly shows, the increase of new migration to the UK has been a structural, long-term trend which started in the early 1990s. In 2003, net immigration already stood at levels of 0.4 per cent, up from 0.1 per cent in 1992, to jump up to around 0.6 percent in 2004 to consolidate at levels between 0.4 and 0.5 percent in the last decade. The decision to allow free mobility from new EU member states by the Blair government has consolidated, rather than being the most important cause of, pre-existing trends of rising immigration to the UK.

Assuming that the UK wishes to remain a wealthy and democratic country with an open, deregulated market economy (which all major parties including UKIP seem to wish), it is therefore very unlikely to expect a major decrease of immigration. The immigration of low and high-skilled workers and students (both major sources of immigration) is likely to continue as it is the case in other non-EU countries, and these migrants will inevitably be accompanied by family members.

Although receiving a lot of attention, asylum migration is actually a small component of UK immigration (24,914 asylum applications in 2014, which is 4.6% of total foreign immigration). Further curtailing asylum migration would imply serious encroachments on fundamental human rights. And even if UK would really be willing to do that, the effects are likely to be limited. As migration researcher Timothy Hatton has found in a sophisticated statistical analysis, fluctuations in asylum migration are mainly driven by levels of violence and terror in origin countries, and restrictiveness of asylum policies only play a secondary role.

Source: Long-term International Migration - Office for National Statistics

As long as future UK governments will not wreck the economy (which in many ways is by far the most effective way of bringing down labour demand and, as a consequence, immigration) or will not de-liberalise the economy (such as by drastically increasing labour market regulation and employment protection) it is likely that immigration to the UK will continue at high levels whether the the country leaves the EU or not.

On top of that, closing the borders to migration of EU citizens is likely to have a number of unintended side effects (so-called 'substitution effects') which can make such policies partly if not entirely counterproductive.

First of all, border closure can lead to a wave of 'now or never migration' by people who try to get in before it before it is too late. Such 'beat the ban rushes' happened in the past, for instance when Britain introduced restrictions for 'West Indian' migration with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act.

Second, closing the border will interrupt the free circulation of EU migrants. As we have found from research in the DEMIG (Determinants of International Migration) project at Oxford University, immigration restrictions bring down return migration by roughly the same extent as immigration, making the effect of restrictions on net migration very small or insignificant.

In order words, borders restrictions have the tendency to push migrants into permanent settlement. This has happened at many occasions in the past. For instance, when West European countries closed the borders for Mediterranean 'guest workers' after the 1973 Oil Crisis, many workers who initially intended to return decided to stay. Because they feared not to be able to re-migrate after return, immigration restrictions encouraged their permanent settlement, followed by a (another unanticipated) wave of family migration.

Because EU citizens can move freely, their migration tends to be highly responsive to economic opportunities. In other words, EU migrants are much more likely to return in case of unemployment than non-EU migrants who have invested considerable effort in obtaining work permits and visas. Closing the borders to free circulation of EU citizens would increase the likelihood of their permanent settlement and make such policies therefore partly or entirely counterproductive.

In other words, assuming future economic growth and the continuation of liberal economic policies, continued high immigration to the UK (and other European countries) seems inevitable, whether in- or outside the European Union.

Therefore, by suggesting that an exit from the EU will bring down immigration, leaders of anti-immigration parties such as Nigel Farage of UKIP or Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party are deceiving the public as much as 'mainstream' politicians such as David Cameron and Ed Milliband with their empty promises to curtail immigration after the next elections.

Friday 1 May 2015

The myth of invasion

Many people believe that migration is at an all-time high and accelerating fast. Images of people crossing the Mediterranean in ramshackle boats and rising political panic about immigration all contribute to the image that migration is rising rapidly and that drastic measures are needed to stem the tide.

These voices are not only coming from anti-immigrant parties and extremist groups. In fact, the idea that migration is rising fast has become mainstream over the past years. Every year again, organisations such as the International Organisation of Migration and the United Nations Population Division hit the news headlines with reports that migration is at an all-time high and will accelerate in the future.  

Some academics sing from the same hymn sheet. For instance, Oxford-based economist Paul Collier has recently published a book under the title Exodus Underpinning Collier's rather gloomy - albeit surprisingly uninformed - view is that future migration risks to reach such high levels that it will start to become harmful for both poor (origin) and rich (destination) societies. 

This all adds to a crisis narrative around migration, with politicians portraying soaring migration as a potential threat not only to the welfare state, but also to the cultural integrity and security of European, North American and other destination societies.

The frequent sinking of boats transporting migrants and refugees to southern Europe (and Australia)  and continuing irregular migration from Mexico to the United States contributes to idea that rich countries are 'under siege' of a rising tide of immigration driven by poverty, warfare and environmental crises in poor countries; and that drastic measures are needed to stop this 'exodus'. This further add to the overriding feeling of an impending migration invasion.

However, the best available data defy the whole idea the world migration is accelerating fast. Certainly, in absolute terms, the number of international migrants has increased fast, from an estimated number of 93 million in 1960 to 214 million in 2010. Yet the world population has increased at a similar pace. The number of international migrants as a share of the world population has therefore remained remarkably constant at levels of around 3 percent (see the graph above). 

So, global migration rates have remained remarkably stable levels. But why do we still think that migration is increasing fast?

First of all, migration has become a political hot topic and is receiving massive media attention. Interestingly, both conservative and progressive forces have a certain interest in playing into fears of mass immigration. Right-wing politicians routinely scapegoat migrants to win the next election through portraying migrants as a cultural or terrorist threat or potential welfare scroungers while also left-wing politicians and trade unions have often portrayed migrants as people who steal jobs from native workers or undercut their wages.

Also international organisations dealing with migration have a certain interest in migration being seen as an urgent issue 'in need of management'  to justify their own existence, increase their perceived relevance and boost their funding.

Development and humanitarian organisations regularly play into deep-seated fears of uncontrolled mass migration to advance their own agendas. For instance, you can frequently hear the argument that more development (through aid or trade) is the only way to curb migration. Many politicians and NGOs have often argue that climate change and environmental degradation, if remained unchecked, will cause mass migration.

While such arguments are based on the deeply flawed assumption that underdevelopment, poverty and violence are the main causes of migration (on the contrary, development rather leads to more migration), by using such arguments politicians and development NGOs (wittingly or unwittingly) play into and reinforce the idea were are facing an impending migration invasion if nothing is done. This is not to say that their concerns about issues such poverty, conflict and climate change are not valid; but rather that they are 'right for the wrong reasons'.

'Euro-centrism' is the second reason for the misconception that global migration is accelerating fast. While global migration rates have remained remarkably stable, there have been major shifts in the dominant direction of migration.

Since the 'discovery' and subsequent occupation of the America by Europeans five centuries ago, Europeans have invaded and conquered overseas territories while subjugating, killing or enslaving murdering their native populations - without asking permission. This was arguably the biggest illegal migration in human history.

European emigration reached unprecedented levels in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Douglas Massey, a prominent migration researcher, has shown that, only between 1846 and 1924, some 48 million Europeans moved out, which is equal about 12 percent of the European population in 1900. For some countries, emigration was much higher. For instance, in the same period, about 17 million people left the British Isles, which is equal to 41 percent of Britain’s population in 1900.

Since the end of World War Two, the direction global migration patterns has been reversed. As a consequence of decolonisation, high levels of economic growth and a drop in birth rates, European emigration has plummeted and Europe has evolved into a global migration destination.

This reversal of European migration has affected the global face of migration. The post-War decline of Europe as a global source of migrants has led to an increasing presence of African, Asian and Latin American migrants in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The transformation of Europe from a continent of emigration to a continent of immigration has changed the face of European and European settler societies, often leading to heated debates around 'integration' and national identity.

So, from a Euro-centric perspective, migration may seem unprecedented in terms of the increasing diversity of immigrant populations. From a global perspective, this view simply does not hold.

*for more information and data see this study: The globalization of migration: Has the world become more migratory? by Mathias Czaika and Hein de Haas. International Migration Review 48(2): pp. 283-323, 2014

Monday 27 April 2015

Let their people drown: Europe's self-inflicted migration crisis

In recent months, a record number of refugees and migrants have drowned in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea. According to recent UN estimates, in 2014 almost 220,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean, and at least over 3,500 died during their journey. Over 30,000 have already made the crossing so far this year, with around 1500 reported dead or missing  – more than 50 times greater than at the same point in the previous record year 2014.

And, again, we hear the familiar appeals from European politicians to stop this tragedy by 'fighting' or 'combating' smuggling (and trafficking) in order to stop the suffering of migrants on the European borders. Although this all may sound very lofty, blaming the smugglers is a convenient scapegoating strategy that conceals politicians' own responsibility for this humanitarian tragedy.

Politicians (and the media slavishly copying their rhetorics) ignore that there is a direct relationship between the level of border controls and the number of migrant deaths. As I argued earlier, smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration. Smugglers are service deliverers who help migrants to cross closed borders. They may be involved in illegal activities, they may be criminals, they may deceive migrants, but smugglers are basically running a business. And there is only a market for this business because of the difficulties to migrate legally in search for work or to apply for asylum. So, the more governments militarise borders, the more they make it difficult to apply for asylum, the more they increase migrants'  dependency on smugglers to cross bordes.

Irregular boat migration across the Mediterranean is anything but a new phenomenon. It has ever existed since the early 1990s and resulted from the introduction of visas for North Africans by the European Union countries in 1991-1992. This interrupted previously free seasonal and circular (back-and-fort) migration flows of workers from countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and compelled more and more people to migrate illegally.

From the 2000s, an increasing number of workers and also refugees from sub-Saharan Africa have joined this boat migration. The number of crossings oscillated between 30,000 and 80,000 per year (roughly 1-3 per cent of total legal immigration - about 2.5 million a year - into the EU), mainly depending on labour demand in Europe. The marked increase in the number of detected crossings since 2013 is mainly the result of the increase in the number of refugees, particularly from Syria, but also countries like Eritrea and Somalia.

25 years of European border restrictions have not only totally failed to curb immigration but have had counterproductive results through an increase in irregular migration and an increasing dependence of migrants on smugglers to cross borders. They have also interrupted the previous circular movement, pushing migrants into permanent settlement and border controls led to a constant diversification, shifting and geographical expansion of crossing points. The toughening of border controls and 'combating smuggling' have also increased the likelihood that smugglers will exploit the vulnerable position of migrants by extorting them increasing amounts of money or abandoning them on sea.

Recurrent proposals to 'combat irregular migration' by toughening border controls and closing off legal migration routes are bound to fail, as these restrictions are among the very causes of the phenomenon they pretend to combat. Policy making is caught in a vicious circle of more restrictions-more illegality-more restrictions.

A second reason why European politicians bear direct responsibility for the rising number of deaths is their decision to stop the search and rescue 'Mare Nostrum' programme in November 2014. Many EU governments argued that cutting search and rescue operations would stem migration - as if refugees had no reason to flee their countries. (In October 2014, for instance, Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary, defended her decision to end British support for search-and-rescue operations for migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean (which had so far saved the lives of over 150,000 migrants) were acting as a “pull factor” for irregular migration)

How wrong could they be? As a direct result of the suspension of Mare Nostrum, the number of border deaths has gone drastically up, while the number of migrants and, particularly, refugees has further increased. So, politicians' have defended their voluntary decision to let people die at sea with the outrageous argument that this would deter people from coming. This shows politicians' de facto disregard for human rights despite their hypocritical public grievances and crocodile tears about migrants' tragic fate. These public displays of grief are nothing more than cynical attempts to appear humane while factually being involved in a political rat race who can appear 'toughest' on migration. Whatever reason politicians have to defend such tragic decisions, by doing so they have lost their credibility for public shows of moral outrage.

The lack of credibility among European politicians is shown by their unwillingness to save migrants in distress and host significant number of refugees. It would be outrageous to suggest the EU (the worlds' richest economic block with more than half a billion habitants) lacks the resources to host refugees coming from worn-torn countries such as Syria. What we are dealing with here is not an uncontrollable movement of masses of poor and desperate people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. What we are dealing with is a humanitarian tragedy and a displacement crisis unfolding in the European periphery, in the turmoil of which a sizeable, but comparatively still small proportion of refugees seek protection in Europe.

Despite all talk about 'regional solutions', it is easily forgotten that the vast majority of refugees stays in their own region. For instance, the vast majority of the 3 million Syrians refugees live in relatively poor neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Compared to that the numbers of Syrians coming to Europe (a few hundreds of thousands so far) is quite limited. Europe currently hosts 4 percent of all Syrian refugees (see figure). With the exception of a few countries such as Sweden and Germany, most European countries have only accepted tiny numbers of Syrian refugees. As Alexander Betts has argued in a brilliant article "Forget the ‘war on smuggling’, we need to be helping refugees in need", the recent proposal for a "voluntary" resettlement scheme for 5,000 refugees to emerge at last week’s Brussels meeting "is absurd against the backdrop of three million Syrian refugees".

The truth is that there is no 'solution' in the sense of stopping this migration, which is likely to persist at current levels as long as conflicts in countries such as Syria continue, and migrants will inevitably keep on crossing the Mediterranean illegally as long as legal entry channels are blocked. Immigration restrictions and border controls create lucrative markets for smugglers and traffickers.

The only short- to medium-term 'solution' should be focused on helping refugees in need through (1) a serious scaling up of search and rescue operations; (2) a significant increase in refugee resettlement quota by EU countries and other wealthy nations; and (3) increased support to countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to host refugees in the region.

Any thinking about 'solutions' in terms of a further toughening of borders controls and closing legal routes for migration will not stop migration but will only increase migrants' dependency on smuggling and increase the death toll. The lack of support for serious search and rescue operations and the unwillingness to host significant numbers of refugees shows that the current response of EU countries is tantamount to saying "let their people drown". EU politicians have become tragic actors in a self-inflicted drama which they decry so melodramatically.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Borders beyond control?

In my previous blogpost, I argued that politicians are often busy with feigning immigration control while in reality they often can or want to do little about it. Does that mean that borders are beyond control, as Jagdish Bhagwati famously argued in 2003? Have governments lost control? What do we actually know about the effects of immigration policies?

In order to answer this question, I have conducted a research project on the 'Determinants of International Migration' (DEMIG) at the International Migration Institute at Oxford University. This 5-year project, which lasted from 2010 to 2014 and received funding from the European Research Council, allowed a team of researchers to collect new data and conduct analyses on the effectiveness of migration policies. (See this this link for more information on the project, the 4 DEMIG databases, analyses and 28 research papers).

One of the main insights of the project is that while immigration restrictions often reduce immigration, these effects tend to be rather small. In addition, restrictions often have a four potential side-effects ('substitution effects') which further undermine their effectiveness or can even make them counter-productive.

Moroccan-Spanish border crossing near Ceuta
© Hein de Haas 2014

First, restrictions often compel migrants to 'jump categories', by finding other legal or irregular channels to migrate. For instance, when European countries tried to curb immigration from Moroccan and Turkish workers from the 1970s, people continued to migrate as family and irregular migrants.

Second, restrictions can lead to huge surges of 'now or never migration'. This happened when Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. While the Dutch were keen to make Suriname independent as a way to curb free migration from Dutch nationals living in the Netherlands, the irony is that over 40 percent of the Surinamese population migrated to the Netherlands to beat the impending immigration ban.

Third, restrictions often compel migrants to explore new geographical routes by migrating to or via other countries. For instance, if one European country toughens its asylum policies, this may divert asylum seekers to neighbouring countries. We also see this with migration controls in the Mediterranean Sea, which do not stop migration but rather compel migrants and smugglers to use other geographical routes.

The fourth and probably strongest side effect of immigration restrictions is that they not only reduce immigration but that they also reduce return migration.  In other words: they reduce circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what the policies aim to achieve.

Thus, the effectiveness of immigration restrictions is partly or entirely undermined by such side-effects. Besides that, they have a human costs in terms of creating a market for smuggling (which is a reaction to border controls and not the cause of migration) and increased suffering of migrants and a rising death toll.

Yet this does not necessarily mean that policies always fail or that borders are beyond control. Policies that attract migrants tend to be more successful then policies that restrict immigration. For instance, most Western countries have opened their doors for skilled migrant and students and these policies seem to have worked to a certain extent. The extensive media attention for irregular migration also conceals that illegal border crossings represent a small share of total immigration. The majority of migrants abide by the law and migrate legally.

It would therefore be an exaggeration to say that borders are beyond control. It is be more correct to say that there are clear limits to border controls. The whole idea that migration can be micro-managed is illusionary. As the example of the Gulf countries shows, even authoritarian states cannot achieve total immigration control.

This is largely because migration is mainly driven by economic and social processes that lie beyond the reach of migration policies. Another insight of the DEMIG project is therefore that governments mainly influence migration via so-called "non-migration policies". Although economic policies, labour market policies, trade and foreign policies are not designed to affect migration, they have a considerable effect on migration.

Such policies often undermine the effectiveness of immigration restrictions.  The most obvious example is economic policies. While governments typically aim to boost economic growth and reduce unemployment, rosy economic prospects also tend to attract a lot of migrants.

As part of economic liberalisation policies of the past decades, many governments have privatised state enterprises and made it easier for employers to hire temporary workers on low pay. This has converted many relatively secure, respectable jobs into precarious jobs with little status, which native workers often shun and only migrants want to do. So, these policies have increased the demand for low-skilled labour migrants. It is also no coincidence that irregular migration of (predominantly) women working nannies and private care workers is a major phenomenon in countries which have weak public facilities for childcare and elderly care, such as in the United States and southern Europe.

More generally, the overall trend towards increasing economic openness and regional integration (within the EU, for instance) of the last four decades has also boosted migration. It is unlikely that this can be reversed. This also shows the hypocrisy of politicians who pretend to be immigration fighters, but have backed economic policies that have only increased the demand for regular and irregular migrant labour.

* For more information on the DEMIG project see