Monday 29 August 2016

The case for border controls

Sovereign states have good reasons for controlling their borders. States are political communities with a need to define who is member, and who not.  This is important to determine who is eligible to vote, who has to pay taxes, and who has access to public services such as education, health care, social security, and other social services.

This is usually defined through citizenship, although there is a large grey zone between ‘unwanted foreigners’ and full citizenship. Immigration policies of modern states typically include ‘pathways’ to permanent residency and citizenship, in which permanent residents typically enjoy largely similar rights to citizens, except for the right to vote (at least in national elections).

Young men near Mosquée Hassan II, Casablanca, Morocco, February 2012 © Dominique Jolivet 

It would therefore be foolish to argue that countries should just 'open their borders' by allowing everybody to immigrate and settle. Modern (welfare) states have an inbuilt need to define who is member and, hence, who has the right to work and who can use public amenities and social services. This creates an intrinsic need for immigration policies, which define who has the right to enter, stay, settle and eventually acquire citizenship. There is nothing inherently immoral about this.

It is thus a legitimate right of sovereign states to control their borders. To achieve this, modern states have designed sophisticated immigration rules that use elaborate criteria such as nationality, age, diplomas, marital status and wealth to grant or refuse people the right to enter and settle.

Contrary to what many people think, states have generally been rather effective in regulating migration. Although media images of migrants scaling fences or crossing the sea in rickety boats may give the impression that borders are ‘beyond control’, the fact is that the vast majority of migrants abide by the rules. With some exceptions, irregular migrants form a small minority of all immigrants, and research has shown that most undocumented migrants have in fact crossed borders in a legal fashion, but 'overstayed' after their visas expire.

The ‘open borders’ proposition is clearly naïve, as modern states need to establish rules about entry, stay and citizenship. However, the ‘closed border’ proposition is equally naïve. Total migration control would basically require a totalitarian state in order to effectively control all maritime and land borders.

Total migration control would require the literal ring-fencing of entire countries, a total disrespect of human rights (such as the right to family life and asylum), and a willingness and practical ability to invest massive resources to round up and deport undocumented migrants. It would also require giving massive powers and resources to police forces for internal surveillance, such as massive random ID checks and the frequent raiding of places where immigrants live work - including people's private houses where many domestic workers stay. In practice, such levels of total migration control are not possible in open, democratic societies, and any politician suggesting this is therefore selling illusions.

The reality of migration policy making is thus infinitely more nuanced than the false opposition between closed and open borders. In practice, immigration policies are about selecting, and not about ‘closing’ or ‘opening’ borders, neither of which exist in practice. This was confirmed by a recent analysis of 6505 migration policy changes in 45 countries I conducted with my colleagues Katharina Natter and Simona Vezzoli (for more information, see this free-for-download article which we recently published in International Migration Review).

Although politicians may have an interest in making people believe that they are 'tough' on migration, our analysis shows that over the past decades governments of most Western countries have liberalized immigration regimes by relaxing or giving up immigration restrictions for many migrant groups. Immigration has generally become easier for high- and even low-skilled workers, students and wealthy people. Also within regional blocks such as the EU, migration policies have been liberalized.

The main exceptions on this rule are family members of low-skilled workers and, particularly, refugees from developing countries. Refugees in particular have become the target of restrictions and fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric, although in reality refugees form a small minority of all immigrants.

The essence of modern migration policies is thus not about growing restriction or influencing numbers per se, but the selection of migrants; By favoring the entry of some groups, and discouraging the entry of others. This shows that both 'open' and 'closed' borders are simplistic rhetoric positions, which ignore the complex reality of migration policy making.

While the desire of political communities to regulate migration is legitimate, it is important to consider the effectiveness of policies, which are often blatantly ignored. As with any form of regulation, immigration rules can be circumvented by migrants. This particularly happens when immigration rules are at odds with the structural causes of migration. Classic examples are structural labour demand for migrant workers in destination countries without legal channels to match this demand (resulting in irregular migration and stay) or the unwillingness of countries to host refugees (resulting in an increased role of smuggling and boat migration and the risks refugees have to take to reach safe lands).

It is therefore inevitable that border controls will result in some degree of irregular migration. Also, research has shown that immigration restrictions often interrupt circulation by discouraging return and pushing migrants into permanent settlement, which is the contrary of what these policies intend to do. Such unintended and often unforeseen effects of immigration controls does not mean that the desire to control is illegitimate, or that the policies are totally ineffective, but reveal fundamental policy dilemmas in terms of how and the extent to which the desire to control regulate migration can be translated into concrete results, and against which financial and humanitarian price.

This shows that both the 'open' and 'closed' border positions are unrealistic and do not justice to the complex realities of migration policy making, which is primarily about the selection of migrants, and not about numbers, despite muscle-flexing political rhetoric suggesting the contrary.

States have good reasons to control immigration and it would be an huge exaggeration to say that borders are beyond control, because policies generally work and the majority of migrants abide by the rules. It is more correct to say that there are clear limits to border controls.

Monday 22 August 2016

Refugees: A small and relatively stable proportion of world migration

The recent news coverage about migration, and particularly the 'refugee crisis', often gives the impression that border crossings by asylum seekers and refugees are an important or even the main source of migration in the current world.

This perception adds to the widespread idea that the world is facing a swelling tide of people leaving war-torn countries that is threatening to run out of hand, and that therefore requires urgent action.

This crisis narrative is reinforced by international organisations like the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), IOM (International Organization for Migration), and the United Nation's population division, who regularly release press statements - repeated in the news media all over the world - reporting that the number of refugees and migrants has reached an all-time high. This usually goes hand in hand with calls for urgent action to address this pressing issue.

As so often with migration, the reality is more nuanced. In fact, the total number of refugees as a share of all migrants in the world is rather limited, and has remained remarkably stable if we look at long term trends. According to official figures compiled by the UNHCR there are currently about 16.1 million refugees under their mandate. This figure would rise to 21.1 million if we include Palestinian refugees, who do not fall under UNHCR's mandate.

This is less than 0.3 percent of the total world population (7.4 billion people), and about 10 per cent of the total estimated number of international migrants, which currently hovers around 220-230 million (excluding refugees). While the international migrant population counted as a percentage of the world population has remained remarkably stable on levels of around 3 percent of the world population since 1960, refugee numbers have shown more fluctuations, mainly depending on the level of conflict in origin areas.

Between 1990 and 2010 the number of refugees showed a declining overall trend. This decrease mainly reflected a decreasing level of violent conflicts in Africa and Latin America. In 2010 the total number of refugees in the world was estimated at 16 million. In recent years these numbers increased again to 21 million, mainly as a result of the Syrian civil war. But on world scale this is a relatively limited increase. This recent increase is not unprecedented, because also other conflicts such as in former Yugoslavia have led to major temporary spikes in refugee numbers.

Only a minority of the world refugee population end up in wealthy countries. According to UNHCR about 86 per cent of all refugees stays in developing countries, and this share has increased rather than decreased over recent decades. Poor countries such as Kenya, Afghanistan and host huge refugee populations. The large majority of Syrian refugees stay in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Does that mean that there is no problem? Of course not. The unwillingness of the world community to host sufficient numbers of refugees and their indifference of many governments to plight of refugees, has been one of the most pressing issues of humanitarian concern over the past decades.

But the problem is fundamentally not one of numbers, but of international cooperation, solidarity and willingness to really address this problem. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, Western countries have shown a decreasing willingness to welcome refugee populations, and have systematically tried to prevent their legal entry.

It is therefore a misleading - and ultimately self-defeating - strategy to keep on repeating, every year again, that total numbers of refugees (or migrants) have reached another all-time high. This ignores that relative to the total migrant and world population, the the total number of refugees is relatively small, and that, on the longer term, refugee numbers have remained relatively stable.

There is 1 refugee for every 352 people worldwide. It would therefore be outrageous to suggest that, in numerical terms, the international community would not have the resources to provide refugees with a safe new home and perspective on the future - if only it can get its act together.

It is therefore a matter of willpower; Not of numbers.

Understandably, international organizations have an interest in raising public awareness about the plight of refugees. However, their emphasis on 'highest ever' numbers is counterproductive and may ultimately undermine the case for refugee protection, which is the exact opposite of the mandate of these organisations.

By hugely exaggerating the true scale and increase of refugee migration these organisations reinforce the crisis narrative and extremism that undermines public support for refugee support and that reinforces extremism. In this way, their 'refugee migration is at an all-time high' public statements may well contribute to the same migration panic and xenophobia these organisations simultaneously tend to decry.