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People Flow: Migration and Europe

Alessandra Buonfino Theo Veenkamp Tom Bentley
30 April 2003

Does migration erode or enhance national culture? This question is highly sensitive in many European countries. The problem with the existing European approach to migration is that official distinctions between categories of migrants do not match reality. We need a new, sustainable model that recognises the evolving complexity of human mobility. In our People Flow pamphlet, openDemocracy and Demos have proposed such a model to open up debate. This article summarises its main arguments.

We begin with a concise summary of the People Flow argument, in two parts. In Part One, we are offered a vision of another Europe – Europe 2050. We glimpse what this prototype would mean – for our environments and our democracies, our security, our identities and our hopes. In Part Two, we are invited to look at what kind of Europe could indeed sustain such a shift in policy and in life experience, and assess how far we have to go from here.

Taken together these ideas make up one possible prototype – a stimulus to debate – an exercise of the imagination. But we should perhaps stress that these ideas are not therefore out of touch with reality. Whatever approach is adopted to migration throughout Europe, our societies are changing faster and faster: the one option which is not on the table, is no change at all…

Part One – Migration 2050

Part Two – A New European Commonwealth: beyond the fortress


Immigration today is an increasingly visible and explosive issue in many European nations. Many governments have adopted language and policy measures that are designed to allay public concerns. The latter include attempts to reinforce state control over both points of entry and the freedom of behaviour of new arrivals.

Yet these attempts at greater control have had effects opposite to those intended, including a boom in criminal people-smuggling and the overloading of asylum systems. Indeed, the prospect is that Europe’s borders will expand in the next decade in ways which make them physically virtually impossible to close.

Here and in our pamphlet People Flow, we describe a prototype for a mid-21st century migration system based on a different approach: positively managing the flow of people, rather than controlling it. This approach seeks to manage movement of people by taking their needs and purposes as a starting point, matching them as closely as possible with the system they encounter, and channelling their energies and potentials. As communications and transport costs fall, people flow will increase. International migration should be understood as part of an overall growth in mobility and interconnectedness, where awareness of the gulf between the world’s poor and western European societies is increasing.

People flow is a catalyst that presents challenges across a much wider range of public issues, and requires new forms of societal innovation – for instance, the renewal of national democracies, the radical reform of welfare systems and the founding of a new European Commonwealth. The second part of this essay will address these challenges.

This first part focuses on the People Flow prototype, which springs from two starting points. First, voluntary migration is evolving over time into self-reliant, transnational mobility. Second, forced migration to a great extent remains the result of international displacement (uprooting people from their home contexts and means of self-reliance).

Accordingly, the prototype is based on two structures: an international network of EU mobility service points which facilitate the movement of voluntary migrants, and international transit centres to provide shelter and services for the displaced.

Theo Veenkamp, Tom Bentley, Alessandra Buonfino



Think yourself into a future world: a prism through which security, identity and hope all look different… For example, anyone in the world wishing to travel to the European Union for whatever reason, from Croatia to the US and Burma to Egypt, can visit a nearby EU mobility service point, where they can find realistic information about their options and even contact potential employers or sponsors via the web…

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EU mobility service centres

The first thing you do is to register on the international mobility website of the EU as either:

  • a visitor,
  • a worker,
  • a sponsored resident or
  • a refugee.
There are no other categories.

All travellers to Europe need a visa, but it will be granted directly when a number of simple criteria are met. Freedom to enter and travel across the EU is thereby easier to achieve, and the incentive to register is dramatically increased. But conditions are attached.

The state is responsible, not for selecting migrants, but for registering them. The selection of migrant flows is conducted by initial hosts (private and commercial), employers and accredited sponsors.

Registration does not automatically generate any rights other than the right to enter the EU. Only security and health authorities are entitled to use the registration data, to identify potential security and public health risks.

All categories of migrants other than refugee claimants are required to have a passport. Workers need a proof of employment, or to qualify through a ‘points-based’ system that shows they are eligible for priority types of work. Sponsored residents must have proof of the support of an accredited sponsor who is a EU citizen.

Visitors must have a first host address, proof of return tickets of transportation and a credit card deposit. Employers and sponsors have to report regularly to the mobility authority about the foreign workers or sponsored residents that have obtained a visa through their recommendation.

Accredited sponsors have to treat their sponsored residents according to a code of conduct to which they commit themselves when registering as a sponsor. Instead of illegal entrants doing illegal work, registered entrants are recognised as being able to do a certain amount of informal work.

The sponsorship path represents the legalisation of an age-old principle of self-regulating international migration: relatives or friends who have already settled in a receiving country take care of newcomers until they can manage themselves.

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International transit centres: security and support for displaced persons

International transit centres are facilities that act as a catchment mechanism for flows of displaced migrants who cannot be absorbed through the worker or sponsorship channels.

They provide temporary shelter and create opportunities for the displaced, including refugee claimants and unregistered (‘illegal’) entrants. They should be located near to large concentrations of displaced people, including regions where there is significant upheaval; and also in locations around Europe where significant concentrations of displaced people are likely to turn up.

When a migrant becomes a temporary resident of a transit centre, none of its services are free beyond an introduction package. Shelter and support are provided either through interest-free loans, or as payment in kind for work done by the resident during their stay.

All transit centre users are entitled to personalised programmes of professional advice and support, to create a ‘personal development plan’ linked with the provision of various forms of loan and social credit. Giving constructive meaning to the concept of ‘transit’, such plans generate a pathway towards a new individual strategy for each user. That strategy will not automatically be found within the EU, but within the part of the world to which the individual feels most strongly connected.

The realisation of such an ambition is only possible if it becomes connected to wider systems of economic development, humanitarian intervention, disaster management and international cooperation.

International transit centres and the agencies associated with them could encourage the provision of ‘micro-credit’ and ‘development banking’ facilities for potential and actual migrants. At the moment, huge amounts of money are poured into the hands of illegal trafficking networks. Families and whole villages invest in sending individuals to Europe, in the hope of receiving remittances from them once they are settled.

What would happen if there were legitimate credit sources, jointly managed by sending and receiving countries and by development agencies, to encourage reciprocal economic exchanges between transnational migrants, sending and receiving countries, and sustainable economic development in poorer countries themselves?

One focus for establishing the right mix of EU and wider international strategies could be a ‘Global Agreement on the Movement of People’ to stand alongside existing global frameworks on trade in goods and services.

International transit centres as a whole would thus be geared towards:

  • Providing shelter and compassion towards people who have been uprooted and displaced from their original homes
  • Secure and reliable processing of the claims and needs of displaced persons
  • Maximising the economic and social contribution migrants could make
  • Generating reciprocal obligations between new arrivals, sending and receiving countries

The whole system is designed to undercut and reduce incentives for unregistered entry and people-smuggling, and to direct the energy of potential migrants towards sustainable perspectives and strategies, instead of drifting from place to place with little hope.

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Streamlining the asylum process

Refugee-claimants can take a separate track within the overall framework, designed to respect the essential rights and needs of refugees, while minimising potential abuse of the refugee route by others.

If a claimant has a passport, their claim can be provisionally assessed at a dedicated EU refugee-claim assessment office. This provisional assessment, on the basis of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol (or their legitimately negotiated replacement), should take no longer than a week. Evidently unfounded claims are rejected. An appeal procedure is possible, but its cost must be paid by the claimant, who is not entitled to a living allowance while waiting in the region of the assessment office for the appeal outcome.

Claimants who pass the first provisional assessment are entitled to free transport to the nearest International Transit Centre. Their definitive claim assessment procedure takes no longer than a year. Once accepted, they can obtain a new European passport, preferably of their first, second or third choice, taking into account EU quota arrangements. Refugee claimants whose claim is rejected and those without a passport can stay temporarily in the transit centre on the same conditions as other inhabitants.

Refugees are able to access full legal protection, civil rights and a new passport as quickly as their claims can be verified. Those whose refugee claims or identities cannot be easily established are not penalised for their inability to produce documents, but join a processing stream that provides them with temporary basic material security and help with creating a new perspective.

The incentive to claim refugee status as a way of gaining access rather than for protection is massively reduced: the opportunities that it provides without verification of refugee status are identical to those available to displaced persons anyway.

Denying unregistered residents all access to basic facilities like health care, education and social security, while simultaneously creating an alternative route by offering free transport to the nearest international transit centre for any unregistered entrant who identified himself, will channel entrants into the registration system. back to index

From integration to peaceful co-existence

Over most of western Europe today, passionate debates are being waged about assimilation and multiculturalism. The dominant political mood seems to shift toward more assimilation, stressing obligations and responsibilities among newcomers and protecting national cultures. Those representing the ‘we’ in these debates feel the need to show their firm grasp on the situation. Those who make up ‘them’ rightly feel insecure and defensive.

The most difficult issues surround migrants of the first and second generation whose lives are too often characterized by social, economic and political marginalisation. In too many cases, the approach taken to their ‘integration’ produces resentment and distrust.

A revised approach to managing integration is urgently needed. The reality is that migration will produce continuing increases in diversity; of types of stay, countries and regions of origin, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, motives and loyalties.

We prefer to simply accept this changing reality as a departure point and have no ambition to reshape it fundamentally. From this acceptance logically follows a modest integrative ambition: just to establish and maintain peaceful co-existence would be a significant achievement.

That aim will be achieved by action based on the following principles:

  1. The more diversity increases, the more strictly we should adhere to a common set of rules embodying democracy, the rule of law and freedom for all.
  2. Support for newcomers who are not self-reliant should be facilitated in customised ways to help them support themselves.
  3. The immediate environments of neighbourhood and school should be the major focus for efforts to respond constructively to diversity.
  4. Connections with countries of origin should be established in ways which increase the potential for managing diversity successfully.
  5. The worlds of the arts, media, universities and religion should be stimulated to accept shared responsibility for peaceful coexistence.

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Implications and complications: let’s start the debate

As with any first prototype, there are all sorts of complications to be tackled in several phases of testing, adapting and improving. Security is obviously the most sensitive. If people’s decisions to come and go from Europe became much more free, and permissions to work were decentralised to employers and sponsors, while those who went unregistered were not tracked down but persuaded to report for free transport to the nearest international transit centre, how on earth could security against the import of crime and terrorism be ensured?

Our answer is, that whether we like it or not, the reality in 2003 is that Europe is so complex and open that control of access through the grant of visa and border checks is no longer any kind of effective security strategy. Within Europe, it already has a mainly ritual significance. Those criminals and terrorists whom we should fear most are deterred least by passports and borders. We believe that a system designed to encourage self-registration and a new set of strategies to prevent and counter illegal activity is preferable to the maintenance of illusory control.

Other questions immediately present themselves, in particular about the implications of such a radical reconceptualisation for European welfare and economic systems. The second part of this essay will introduce ideas, among others, of reforming the welfare state into the “social facilitator state” and founding a New European Commonwealth.

Our aim is to provoke fresh thinking about the possibilities for migration policy, and to help extend the horizons within which current policy-making at both national and European levels is conducted.

Indeed, alongside the emphasis in several countries on much tighter control and exclusion of unwanted and illegal migrants, there are encouraging signs that new possibilities for migration flow management are beginning to be considered in some corners of Europe. But to have real impact, these outlines of a new system will need to be developed, debated, tested and adapted in the light of detailed evidence and diverse experience.

At the same time, a sustained, pan-European public debate is needed to help create new possibilities for the way that migration is managed. That debate needs to reach into many arenas, including policy circles and the media. As a first step, we invite responses and alternative perspectives in the Migration & Europe debate here on openDemocracy.

Join the discussion!

back to index Why does the prospect of mass migration create such fear and anxiety in today’s Europe? This lack of self-confidence arises from a deep sense of uncertainty about the foundations of Europe’s post-war security and wealth. We should be more capable and confident about handling the challenges presented by growing mobility.

Western Europe’s economic and social success over the last fifty years rests on three relatively recent ‘societal innovations’:

  • the Nato security umbrella,
  • the European market and national welfare states, and
  • the European Union.

The stability and future form of each of these is now accepted as uncertain, and subject to intense debate. But the external pressure of migration reveals another weakness: each of these structures was constructed in an inward-looking, exclusive manner, not designed to absorb new flows of people easily or to bridge the gap with former European colonies.

In part one, we described a prototype system for the positive management of migration flows. But migration is disproportionately frightening because it helps to make visible the need for other fundamental changes within Europe…

Theo Veenkamp, Tom Bentley, Alessandra Buonfino

In this second part of our argument, we are attempting to describe a new generation of much-needed societal innovations: from the founding of a new European commonwealth to the replacement of the welfare state.

Many Europeans implicitly resist such change because it threatens aspects of life that we hold dear. Migration touches the shifting sands on which our identities are grounded. The steady arrival of new people with unfamiliar habits and alien faiths in our cities and on our streets provides the most dramatic focus for our anxieties about the ways in which the world is changing.

This alienation is probably the single most sensitive factor preventing politicians from adopting a pragmatic, innovative approach to migration. To do so in the current atmosphere of international crisis, division and insecurity may seem impossible. But innovation often comes out of crisis.

In the set of wider societal innovations sketched below, we take feelings of loss and turn them into gains, letting go of identities that have escaped us anyway. Instead, we focus on the crucial question of who we want to be in the future.

One consequence of this decision is that Europeans find themselves suddenly in the same boat as the many newcomers: torn between clinging to past identities and exploring new ones.

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A European Commonwealth

If Europe in its newly enlarged form is to find a unified strategic role, it must find a way to extend a zone of positive interdependence and mutual understanding across and beyond the wider European region, taking in the Middle East, Russia and other former Soviet republics, and North Africa, as well as former European colonies. In particular, close relationships with migrant-sending countries will be essential for the sustainable management of migration flows.

Many western European powers now enjoy profoundly ambivalent relationships with their former colonies. While direct responsibilities were largely shed in the post-war years, the maintenance of cultural-economic links has become a strong priority.

Several nations, including France and Britain, remain partially committed to resolving conflict and managing refugee flows from places such as Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Algeria. But the relationship between national legacies, EU regional policies and a global infrastructure of multilateral institutions like the UN and the World Bank remains muddy.

What if a new European Commonwealth were founded? It would be a long term, non-governmental project dedicated to projects and relationships that extend peace and prosperity across the wider European region, and enable the reshaping of colonial legacies into positive channels for extending interdependence and encouraging the peaceful development of democratic governance.

This framework would rest on a much older definition of Europe, creating the opportunity for governments to participate voluntarily in relationships to support societal development. A European Commonwealth could extend from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, and from Ireland to Russia, as well as to a wider network of former colonies wishing to join.

How might such an initiative work?

The first step would be to establish a Commonwealth Office, supported by several national governments and the EU as a voluntary initiative. The Commonwealth would be underpinned by the steady development of trade, aid and knowledge sharing agreements designed to encourage economic exchange and interdependence. But it could also take on other, broader projects.

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The Commonwealth Express to Istanbul

One project could be to unearth some of the forgotten chapters of European history, to clarify and deepen public understanding of our many tensions and conflicts. Europe as a whole could commission historians, filmmakers and artists to create the materials for a new European narrative, historical and cultural resource for the 21st century.

Such a narrative would have to begin in former Mesopotamia (lying partly in Syria and partly in Iraq), and would demand an inclusive concept of Europe, spanning the many civilisations that have shaped its development. The headquarters of the project could be in Istanbul, witness to almost all the waves of people and change that have swept through European history.

Equally important would be the creation of physical infrastructure that reflected new forms of regional interdependence – for instance, the construction of a high-speed rail network connecting London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul, Cairo, Milan, Paris, Barcelona and Casablanca.

Elements of this network might be financed by a special European Commonwealth levy, prompt payment of which could be linked to discounted travel on the new railway and special visits to the European History Studios in Istanbul, a centre that could come to rival Disneyland in public popularity.

Perhaps the most eye-catching project would be to create a European Commonwealth volunteer reconstruction corps, open to qualified young people from all participating countries. Such a force could become an essential part of Europe’s capacity to resolve conflict and contribute to humanitarian development, while at the same time providing a channel for the energy and commitment of European young people. It would become a civil complement to the refashioning of European military capacity in the light of the emergent challenges of the 21st century.

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The new human resource economies

To what extent should officially-accredited migrant sponsors will be allowed to tolerate informal economic activities by residents for whom they are responsible? It is likely that many, if not most, recently arrived sponsored residents will look for and find jobs in the – usually illegal – informal sector.

This marginal sector of activity acts as an indispensable bridge between regions of the world divided by huge inequalities of wealth and poverty. It cushions the transition of large groups of people between economies, and provides very significant levels of informal social welfare within Europe.

The underlying question, therefore, is whether we could try to create a more constructive context for the new migration flow system by incorporating the informal sector in our economic system. This means abandoning the idea that there is a single, dominant mode of wealth creation – via profit-oriented, technology-driven market forces – which generates the surplus of resources that can be used to create other kinds of value, for example public institutions and good government.

It is becoming well known that other forms of productive investment, for example public investment in education and intellectual capital, or voluntary, family based investment in social and human capital through child-rearing, are equally important in sustaining the capacity to generate wealth.

Our argument is that Europe, over the next half-century, will need to find ways of incorporating all major modes of wealth creation – private, public, non-profit, and possibly others – into one comprehensive conceptual framework, a ‘multiple economy’. While this concept is clearly underdeveloped, it would include the challenge of integrating sustainability into the rules governing economic development, by learning to incorporate and invest in the various kinds of value that make it possible to renew and sustain prosperity.

Might it become possible to view human resources as a source of economic wealth in their own right? This would mean that they were treated not just as a factor input into the production process, but also as a potential form of output, however measured and quantified. These kinds of possibilities might also lead us to re-examine the idea that taxation is the chief method for financing public wealth.

Why should it not be possible for a macroeconomic framework to contain two sets of legal, fiscal and financing support structures? Under this hypothetical framework, it would be possible to attract funds to more than one kind of enterprise; shareholder-financed, profit-driven companies, and stakeholder-financed, output-oriented ventures.

Such an option echoes the many different forms of social investment and mutual ownership currently being experimented with on a small scale across Europe, which carry a long and rich history. Migrant inflows, even where they are not ‘high skill’ in the current sense of the term, could be an important source of factor inputs for a sustainable, human resource-driven set of industries.

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Beyond welfare, the facilitating state

Differences in the availability of welfare benefits to migrants and existing residents can greatly reduce the emotional acceptance of newcomers when perceived as unfair. Such perceptions are a significant barrier to the successful integration of immigrants into European societies. They raise a major question: should we restructure our already-creaking social welfare systems?

Consider a radical change in European welfare: an unequivocal farewell to the idea that the state will provide unconditional care for its citizens whenever they might need it.

It is replaced by the message that the state is prepared to invest in the individual, and works actively to create opportunities, but there is a need for ongoing contribution and active social responsibility by citizens in, residents of and visitors to any society.

For citizens capable of social contribution, the state will provide a basic, interest-free, revolving financial credit, combined with personalised support to identify a pathway of personal development. This entitlement would become available to all adult citizens or naturalised incomers on the basis of a civil covenant, setting out the rights and responsibilities of the creditor and the range of ways in which the credit can be repaid, including payment in kind.

Those who are retired, disabled or permanently dependent on public care for other reasons are guaranteed a minimum level of basic shelter, care and income. Others, when they either reach adulthood or become naturalised, become entitled to a basic ‘citizenship credit’. This credit is linked, on demand, to a range of personal development packages, services and opportunities.

‘Personal development’ pathways encompass the range of goods and services that an individual might access in order to increase their own well-being: education, healthcare, labour market support, and family services. The state does not in any way take on people’s responsibility for their own well-being, but recognises the importance of public support and facilitation in contributing to opportunity and well-being for all.

Alongside flexibility and fiscal sustainability, such a framework helps to reduce the barriers created between insiders and outsiders by ‘all or nothing’ qualification for welfare entitlements through citizenship.

Within this kind of framework it is possible to imagine welfare benefits accumulated through contribution becoming portable so that, for example, European citizens who retired to other countries might be able to take their pensions or health insurance with them.

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New citizenship

Giving nothing for free is a sign of respect for potential capacities and responsibilities of citizens, whatever their personal circumstances. Arrangements for providing personal development opportunities and repayment should flow from diverse organisations, including private and not-for-profit ‘output banks’ operating in the human resource economy. In such a context it is not hard to imagine various social activities, such as parenting and childcare, constituting a form of repayment.

National citizenship programmes could be developed, designed to reflect genuine differences in civic culture and history, but also acting as part of a Europe-wide effort to support the integration of newcomers. Migrants wishing to become citizens could take courses in language, history and other key areas of civic knowledge, culminating in a naturalisation ceremony on Citizenship Day, which would be celebrated each year on the same day across the EU.

This kind of system would also provide important opportunities for investing in citizenship, for example by creating joint ceremonies on a Europe-wide Citizenship Day both for eighteen-year olds acquiring adult status and for naturalised citizens.

The outlines of a mid-21st century European economy and society that we have presented are necessarily broad and experimental. The point of the analysis has not been to predict, nor even necessarily to advocate, specific versions of the changes we have discussed. Our aim is to provoke fresh thinking about the possibilities for migration policy, and help extend the horizons within which current policy-making at both national and European levels is conducted.

However, it is not impossible to imagine that these kinds of changes could come about; they are no more radical than the transformations that have been achieved in western Europe over the last half-century.

The real questions are twofold. Can our political and public policy processes find ways of addressing issues as broad and as complex as these in ways that might generate credible solutions? Does Europe have sufficient capacity for ‘research and development’ on challenges of societal innovation, as compared to more traditional forms of technological and industrial change?

Over the last two years, migration has become a far more central and controversial political concern across Europe. Several new and imaginative directions have begun to emerge for the future management of people flow. Over the coming months, we invite everyone working on these issues in Europe and the wider world to engage with that future, here in the openDemocracy Migration & Europe debate.

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