What will it take to reset attitudes on migration?
European Union policy seems to have gone down a blind alley at the moment, and in many ways it seems to have taken African heads of state with it. Demographic pressure in Africa isn’t going to slow down and neither will demographic pressure in Europe. Europe is getting older and it will need migration to cope with that fact. So as long as Africa remains young, and as long as Europe continues to age, the two continents will have no choice but to come together in more critically constructive engagement.
Take a country like Germany. Its median age is 47. Some communities have peak employment and some communities are shrinking, yet there are still jobs to do that aren’t getting done. Germany needs to be honest with itself about its need for labour. Whether it comes from Africa or Asia or somewhere else is secondary. The point is, the need is there.
The good news is that I think we’re getting to a point where we can have an honest conversation about our different needs: the need for labour in Europe, the need for more regular pathways to get there, and the need to address the key drivers of displacement on the African continent. Migration, it goes without saying, will not end. It may not continue at the same level in the future but it will certainly continue. Our shared goal must be to ensure that the movement taking place is free. It shouldn’t be forced, or forced to be elicit. That is the shared challenge.
Is Europe slowly changing its stance to migration?
I am not confident that Europe will change its stance on the securitisation of migration, not even in the face of heavy criticism. There are a few instances where the EU has somewhat backed off from this policy. In our latest annual Mixed Migration Review, for example, we documented how it was forced to suspend cooperation with the Sudanese government after growing reports that the Rapid Support Forces, its allies in the fight against irregular migration in Sudan, were involved in a violent crackdown of Sudanese citizens. However, I don’t see this happening elsewhere. I mean, the EU has been heavily criticised for turning a blind eye to the illegal arrests and detention of African migrants by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard. Yet, that’s continuing and I don’t anticipate that there will be a fundamental change of strategy. On the contrary, we see more extreme ideas and measures being adopted at the national and continental levels.
What could prompt European governments to view migration in a more positive light?
A lot of countries say that they need workers, including low-skilled workers. And, while not all refugees are low-skilled, non-recognition of qualifications results in many of them only being able to seek low-skilled work in Europe. There is a need for a greater acknowledgement of beneficiaries of international protection as a tool towards addressing labour shortages in Europe, but also other demographic concerns in many European countries. Research I did for the European Committee of the Regions recently clearly highlighted the fact that migration (coupled with effective integration) can help overcome demographic challenges in small cities and rural areas.
I see the argument for not letting the refugee system get too mixed up with the labour markets. We need that system to protect people that should be protected. However, there is a need to think creatively about how Europe can meet multiple objectives concurrently. Improving access to labour markets will provide further spaces for interaction, support integration and enhance the contribution of migrants to their host states. It will also allow refugees and other protected persons to live in dignity whilst addressing the dependency on welfare systems. If done well, win-win solutions can be found which both respect the rights of beneficiaries of protection and help address some of the challenges facing Europe today. The right to work is already established in both international and European law for beneficiaries of protection; however, this must be made effective.
Moreover, there is a clear need to communicate the benefits of migration to Europeans and to do so in an honest way. This is critical to ensure trust but is difficult at a time when populism and migrant-blaming is a considerably more attractive politically. It is only through changing the rhetoric and framing of migration to a positive attribute that the political demands and thus political will and prioritisation will also begin to change.