Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

How do migration policies affect the life aspirations of displaced populations?

ROUNDTABLE: Refugees dream about their future in order to give shape and meaning to their journeys, yet this often counts against them in public discourse.

6 July 2020
Röszke, Hungary in 2016.
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Bence Jardany/Rebecca Harms/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-sa)

Migration policies in Europe, the United States and Australia start with the assumption that all migrants aspire to move to countries in the Global North. Policy measures seek to counter these aspirations by immobilising displaced people where they are: internally displaced people are expected to stay in designated camps, while people who have already crossed the border are expected to settle in neighbouring countries. The majority of policies deter, remove, detain, and deport. Others aim to ‘fight the root causes of migration’ by reorienting migrants’ life aspirations towards where they live. They try to enhance livelihoods by providing education or help with starting a business, for example, as well as by ensuring access to basic needs.

The efficiency of both approaches is questionable, especially in forced migration scenarios. Trying to convince people to stay where they are or to force them to take the most dangerous route available is, to say the least, morally dubious. Yet for most policy makers enabling onward mobility through legal channels is the least preferred option. On the contrary, more resources are put on return policies.

In this part of our roundtable, we invite our experts and researchers to share their observations on the effects of a wide range of migration policies on migrants’ life aspirations from return practices to internal controls: from externalisation of migration policies to immobilising the internally displaced people.

Reinhard Schweitzer & Laura Cleton

Reinhard Schweitzer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Vienna. Laura Cleton is a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp.

Assisted voluntary return (AVR) policies are celebrated by policymakers as a cost-effective, humane, and sustainable way to effectuate the return of rejected asylum seekers. Although often presented in terms of ‘helping’ individual returnees, AVR programmes explicitly interfere with refugees’ mobility and life aspirations. Conveying the message that people who came as refugees are now going back out of ‘free will’ can also exacerbate the culture of disbelief that asylum seekers already face in Europe.

An important role in AVR programmes is played by individual return counsellors, who are supposed to tap into the life aspirations of rejected asylum seekers and use them to encourage their ‘voluntary departure’. Official messages like “Thinking of returning to your country? We can help you return voluntarily” are part of this effort.

Broadly speaking, there are three different ways in which return counsellors attempt to do this. First, they sometimes act upon existing aspirations for return and facilitate them by providing information on the AVR programme. Such aspirations can develop over the course of the asylum process, through interactions with a state-created ‘hostile environment’, or because of changes to individual circumstances. Second, counsellors simply ignore asylum seekers’ aspirations and work instead toward obtaining their informed consent to a ‘voluntary return’. They perceive and present return as “simply required by law” and often readily admit that it will most probably not result in a “sustainable return”. Third, return counsellors sometimes actively try to induce aspirations for return through techniques like ‘motivational interviewing’, building trust relationships, and highlighting the risk of living in Europe without legal permission. A well-known strategy is to establish business plans and offering in-kind and in-cash assistance to realise these plans. Such ‘reintegration assistance’ is believed to not only trigger mobility aspirations but also prevent the subsequent formation of an aspiration to re-migrate.

Many return counsellors believe that they play an important role in facilitating and mediating between the life aspirations of rejected asylum seekers and restrictive state policies. The fact that these processes take place under the guise of ‘voluntariness’, even though the return decisions are in most cases far from voluntary, also has severe political implications. Both in Austria and the Netherlands, examples of ‘voluntary return’ have been used to undermine the mobility aspirations and claims of fellow co-nationals. For example, the sudden increase in voluntary returns from Finland to Iraq at the beginning of 2016 led a member of the Austrian parliament to argue that: “When asylum seekers voluntarily return to their home country, this clearly shows that their life and limb were obviously not threatened. For this reason, also Austria should carefully examine future asylum claims of Iraqi citizens to determine whether there really were reasons for flight”. Furthermore, individual return counsellors also refer to the allegedly ‘voluntary’ return of co-nationals to undermine their clients’ claims that they cannot return due to safety reasons. For example, a Dutch state counsellor told an Eritrean rejected asylum seeker that “Eritrea is a safe country; people think that they cannot return to Eritrea all the time, but eventually it always turns out that they actually can”.

Silvia Aru

Silvia Aru is a researcher at the Polytechnic of Turin.

In the EU, asylum-seekers and refugees are not free to choose the member state in which they settle. According to regulations the country of first arrival is, in most cases, responsible for assessing their asylum claim. This ‘geographical principle’ disregards refugees’ own aspirations, personal plans, and pre-existing cultural links. It also traps them in eastern and southern Europe, areas which – generally speaking – provide less socio-economic opportunities to newcomers compared to areas further north.

Some member states have responded to increased flows of migrants into and within Europe, particularly since 2015, by re-imposing internal checks along the national borders. The area of Ventimiglia, on the Italian side of the Italy-French border, is one such patrolled area. The mechanisms for managing and dividing migrants are clearly visible as well as migrants’ attempts to overcome them. Migrants who are prevented from crossing this border act tactically and autonomously despite French-Italian procedures and controls. These tactics differ depending on an individual’s ability, support network, and how he or she is perceived by the asylum system.

The Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is, despite its name, implemented differently depending on the state. Asylum recognition rates for people from the same origin country can vary greatly, and states also show differing levels of appetite for forced returns. It is not by chance that one finds in Ventimiglia not only those who want to cross the border from south to north but also those who are travelling from north to south in the hopes that Italy will accept their asylum claim.

Given the discrepancy in migrants’ personal situations, it is impossible to give a single reply to the impact that migration policies have on displaced people as a whole. In general terms, policies seem to modulate specific aspirations (e.g. stay in or move to a certain country) yet fail in completely preventing irregular mobility.

“Even if they reopened the airports, only the rich would be able to leave. The poor would be left behind.”

– Yemeni refugee in Berlin

Lea Müller-Funk

Lea Müller-Funk is a postdoctoral research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

It’s incorrect to assume, as policymakers usually do, that everybody want to migrate to Europe. Life aspirations play an immense role for how refugees think about onward migration but also about staying in a certain place. In Turkey, I found strong resistance to the idea of migrating to Europe among refugees I interviewed. This came not only from Europe’s policies of deterrence but also from a clear preference to stay geographically close to Syria. It also frequently came from a desire to live in a familiar cultural context. Some respondents told me that they had never thought about moving on.

Refugees who aspired to stay had generally found ways to adapt their life aspirations in ways that were acceptable for them. Some had even managed to maintain elements of continuity, such as continuing to work in their original profession. These refugees often described how they had lived through their loss, grown used to a new life, and were now deciding to focus on the present. Many respondents in Turkey also suggested that they had found ways to navigate the mobility restrictions imposed by the temporary protection system, sometimes choosing irregularity over living in a locality in which they could not access work or reunite with family members as they wanted. Such choices frequently came with consequences, such as being forced to limit their mobility to the neighbourhood in which they worked or to live with falsified documents.

Those who aspired to move on often had very strong ideas about a better life elsewhere. Migration was perceived as an instrument to realise the goals that were out of their reach in Lebanon or Turkey. While some respondents – especially those with higher risk aversion and lower financial means – were deterred by restrictive migration policies and rejected the idea of leaving irregularly, others clearly accepted the risk of moving to Europe by boat or by crossing over land into Greece.

Strange enough, refugees’ political opinions with regard to the conflict are often ignored in public discourse. What is happening politically and militarily inside a country at war is much more important for refugees’ decisions than restrictive migration policies. For example, many interviewees perceived military conscription as much riskier than recruiting a smuggler to get them somewhere. Most interviewees had paid smugglers at one point in their lives or another because it was the only possible way out of Syria.

Not everybody can afford escape. Who is often forgotten in this context are those who are unable to cross international borders – the most vulnerable who do not have the economic resources to leave even if they wanted to. These people are trapped. What happened in the beginning of 2020 in Idlib is a good illustration for this point. Idlib was the last rebel stronghold and served as a refuge for many regime-critical Syrians inside the country who did not want or who did not have the resources to leave. With the regime advancing, these people are quickly running out of options.

Chloe Sydney

Chloe Sydney is a researcher at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) as well as a PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University.

Although Yemen is currently experiencing a horrific humanitarian crisis, restrictive migration policies and the high cost of migration are stopping Yemenis from crossing borders. Those who aspire to leave the country are unable to do so, and the barriers to movement are so great that many stop aspiring to leave altogether. The latest estimates suggest that at least 3.63 million people are living in internal displacement in the country. The number of Yemeni refugees in the region is ten times lower; in Europe, there are so few refugees from Yemen that they are lumped into the ‘other’ category in most tables and charts.

Yemenis have few opportunities for migration. Only 33 countries allow them visa-free access. Neighbouring countries certainly do not: Oman is building a wall; Saudi Arabia started building a border fence as early as 2003 and is leading a military intervention in Yemen. Djibouti, across the Gulf of Aden in Africa, has little to offer: economic opportunities are limited and the main refugee camp sits on a patch of desert where temperatures average over 30°C.

Europe, meanwhile, is all but inaccessible due to the high cost of migration. “Even if they reopened the airports, only the rich would be able to leave. The poor would be left behind,” said a Yemeni refugee in Berlin. Clandestine journeys to Europe can reportedly cost as much as $26,000. International protection is also not guaranteed on arrival. The recognition rate of Yemenis in the European Union is estimated at 82%, but 300 Yemenis were refused entry at external borders between 2015 and 2018.

Because of these restrictive migration policies and the high cost of migration, a high number of the 66 internally displaced people interviewed in Yemen for our recent study said they had never even thought of migrating. Only two respondents aspired to leave the country in the future. Instead of crossing borders, Yemenis face repeated internal displacement, which heightens vulnerability and undermines prospects for durable solutions.

More information and relevant sources can be found in IDMC’s April 2020 reportEven if they reopened the airports: barriers to cross-border movements expose Yemenis to repeated internal displacement.”

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