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The dilemmas of migration and the alternatives

Force and denial are not going to solve the migrant crisis—instead we must turn to long-term economic, political, and cultural solutions.

Ian Pace/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The EU has approved the use of force to combat human trafficking on the Mediterranean. Groups of Moroccan immigrants frequently try to jump the fence into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia turn away boats with thousands of people fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh. In South Africa, foreign workers from neighbouring countries face vicious attacks. And ‘coyotes’ (traffickers) are making their fortunes illegally by passing people between Central America, Mexico and the United States.

These are only a few examples of the thousands of people who prefer to die at sea or at the hands of traffickers than to live in penury, in the midst of repression or violence. Borders at sea and on land create the dramatic spaces where more people every year try to make their way to a different life.

In Europe, some see the influx of foreigners as an advantage—providing a young workforce to contribute to sustaining the social security system. Others consider it a source of crime. Some believe that societies are never static and that multiculturalism is enriching, while others fear it causes a loss of identity, or increasingly link migration with jihadist terrorism.

Informing these views is the powerful, sometimes hidden component of racism on the one hand, and on the other a power discourse apparently unable to do anything about immigration and the growing demands for political asylum, except to try and stop or restrict them.

Hedged in by these restrictive narratives—which present no alternative other than to close down the gateways of the US, Europe, Australia and increasingly some southern countries—international conventions on asylum are sidelined, as are moral and humanitarian considerations and the economic and financial alternatives that could be implemented to strategically reduce the need for people to migrate.

As with other international problems (such as climate change and organized crime), migration is a complex issue with no single, immediate solution. However, a series of economic measures together with a greater determination in resolving armed conflicts could help alleviate the causes for mass migration in the medium and long term. If a strategic approach is not adopted, the problem will grow until it becomes impossible to manage.

Inequality, poverty and violence

The crisis in Europe and the United States has benefited a conservative approach, as populist leaders capitalize on the fear of immigration and use it to spearhead their chauvinist narratives. In times of crisis, subjective feelings of fear are easy to spread. The anti-immigration discourse of the extreme right has gained adherents in centrist and socialist parties and among their voters, as seen in the recent elections in Britain.

Meanwhile the data corroborate the correlation between poverty, inequality, war and violence, on the one hand, and migrants and asylum seekers, on the other. The number of Syrians and Palestinians grows in parallel to the lack of political solutions in their countries. Meanwhile, the disintegration of Libya—two governments, dozens of armed groups, the presence of so-called Islamic State—is increasing both the number of people who want to flee and the number of traffickers.

Even without open war or repression, however, the global system with its growing reliance on robotics is a machine that increasingly puts people out of work, especially the younger generations, and results in massive inequality and depredation.

Vertical and horizontal movements of people

According to UNHCR, “More than 218,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in 2014—almost three times the previous high in 2011 during the 'Arab Spring'…More than 3,500 women, men and children were reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea in 2014.”

It is estimated that another 200,000 will attempt to cross the Mediterranean in 2015, with numbers increasing by the end of the year.

Europe is alarmed by the northbound movement of people, but in the Middle East and North Africa, as in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America, the flow is horizontal. People move where they can, from centers of conflict such as the Middle East, Somalia, Nigeria, Burundi, Central African Republic, Myanmar and Mali. (In the same way, families try to protect their children from the maras or gangs in Guatemala and El Salvador by paying the coyotes to take them out of harm’s way.)

Interestingly, the largest number of immigrants in the inter-European flows of people between 2010 and 2013 came from eastern Europe to southern Europe and northern and southern Europe to northern Europe, thanks to the financial crisis.

Despite the increase in asylum applications in the north, most refugees live in precarious conditions close to their countries of origin. According to UNHCR, even though Syrians were the largest group seeking asylum in industrialized countries in 2014, “their number remains modest compared to the number of Syrian refugees hosted by surrounding countries. The overall number registered or awaiting registration in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey had surpassed the 3.9 million mark.”

Debate over the use of force

On May 11, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union Foreign and Security Council, spoke at the UN Security Council. She presented five recommendations for EU policy: respect international agreements on asylum and refuge; rescue people whose lives are at risk in the Mediterranean; discuss a plan for relocation of refugees among EU members; provide bilateral development assistance to the countries of origin; and use all legal and military means to combat illicit trafficking.

This last point is the most controversial; though the use of force has EU approval, it has not been given the go-ahead by the United Nations. France, Lithuania, the UK and Spain, however, are preparing a draft UN Security Council resolution for the use of force to interdict, board or destroy traffickers’ boats—following the model of Operation Atalanta against piracy off the coast of Somalia.

There are many legal, political, moral and practical reservations against this, especially with regards to the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants in accordance with EU rules of 1990 and 2003.

When people want to escape they use all possible means: testimonies show that some African immigrants travel for up to four years trying to reach Europe. In a recent conversation with a Caritas representative in Colombia, he told me that more than a hundred Somalis are asylum seekers in that country. They cross the African continent eastbound, then stow away on transport ships from Angola to Brazil, and from there cross into Colombia.

Alternative policies

Bombings will not stop migration. On the contrary, many repressive measures lead to a proliferation of illegal migration methods and the number of traffickers. Instead, though most recipient countries present the problem as almost impossible to solve, there are many alternatives to the use of force, expulsion and barriers. Europe, the United States and other recipient countries could plan the integration of these people, safely and legally, with educational, training and employment mechanisms. 

UN forums suggest integrating the discussions about refugees, migrants and internally displaced people into the current review of sustainable development goals, and linking it to respect for human rights and the protection of vulnerable people.

The 2014 UN Secretary General report on international migration and development has many important and concrete suggestions on how to manage migration internationally.  A report by the Australian Refugee Council concludes that refugees "can diversify and enhance the skill level of the population, increase economies of scale and foster innovation and flexibility.”

A World Bank report concludes that refugees bring skills, boost the demand for products and services locally, and attract remittances from abroad. According to Philippe Legrain, an economic adviser to the president of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014,

“Studies by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that migrants tend to be net contributors to public finances. Educated abroad, they are typically young and healthy, and unlikely to be eligible for a pension if they leave again. Far from being a threat to Europe’s welfare programs, increased migration could make them more sustainable. An influx of new taxpayers would also alleviate the debt burden of the existing population.”

The racism component

The governments of industrialized countries, and increasingly of the so-called emerging powers, are not adopting regulations in investment, trade and finance that could help diminish the number of migrants. For example, bilateral and multilateral agreements for strategic development cooperation between northern and southern countries could set up fees and labour regulations for permanent and temporary workers.

After analyzing a series of possible measures in these fields, international consultant Peter Stalker concludes that governments leave immigrants to be the "shock absorbers of the overall economy, forced to embark on perilous voyages and work illegally, and thus exposed to all forms of abuse and exploitation."

It is also crucial to work on political and cultural aspects, addressing the rise of racism in its different forms in the political and media discourses towards immigrants. As long as the racist narrative of the right is perpetuated, which links migration and asylum seekers with terrorism and unemployment, and sees them as a dangerous community instead of citizens, it will be more difficult to identify and manage complex problems like marginalization, jihadism, racism, and Islamophobia.

As with other problems of the international system, mass movements of people must be managed with the legal, social and political resources available. The alternative is to lock them in crowded camps where they live in inhuman conditions or push them to wander through Europe, joining the growing mass of "disposable and wasted lives"—to quote Zygmunt Bauman—for whom there is no place throughout modern society.

An earlier version of this article was published in Spanish in El Mundo.

About the author

Mariano Aguirre is an international policy analyst, and was director of NOREF (Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution) from 2009 to 2016, where he is now senior advisor. Previously, he worked at various research centers and at the Ford Foundation in New York. He recently published Salto al Vacío, a book about the crisis unfolding in the United States.

Mariano Aguirre es analista de política internacional, y fue director de NOREF (Centro Noruego para la Resolución de Conflictos) desde 2009 a 2016, centro en el que ahora es senior advisor. Antes trabajé en diversos centros de investigación y en la Fundación Ford en Nueva York. Recientemente ha publicado Salto al Vacío, un libro sobre la crisis que se vive en Estados Unidos.


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