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Migration: the emergency exit

Everyone accepts that migration is a form of 'emergency exit', but a policy of small improvements should be adopted in order to solve the problem. [Reposted from openDemocracy, June 2003]

A broad, open, political debate on international migration and migration policy is welcome. It is regrettable that the Demos / openDemocracy report on People Flow does not facilitate such a debate, nor does it offer an adequate introduction to the serious problems of current migration policy.

The report suggests reforms of a “social-engineering”-type, as if European migration were a matter of mere administration and not an extremely sensitive political question both within and between nation-states.

Fortunately, the language of People Flow is modest and open to counter-arguments. But the ideas it launches are far too abstract and simplified, and often quite remote from the political realities of European immigration policy. Several fundamental dilemmas remain neglected, as if they could be left outside the scope of this report.

People Flow: wrong description, false prognosis

Only few people emigrate to other countries. Most do not: more than 95% of the world population stay in the country of their birth. International migration is thus not the rule but the exception. How can we explain that, for example, migration from the global south has not been of much larger dimensions? Why do not many more people emigrate from depressed economic conditions to the better opportunities on offer in other countries? Why do many remain even when they are threatened by political persecution or have become the prospective victims of ethnic cleansing?

Migration research to date only partially answers these questions. Economic theories give important clues to why people emigrate and why they return: but say little about why most people do not move. Most of the prevailing theories give the impression that south-to-north and east-to-west migration are both enormous - but they are not!

The People Flow report does not tackle these basic issues, believing instead that international migration answers to some innate human instinct. They are wrong.

The task: make current policy better

Migration can be understood as an emergency exit. In periods of tough immigration restrictions and low labour demand especially, most people who leave their country of origin do so for pressing economic or political reasons. This involuntary or forced migration will continue in the future as long as there is an enormous economic gap between the north and the south, and little hope that basic conditions will improve in the south with regard to employment, poverty, health and political despair.

In People Flow no distinction is made between economic migrants and refugees. The proposal is to treat all migrants in the same way and by the same authorities. Behind this lies the argument that migrants’ economic and political motives are mixed, and that the right of asylum is often abused. This may be true, but without the explicit distinction between economic migrants and refugees the right of asylum and the Geneva Convention of 1951 would be in imminent danger. This in itself makes some of the central proposals in the report unacceptable.

Large parts of the world are governed not by law, but by despotism and terror. In many regimes, human rights are routinely violated; ethnic cleansing and torture are common. Refugees from such regimes must be given protection. Yet the right of asylum is already under threat, as those who need international protection are stopped by democracies in the north that use visa systems, transportation checks and stringent border controls. The need for a clear distinction between economic migrants and refugees is therefore greater than ever. From a human rights perspective, a dictator’s abuse of power may constitute a far more severe crime than any abuse of the right of asylum.

Relatively few of the millions of people who suffer from oppression ask for asylum in another country, and only hundred of thousands enter Europe each year. The main task is therefore not to circumscribe or even abandon the right to international protection, but instead to fully enforce and develop present refugee policy.

Asylum-seekers must not be forced into coordinated EU camps somewhere in the periphery of Europe (as suggested in the report on People Flow, and it seems, accepted even by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In the future, refugees should be able to expect their claims to be heard and evaluated in the country where they first apply for asylum.

For a long time the old refugee system was not amended because of the risk that any substantial change in the international refugee convention would worsen rather than improve the provision made in 1951. Now, when a public debate is at last opening up, most proposals for reform are restrictive. What we need instead are more liberal ideas of how to facilitate the movement of those victims and persecuted persons who are most in need of international protection. For example, asylum applications could be permitted at any EU embassy or UNHCR office around the world, with the possibility of granting refugee status and practical emigration assistance to people who cannot otherwise escape their fate.

In many countries, xenophobic and racist opinion has a direct impact on migration and refugee policy. Politicians fear that new populist parties may build their success by jumping on anti-immigration platforms, and many old political parties have opted for a more restrictive migration policy, as a way avoid losing votes to the populists.

This, however, gives too much weight to the fear that public opinion will punish a liberal migration policy. The voters’ sympathy, and willingness to help people in trouble, must not be underestimated.

Small improvements, large results

Both voters and politicians understand that people do not emigrate under normal and decent conditions. Within both the EU and Nordic common labour markets we already have the desired utopia where migration is both free and low. International migration tends to spin out of control only under specific political and economic circumstances. In co-operation with the south, the north must by all means try to find ways to reduce the abnormal conditions that cause emigration. A number of relatively small improvements could probably achieve a lot. In any case, it is with this end in view that crafting a new European migration policy should be approached.

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