For Abdulwahhab Tahhan , a Syrian refugee living in London, European migration policy is absurd. “If you arrive alive, then you have earned your asylum, if not, well, then at least you died trying,” he wrote.
Read this story in one minute.
Tahhan shared his views on February 18 when he joined migration experts from the EU, Nigeria, the UK, South Africa, Canada, Turkey and Syria to share their ideas on how to change migration in a two-hour online, text-based chat .
South African professor Loren Landau said: “We must begin by recognising that letting people drown is not a negative by-product for many, it is an objective. A way of signalling across the sea that your kind is not wanted here. This is a battle about cultural not economic values.”
Both are strong statements which echo so much of what I’ve written for both The Correspondent and De Correspondent over the past few years about Europe’s response to irregular migration.
We know that this response that Landau speaks of, at times, causes grave human rights abuses. We know that many, many migrants die on the way. We know that racist anti-immigration parties are on the rise throughout Europe.
Something needs to change. But what? And how?
We asked 26 experts to join our members and discuss what an alternative European migration policy could look like – and begin to uncover what we could learn from each other.
These are our key takeaways.
There is no migration crisis – know the facts
In order to talk about alternatives and solutions, our experts first needed to debunk some myths. In the European migration debate, these often obscure the conversation.
“Most migrants come on rubber boats via the Mediterranean”
While most discussions are about so-called "irregular" migrants, who arrive in the European Union (EU) without a visa, most migration is actually "regular" – in other words legal. Professor Hein de Haas , who teaches at universities in Amsterdam and Oxford, pointed out that the "overwhelming majority of migrants move within the law. For instance, 9 out of 10 Africans come to Europe with a passport and visa in hand, quite different from popular perceptions."
“Everyone is rushing to European, UK or US borders”
Raphael Shilhav , with Oxfam in Brussels, noted that 90% of migration is regional, with people seeking refuge or opportunities in neighbouring countries.
“Migration is a threat”
However, the European military and security industry would like you to believe it is. Researcher Mark Akkerman pointed out that companies make huge profits from the growing border security market. At the same time, they exert “significant influence in the development of European migration policies, by successfully pushing the underlying narrative of framing migration as a threat, a security problem. Challenging this narrative would be an important step [to] changing EU policies.”
“People migrate because of poverty”
In fact, migrating is expensive, so the poorest of the poor cannot even dream of attempting a trip to Europe. Indeed, most migrants come from the richest countries, not from the poorest (9% of Europeans emigrate while 2.6% of Africans do), as Martijn Pluim , from the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, pointed out.
“Migrants come to steal our jobs”
According to De Haas , the main driver of migration is labour demand: most migrants come to do jobs that are in short supply. This demand is in part shaped by the state. For example, he explains, many people travel to France, but not to The Netherlands to take up work as au pairs because of the highly subsidised child-care system in the latter.
Anyone who considers the facts can only draw one conclusion: there is currently no migration crisis in Europe, even though politicians and much of the mainstream media will often have us think so.
Pluim suggested that policymakers need to come up with diverse policies to reflect "how to react in a crisis (in the sense of a large number of people moving like in 2015) and how to react in calmer situations (like now)." This would create an opportunity to organise migration in a "more comprehensive, smarter way", agreed Bram Frouws , head of the Mixed Migration Centre – who bemoaned the current state of "gridlock" and "ad-hoc crisis reaction" to migration.
More temporary labour migration is a win-win
One way to ensure fewer people attempt a dangerous journey through the Sahara or Mediterranean is to create more legal ways to travel, such as through a development visa scheme . "If the laws are clear [and] visas are easily granted when criteria are met [...], migrants will do everything possible to go through this route rather than patronising smugglers that this present system unintentionally supports,” Oluwafemi Abe said . Abe has been investigating sex trafficking from Nigeria to Russia since 2015.
Livia Remeijers recommended the EU should invest in research "on shortcomings [within its] labour market and potential labour supply from Africa to see if there is a match."
In response Martijn Pluim suggested that , if no matches are found, so-called “global skills partnerships” could “bridge the mismatch in formal and practical qualifications.”.
In order to match European labour demand and foreign labour supply, however, "we would need to ‘Europeanise’ the labour market," said Tineke Strik, Member of European Parliament. "Migrants are often still locked up in the member state of their residence. If we can enhance their right of mobility within the EU, we can foster their integration on the European labour market and solve the mismatch."
But what if migrants overstay their visa? Amanda Bisong – a Nigerian researcher who participated in the chat from the European Centre for Development Policy Management – pointed out that the visa should include grace periods, where "workers who lose their jobs can look for new jobs either in the host country or their country of origin … Where this option is not available, people get "stuck" and would not want to leave, because their chances of return are negligible."
Frouws shared some very innovative ideas to help mitigate against people overstaying their visas, such as a visa deposit that migrants receive back when they leave in time, or "premium access to come back again, offering a further incentive to stick to the rules."
It can be done: look at Canada
What would more (temporary) labour migration look like in practice? Could migrants be selected via a lottery system, as Joris Schapendonk suggested, or, perhaps, via a points system? According to Andrew Griffith , a former senior immigration official in Canada, the latter is a "more objective" alternative.
Canada uses a point system called the " comprehensive ranking system ", which applies to economic migrants only. Of the 1,200 points you can score online, the "core" 600 points are ranked according to factors such as your skills, experience, language skills and education of a spouse or common law partner. An "additional" 600 points are ranked for example according to whether you have a job offer, a sibling who is resident, or if you have strong French language skills.
Ratna Omidvar , an independent senator from Ontario, said political will and public support were key to making the Canadian immigration policy more inclusive than its European counterpart. As Victoria Esses , a psychologist who conducts research on immigration policy and practice, added, the points-based system gives Canadians ”a feeling of control”, which "is important in determining immigration attitudes."
Countries such as Scotland, who with an ageing population need more migrants, have expressed their interest in Canadian rural migration schemes . These connect foreign workers with Canadian employers from small communities which are facing labour shortages.
European countries need to share the "burden" of asylum seekers more equally
European countries don’t all take the same share of asylum seekers, due to the so-called ‘Dublin Regulation’ . This causes great strain on countries such as Italy and Greece, where most asylum seekers arrive. In turn, this fuels populist anti-immigrant parties’ support in those countries. "Dublin", concluded EU parliamentarian Tineke Strik , "should be abolished".
A better redistribution of asylum seekers would be a double edged-sword. On the one hand, it would allow faster and fairer asylum procedures, making migrants less of a burden on society. On the other hand, it may allow for a more humane procedure, said Amanda Bisong , where the migrant could have a say in which country they wanted to claim asylum in. "Meeting such preferences would facilitate cooperation and enhance trust of asylum applicants in the protection system, and this would ease integration processes tremendously," said David Gnes , migration officer at the Catholic relief confederation Caritas.
Everything needed to reform migration policy is there; Europe just needs to implement it
One of the most hopeful takeaways in this conversation came from Frouws , who argued that a total overhaul of the EU migration policy may not be needed. He pointed to an existing number of treaties, guidelines and policy documents that make up an already sensible migration policy: "We just need to start implementing what is already there."
Frouws warned: "We need to be careful not to end up in two parallel worlds: one of meeting rooms and big conferences, where these kind of documents are developed and negotiated, and the "real world" where we constantly see actions contrary to these objectives." He named the example of the Global Compact for Migration , whose objective is to save lives. “Yet, on a daily basis we see the exact opposite happening in the Mediterranean. And the European Parliament recently voted against saving lives at sea.”
In the same vein, Arjan Hehenkamp , former head of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in the Netherlands, mentioned that the the United Nations organisation for refugees (UNHCR) is a good existing system where asylum-seekers start their applications outside the EU. The issue is that European states are not signing up to take these people in. Hehenkamp said : "There is simply no need to imagine or invent a new [scheme] -- states (all and any, regardless of their continent) should simply commit greater numbers to this scheme."
The same goes for the question of how to share the burden of asylum seekers more equally between European countries. Camilla Wismer Hagen from the Danish Refugee Council said that there is already a system in place, under which member states can show solidarity with countries like Italy and Greece. But whilst Italy and Greece send "many requests to other member states” to process some of their asylum claims, these are “often not accepted.”
This leads us to an important question that resonated throughout the conversation: if the main issue is a lack of political will for a more humane and fair migration policy, how could that be changed?
We need a new migration alliance
Over the past few years, the European political left has reacted to the rise of the extreme right by following in its footsteps in problematising and securitising migration. This is “a huge mistake,” according to Mark Akkerman . So, what could be an alternative response?
Let’s look to Canada again, where political will for policies that allow more labour migration is present. According to Victoria Esses , one question to ask policymakers and the public is: why do we need immigrants? What are the benefits? “This has paid off in terms of Canadians generally supporting our immigration policy," she said. "This means immigrants are more likely to integrate into Canadian society and they benefit, as does Canada.”
Martijn Pluim echoed this sentiment, by noting that the “inconceivable political advantage” to the Canadian system is that immigration appears predictable for the broader public. It "calms" the debate, he said, “and increases the policy space for and trust in governments to implement more balanced migration policies.”
People from the pro-trade right and the humanist left must craft a narrative that reframes current policymaking
In this way, strange bedfellows have to work together to create a new migration alliance. “People from the pro-trade right and the humanist left must craft a narrative that reframes current policymaking," said Loren Landau . "They must find a way to argue to fellow Europeans that migration is not inimical, but intrinsic.”
There is a difference between migration control and restriction
There is a crucial difference between migration control and migration restriction, even though they are often used synonymously. Doctoral researcher Katharina Natter wrote: “The main driver of the heated debate about migration is the feeling of "loss of control" [...] Yet, the only political response to this feeling of loss of control so far seems to be increased restriction. This will likely lead to more irregular movements and hereby increase the feeling of control loss. A vicious cycle.”
An alternative European migration policy would move away from equating control and restriction, and towards a situation where control simply means that most people migrate within legal frameworks.
"Sending countries” need to take more control
There is a delicate balance between who "sends" migrants, who "receives" them, and what the nature of their relationship is.
The European focus on restriction and returning migrants to their countries of origin “poisons relationships”, said Martijn Pluim . It’s something Raphael Shilhav has discussed in private conversations: “You often hear the frustration of diplomats and development experts who say that the pressure from "capitals" to "do more on migration" is not based on needs.” He concurred with Pluim that these pressures were “disrupting ongoing partnerships.”
Countries of origin “have a financial interest in irregular migration", added Tineke Strik . "The remittances transferred by labour migrants [to their countries] are essential.”
So whose problem is migration?
Researcher Themrise Khan – herself a migrant from Pakistan, now living in Canada – said “negotiating a more humane migration management policy for the EU, is not just about the EU. Until the discussion is led by migrant-sending countries themselves, it is not possible to discuss such a policy.”
In a bid to do just that, Anna Alboth explained that she includes migrant voices in her work as a media officer for the Minority Rights Group. Kekeli Kpognon advocates for more research on migration in the Global South.
We should learn from cities and towns
At national or European level the migration debate is often heated and deadlocked, yet if we look at the city or town level, we see something completely different.
It’s a more pragmatic level, said Bram Frouws , “where cities deal with issues of reception of asylum seekers and access to services for undocumented migrants”. Giving cities a stronger voice could add a good dimension to migration policy.
It’s something that Başak Yavcan has seen in her research in two very different municipalities in Istanbul, showed how participation and partnerships between NGOs, the EU, or others led to higher levels of refugee integration, which surpassed the national average.
Maybe we should not be talking about migration policy at all
“One problem with the talk about migration policy is that it focuses on migration policy - as absurd as it may sound,” said Katharina Natter . What if instead, we talked about “health care, labour markets, education etc, and look at migration through the lens of these topics - not the other way round.”
Natter went on: “Conversations like these can paradoxically contribute to the exceptionalist discourse around migration rather than fostering its normality.”
By talking about migration in the light of “something that is more politically palatable”, Loren Landau agreed : “we have a better chance of progressive change.”
Reading list – from experts and members
- Hein de Haas is co-author (with Stephen Castles and Mark Miller) of The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World .
- A good piece of research is "Indicators of Integration", published in the early 2000s (and which has been updated since). It laid the foundations of a model for good practice, but its findings were never fully resourced or turned into a national plan.
- Innovative Concepts for Alternative Migration Policies: Ten Innovative Approaches to the Challenges of Migration in the 21st Century, edited by Michael Jandl.
- The Overseas Development Institute produced an interesting podcast on "migration as a driver of development", instead of presenting it as an issue that hampers development in receiving countries. In fact, migration promotes socio-economic growth in host countries, but so few people know this.
- "Mayors And Migrants, An Interview With Dr. Barak Kalir And Arja Oomkens", where Arja Oomkens is interviewed about migration in Europe
- A Plausible Solution to the Refugee Crisis, shared by Başak Yavcan : "scholar Kemal Kirisci assessed the feasibility of... incentivising the production of refugees or facilities (farms/factories) where both refugees and affected host community members work... in the Turkish agricultural sector".
- "The Hungry and the Fat", by Timur Vermes (a German novel recommended by Marc-Jan, a member ).
- "This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto", Suketu Metha (a memoir recommended by Marc, a member ).