Friday, 16 December 2016

There is no 'silver bullet' migration policy

By Katharina Natter 

Intensified border controls and development cooperation have become the pillars of European immigration policy over the last decades. Yet, the consequences of these policies are often wrongly assessed - in part because discussions about migration and ‘how the problem can be solved’ are often disconnected from analyses of wider social changes.

Recent scientific insights can provide a useful orientation in those debates and explain why development cooperation can only be a long-term strategy to reduce emigration; why more border controls paradoxically lead to more irregular migration; and why migration policies can only be effective if they are coherent with structural developments and wider policy goals in origin and destination countries.

Migration and development - a complex interplay 

One credo of today’s migration policies is that development cooperation reduces emigration. Yet, this is only partly true. As Ronald Skeldon (Sussex University) has shown in his studies on Asia and Latin America since the 1990s, development generally boosts emigration. This is because rising incomes, higher education levels, as well as improved transportation and communication infrastructures increase both people’s aspirations to migrate as well as their capabilities to realize them.

First insights from the Migration as Development (MADE) research project at the University of Amsterdam also show that globalization has in the first place accelerated emigration over the past decades, as in the case of migration from Ethiopia to the Gulf States or from Morocco to Europe. This also explains why the countries with the highest emigration rates worldwide are neither the poorest nor the richest countries, but those with intermediate development levels - such as Mexico or the Philippines.

Only at a relatively high development level does further development reduce emigration. The evolution of Italian and Spanish migration patterns since the 1980s are powerful examples of this transformation from emigration to immigration country. In a 2014 study, the economist Michael Clemens has identified this tipping point at an average income per capita between USD 7000 and USD 8000 per year. But he also highlights that the exact level of this tipping point highly depends on the respective national socio-political context.

Nevertheless: The fact that average per capita incomes are still well below that threshold in most Asian or African countries, apart from those rich in natural resources, suggests that development cooperation can only be a very long-term strategy to counter emigration, at best taking several decades or generations. In the short run, development is more likely to boost emigration from such countries.

Intensifying border controls - a dangerous spiral 

But migration policy decision makers do usually not take into consideration these complex dynamics. The result of this widening gap between the reality of migration patterns and migration regulations is irregular migration. A widespread and in the very short term often successful answer to irregular migration is the intensification of border controls - through the construction of walls, the deployment of police and military, or simply through more red tape. The closure of the ‘Balkan Route’ starting in October 2015 at the border between Hungary and Serbia is only one example of this logic.

Yet, this does not prevent migrants and especially refugees from countries like Syria, Eritrea or Iraq from trying to reach Europe - they now only choose longer, more expensive, more dangerous and also deadlier routes. One result of this situation is the growing number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea - the International Organization for Migration counted 2905 deaths between January and June 2016, nearly twice as many as in the first six months of 2015 and four times as many as in 2014 over the same period. By mid-December 2016, this number has further risen to 4742 deaths.

Paradoxically, rather than achieving its proclaimed aim of ‘combatting’ smuggling networks, increased border controls result in their professionalization. And ironically, the most common response to this result is the further intensification of border controls. This creates a morally and financially counterproductive vicious circle in which border controls, irregular migration and smuggling reinforce each other.

In his newest publication, Douglas Massey (Princeton University) and his colleagues have indeed shown that the militarization of the US southern border has paradoxically increased the number of Mexican irregular migrants in the US: Three decades of data from the Mexican Migration Project provide strong evidence that tougher US border controls have pushed Mexican migrants to change their migration patterns - from commuting seasonally between the US and Mexico into permanently settling in the US.

When is migration policy effective? 

Given the intrinsic link between migration patterns and the broader social, economic and political context within which they evolve, specific migration policy measures have only very little leverage on their own - especially when they go against structural developments in origin and destination countries or contradict the goals of other policy areas such as trade, labor market or foreign policy.

Thus, the growing arms exports of European countries over the past years are only difficult to reconcile with the declared aim to reduce the number of asylum seekers or to ‘tackle the root causes of migration’. Also, it is illusory to expect that specific migration policy measures can counter the migration effects of macro processes such as economic liberalization or demographic transitions - be they a result of the continuously high birth rates in sub-Sahara Africa or of the shrinking generations entering labor markets in Europe and elsewhere.

This does however not mean that states have no room for manoeuvre in shaping international migration. The Determinants of International Migration (DEMIG) project (University of Oxford) has shown that migration policy can be effective in achieving its goals if there is a concertation between the goals of migration policy and the goals of other policy areas and if migration is understood as a structural part of the continuous transformations of destination and origin societies. This requires an understanding of migration not as a deviation from the norm, but as intrinsic to humanity.

In the heated discussion about immigration and the policy measures to ‘solve the problem’, two facts are however often forgotten: First, for a long time, Europe was the continent of emigration par excellence, be it in the context of colonization or as a result of wars, persecution, economic hardship and poverty. Only since the 1960s has Europe become a destination for migrants from all over the world, partly as a consequence of active state recruitment policies, partly as a result of its economic prosperity and attractive socio-political conditions characterized by peace and the rule of law. 

Second, while public and media attention is almost exclusively directed to irregular border crossings, the most recent, available data from Eurostat show that in 2014, 93 percent of all immigrants have entered the EU through regular channels. Even the important increase in irregular migration in 2015 and to a lesser extent in 2016 has not fundamentally changed this reality. Thus, amidst all the more or less valid criticisms, it seems that European migration policies have not failed to the extent often propagated in political und public debates.

About the author: Katharina Natter has a Master in Comparative Political Science from SciencesPo Paris (2012) and worked on the DEMIG project at the International Migration Institute (Oxford University) between April 2013 and June 2015. Since September 2015 she is doing her PhD in the framework of the MADE project at the University of Amsterdam, researching Moroccan and Tunisian immigration policies under supervision of Prof. Hein de Haas.

Previously published in German in Der Standard, “Migrationspolitik: Keine eierlegende Wollmilchsau”, 25 August 2016