The tough migration questions Europe needs to answer


Picture of Annette Jünemann
Annette Jünemann

Although border fences have been getting higher and higher, they are still far from watertight, and hopefully this Fortress Europe will never be finalised. Fences, be they material or constructed through law, are highly anachronistic in a world of globalising markets, capital flows, labour, communication and elites. But this does not mean that we are helpless, overwhelmed or paralysed by the refugee crisis. On the contrary, we face a historic challenge that demands joint efforts from many different angles and by a multitude of actors. Innovative ideas are needed, because there is no precedent we can learn from, and courage is needed, because much of what we perceive as ‘normal’ will most probably change. To truly understand our situation, though, I plea for a drastic change of perspective.

The EU contributes to economic distress in MENA countries

We in Europe tend to focus on the crowded refugee camps or train stations that we see every day in the media, but a thorough analysis should start with the root causes of migration outside Europe. In migration studies, we used to talk about push-and-pull factors as migration triggers. But that concept is overly simplistic, as it suggests that the sending countries are responsible for push factors and receiving countries for the pull factors. In reality, the factors determining migration are highly interwoven. Very often, the ‘receiving’ country is part of the problem of the ‘sending’ country, due to political and economic interdependence. The highly asymmetric Euro-Mediterranean trade regimes are a case in point. EU protectionism for agricultural and other sensitive goods like textiles is a disadvantage to the Mediterranean Partner countries that are not allowed to protect their markets reciprocally. The EU also contributes to economic distress in MENA countries through fishing rights that allow European fish trawlers to empty the coastal waters of North African countries.

Europe needs to centre its view more closely on the migrants themselves. Neglecting the political, socio-economic and ideational factors that determine the choices of migrants is one of the main reasons why so many government measures to control migration fail. People who are forced to leave their country do not refrain from doing so only because of new laws in Germany or elsewhere. Whenever a receiving country introduces new immigration restrictions, migrants will adapt to the new situation and look for new ways to accomplish their goal, most likely generating support for the human trafficking industry. If we adopt the perspective of the migrant, we discover that the distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘the economic’ refugee is highly artificial. The reasons why a person migrates are always mixed. The dissident prosecuted for political reasons has very often already lost his job. Discriminated minorities usually suffer from economic marginalisation and civil war has severe political, economic and social consequences on civilians that together motivate them to flee their country. Selective categories such as political, economic, or civil-war refugees are core elements of EU and national migration policies. Although these labels all too often have little to do with the reality of the migrant, they have an enormous impact on his or her life, because they can easily turn a person into a ‘legal’ or an ‘illegal’ migrant. When being looked upon and treated as an illegal person, migrants are not only deprived of fundamental rights, but a new identity is forced upon them.

The EU has no idea what happens to the re-admitted migrants once they leave European soil

The EU’s current migration policies produce dreadful side effects. Today, member states perform a race to the bottom with regard to human and legal standards. It is well known that the EU externalises migration control through, among other methods, re-admission agreements concluded with Mediterranean partner countries that can hardly be labelled as ‘safe’ due to their low human-rights standards. According to these agreements, southern countries have to re-admit irregular migrants from Europe, including those that have come from third countries. The EU has no idea what happens to the re-admitted migrants once they leave European soil. Neither the EU nor its member states take any responsibility for their fate, which is left in the hands of dubious partners. Why do southern governments agree to such deals? Re-admission agreements are linked to incentives such as better access to the EU market or visa facilitation for some elites. This worked quite well for Europe in times of asymmetric interdependencies favouring the EU, but times have changed, empowering southern governments to better follow their own goals with regard to migration policies. Current negotiations with Turkey are a good example.

To understand the deficits of Europe’s migration policies and to identify the stumbling blocks hampering the integration of immigrants, we have to question how migrants are treated in Europe. How does the EU as a supranational entity address refugees? What do the debate and the practice of migration policies reveal about Germany, Sweden, Poland or Hungary? What are the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion? What concepts of ‘society’, ‘nation’ or ‘citizenship’ dominate discussion? What role has Islamophobia in this context? Answers to these questions are extremely important for identifying the vast complexity of integration processes. The integration of huge numbers of new immigrants is, in my view, one of the biggest challenges for European societies since the end of World War II. Again, empathy with migrants and their diverse fates may be a decisive key to succeed.

The empathic ability to put oneself in the place of a migrant is a decisive prerequisite for developing effective solutions

Fortress Europe can protect territory, but contradicts our values. By locking out people in need, we give up exactly the values we pretend to protect. The higher the fences grow, the better the business of human traffickers; only they will profit from Fortress Europe. So what could be done instead? Decision-makers should first of all accept and communicate the fact that we do not face a temporary refugee crisis, but a process that will most likely continue for the coming decades. The empathic ability to put oneself in the place of a migrant is a decisive prerequisite for developing effective solutions. To develop an adequate long-term strategy, our state-centric and Euro-centric viewpoints need to be replaced by much wider analytical perspectives that identify the political, economic and social factors behind a migrant’s actions. Addressing the root causes of migration should have first priority, and implies that the EU and its member states critically review transnational regimes in trade, security and migration. Furthermore, safe and legal routes for migration need to be established through new and innovative formats of mobility. Those migrants already in Europe as well as those that still to come need to be integrated into society, preferably by giving them quick access to education and work. Last but not least, it’s time that decision-makers and societies alike accept that our idea of ‘normal’ is likely soon to change.

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