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Five false assumptions driving EU migration policy

Rescued refugees and migrants wait to leave an Italian Coastguard vessel in Palermo, Italy. Francesco Malavolta/UNHCR
More than 85,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in smugglers’ boats since the start of 2015, and the peak sailing season is only just getting under way.

Policymakers in Europe are under pressure to quickly formulate responses to the unprecedented influx, but they are doing so with only a superficial understanding of what is driving it, researchers say. 

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) Europe, a Brussels-based think tank, has just released a report – Before the Boat: Understanding the Migrant Journey - based in part on interviews with 120 migrants and potential migrants in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

The report challenges some of the “simplistic assumptions” currently informing the drafting of migration policies. Here are five common misconceptions:

Migrants embark on perilous journeys because they don’t understand the risks

Research has consistently found that migrants are usually well-informed about the dangers of a particular route, but view the expected benefits of reaching their destination as worth the risks. 
The MPI report notes that people are generally not very good at calculating risk and migrants have the same tendency as the rest of us to underestimate immediate dangers when they are focused on realising a longer-term goal.

Forced migrants such as those fleeing the conflict in Syria often experience severe hardships in places where they seek refuge such as Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. Remaining in those countries may feel more dangerous than the short-term risk involved in reaching a place of safety in Europe.

If migrants are already well aware of the risks associated with relying on smugglers to reach Europe, information campaigns in countries of origin and transit, such as those implemented by the International Organisation for Migration (with funding from the EU), probably have limited impact. The MPI report suggests that potential migrants often dismiss these awareness campaigns as “biased propaganda”. 

Similarly, opening a multi-purpose centre in Niger to “help provide a realistic picture of the likely success of migrants’ journeys” – one of the actions outlined in the EU’s recently released Agenda on Migration, may do little to dissuade migrants who have already embarked on journeys to Europe.

Director of MPI Europe Elizabeth Collett pointed out that the EU opened a similar information centre in Mali in 2008. “It didn’t last very long; it wasn’t a success,” she told IRIN. “There are some question marks about what would be different about this one.”

Origin and transit countries can stem the flow of irregular migrants

Another key element of the new EU Agenda on Migration is “working in partnership with third countries to tackle migration upstream”. The approach includes helping such countries strengthen their borders and crack down on smuggling networks, as well as implementing readmission agreements that allow the EU to return irregular migrants to countries such as Turkey and Tunisia.

The MPI report warns that source and transit countries have limited interest or capacity to deal with irregular migration and that practical implementation of cooperation agreements has been slow.

“The political importance of stopping irregular migrant arrivals in the European Union is not shared by third-country partners,” note the authors, who recommend longer-term, broad-based political engagement with relevant countries.

In the meantime, member states may need to adjust their expectations. 

Why would you expect Sudan to do better at dealing with migrants and organised crime if Greece is very much struggling to respond to what it's facing?
“Why would you expect Sudan to be better at dealing with migrants and organised crime if Greece is very much struggling to respond to what it’s facing?” reasoned Jacob Townsend, one of the authors of the report.

“The idea you can just ask your partners to do something about it when it’s clearly a massive challenge – you might just be setting yourself up for frustration.”

Collett of MPI advised EU foreign ministers to view the migration challenge as an opportunity to think more holistically about development and humanitarian issues in source and transit countries.

“Behind the scenes, there’s an understanding it needs to evolve into a broader foreign affairs agenda,” she told IRIN. “How it plays out in practice, depends on (EU foreign affairs and security policy chief) Federica Mogherini and how willing she is to mainstream it into her agenda.”

Migrants are victims of smugglers

“There’s an implicit view that the smuggler is the supplier of services and the migrant is just a passive victim or commodity,” said Townsend. “But that’s a bit erroneous in most cases, that’s more like human trafficking. In migrant smuggling, the migrant is an active player facing various difficult choices; they’re more like a consumer.”

Migrants seek out information and recommendations from friends and relatives who have already made the journey and, to a lesser extent, rely on information available on social media, before making decisions about which smugglers to use. 

“Sometimes smugglers are seen as the ones you need to stay alive,” said Christel Oomen, the report’s co-author. “They can be seen more as a tour guide; someone who knows how to travel certain roads which are feared more in certain areas because of government forces – for example the road between Bengazi and Tripoli (in Libya).”

She added that migrants distinguish between different types of smugglers from the Libyan bosses who control the boats to agents and facilitators back home. “Just to use the word ‘smuggler’ without defining it better doesn’t really resonate with a lot of migrants.”

Cracking down on smuggling networks will significantly reduce irregular migration

Smuggling networks are fluid and capable of adapting to new policies and law enforcement initiatives quicker than governments are able to draft them. They also often rely on loose collaborations that include corrupt officials and people running legitimate businesses such as travel agencies or transport companies.

Attempting to disrupt smuggling networks with a short-term military campaign such as the one currently being planned by EU foreign and defense ministers to target migrant smugglers in Libya is likely to have no more than a temporary affect, said Townsend. “The key question is how long you can sustain it? Politically, and in terms of the costs. It’s extremely likely that smugglers can outlast the EU if it’s the only plank of an approach.”

Migration and asylum policies have a major impact on migrants’ choice of destination

Migrants interviewed for the MPI report had varying levels of understanding of migration policy in Europe. Their decision to opt for a particular European country often had less to do with its migration policies than the presence of a strong diaspora community and attractive economic and social conditions.

While the EU’s legal and policy frameworks depend on separating migrants into two categories: those who have a legitimate claim to asylum and those who don’t, migrants themselves often do not make such distinctions. 

“The majority of people we’ve spoken to, the key question is the long-term outcome. So they don’t really care what their legal category is. They just want the question answered – will I be able to reside in Europe long term?” said Townsend. 

A better understanding of how migrants are influenced by EU policies could result in more effective interventions, said Collett, who acknowledged that even with a stronger evidence base to draw on, EU policymakers were often constrained by the politics surrounding migration issues in Europe.

“You do get a sense that the EU is willing to think more about the complexities of this, but they’re just right at the beginning of this process and it’ll be deeply shaped by events and by politics.”


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