In an era of uncertainty, rapid technological advances, and a changing global balance of power, migration can be regarded as both a consequence and a driver of the global political and economic processes. Environmental, economic, and technological transformations relating to the deepening of globalisation have had a seismic impact on human mobility. To give a sense of perspective, according the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in 2019 there were 272 million migrants worldwide; although large in outright terms this constitutes a ‘small’ percentage of the world’s population at 3.5%, meaning that the majority of the people reside in the country in which they were born. International remittances stand at USD 689 billion in 2020 (having grown from USD 126 billion since 2000) which demonstrates both the scale of global migration and its significant role in terms of international investment and development.

At present, migration is one of the greatest subjects of contention and political agendas across the globe. It has not only been used as a political tool for domestic politics, but has also been increasingly and flagrantly used as a diplomatic tool in foreign affairs. The politicisation of migration has been a central element in electoral campaigns and has been escalated as a serious matter of public concern, posing an alleged danger to social cohesion, economic prosperity, national identity, public health, and public security. Right-wing populists in numerous countries have used migration as a scaremongering tool, serving to reinforce uncertainty in the minds of citizens, whilst sidelining objective benefits of migration. Indisputably, the politicisation of migration has clearly been a polarising force and has stoked already divisive public discourse.

On the international level, human mobility has an important effect on the conduct of foreign policy and diplomatic relations. For example, the externalisation of border and control policies (i.e. the process of outsourcing border control beyond one’s own territory) has been a long-standing choice by the EU, in order to deter the arrival of unwanted immigrants. Large sums of money are provided by the EU and individual European countries through mechanisms such as the Migration Partnership Framework, the Refugee Facility for Turkey (€3 billion), and the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (€4.2 billion) toward projects aimed at halting migration into Europe. The EU’s collaboration with third countries (such as Turkey, Libya, Egypt, Niger, and Sudan) has consisted of financing deportation camps on their soil, the training of police and border officials, and investment in surveillance and biometric systems. The problematic aspect of these relationships is that these countries receiving funds often have authoritarian regimes with poor records with regard to human rights. In the framework of these alliances, there have been many cases where international law obligations have been broken, such as the principle of non-refoulement and the principle of non-discrimination, and in other cases detention centres function as prison camps.

Looking at Turkey, President Erdogan has threatened several times to ‘open the gates’ and ‘flood’ Europe with migrants, when EU membership talks were postponed. Turkey’s geographical position and choice of diplomacy transforms migrants into a bargaining chip and a ‘weapon’. Refugees have also been used as negotiating tool, one of integration for market access. The primary example is the Jordan Compact, whose intention was to issue 200,000 work permits for Syrians in Jordan, in exchange for the establishment of special economic zones and preferential access to European markets for Jordanian companies employing Syrians.

In Europe, migration has been one of the primary subjects of public discourse through 2019, along with other dominant issues such as Brexit and the climate crisis. However, the EU remains empty-handed regarding a clear position on migration and asylum policies. Migration governance continues to divide European countries and exemplifies weaknesses of the union, such its glaring lack of burden-sharing.

Additionally, the vulnerability and desperation associated with irregular migration have exacerbated smuggling and human trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation. Nor is the state of affairs changing for the better, with the European Commission noting a sharp increase in child trafficking.

In 2020, expect that the EU will continue to be haunted by the challenging governance of irregular migration, the establishment of a firm asylum policy framework, and the battle against smuggling networks. Also, it is uncertain whether the planned, increased funding for partner countries outside the EU aimed at the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and consolidation of democracy, will dampen the desire of those seeking a route to the wealth of Europe via the treacherous routes that have claimed so many lives. Margaritis Schinas, the Vice President of the European Commission, has assured that a new and sustainable European policy for handling refugees and migrants will be the main priority for the von der Leyen administration. The reform of the Dublin Regulation that is expected in spring 2020 is good news for the presently inadequate European asylum system. At least it offers a ray of hope in the increasingly dark and highly politicised approach to human mobility governing the world at the start of this decade.

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Dr. Foteini Kalantzi is the A.G. Leventis Research Officer at SEEXOX, the University of Oxford’s South East European Studies programme at the European Studies Centre.