The Migration Narrative: Shifting the Focus

Migration has been, along with Brexit, one of the most prominent subjects discussed in the EU in recent years. Always high on the agenda, the issue of migration has divided EU states. At the final summit of 2018, EU leaders failed to reach an agreement on the restructuring of migration and asylum policies. One of the main contested issues was the relocation of asylum seekers. The European Council’s conclusions focused on the success of the controls at the EU’s external borders and underlined the necessity of continuing the policies of increased external action. Along the same lines, EU legislation and budgetary plans focus on the interrelation between migration and security – two terms inextricably connected in both European discourse and implemented policies.

The EU’s approach to migration and refugee flows entered into a crisis mode in 2011 and reached an apogee in 2015. And it is through this lens of crisis, that the EU continues to operate. This is clearly and quantitatively reflected in the significant reinforcement of the EU budget for the management of external borders, migration, and refugee flows. The period 2021-2027 sees an increase of 166% to 33 billion euros, in comparison to 12.4 billion euros for the period 2014-2020. However, the ‘Global Approach to Migration and Mobility’ is defined by the Commission as an ‘overarching framework of EU external migration policy’ and its intention is to address migration challenges in a holistic way, by helping legal migration, combatting irregular migration, and maximising the development impact of migration and mobility. In contrast, within EU legislation, rhetoric and applied policies, the overriding aspect regarding EU external migration policy is a securitised and control-oriented strategy to unwanted immigrants.

In this context, it is questionable whether the UN ‘Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’ will have any effect at all on the reframing of the migration discussion After almost two years of negotiations and despite sabotage by far-right voices, the UN adopted this agreement that was negotiated amongst nation-states to address challenges posed by international migration in an all-encompassing manner. The agreement signed by 152 countries acknowledges that ‘migrants and refugees may face common challenges and similar vulnerabilities’ and that their human rights must always be respected and protected. Despite the fact that the compact is legally non-binding, the United States, Hungary, Israel, the Czech Republic, and Poland voted against, citing concerns about national sovereignty, whilst 12 countries abstained. The argument from its critics is that the compact constitutes ‘soft law’ that might oblige governments to future commitments on human rights and expansion of asylum policies.

One of the objectives within the UN compact is the minimisation of structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin, including a clause for natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change, and environmental degradation. Apart from urging nations to prevent causes of migration by investing in the development of countries of origin and encouraging good governance, it clearly underlines the interrelationship between human mobility and climate change. Most significantly, it encourages countries to work together toward common goals and is a prime opportunity for Europe and its global partners to re-evaluate their migration and asylum policy frameworks.

Ethics must also enter into the equation of managing migration, considering the horror of detention centres and the numerous deaths caused by the traversal of riskier routes. As Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, has stated: ‘more than 60,000 migrants have died on the move since the year 2000… [and this is] a source of collective shame’.

Transnational mobility is inevitable. People will not stop moving, as they have always done; either because of natural disasters, wars, and conflict, or from the desire for a better life. Political elites need to convince their electorates of these facts and, at the same time, work together toward the sustainable development of migration. Crucially, there is a growing need to focus on the climate change and migration nexus. The lack of clarity in the way that climate change affects migration underestimates the urgency for the creation of a legislative and policy framework that will respond to this twofold and global challenge. The International Organisation of Migration states that extreme weather events, the rise in sea levels, and acceleration of environmental degradation is expected to trigger growing population movements and a substantial rise in the scale of migration and displacement. According to statistics published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, every year since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes or droughts.

Migration will continue to top the European political agenda for yet another year. Tougher border controls, absence of fair burden-sharing between European countries, and externalisation strategies will again define the EU’s approach in 2019. Additionally, taking into account the divisions within the EU and the loud and disruptive voice of populists, the momentum offered by the UN compact will likely be lost. If European political elites wish to have a far-sighted approach, they boldly need to stress the reality of humanitarian issues and allay the fears of local electorates, in order to refute the fear mongering of the far right that has taken hold in too many countries.

They need to leverage these arguments and shift the current focus away from the flawed security-oriented policy framework, toward a fundamentally more sustainable and ethical approach to migration.

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.