Ask the right questions, get the right answers – The EU’s response to migration and its focus on root causes

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      The EU aims to make concerted efforts to address the situation of migrants arriving at its borders. While it has ambitions for ‘comprehensive’ action and pursues various policy avenues, the comprehensiveness of action is constrained by how the debate is framed. An example is the focus on root causes of migration, which has done little to foster a balanced and comprehensive view of what is a very complex issue.   In recent months the EU has come under much scrutiny for its migration policies - little successful action had been taken at the EU level following the Lampedusa disaster of 2013. The deaths of 800 migrants at sea in April 2015 emphasised once again the need to step up EU collective efforts and this latest in a series of tragedies has forced the EU to hold a number of Summits. The Commission presented its European Agenda on Migration, followed by the June Council Conclusions, on how to organise a comprehensive approach going forward. So far the EU response has been characterised by unilateral action rather than attempting to find solutions jointly with African countries, which have seemingly been absent from the debate. However, the EU is hosting an Africa-EU Summit in Valletta, Malta this November with the aim of correcting this and in the knowledge that effectively addressing this situation will require collective efforts.

      Courtesy of the European Council 

      According to the EU’s own statements it seems that, internally at least, the EU is now making concerted efforts to address the situation of migrants arriving at its borders. There has been more coordination and joint meetings between the different policy actors with foreign affairs, justice, home and development all being involved. Yet, questions still remain around how comprehensive the EU’s planned actions really are. One example is the EU’s vision to ‘address the root causes of (irregular) migration’ which is part of the policy plan. Root causes of ‘what’? Policy responses and strategies are influenced by the way actors perceive the nature of the problems they face, the objectives that they seek and ideas on how best to achieve them. For the EU, what exactly is the perceived problem that needs to be tackled at its roots? Formulated differently – the root causes of what is the focus? Different wording has been used – in the European Agenda on Migration it ranges from ‘addressing the root causes of irregular and forced displacement’ to‘addressing the root causes of irregular migration’ (i.e. all migrants taking non-regular routes) while in the most recent Council Conclusions it simply refers to ‘addressing the root causes of migration’. At least in the language of the Council, the nature of the problem seems to be more about people moving in the most basic sense - and the objective appears to disincentivise any type of unwanted migrants from even starting to make a journey to Europe. The discourse is less about addressing the root causes of the irregularity of movement or the irregularity of stay (given that many come through regular ways and then become irregular over time). If the discourse was about irregularity, then the tensions between the number of refugees and migrants produced by conflicts, crisis, lack of livelihoods, the absence of regular channels or legal possibilities of stay offered for these different migrant groups should receive more attention. However, the closure of EU borders to some migrants is not identified as part of the root cause of ‘irregular’ migration. Offering regular ways would reduce, at least for some, the need to revert to irregular channels. But, while a few EU member states have started to look into other legal ways for those seeking protection, progress is difficult and the authority for deciding the admission numbers (or ‘competence’) lies with EU member states, which makes it difficult for EU institutions to coordinate. Tilting at windmills? The framing of the problem as containment of unwanted migration, to be solved by addressing root causes, may result in courses of action with little success, as the assumptions underlying these notions may be simplistic or under researched. It also throws up a number of further challenges for comprehensive EU action. First, it risks the EU taking a step backwards from the comprehensive and positive understanding developed in the Global Approach on Migration and Mobility or the EU contribution to the 2013 UN High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development.  Here migration is not seen as a problem to be stopped but rather as a phenomenon that can be harnessed for the development of origin and destination countries as well benefiting the migrants themselves - if it is governed well. Second, this approach risks conflating migration and asylum issues all under the category of ‘irregular migration’. The current EU debate has done little to foster a balanced view towards the legitimate needs and international protection of refugees. The root causes for migration are complex and certainly those fleeing from conflict cannot easily be ‘disincentivised’ in the same way as those who choose to migrate for other reasons. Third, it constrains the range of tools available. While the Agenda on Migration puts several options on the table, including new legal channels for movement, the Council Conclusions mainly highlights readmission and return issues, ways to discourage migration and reducing the ‘push factors’ through development cooperation. Even in the Agenda on Migration, such regular ways of migrating are not part of the narrative of addressing the root causes, despite the fact that migration can have powerful effects for various dimensions of development. In the short-term, carrier sanctions could be revised to reduce the need to take irregular ways of migrating. Yet this has not yet entered the political debate. In the longer term, creative ways could be found to match the skills of potential migrants demand in European labour markets. There is still hope that the long-term legal aspects promised in the Agenda on Migration will be developed. Comprehensive ideas to address root causes? While root causes of forced displacement mainly relate to conflict and violations of human rights, the drivers of migration more generally are complex and relate to people’s aspirations as a result of inequality, unemployment or underemployment, lack of livelihoods and resources and weak governance. Whether addressing these issues will reduce migration or not, one can agree that they deserve attention. The only tool mentioned by the most recent June Council Conclusions to address these root causes is the use of more targeted development cooperation and enhancing investment in Africa. While certainly this has some part to play in contributing to more sustainable development and reducing the risks of conflict - leaving it solely to development cooperation seems a tall order especially when ‘beyond aid’ is the order of the day. The EU Agenda on Migration does show the EU thinking more comprehensively, using the EU’s external action to address the root causes with more involvement of its 140 Delegations around the world. Yet, it remains silent on policy coherence across a wide array of policies like trade, fisheries, consumption and taxation. All these have an impact on the livelihoods of potential migrants and influence migration dynamics. Conflicts and violence that displaces people are intertwined with transnational drivers of conflict like illicit arms flows, the drugs trade and the global economic system. Rather than framing migration as an issue that needs to be addressed ‘out there’ through development aid, EU leaders should also look more ‘at home’ to which policies that can be reformed to support and create sustainable livelihoods in its neighborhood and beyond - including for current and potential future migrants. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM
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