Taking steps ahead: Towards a new vision for migration in 2017

The issue of migration will continue to be pivotal in 2017. ECDPM’s Anna Knoll explains why the European Union should adopt long-term thinking towards the issue of migration and wishes 2017 to be the year when this shift will start its course.

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      Against the backdrop of 2016 being another deadly year for migrants on their journey towards Europe, migration has continued to dominate EU foreign policy throughout the last year. As ECDPM’s 2017 Challenges Paper notes, the EU has become ‘more explicitly interest-oriented in its foreign policy’ and response to migration. The year 2017 may well be another tumultuous year as regards the EU’s migration agenda.

      Pressure on the EU and its member states to stem migrant flows in the short-term will be high, especially with national elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany taking place in a context of polarised debates on immigration. In the first weeks of the new year, this has manifested itself in attempts to start discussions on ‘Turkey-style’ deals with North African countries like Libya.

      Yet, twenty-seventeen will hopefully also be a year of foresight and vision regarding migration both in Europe and globally. At the global level, discussions on the new Global Compacts on Migration and on Refugees will commence. For Europe, this provides openings for strategic reflections that can help redirect European policies towards a longer-term vision on migration and mobility and its role in global development in order to complement the immediate short-term responses and overcome the ‘crisis mode’.

      For this to become reality, the EU and its member states need to successfully master a number of challenges and find a balance between short-term and long-term interests while also exploring ways to champion new ideas.

      Walking the fine ‘security-development-migration’ line: the case of Niger and Libya


      The EU has to a large extent focused outward and deployed means to incentivise partner countries, such as in the Sahel, to help with ‘managing’ the migration flows from the South towards the North. At the EU policy level, the approach of addressing the ‘security-development-migration’ nexus through its foreign, security and development policy has gained traction. The reality of this nexus is complex and it forces the EU to face conflicting policy agendas. Europe will have to harmonise the need to establish quick solutions that can – at least temporarily – show the EU’s capability to ‘manage’ flows, its self-interest to build longer-term stability and development in its neighbourhood and beyond, and its moral stance towards the rights of migrants and refugees. How to calibrate the three?

      A case in point is Niger, that according to the EU has shown strong cooperation efforts in cracking down on the smuggling business and intercepting migrants travelling North towards Libya and potentially Europe. Analysts have pointed out that this risks ‘upsetting a delicate security equilibrium’ feeding on income generated from the movement of goods and people.

      The EU is aware of these risks and has aimed to design projects as part of the EU Trust Fund for Africa that can create jobs fast in and around Agadez so as to provide alternatives for the local economy. Whether this will help to create sufficient economic alternatives for former combatants, security forces, and jobless young people that may lose out from recent efforts to halt flows remains to be seen. Otherwise, the EU may cause further instability in the years to come.

      Another example where the EU’s values to protect migrants, its interest to stop them before reaching its borders through smugglers and long-term peace and stability goals may clash, is that of Libya. The Maltese Presidency of the EU Council has proposed plans to strike a migration deal with the Government of National Accord, which seems itself implicated – at least indirectly – with human smuggling networks and does not control the entire territory. Engaging the GNA outside the internal peace process to control migration could pose risks to long-term stability. Such an agreement may, however, bring even more safety risks for migrants in Libya if no alternative safe solutions are offered. Especially because the EU does not have a strong track record of quickly providing safe passage and resettling migrants. Such deals could add to the misery of migrants and undermine Europe’s credibility globally to contribute to efforts of ‘leaving no one behind’ as part of the global development agenda.

      Resolving such issues needs a more in-depth analysis of different European interests and values both short- and long-term. It requires some thinking on how these can be reconciled. The global process and the Migration Compacts may help with the latter. For example, as regards the return of unsuccessful asylum seekers or irregular migrants, which is part of an orderly migration system and is a key interest of the EU, dialogue can help to establish better principles and practices on return. This, in turn, can help to avoid processes that are detrimental to both migrants and the relations among states.

      Forging trust and cooperation


      The current EU approach, geared towards short-term results, also shows a clear keenness to pursue bilateral deals offering African governments incentives to cooperate on EU’s migration interests. This could undermine the trust between the EU and regional and continental bodies such as the African Union.

      Bilateral action with one government can also create challenges for neighbouring states. The EU itself acknowledges that as a result of the anti-smuggling activities carried out by Niger, Mali risks being increasingly used as an alternative transit country. Taking regional and continental dimensions seriously and avoiding the creation or reinforcement of a web of competing interests will be important. As we have argued earlier, this will require deeper consideration of how EU policies, approaches and narratives interact with the role of African regional and continental bodies and groupings. But first and foremost, it requires the EU to listen better to its African counterparts in order to promote trust and cooperation.

      Heading towards a long-term vision


      Current action seems to have created temporary breathing space for the EU. Now will be the time to make use of it and start walking the path towards more forward-looking policies on migration. The first important step for the EU is to continue devoting energy to its own asylum and migration systems and institutions and to the implementation of existing agreed policies. This is important so that the EU’s own asylum and migration systems are better able to deal with future shocks. Ideally, the same amount of energy should be used to build trust internally. Otherwise, the situation for migrants and Europe’s population continues to be chaotic and eventual renewed large inflows could prove politically disastrous

      The second important step that the EU could make is starting the process of longer-term and more strategic thinking. The latter may build on scenarios of how the future of human mobility possibly looks like and what vision the EU has for mobility in its neighbourhood in the next decades. This essentially will mean engaging with the question regarding how Africa and Europe will live together in the long-term future against a background of an ageing Europe and a youthful Africa and in an interconnected world where distances fade.

      This requires connecting the EU’s own economic vision with migration and mobility and thinking about education, skills, mobility and international cooperation in an integrated way and with a willingness to innovate. Only then can it connect the dots and start building partnerships and institutions accordingly that are fit for governing mobility during the next decades to the benefit of migrants and host or origin societies.

      New myth, new reality


      Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the EU and progressive forces within it will need to start creating stories and myths incorporating such new visions for migration. These stories will need to have the power to resonate with citizens at the emotional level. The task is made harder by those populist groups that are already successfully in playing on citizens’ fear on these issues. But if policies shaping mobility, however forward and progressive they may be, won’t be able to foster a vision and provide stories for a ‘good life’ that are able to connect to people’s emotions – as alternatives to those of setting up walls – they will be unlikely to gain traction.

      We need to construct a new narrative for migration and mobility in Europe, its neighbourhood as well as globally, in order to create a better reality. Let’s make 2017 the year when this story begins.


      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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