"We must Rethink this Whole Notion of a "Migration Crisis". Crisis for Whom?" Ruben Andersson


Last week, Ruben Andersson, an anthropologist and associate professor of Migration and Development, University of Oxford, gave a lecture on, Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe, under the Pufendorf IAS migration initiative. In this short interview, he discusses some of the themes linked to modern day migration:

In short, why does the fight against irregular migration lead to more distress and drama at the borders?

Since the 1990s, we have seen increasing investments in border security in Europe, particularly around the Mediterranean: border fences, radar systems, advanced joint patrols, control centres and crucially, extensive collaboration with non-European regimes to halt migrants before they arrive into EU territory. Rather than halting migration in any meaningful, longer-term sense, however, such investments have principally contributed to the emergence of more dangerous routes for migrants, a more professionalised smuggling business, and more distressing means of arrival.

For instance, when Spain "closed off" its land borders at the enclaves Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa in 2005, another route, via the Spanish Canary Islands, instead took on significant importance for West African migrants seeking to enter European territory. Similarly in more recent years, when Greece and Bulgaria fenced off and controlled their land borders with Turkey, more migrants took to the riskier sea route; and after the EU pushed Niger to control the main routes towards its northern borders, other, more dangerous pathways emerged.

These are well-known dynamics: something very similar has been documented, not least, at the US-Mexico border over the years. Yet instead of triggering a rethink, the distressing consequences of border security help justify ever more investments in border security. It's a perversely vicious cycle, which as it happens is also a virtuous cycle for all those security actors who stand to gain something from more of the same toxic "medicine".

Can you say that the migration crisis has hit more severely in any one place? 

In my view, we must rethink this notion of crisis. Crisis for whom? For those treated to horrific conditions in Libya today, it's indeed a crisis; similarly so for those displaced or stranded in Syria or Yemen amid the terrible wars there.

Besides those displaced themselves, those hit hardest include in-country host communities and neighbouring countries with few resources (think of the Rohingya). At one point I spent time with the internally displaced in Mali's capital Bamako, who had been generously welcomed by strangers in the city who didn't have many resources at all, but who still opened their doors - and this included some of the internally displaced themselves, if they had space for an extra mattress somewhere.

Of course, some European countries such as Greece have seen difficult arrival situations since 2015, yet those refugees who arrive into Europe are but a small proportion relative to those hosted by poorer nations, and it's depressing to think that some among the richest states in the world are not getting their act together to offer a humane reception. Besides, we should also note that some European governments have at times been quite keen to play up the emergency rhetoric for political purposes. In addition, we keep seeing a transfer of the largest risks onto poorer EU member states (as well as to the EU's neighbours), who are left to deal with the fallout with little support or "solidarity", Greece being a case in point. 

What can be done to forward integration and a humane migration – by researchers?

In my research, I have analysed the various vested interests in the current border security approach. Many powerful actors stand to gain from business as usual, making it very hard to shift course unless a grand coalition of sensible policymakers, civil society groups, rights advocates, border communities, academics and others come together around an alternative vision.

As I've been arguing recently, I think we can learn here from gradual advancements in other fields, especially climate change but also to some extent the costly and destructive "war on drugs", which has followed similar logics to the "fight against migration" in its model of punitive, militarised crackdowns, leading to large-scale misery and human rights abuses without significantly denting the drugs trade. In these fields, analyses of the costs and benefits of "business as usual" increasingly take into account costs to the public good, as opposed to narrowly defined political and economic costs to groups with a stake in the system.

Learning from such examples, we as researchers can help shift the parameters of the debate, and of official evaluations, from the current short time horizon and narrow territorial perspective - dampening migratory "pressure" within a given electoral cycle, say - to make policymakers and the media account for the much larger human, social, political and financial costs of continuing down the same path. This in turn can contribute to create a space for larger coalitions advocating for a change of direction.

How does the future look like, according to you, for the area of West African Sahel and Southern Europe? 

Sadly, for the time being, concerns around insecurity and threats - including the perceived threat of unwanted migration - continue to frame relationships between European countries and the poor countries of the Sahel to a large extent. We are now seeing this reinforced in terms of counterterror operations of uncertain end, as well as in terms of the migration "compacts", agreements and frameworks pushed onto these less powerful states by the EU and its members.

Of course, competing visions exist too, including in the humanitarian community. Yet as in other parts of Africa, the security framing does something rather destructive to international connections: it privileges security collaborations, and in turn the various security agencies and regimes with a vested interest in keeping resources flowing into repressive measures, hardware and tied funding arrangements. This has knock-on effects on how such recipient countries formulate their policies and priorities, which in turn can have troubling local consequences - for instance, free movement in the West African ECOWAS area now has to contend with European priorities on tightening migration laws and instituting border security measures.

On the other hand, a different kind of message is to some extent coming from the African Union and some governments in the region, seeking other kinds of collaborations with donors around legal pathways for migrants and more thought-through development policies. One can only hope that African politicians and civil society keep finding a stronger voice and end up pushing for a shift in this relationship, which risks further securitising key areas of social and economic life including cross-border mobility in the region.

Watch Ruben Andersson's seminar, Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe.