European Union

The river still flows

Laura Hammond argues that even with enlightened policies, migrants will still be drawn to Europe

Refugees run through a field hoping to avoid Hungarian police close to the Serbian border

NEWSFLASH, July 30, 2030: EU leaders and their counterparts in Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom issued a joint appeal for funding to rebuild Syria and to assist people to return to that country. The plan comes 15 years after the first mass arrivals of refugees from Syria and other countries in crisis to European countries. Buoyed by the rise of right and centre-right politicians throughout the European continent, the desire to promote repatriation is strong among host countries. However it is also strong among many Syrians who have been living in exile for years and are eager to go home now that a government has been formed that enjoys support from those who fled the Assad regime and ISIS attacks.

Does this scenario sound unlikely? What will the experience of European countries be in 2030 in terms of migration?

Certainly it is realistic to expect that the haemorrhaging of refugees from Syria will not go on forever. A turning point will be reached, and while some people will be reluctant to return to a country where family members have died and which enjoys only a fragile peace, others will be eager to play a role in the hopefully more positive political and economic life of the country following the war.

But what other dynamics can one expect to see?

Even if the war in Syria ends, migration to Europe can be expected to continue at high levels.

In 2015, it is estimated by the United Nations refugee agency that 33 per cent of the arrivals to Europe were Syrian. The rest were from Afghanistan, Egypt, Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali and other countries. People are moving for a range of reasons including instability, persecution and lack of economic opportunities, as well as the perception of better options for work, study, freedom of expression and even mobility itself. Many of these dynamics can be expected to persist, and to continue to generate large numbers of refugees and migrants.

Categories and labels
It is worth reflecting on these two categories. Most of those currently on the move towards Europe are forced migrants of one sort or another. Even those motivated by dreams of life in what they believe to be the land of milk and honey must often enter highly exploitative smuggling and trafficking networks that render them forced migrants along the way. Having left their homes, they are subject to abduction, bondage, manipulation and abuse of all sorts. While such people may be thought of as ‘mixed migrants’ – both in terms of their legal rights and the sort of assistance they need – they are in reality forced migrants and once they cross an international border they are refugees.

Climate-change refugees?
Who are these migrants to Europe likely to be? Much has been made of the impact probable climate and environmental change will have on migration. But people displaced when the land they live on becomes unviable as a source of livelihood – through increasingly frequent drought, land degradation, flooding or rising sea levels – do not tend to move far.

They are among the poorest of the poor and usually can afford to move only a short distance – into cities or on to the nearest available farmland or grazing areas. They do not have the economic wherewithal to finance a move across numerous countries, to access the expensive smuggling networks that shuttle people to Europe. So while environmental factors may be one source of displacement, this is not likely to affect migration to Europe in any significant way.

Development as migration prevention?
Development aid is increasingly being seen as a valuable tool in the prevention of migration and displacement. The logic goes that creating options that allow people to pursue sustainable livelihoods closer to home will encourage them not to move long distances.

The relationship between development options and migration decisions is more complicated, however.

‘Trends evident in 2016 of emboldened right-wing political interests throughout Europe are likely to be strengthened’

Development support might help those in environmentally compromised areas to find new sources of income, and re-integration support may encourage refugees to go home after conflicts have ceased if they can do so safely. But for would-be migrants to Europe – those who are middle-class or have realistic ambitions of joining the middle-class – development aid might end up giving them the support they need to migrate further afield.

More information is needed about how this category of people interacts with development options. There may be good reasons to give development aid to shore up stability in troubled, desperately poor regions, but stopping migration is probably not one of them.

Protracted conflicts
Conflicts that in 2016 are simmering in sub-Saharan Africa and other Middle Eastern and Asian countries can be expected to continue to compel people to flee their countries. Afghanistan, which has been producing refugees for more than 50 years, will continue to do so, even if at a reduced rate. Instability in northern Nigeria, Mali and other countries in the Sahel works against people’s efforts to survive and make a living. They cannot move freely in their local area and the threats posed by parties to the conflict conspire to push them out of their homes.

Social media and the lure of diasporas
It would be too simplistic to assume, however, that migration is fuelled only by conditions in countries of origin. Decisions to migrate are often made not by individuals but by families who share the cost of movement and who may stand to benefit if the person reaches a place of safety and economic opportunity. The calculus of decision-making is shaped by considering all available information.

Increasingly migration decisions are made on the basis of information shared through social media. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other platforms play a big role in shaping people’s aspirations, their thinking about when, where, and how to travel, and who to look to for support along the way and on arrival. As diaspora communities become established in their adopted countries, the influence of such sources is likely to grow. This factor, perhaps more than any other, will ensure that the desire to move towards Europe (amongst other destinations) continues to be strong.

Climate of increasing intolerance
Despite the prediction that people will continue to move towards and into Europe in great numbers, another likely future trend is that the political space for accommodating and even welcoming refugees to Europe can be expected to diminish further.

Trends evident in 2016 of emboldened right-wing political interests throughout Europe are likely to be strengthened. This may be fuelled by attitudes towards immigrants and refugees, some rooted in experience but also founded on fears and frustrations that are not directly related to immigration.

Analysis of the referendum vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union shows that areas containing the lowest numbers of immigrants were among the staunchest advocates of the Leave position. Such positions were strengthened more by frustrations about austerity and lack of economic opportunity than by any real threat posed by migration.

Still, these attitudes will continue to influence European positions towards migration, development, security and community cohesion.

One hopes that the incidents of intolerance and active hostility towards refugee, immigrant and even established ethnic communities would subside over the next 15 years. This seems unlikely against a backdrop of increasingly hardening positions towards immigration and the political linkage of that issue to security, human rights and access to resources.

This combination of continued arrivals and increased hostility towards refugees may prove a poisonous cocktail. Without public demand for humane and welcoming policies, it will become more difficult to protect and uphold the rights of immigrant communities.

The lid on the migration-towards-Europe box will not be put back on in the near future. We live in an era in which people aspire to move for a variety of reasons, and this is not going to end. While migration choices can be influenced in some ways – helping to resolve conflicts so that those who want to return home can do so, supporting conditions that create choices so that movement becomes more a matter of choice than necessity – attempts to stop these flows entirely are not likely to be successful.