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Aquarius, immigration caps and family separation: three lessons for doing migration differently

Written by Marta Foresti


Migration is back in the news. Just when you thought you had seen it all, the scenes from the United States-Mexico border with children held in cages hit our screens, while the incendiary words of Italy’s Matteo Salvini sent a shockwave throughout Europe.

It would be easy to despair. Instead, it is time to focus not just on calling out the limits of current approaches to global migration, but to come up with politically viable alternatives.

These cannot rely on ‘ideal’ solutions or expectations of collective action and shared values – we must recognise that these have been eroded over the past few years, and find practical ways to manage migration differently.

The key, I think, is to learn some hard lessons about what has worked – and what hasn’t – in trying to put forward alternative narratives and approaches to nationalist anti-immigration rhetoric and action.

To do so, look no further than the events unfolding over the last two weeks in Europe and the US. 

Lesson one: forget about an EU-wide agreement. Focus on smaller coalitions or deals between states – and between cities and businesses.

The first lesson is about cooperation between states (and beyond) and it comes from continental Europe, where newly-appointed interior minister Matteo Salvini has announced that Italy’s ports will no longer allow migrants’ boats to dock.

While leaving people stranded at sea is clearly inhumane, Salvini’s actions reflect those of almost every other European Union leader since the so-called crisis of 2015: to protect one’s own borders, rather than act collectively.

This is supported by voters in different countries who rightly believe that migration to Europe is in ‘chaos’. So far, it’s only the far-right nationalist politicians who appear to have concrete proposals to reassure voters that they are bringing migration under control.

What the Aquarius saga demonstrated is that no country can address migration in isolation, one port at a time. It has also confirmed that at present there is no possibility in sight for an EU-wide approach.

So what is the alternative?

With arrival numbers at a record low, but mortality rates the highest in recent years, the reality of migration from Africa is more manageable – and urgent – than ever. From July 2017 to June 2018 approximately 40,000 people arrived in Italy, compared with over 100,000 in the same period in 2016–2017. and over 150,000 the year before.

While it would be desirable, these numbers do not require all 28 EU member states to agree on a common approach. As Angela Merkel pointed out following Sunday’s ‘mini summit’ in Brussels, the time may have come for new, different bilateral and trilateral deals or coalitions on migration matters between countries sharing genuine political and economic interests.

For example, we have seen Spain stepping up to respond to and manage sea arrivals, which until very recently was left to Italy and Greece alone. Macron and Merkel need to work together – and fast – to avoid what could be rapid domestic political downturns with ripple effects across the EU. This will require them listening to the demands of key states like Italy, as it is clear that just closing their southern borders and wishing the problem away as they have done in recent years has fuelled anti-European and nationalist sentiments. 

The focus of these coalitions should be to agree to collaborate on pragmatic measures to better predict and manage the very manageable numbers of people on the move in ways that can reassure voters. 

Offshoring asylum assessment centres and providing aid will only work with genuine cooperation of countries of origin and transit – which can be achieved with concrete initiatives to facilitate mutually beneficial forms of migration, such as temporary work, skills partnerships, business or student visas.

These could help address genuine labour market needs, skills gaps and decreasing working age populations that in some countries exist and can only be plugged by migrant workers paying taxes and contributing to the economy.

As a first step, the key is to go beyond the current deadlock and identify meaningful political platforms for cooperation, over and beyond EU legislation and norms.

These new deals and coalitions need not be limited to nation states. There are successful coalitions between big cities in the climate change space, for example, where influential mayors have come together to support reform. We have seen mayors taking decisive actions on migration in Europe and the US alike, so why not think of a similar alliance between cities like New York, Paris, Palermo, London, Mexico City, Rio De Janeiro and Nairobi to address global migration?

Business leaders have been remarkably silent throughout the so-called migration crisis, even though businesses can be hit hard by restrictive immigration policies. Rather than expecting individual business leaders to speak out on such a sensitive political issue, could sector-based coalitions be the way forward? Something of this kind is happening in the tech industry in the US; there is no reason why the construction or healthcare industries could not follow suit.

Lesson two: when countries realise they need (some) migrants, gradual reform is possible.

The second lesson is about gradual reform and it comes from Brexit Britain: as a result of severe shortages in healthcare workers, the skilled immigration cap has now been lifted to allow foreign doctors and nurses to join the National Health Service. This will also allow more skilled migrants to get jobs in other industries, such as IT and engineering. 

As many have noted, this is hardly the end of the ‘hostile environment’ policy or a radical shift in UK approaches to immigration – both of which are highly unlikely while Theresa May remains in power.

Yet these changes do signal an important change of direction based on a simple, pragmatic principle: that the UK needs some migrant workers in some sectors, and that it is key for immigration rules to remain flexible and adapt to these needs – in the national interest.

While certainly partial and only applicable to a small minority of skilled workers, this approach could easily be extended to other categories of migrants that the UK actually needs, such as students. In time, the logical consequence would be to scrap or significantly alter the senseless immigration target, which no politician can deliver to voters.

Lesson three: outrage is easy but can be short lived – practical ways to manage migration require long-term engagement.

The last lesson is about the need for a long-term and sustained approach to manage the reality of human mobility, and it comes from the US-Mexico border where Donald Trump was forced to make a rare U-turn on family reunification.

Yes, outrage and outcry played a role. But it was political convenience that led the US President to change tactics on this aspect of his immigration plans, which remain largely unchanged and continue to focus on enhanced border control and deterrence at all costs – including international law and human decency.

And it’s worth remembering that Trump’s extreme version of family separation has its roots in the policy devised during the Obama years, and that European governments – not least the UK – are increasingly taking a harder line.

Here the key lesson is to not let outrage and emotions distract us from the need to engage with the consequences of deterrence in the long term. A different approach requires two steps.

First, exposing the limits and costs of deterrence policies. Using decades worth of data, Michael Clemens and colleagues have shown that along the US-Mexico border greater deterrence and enforcement have only reduced irregular migration when accompanied by greater legal migration pathways. This means that the US ‘zero tolerance’ policy didn’t even make sense as a deterrent to irregular migration.

Our research has shown that information about deterrence measures and anti-migration messages rarely feature in migrants’ decisions which are driven by more urgent concerns like safety and security, access to jobs and aspirations for a better future.

The second step is to play the long-term game. Ambitious local or national politicians must recognise that the politically smart choice is to find practical ways to manage the reality of people’s movement rather than trying to wish it away, simply because this is unlikely to be successful. Lessons from the Windrush scandal in the UK taught us that what the public want above all are fairness, common sense and a humane approach.

The time for complacency or outrage alone is up. These partial but effective approaches to manage human mobility can help us get out of the political stalemate we are in, and finally make some progress.