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Can aid stop migration to Europe?

Written by Clare Cummings


Last week, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) published a rapid review on how UK Aid tackles the ‘root causes’ of migration to reduce journeys to Europe.

In recent years, tens of billions have been spent stimulating investment and providing jobs at origin to reduce migration. Yet the ICAI points out that investments are not based on a strong understanding of the lives of refugees and migrants and why they decide to move to Europe.

Our new research with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia investigates exactly this. We asked if employment support and refugee resettlement policies prevent or reduce irregular migration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found they have very little impact. Why? Primarily, migration policies don’t put the needs of refugees at the centre.

Refugees should have access to meaningful work

The need or desire for work is a main driver of migration. Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia are only allowed to work informally, and most are not able to live outside a refugee camp. They rely on very low-income, insecure work – any way of earning cash to survive. They are prevented from using their skills and expertise in their chosen profession and can’t even apply for a taxi licence.

Their options are either life in a refugee camp, without the ability to earn a living, or returning to Eritrea, where they risk persecution and imprisonment. As a result, the dangerous journey across the desert to reach Europe starts to seem like a risk worth taking.

Autonomy is life but there is no autonomy in the camp […] Being alive here is suffering, it is better to die trying to make the journey.

Eritrean refugee, 29, Ethiopia

Eritrean refugees often voice gratitude for the safety of Ethiopia, but it’s not enough. They also need freedom and autonomy to determine their own lives. Without this, desperation sets in.

Poor countries can’t cope alone, we need legal solutions

Without the right to work in Ethiopia, aid programmes cannot create job opportunities for refugees that match their skills and aspirations. 

The proposed Ethiopian Jobs Compact is an example of the types of policies being discussed to create job opportunities for refugees. Essentially, it will inject international funding into Ethiopian industrial parks to create 100,000 new jobs, 30% of which will be reserved for refugees. The ICAI review is optimistic about the potential of this and similar initiatives.

Yet, serious constraints remain. Firstly, while Ethiopia is critical for asylum in a very unstable region, it has high unemployment and civil unrest. It is simply unrealistic to expect Ethiopia to support such a high number of refugees for the foreseeable future. Ethiopia hosts the largest number of refugees in Africa. It seems a political impossibility for Ethiopia to open its labour market to so many refugees, regardless of how much aid is offered in return.

Secondly, the Jobs Compact will provide just 30,000 jobs for the country’s almost 800,000 refugees. Aside from the numbers game, it is unlikely that the type of work offered under the Jobs Compact will satisfy refugees’ aspirations.

Therefore, expanding legal solutions for migrants remains a priority. Despite widespread anti-migration sentiment, rich countries should welcome more people and open opportunities to work. In doing so they could reduce the number of deaths on the journey to Europe and better manage migration and displacement. This should be a guiding principle for migration policy: whichever the host-country, refugees need the freedom to build a new life.