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What if Europe is, in fact, not every migrant’s dream?

Written by Caterina Mazzilli

Image credit:Shahrake Jabrael, Afghanistan. Najia Alizada for MIGNEX

Mere days after her appointment as Home Secretary, it was revealed that Suella Braverman set a Home Office target to “ban all small boats crossing the Channel.” In July, while running for the Conservative party leadership, Braverman had argued that the only solution which solves the problem [of irregular migration] is “to leave the European Convention on Human Rights” - the EU’s most important legal instrument to protect human rights and political freedoms.

Beneath this rhetoric lies a racist belief, bordering paranoia, that everyone outside Europe seeks to move there - particularly young males from the so-called ‘Global South’. The underlying assumption that every migrant aspires to reach Europe brims with colonial undertones and has laid the groundwork for the framing of migrants as ‘invaders’. This idea is so prevalent that Loren Landau has argued that all Africans are being ‘coded as potential migrants, capable of threatening European and national sovereignty and security.’ This hostility skyrocketed during the Brexit referendum and immigration has since been described as ‘Britain’s most toxic issue’. The UK is the only country in the world that has proudly named its immigration policy a ‘hostile environment’ without even attempting to hide its cruelty, but rather parading it around printed on the notorious ‘Go Home vans’, as Maya Goodfellow puts it.

A case in point of the way politicians act on and reproduce this image are pledges like that of the former Home Secretary Priti Patel when presenting the asylum partnership arrangement between the UK and Rwanda. Announcing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), Patel reassured her electorate: the consequences awaiting those claiming asylum in the UK irregularly – namely deportation to Rwanda – would discourage others from crossing the Channel and break down ‘the business model of people smuggling networks’. To date, no asylum seeker has been deported to Rwanda due to last-minute legal challenges by the European Convention on Human Rights. However, this is by no means a guarantee that this plan will be scrapped – outcomes of the recent court hearing is expected over coming months.

These policies are dangerous, dysfunctional, and have repeatedly been proven ineffective. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) highlights that the newly approved Borders Bill sets out a range of ways to punish people who arrive through 'irregular' routes, but does not provide new ways for people to travel. JCWI also stresses that there is no evidence that these measures will reduce the number of asylum applicants, or change the ways they travel. Political decisions such as the UK-Rwanda agreement seem to aim to show to the public that the government is doing something, while revealing an ‘abdication of responsibility’. These journeys will in fact continue to rise, due to the combined impacts of conflict, famine, economic instability, climate breakdown, and exploitation which necessitate migration.

What are the actual aspirations and trends of those who migrate?

Assuming that every migrant aspires to move to the UK (and Europe) not only exposes the extent of the Eurocentrism guiding this thinking, but also displays a very simplistic understanding of the complex and various processes that underly aspirations and decisions to migrate. Although international migration might be a real goal for many, research conducted by MIGNEX reveals that moving internationally is much less widespread as an aspiration and possibility – and more nuanced than often presented.

In Dialakoro, a town in Eastern Guinea bordering with Mali, short-term circular migration has been common for a long time. Locals frequently travel to Bamako in Mali – the closest major urban centre – for work, health services and trade. However, since the introduction of mining machinery, there are far fewer work opportunities. Still, 70% of surveyed young adults indicate that they would prefer to stay in Guinea in the next five years. Locals do not consider migration to Europe as a model of success nor of upward social mobility; preferring to migrate to neighbouring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, or Ghana. Cultural or personal factors come into play too, such as speaking the same language, with the possibility of visiting family and friends more regularly. In Erigavo, Somalia and Somaliland, 69% of surveyed young adults prefer to stay, largely due to work and educational opportunities available in the country.

Similar evidence comes from other places. Before Pakistan’s extreme flooding this summer, economic prospects in Keti Bandar, a Pakistani fishing port on the Indus River Delta, were in rapid decline due to the effects of climate breakdown. Rising sea levels and consequent higher salination of the soil, coupled with political decisions on water management, had deeply harmed local agriculture. In addition, the impacts of industrial fishing markets were leading locals into debt, ever-increasing working hours, and low profits. Although aware that migration could provide a way out, some 95% of young adults preferred to stay in Keti Bandar. Many young adults expressed a strong connection with the area, as well as a sense of peace and safety there. Critically, migration seen it as a risk-infused and a radically life-altering change. Keti Bandar is now among the highly affected areas in the Indus River Delta - a stark reminder of how climate-related risks are heavily dependent on underlying vulnerabilities, created by social inequalities and political will.

The prospect of risk in migration decision-making is highly important. Across all research areas, most young adults would prefer to migrate through regular channels and are well-aware of the dangers of irregular migration. However, the percentage of participants in our survey who had a valid passport was low all across the board (ranging from 4% in Dialakoro, Guinea to 27% in Redeyef, Tunisia). Passports are expensive and government offices are usually located in capitals or in a few big cities, which are not easy for everyone to reach. Most international travel then requires a visa, which is expensive, with long processing times, and is often granted on discretionary bases. International visa requirements per country reflect the colonial structures that continue to shape regular and irregular migration policy; with European passports offering close to absolute freedom of movement, while those from the so-called Global South are prevented or hindered from moving.

Despite this low feasibility, a common assumption is that ‘once people decide to move, they move’. Our research has demonstrated that it is possible to tell aspirations and plans for migration apart, and that both are normally conditional on several factors such as the possession of documents, length of stay in the destination country, and migration mode.

How can we challenge the foundations of dysfunctional policies?

Amid in-party pressures, the new Conservative leader Liz Truss and Home Secretary Suella Braverman compete with their predecessors for the hardest-line stance on capping irregular immigration. This scapegoating rhetoric suggests an ‘easy fix’ to the array of socio-economic issues the UK is facing. Yet it is time to face the inefficiency and inhumanity of the UK’s anti-immigration policies. The key to functioning migration policies should be to create safe and accessible legal routes for those who want to migrate, and for migration to come out of choice and not out of need. More than anything, policy should not put anyone’s life at risk. Policy-makers should then focus on the wider dynamics that jeopardise livelihoods in the first place, from climate breakdown to continued economic exploitation of the ‘Global South’, protecting the ‘right to stay’ for those who want to do so.