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Why migration should be a priority for development

Written by Marta Foresti


It could so easily be predicted. With calmer waters and warmer weather, conflict raging in Syria, Yemen and beyond, and a much reduced capacity and funding for search and rescue missions, more migrants were always going to die at sea.

Yet we are all somehow taken by surprise. Partly because the death toll is unbearably high – 1,600 this year alone, more than the Titanic – and partly because ‘it doesn’t add up’: why do so many people still want to come to Europe, given the increasingly draconian policies on search and rescue at sea, as well as on border control?

Finally, we are all taken by surprise because until tragedies like yesterday’s happen and hundreds of people die in complete desperation in the middle of the sea, issues of migration into Europe are met with either disturbing indifference or hatred and vile language.

Aid won’t ‘fix’ migration

The indifference of the global development community is especially disturbing. Many are of course outraged by recent events. Yet migration is not on the agenda of current (big) global debates on development. The language of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is weak on migration and the many high level panels, summits and agreements about to happen during this landmark year are likely to be silent on the topic.

Why? Because tackling migration is the ultimate political nightmare in many donor countries. Not only that: it cannot be fixed by aid and it requires serious rethinking of how development should work and what role the international community should play. Providing aid and supporting development will not automatically lead to reduced migration; possibly the opposite. 

Let’s begin with the politics, and what better place to start than the UK. It would be a grave mistake not to see the connection between the debate on migration currently raging in the campaign for the May general election and what happened at the weekend off the coast of Libya. The electoral promise to reduce the total number of migrants, including those making their way to the UK from Lampedusa via Calais, Bucharest or Warsaw, simply cannot be kept.

The election debate on migration remains characterised by scare tactics and often evidence-free assertions on the costs (but rarely benefits) of migration. Unfortunately, the perceived need to respond to anti-immigration sentiment can drive very concrete and damaging policy decisions that affect people’s lives.

For example, it is convenient for UK politicians on all sides to frame the Mediterranean migration problem as a European affair, but the EU ultimately relies on the decisions made by its member states. Several governments – including the UK – opposed financing a continuation of the Mare Nostrum programme on the grounds of cost, while at the same time expressing concern that a search and rescue programme would ‘encourage migration’ by reducing risk. The idea that search and rescue provision is a pull factor is plain wrong, if politically convenient, as evidenced by the relentless rise in numbers making the crossing.

To go ‘beyond aid’, we need to address migration

The evidence is increasingly clear on the matter: nothing will stop people attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. The simple reason is that migrants are fleeing the very problems that development efforts try to mitigate: conflict, violence, abuse and poverty. 

If the international development community is serious about the need to go beyond aid to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and conflict, it can no longer remain silent on migration and instead should make it an urgent priority for action.

In the short term, there is a need to commit resources to restore and increase donor countries' commitment to effective and life-saving interventions to rescue people at sea. It is simply not acceptable to leave the job to the ever-brilliant MSF and Italian Red Cross, as this is a responsibility that states should be taking much more seriously. 

Can the UK campaigners that so effectively lobbied their governments to secure the 0.7% aid commitment put the same pressure on politicians and policy makers to commit to increased EU funding to help people make a safer journey on to our shores? 

Similarly, not all should be lost on the SDGs: the weak language and qualified commitments to ‘orderly and well managed’ migration could be replaced by much more concrete proposals, including on labour mobility.

In the longer term, there is a need to seriously rethink the relationship between development and migration. It is increasingly recognised that migration is an effective way of reducing global poverty and a powerful tool to achieve a better, more equitable world. Development is migration and movement. This is not discussed nearly enough in development circles, so let’s begin the conversation.