Audio recordings of the international symposium ‘The Arab Spring and beyond: Human mobility, forced migration and international responses’ are on now available at Forced Migration Online.

By Nando Sigona

What follows are brief reflections inspired by the international symposium ‘The Arab Spring and beyond: Human mobility, forced migration and international responses’ that took place at the Oxford Department of International Development on 20th March. The event was organised by the Refugee Studies Centre, the International Migration Institute and the Oxford Diasporas Programme with the participation of international scholars, practitioners and policy makers (see also Hein de Haas’ blog post on the symposium).

The geographical focus on the Levant and North Africa enabled participants to discuss migration in two crucial and distinct stages: in the context, and in relation to the transition and consolidation of new political regimes; and during the uprisings. It also offered the opportunity to discuss issues around the circulation of people, ideas, models of mobilisation and counter-mobilisation and international engagement between these regions.

The first panel, ‘Revolution, asylum and mobility’, addressed the impact of the Arab Spring on existing migration patterns in the regions and its capacity to generate new ones. The presentations by Clare Oxby (University of Bern) and Phil Marfleet (University of East London), and a written contribution by Hassen Boubakri (University of Sousse) questioned assumptions on the capacity of uprisings to radically transform existing migration patterns in the short term, and emphasised respectively the differential impact on migrants of the ongoing political transition according to ethnic and cultural positionalities (Oxby); the longue durée of processes of neoliberal land reform in Egypt initiated under Mubarak that, by producing the ‘disembedment’ of peasant youth from land, created the premises for some of the migration flows we are witnessing now (Marfleet); and the need to look not only to the impact of the Arab Spring on migration, but also to the impact of migration control on the Arab Spring (Boubakri). Boubakri notes in particular that at the end of 2010, the EU and its Maghreb counterparts ‘could estimate that the problem of crossing the external borders of Europe by “undesirables” was, if not solved, beginning to be mastered’.

Boubakri’s observation alerts us that the proximity of the Arab Spring to the EU goes beyond the consideration of the geographical distance between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea (just 14Km between Spain and Morocco!) and , which makes North Africa part of the areas covered by the EU neighbourhood policy, pointing to the symbiotic nature of the economic, social and political relationship between the peoples and institutions in the Mediterranean Basin.

A further aspect to consider is that, in addition to the closure of irregular and regular channels of migration to the EU, the strategy of migration management and the expansion of the EU borders (and border control) beyond the EU territorial boundaries through initiatives such as the bilateral agreements between the former Libyan regime and Italy, or Tunisia and France, or Morocco and Spain, also affect existing migration routes and systems that are internal to the African continent. This is a side effect rarely considered by EU policy makers but with significant consequences for the livelihoods of local populations. The hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan migrant workers stranded in Libya that sought refuge across the borders with Egypt and Tunisia during the civil war made the scale of intra-African migration suddenly visible to the global public. As the UNHCR Chief of Mission, Emanuel Gignac, noted in his presentation, non-Libyan nationals made up a large part of the displaced population from Libya. However, the ‘migration crisis’, as described by the IOM representative Mohammed Abdiker, also showed the presence in Libya of a significant population of migrant workers from Asia and whose repatriation posed logistical challenges to respective governments and to the international agencies that assisted them (i.e. IOM and UNHCR). The cooperation between IOM and UNHCR was one of the main themes of the second panel on ‘Migration and institutional responses during and in the transition’ and the speakers from both organisations offered interesting insights on the challenges and strengths of this partnership and of the circumstances that led to it. The framing of the crisis as a ‘migration crisis’ rather than a ‘refugee crisis’ is at the core of the definition of the ‘problem’ that the international community set out to respond to, and implicitly shaped the terms for the ‘solutions’ adopted to address it. The crisis also brought to the fore the complexity of migration routes and flows and challenged existing models of intervention/protection.

Shaden Khallaf presented the case of Egypt and the impact of the fall of Mubarak on asylum and humanitarian protection. She noted that asylum seekers and refugees are suffering from increased insecurity, wide-spread impunity of abuses and rampant xenophobia. The crack-down on civil society and closure of several NGOs, together with a general ‘revolution fatigue’, have caused the shrinking of political spaces for rights-based advocacy and weakened the position of refugees in Egyptian society. Violeta Moreno Lax gave a critical appraisal of the EU’s responses to the Arab Spring. The array of documents, statements, and position papers issued over the last year by EU institutional bodies is remarkable and points to a certain anxiety in Brussels about the so-called ‘biblical exodus’ or ‘human tsunami’ of North Africans towards the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This exodus never happened and, as mentioned earlier, the relationship between the Arab Spring and migration is far more complex and cannot just be interpreted within a narrow EU-centric prism.

The EU’s response to migration induced by the turmoil and instability in North Africa has shown the tension between internal and external dimensions of migration governance. The EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility paper (GAMM) has tried to address this issue – reframing migration in the context of mobility and constructing the EU’s approach around four ‘equally important’ pillars: facilitating regular migration and mobility; ‘preventing and reducing’ irregular migration and trafficking; maximising development impact; promoting international protection and external dimension of asylum policy.

While a step in the right direction, the GAMM still falls short of offering a systemic interpretation of the multiple and interlinked dimensions of migration and remains locked into the false and misleading dichotomy of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ migration (even though with a softer tone). The centrality of migration enforcement and control is still paramount and the renewed role of FRONTEX, which saw its operational budget rocketing from €6.3 million in 2005, to nearly €42 million in 2007 and topping €87 million by 2010, encapsulates this priority. The reality of the death at sea of 2,000 migrants in 2011 alone, at a time when the Mediterranean Sea was one of the most militarised areas in the globe, further confirms the distance between EU rhetoric on development and human rights and actual practice. Linked to Moreno Lax’s paper, Polly Pallister Wilkins (SOAS) discussed the spaces and practices of contestation of the EU’s expanding and fluid borders and the possibility for transnational solidarity between Western activists and migrants.

The role of diaspora organisations, transnational networks and civil society was the theme of the third and final panel. In their presentations, Urs Fruehauf (UNHCR) and Jonathan Steel (Guardian) turned the discussion to Syria and the situation on the ground. Drawing on the results of a recently completed survey, Fruehauf discussed the situation of refugees and IDPs in Syria and offered some insight on the pressure they are under in the current political climate. Steel’s presentation centred on Syria’s silent majority and explored the tensions between the narratives produced by the mainstream media and Syrian diaspora and the views of the opposition in the country.

To conclude this short overview of the themes covered at the symposium, I would like to point to two issues/questions that seem to me particularly relevant both in terms of research agenda and potential policy implications:

Is there a link between the closing of irregular, and regular, channels to migration from the Maghreb to the EU, the impoverishment and discontent of North African youth who have lost a promised future and the eruptions of protests on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco…? How can we research this link? What are its policy implications in the medium and long term from an EU perspective?

Will an anxious EU in search of reassurance for the lost bilateral agreements which had ensured the reduction of ‘undesirable’ migration over the last decade, be able to acknowledge the challenge for newly democratically elected governments to be partner in immigration control and repatriation programmes, or will it rather undermine the credentials of the governments vis-à-vis their voters (brothers, sisters, friends etc. of the migrants) and internationally (maybe with the accusation of being Islamist) in order to force its agenda?