Migration and revolution*

*This article (pdf) is published in the latest issue of FORCED MIGRATION REVIEW (#39) on North Africa and Displacement. Translation in Français & العربية

By  Hein de Haas (IMI, Oxford) and Nando Sigona (RSC, Oxford)

The Arab Spring has not radically transformed migration patterns in the  Mediterranean, and the label ‘migration crisis’ does not do justice to the  composite and stratified reality.

From the outbreak of the  popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, European media and  politicians were preoccupied with the prospect of ‘tidal waves’ of North  Africans reaching Europe. These sensational predictions lacked any scientific  basis so it should come as no surprise that they have not come true.

Nonetheless, migration  in its various forms has played a key part in the uprisings that spread across these  regions. The columns of vehicles escaping from cities and villages under siege  in Libya, the migrant workers awaiting repatriation in the holding centres in  Egypt and Tunisia, the boats crammed with Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans crossing  the Mediterranean Sea and landing on the island of Lampedusa, and the numerous  Egyptian émigrés and university students returning to Cairo to join the  protests in Tahrir Square are a few examples of the ways in which human  mobility has intersected the events in North Africa.

Recent migration events  are not simply a side effect of the revolutions. The possible links between  declining opportunities for migration from North Africa to the EU (due to the  economic crisis and intensified border controls) and the exclusion and  discontent of disenfranchised youth on the one hand, and the protests on the  streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco on the other, deserve  closer consideration.

As a starting point it seems  useful to distinguish between the uprisings themselves, and the subsequent transition  and consolidation of new political regimes. This allows a clearer overview of  mobility patterns,  the various ways  migration and forced displacement have intersected with the popular uprisings  over time, and the models of engagement adopted in this rapidly changing  political situation by international agencies that otherwise would be lost in  the generic label ‘Arab Spring’.

From the northern shores

“In 2011, the EU missed a historic opportunity to  demonstrate its commitment to the foundations it is built on. It is as if we’d  said to them: ‘It is wonderful that you make a revolution and want to embrace  democracy but, by all means [possible], stay where you are because we have an  economic crisis to deal with here.’” (Cecilia Malmström, EU Home Affairs Commissioner)

This quote from a  public lecture at Harvard University in April 2012 reflects a remarkably candid  assessment of the ambiguity of response by the EU and its Member States to the  migration flows associated with the political instability and economic  insecurity in North Africa and the Middle East. The array of documents, policy statements and position  papers issued over the last year by EU institutions highlights an anxiety about  the exodus of North Africans towards the northern shores of the Mediterranean  Sea. While this exodus never happened, the powerful image of an ‘invasion’ –  with the Italian island of Lampedusa acquiring an iconic status – has certainly  permeated public perceptions and the policy responses of EU Member States.

The EU’s response to this  conflict-related migration in North Africa has also demonstrated the tension  between internal and external dimensions of migration governance. The EU’s  Global Approach to Migration and Mobility paper (GAMM)1 of November 2011 tried to  reframe the EU’s approach around four “equally important” pillars: facilitating  regular migration and mobility; preventing and reducing irregular migration and  trafficking; maximising development impact; and promoting international  protection and “enhancing the external dimension of asylum policy”.

While this is a step in  the right direction by apparently shifting away from a unilateral bias on  security issues, the GAMM still 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 strengthened  role of Frontex2,  which saw its operational budget rocket from €6.3 million in 2005 to nearly €42  million in 2007 and topping €87 million by 2010, symbolises this priority. The  reality of the deaths at sea of an estimated 2,000 migrants in 2011 alone, at a time when the Mediterranean Sea had become one of the most  militarised and heavily patrolled areas of the globe, is a stark reminder of  the gap between EU rhetoric and actual practice on development and human  rights.

The social and political  unrest and the popular push towards more democratic governance in North Africa  have upset the cosy relationship and collaboration on migration issues between  European and North African governments. In the years preceding the revolutions,  the EU and its North African counterparts thought that the problem of the crossing  of the external borders of Europe by ‘undesirables’ was, if not solved, at  least beginning to be overcome. In addition to increasingly restrictive  immigration regimes, the EU externalised border controls to North African  countries through initiatives such as the bilateral agreements between the  former Libyan regime and Italy, or Tunisia and France, or Morocco and Spain.  Rather than stopping migration, this has increased the irregular character of  migration and has led to a geographical diversification of overland and  maritime migration routes in and from Africa. This has made migration more  costly and risky for migrants, and increased their vulnerability to  exploitation and suffering. EU policy makers seem rarely to consider these side  effects.

From  the southern shores

The hundreds of  thousands of sub-Saharan and other migrant workers stranded in Libya during the  civil war who sought refuge across the Egyptian and Tunisian borders suddenly  exposed the scale of intra-African migration to the global public. Overall,  migrant workers from more than 120 countries were displaced during the  conflict.

Eurocentric accounts of the Arab Spring almost  completely ignored the profound impact of the Arab Spring on countries of  origin. This pertains not only to the possible role of returnees in the recent political  violence in countries like Mali but also to the fact that many families in  extremely poor countries are now deprived of vital remittance income since  migrant workers returned home from Libya. In many ways, returnee migrants moved  from one situation of insecurity to another.

Many displaced people were migrant workers who had lived  in Libya for years. In the wake of the conflict most of them have tried to  return home, discrediting the idea that the Arab Spring would cause a mass  exodus to Europe.

However, the most vulnerable group consisted of  migrants and refugees who were not able to return because it was too dangerous  and/or because they lacked the money and contacts to facilitate their flight.  They have become trapped in a situation which the migration researcher Jørgen  Carling has aptly described as “involuntary immobility”. Others did not necessarily aspire to return, as they  had fled insecurity, persecution and deprivation in their own countries, and had  often been living in North Africa and the Middle East for many years or even decades.  These include sub-Saharan and Tuareg migrants in Libya; Iraqis, Palestinians  and Somalis in Syria; and Sudanese and Somalis in Egypt. Political instability,  economic crisis, increasing costs of living and unemployment, and the increase of  insecurity (due to reduced policing) have made these groups more vulnerable  than they were already.

Mass flight has been largely confined to Libya and  there has been no major increase of emigration from other North African  countries. The increase in Tunisian emigration was facilitated by reduced policing  during the revolution but stood in a long-standing tradition of irregular boat  migration to Europe that has existed since southern European countries  introduced visas for North Africans around 1991.

Emigration and  revolution

It is rather unlikely that the revolutions will  drastically change long-term migration patterns. The same processes that have  created the conditions for the revolutions are also conducive to emigration,  and the two phenomena may reinforce each other. In the region, a new generation  has grown up, better educated, with wider aspirations and more aware of opportunities  elsewhere and injustices at home than any previous generation, but at the same  time feeling rejected and angry due to high unemployment, corruption,  inequality and political repression.

The coming of age of a new, wired and aware generation  of angry young men and women has increased both the emigration and the revolutionary  potential of Arab societies. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, the idea  that emigration will stop is as unlikely as the idea of a mass exodus towards  Europe. Certainly, a populous and deprived country like Egypt seems to have a  significant emigration potential for years to come. However, whether these  migrants will go to Europe or elsewhere primarily depends on future economic  growth in Europe and elsewhere. At the same time, it is likely that the Libyan  oil economy will continue to rely on migrant labour, and Egyptian and  sub-Saharan migrants have in fact started to return there.

For political elites in the region, migration has  fulfilled an important role as a safety valve, since the opportunity to migrateoverseas relieved unemployment,  discontent and internal political pressures for reform. This lack of migration  opportunities may perhaps have turned the attention and anger inwards, and  tipped the balance in favour of revolutionary forces. Besides, political exiles  and emigrants played an important role in supporting the revolutions, certainly  in Tunisia and Egypt.

What will be the impact of political reforms and possibly  more democratic modes of governance on migration and migration policy? Some observers  argue that the more conservative, religiously inspired nature of current and  future governments may possibly increase migration aspirations among secular  elites, minorities and women, whose rights might possibly be impinged upon.

On the other hand, possible increases in respect for  human rights for their own citizens may also push North African societies to  become more reflective and self-critical towards xenophobia and violations of  the rights of migrants and refugees, and make their governments less willing to  collaborate with the security-focused immigration policies of European  countries.

Hein de Haas hein.dehaas@qeh.ox.ac.uk is Co-Director of the International Migration Institute www.imi.ox.ac.uk  Nando Sigona nando.sigona@qeh.ox.ac.uk is  a Senior Research Officer at the Refugee Studies Centre www.rsc.ox.ac.uk.

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