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 firstname.lastname@example.org is Co-Director of the International Migration Institute www.imi.ox.ac.uk Nando Sigona email@example.com is a Senior Research Officer at the Refugee Studies Centre www.rsc.ox.ac.uk.
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, stay where you are because we have an economic crisis to deal with here” (Cecilia Malmstrom, EU Home Affairs Commissioner)
The quote comes from a lecture EU Commissioner Malstrom gave today at the Center for European Studies on the EU’s and EU member states’ responses to the Arab Spring, addressing in particular the challanges of building a EU migration and asylum policy. To read the full text of the lecture is available here. The words of the Commissioner echoe some of the concerns I had pointed to in a recent blog post. I am currently working with Hein de Haas to a joint commentary piece to be published on the forthcoming issue of Forced Migration Review on North Africa and Displacement 2011-2012 in which we further develop our understanding of the complex relationship between human mobility, forced displacement and political uprisings in the MENA region.
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?