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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2676

Understanding Migration And Crisis In Europe

By Sharat Poornima - Masters in Politics with Specialization in International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Migration is both a spatial and a temporal phenomenon. It involves movement between distinct places – the spatial element – and this movement is understood to occur in and over specific periods of time – the temporal element. Most countries of the world are increasingly affected by international migration: either as senders of emigrants, receivers of immigrants or in many cases as both.

The composition of the migrant population is often very different from that of the host population regarding demographic, cultural and socio-economic characteristics. In law, the distinction between a refugee and a migrant is of great significance. First and foremost, refugees enjoy a distinct and unique standard of protection under international law unlike migrants.

A refugee has been defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UNHCR and its 1967 Protocol as any person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable, or is owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself the protection of that country.”

However, in recent years there has been a growing backlash against the notion that international migration at current levels provides a net benefit to nation states. Migrant-sending countries are concerned about a ‘brain drain’ of highly qualified workers, while receiving countries worry that the ‘migrant absorption capacity’ has been exceeded, leading to detrimental economic outcomes and rising social tensions. The human-rights-based international agreements of greatest importance for the admission policy in Europe are the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Geneva Convention) and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (New York Protocol). Both documents created the foundation for the international refugee protection regime.

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land” – Warsan Shire

The 1951 Convention offers the refugee three basic protections – non-discrimination, non-penalisation and non-refoulement. The basic norm securing refugee rights formulated in the Convention is a non-refoulement rule which prohibits the expulsion or forcible return of refugees to countries in which they could be persecuted or in danger of death. The Convention additionally formulates provisions for political and social rights of the persons granted refugee status.

Syrian Refugee Crisis

In the summer of 2015, Europe experienced the highest influx of refugees since the Second World War. Syria has become the world’s top source of refugees. Since the 1960s, it has been led by the al-Assad family, who has ruled it as quasi-dictators until the Arab Spring happened in 2011. It was a revolutionary wave of protests and conflicts in the Arab world that toppled many authoritarian regimes. But the Assads refused to step down and started a brutal civil war. Different ethnicities and religious groups fought each other in changing coalitions. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militaristic jihadist group used the opportunity and entered the chaos with the goal to build a totalitarian Islamic Caliphate. Soon, it became one of the most violent and successful extremist organizations on earth. All sides committed horrible war crimes, using chemical weapons, mass executions, torture on a large scale and repeated deadly attack on civilians.

The Syrian population was trapped between the regime, rebel groups and the religious extremists. A third of the Syrian people have been displaced within Syria, while over four million have fled the country. The vast majority of them reside now in camps in the neighboring countries, which are taking care of the 95 percent of the refugees. The UN and the World Food Program were not prepared for a refugee crisis on this scale. As a result, many refugee camps are crowded and undersupplied, subjecting people to cold, hunger and disease. The Syrians lost hope that their situation will be getting better anytime soon, so many decided to seek asylum in Europe.

In the European Union, a refugee has to stay in the state they arrived in first, which put enormous pressure on the border states that were already in trouble. Greece, in the midst of an economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression, was not able to take care of so many people at once, leading to terrible humanitarian crisis. In Turkey, most refugees live in a kind of a legal limbo outside of camps, because Turkey does not expel them, but they are also not allowed to work. Even though many Syrians have a good education and labor skills, they can’t make a living, and so in search of lasting refuge, they have turned to Europe. They pay smugglers thousands of Euros to get them via boat from Turkey, Morocco, or Egypt to Malta, Southern Italy, or Greece’s southern islands. To quote the UN’s High Commission for Refugees, “More effective international cooperation is required to crack down on smugglers, including those operating inside the EU, but in ways that allow for the victims to be protected.” But none of these efforts will be effective without opening up more opportunities for people to come legally to Europe and find safety upon arrival.

European Migration Policy

The development of a common migration policy in the European Union (EU) is embedded in wider societal, political and professional processes that articulate an endangered society. Western European welfare states face a multiplicity of challenges to their mechanisms of societal integration and political legitimacy. These include economic and financial globalization, the rise of poverty, the deterioration of living conditions in cities, the revival of racist and xenophobic parties and movements, the estrangement of the electorate from the political class, and the rise of multiculturalism. In this setting migration has been increasingly presented as a danger to public order, cultural identity, and domestic and labor market stability; it has been securitized. Although the social construction of migration as a security question is contested, it results from a powerful political and societal dynamic reifying migration as a force which endangers the good life in West European societies. Thus, the ‘common European migration policy’ evolved from the total lack of cooperation in the field of migration of third-country nationals through informal and then formal intergovernmental cooperation to the decision to create a common asylum and migration policy at the Community level, which was introduced by the Treaty of Amsterdam.

A significant Europeanization of migration policy took off in the 1980s. Policy co-ordination and development were institutionalized in European interstate co-operation, the European Union, and European transnational co-operation between functional organizations such as the police. In the framework of the intergovernmental and bureaucratic fora, transnational and intergovernmental policy networks developed which were interested in a co-operative regulation of migration. These contributed considerably to a gradual incorporation of migration policy into the constitutional structure of the EU. Common regulations on migration in Western Europe have emphasized the need for restrictions on population flows. In the 1980s migration increasingly was a subject of policy debates about the protection of public order and the preservation of domestic stability. These debates also represented migration as a challenge to the welfare state and the cultural composition of the nation.

The European integration process is involved in the development of and the struggle against the representation of migration as a cultural danger. Three themes are central. The first is the cultural significance of border control and the limitation of free movement. The second is the question of integration or assimilation of migrants into the domestic societies of the Member States. The third is the relationship between European integration and the development of multicultural societies. Migration features prominently in the contemporary struggle for the welfare state. More specifically, immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees are increasingly seen as having no legitimate right to social assistance and welfare provisions. The securitization of migration in the context of the debates about the future of the welfare state is also embedded in a struggle for political legitimacy in and of the post-war political order in Europe.

The Securitization Of Migration And The Subject Of Gender

Migration is a complexly layered process that intersects with some of the most vexing issues in international politics today, namely, human rights, development and climate change. Migrants are characterized by a high degree of heterogeneity with respect to skills, education, age, gender, welfare position, cultural background, ethnicity and motivation. For European states, the issues of refugees and asylum seekers have become increasingly contentious in recent years. As Europe seeks to “secure” its borders and control migration, asylum seekers have been perceived as a threat to this “security.” Widespread perceptions that Europe is being “flooded” with asylum seekers, many of whom are not, in fact, genuine asylum seekers but economic migrants, and beliefs concerning the supposed costs associated with the reception of asylum seekers, have mobilized support for more restrictive policies on the part of EU states. Deportation, detention, and dispersal of asylum seekers have become “normalized” policy instruments in the attempts to control asylum, and moves had been made to “externalize” asylum control to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers within the EU. In particular, these efforts have concentrated on “cooperation” with the EU’s neighbors to prevent the arrival of asylum seekers in Europe, a cooperation that has resulted in many would-be asylum seekers being “stuck” in countries of “transit” such as Morocco.

At the same time, welfare rights of asylum seekers within EU states have been restricted, leading to a greater stratification of rights between different categories of migrants. These developments have called into question the ability or willingness of European states to meet their obligations under the current international conventions on refugees and asylum seekers, and have raised important challenges for refugee protection. The securitization of immigration and asylum policies has contributed to weakening protection for those seeking asylum on the basis of gender-related prosecutions. The securitization of asylum policy, with asylum seekers being portrayed increasingly as a “threat” to states of the Global North, has meant that women seeking asylum have been forced to present themselves as idealized “victims” of “barbaric” other cultures to have any chance of receiving protection under refugee regimes. This “gender-blindness” reflects a more general “dearth of gendered analysis of migration by political scientists.” The overall “securitization” of immigration as an issue in the EU has resulted when the claims to secure Europe’s borders clearly take precedence over the competing security claims of women and men seeking refugee protection within Europe. The prosecution and insecurities faced by women seeking asylum are often ignored because their voices remain unheard in the dominant discourses concerning immigration and asylum.

One of the major difficulties in assessing the situation of women refugees and asylum seekers in Europe is the lack of accurate gender disaggregated statistics. This lack of accurate statistics seems to reflect inherent gender blindness in research on these issues – the figure of the refugee is often seen as male, and the particular types of persecution, which force women to become migrants, are ignored. UNHCR estimates that in most regions women constitute between 45 and 55 percent of the refugee population, although other estimates are much higher. Despite a large number of women among the global refugee population, women make up only a minority of asylum claimants in Europe. Women who have been the victims of persecution may face particular social and economic constraints that make it more difficult in many circumstances to leave their countries and travel to Europe to claim asylum. In particular, it may be more difficult for a woman to leave her country of origin and travel as she may often have primary responsibility for the care of children. Also, economic inequalities mean that women often may not have the necessary financial resources to undertake such a journey. Smugglers have also been identified as one of the primary sources of violence, and in particular sexual violence, against women migrants. It can be argued that all these obstacles mean that women leave their homes and families only when circumstances become so hostile that they cannot possibly remain.

Economic Security Of Refugees

When refugees flee their homes, poverty follows close behind. Those refugees who go to camps can usually find emergency humanitarian assistance and food aid, but this assistance is insufficient to meet even basic needs over the long term. Most refugees do not end up in camps; they live among- and sometimes sharing the houses of- the local population of the areas to which they flee. In countries of first asylum, two factors are of key importance for refugees’ economic security. The first is the institutional context. National refugee and other migration laws and policies, along with the bureaucracies and authorities that implement them, are an important determinant of how easily refugees pursue economic activities. Also, the practices of financial organizations such as banks and microfinance agencies also influence the institutional context, through their ability to extend or withhold financial services such as saving accounts, money transfers, and credit to refugees. Financial services are an important aspect of economic security. The second-factor influencing refugees’ economic security is the extent to which refugees have access to social capital, both in the host area and through transnational links with the diaspora in other countries. Social capital takes the form of assistance and support provided by the community or by the diaspora who send help in the form of remittances. It plays an important role in sustaining refugees through difficult patches and helping them to get a jumpstart on new livelihoods.

Second, refugees’ experience is instructive for understanding poverty and economic insecurity more broadly. Like the poor in the developing countries, refugees pursue livelihoods largely in the informal sector with associated risks stemming from a lack of health and safety regulations, lack of social security, low salaries, extended working hours, unstable and sometimes dangerous jobs. These problems are riskier for refugees because they lack government-sponsored safety nets that might be available to poor citizens. How refugees cope with life in the informal sector helps us understand how the informal sector operates more widely. The legal category of refugees comprises people who fulfill the criteria set out in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This includes both asylum seekers and those who have been formally recognized, usually through individual refugee status determination.

In their new places of residence, refugees have only two types of capital with which to start new lives: human capital- their education, strength, and skills- and the social capital available to them- ethnic, kin, and co-national networks that provide refugees with the local knowledge and often financial or housing support. The most significant factor constraining the livelihoods of refugees is the institutional context- the legal and policy environment of the host country. For refugees, access to and utilization of their productive assets, including their human capital, depends on this regulatory environment. This environment comprises refugee policies, the state’s administrative and enforcement apparatus, and implementing practices regarding refugees’ rights. These rights include economic and social rights such as whether refugees are allowed to work, to own and operate businesses, to utilize government health and education facilities, and to move about freely outside of camps to engage in economic activity.

Governing Migration

To understand the impact of international migration on world politics, it is important to know how states shape and control migration for strategic gains. The overall rise in immigration in the last half of the twentieth century is a function of market forces and kinship networks, which reduce the transactions costs of moving from one society to another. These economic and sociological forces are the necessary conditions for migration to occur, but the sufficient conditions are legal and political. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states, with highly developed industrial and service-based economies, reap enormous economic gains from migration- new sources of human capital and manpower, more flexible labor markets, lower levels of inflation in periods of high growth. Liberal states also must confront the issue of rights (legal status) for migrants. Economic needs for openness are pitted against powerful political and legal pressures for closure or what has been called the “liberal paradox.”

Migration also has important costs (brain drain) and benefits (remittances and brain gain) for less developed countries (LDCs) in the south. International trade is a well-established determinant of income and growth. The impact of international migration on the welfare of both source and recipient countries is less well understood. Recipient countries benefit, among other things, from the availability of the immigrant workers, both skilled and unskilled. Source countries benefit, among other things, from the remittances sent back home by migrant workers, an important source of foreign exchange in many LDCs. Alongside trade and FDI, migration is a defining feature of the international political economy, and states struggle to govern and regulate migration and mobility. Rights are essential to migration governance, as modern states strive to fulfill three key functions: maintaining security, building trade and investment regimes, and regulating migration.

The global integration of markets for goods, services, and capital entails higher levels of international migration; therefore, if states want to promote freer trade and investment, they must be prepared to manage higher levels of migration. Many states are willing to sponsor high-end migration, because the numbers are manageable, and there is likely to be less political resistance to the importation of highly skilled individuals. However, mass migration of unskilled and less educated workers is likely to meet with greater political resistance. International security and stability are dependent on the capacity of states to manage migration. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for states to manage or control migration either unilaterally or bilaterally. A multilateral/regional regime is required, similar to what the EU has constructed for nationals of the member states.


In contemporary Europe, migration has become a meta-issue in the political spectacle. It has become a powerful theme through which functionally differentiated policy problems, such as identity control and visa policy, asylum applications, integration of immigrants, distribution of social entitlements, and the management of cultural diversity are connected and traversed. Discourses and governmental technologies reifying immigrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and foreigners as a dangerous challenge to societal stability play a prominent role in connecting these different issues. The Europeanization of migration policy has made a distinct contribution to this development. It has directly securitized migration by integrating migration policy into an internal security framework, that is, a policy framework that defines and regulates security issues following the abolition of internal border control. It has also indirectly sustained the securitization of migration. Such a negative rendering of migration at the European level further bolsters domestic political spectacles such as crime and riots in the cities, domestic instability, transnational crime and welfare fraud. Rather, migration may be the most effective tool for reducing global poverty.

Migration is intrinsic to the functioning of labor markets, trade, foreign investment, and development. The European relocation scheme requires the creation of “hotspots”. They are places where the immigrants must be registered and where a distinction is made between genuine asylum seekers and those who are essentially economic migrants. The EU’s presence at sea could be strengthened by allowing free movement within the area known as Schengen. There are three big lessons to be learned from Europe’s refugee problem. First, an effective solution is no longer possible at the national level. Second, the world needs to rethink the way it looks at refugees and migrants, if for no other reason than that their numbers are only set to grow. And last, the new refugee is the economic migrant who cannot afford the legal route and his claims for refuge and a decent life are as valid as those fleeing war and persecution. Nation-states cannot continue to live in denial of this reality for long.

- Asian Tribune -

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