Comment & analysis

Time for a new, sustainable European approach to migration

3 October 2019 Bénédicte Goderiaux and Lucia Montanaro Time for a new, sustainable European approach to migration

A version of this comment piece was originally published in the EU Observer. 

The migration issue continues to dominate the EU corridors of power and its agenda. The new EU leaders and member states will no doubt be reviewing the union’s migration policies. But will the Vice-President-designate Margaritis Schinas, and the Commissioner-designate for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson take the opportunity to build a more humane and sustainable approach to migration?

Amid controversy over his title, in the parliamentary hearing on 3 October Vice President for “Protecting Our European Way of Life” Schinas has an opportunity to put the core values of the EU – peace, sustainable development and human rights – back at the heart of EU migration policy.

The current EU approaches see migration through a security lens, focusing on ‘combating’ irregular migration and reducing arrivals to Europe – short-term responses driven by member states’ domestic agendas rather than a long-term strategy. Central to this response is the outsourcing of border controls to partner governments and security forces. This includes funding, training and equipping fragile and conflict-affected states like Niger and Libya, and making deals with authoritarian governments like Turkey to contain refugees and migrants outside Europe.

The logic is that showing resolve to stop migration will counter support for far-right parties in Europe which are seen as an ‘existential threat’ to the EU. But the approach validates the threat rhetoric rather than defusing it. It is failing to prevent migrants’ deaths and resulting in further abuse, detentions and returns. It creates hostile environments that contribute to further migration and reduces access to legal migration pathways – forcing people to turn to smugglers for assistance. By outsourcing migration control to repressive governments and unaccountable and abusive security forces, the EU ends up reinforcing drivers of conflict, instability and exclusion in origin and transit countries. These are factors known to increase people’s desperation and their motivation to migrate.

Take the Sahel. Niger is a major recipient of EU aid, with more than €1 billion allocated for the 2014-2020 period. President Issoufou has used the threat of migration to elicit funding from Europe for his security forces. Under EU pressure, Niger has adopted draconian laws against human smuggling, which have undermined long-standing regional migration rights, disrupted seasonal migratory patterns and penalised the movement and transport of people even within Niger. This has increased the dangers for migrants, undermined traditional cross-border trade, and disrupted regional mobility and livelihoods. It has also sparked inter-ethnic tensions in northern Niger, further destabilising an already unstable region.

In war-torn Libya migrants are dying, whether in airstrikes or drownings at sea. Armed factions are abusing migrants, detaining them in inhumane conditions. Yet EU member states have trained and equipped Libyan coastguards, who return migrants intercepted at sea back to prison and abuse. It doesn’t take long to see how EU policies can give rise to deadly risks for migrants and feed into war economies and instability in Libya.

The short-term focus on reducing migrant arrivals in Europe sidelines longer-term objectives such as ending migrant detentions, addressing the behaviour of abusive groups and the underlying drivers of conflict, inequality and under-development in the EU’s neighbourhood.

In fact, EU policies are encouraging its partners to exploiting the EU’s fear of migration to obtain political or financial support. Such fears are then used in Europe to justify more security efforts, in what is becoming a self-perpetuating vicious circle. In this process, the EU risks losing its credibility as a global advocate for peace and human rights.

It is time for European values to take the centre-stage again. The first step is to look beyond a numbers game to reassess the broader impact of current approaches: European leaders must review migration policies to better understand their long-term impact on peace, development and security.

Understanding the counter-productive consequences of a short-term securitised approach, they can put peace and protection back at the heart of its response – prioritising foreign and development policy and funding instruments that support them. Advancing peace, governance and inclusive development by addressing the drivers of conflict in origin and transit countries will do more to reduce displacement than supporting those whose authoritarianism and abuses perpetuate suffering.

As the EU’s new leaders prepare for their posts there is a fresh opportunity to revisit the Union’s foreign policies and question the shortcomings of the ‘hard security’ model. If they can encourage member states to focus both on safe movement and reception for those who need protection and the socio-economic and security anxieties of voters at home, we might see a humane approach to migration that will ultimately benefit both migrants and EU citizens – one that is in line with European values, and one that will last.

Photo: © European Union 2016 - European Parliament