Migration crisis: containing people is not the answer

24 September 2015
Articles and blogs
Last night's EU decision to send €1 billion in aid to Turkey is the latest in a series of attempts to not actually deal with the (forced) migration crisis. Disappointing? Yes. Surprising? Hardly.

Deter, criminalise, contain: the default setting of so much western migration and asylum policy. Just take a look at some of the policies tabled in response to the half a million people arriving at Europe's borders this year: airstrike the smugglers (so people have no means of travel); build more camps in the Middle East (so people have no reason to go any further); erect more fences (so people turn back); solve the war in Syria (so there are no more refugees!) Each is designed to limit human mobility.

Ironically, these policies are legitimised by the idea that the vulnerability of migrants and asylum seekers would not exist if they had no need to journey across perilous land- and sea-scapes in the first place.

In a moment of apparent paternalism – the product of a twisted worldview that sees problems solved through the restriction rather than the expansion of options available to the world's poorest – European governments are stopping people from coming in a perverse bid to 'save lives'.

This is a dire misreading of the situation. Movement is one of the most fundamental forces, compulsions even, of humanity. We can make it as difficult, expensive and violent as we like for people to get from a to b, but the drive and determination underpinning many migration journeys is something to be reckoned with.

Barbed wire might stop people in their tracks, but it doesn't solve the problem – it simply diverts it. In numerous interviews ODI did with Syrians and Eritreans over the summer, a single message rang loud and clear: fences don't change minds. Alternatives are sought, new pathways are carved.

The recent actions of several EU countries, passing migrants and asylum seekers on to their neighbours like some kind of mix between an unsolvable Rubik's cube and a hot potato, have been, frankly, pathetic. There is nothing respectable or civilised about this approach.

Neither is there much sense to it, for any country committed to eradicating global poverty. The best evidence we have shows that one of the most effective ways to make poor people – as well as the global economy – better off is to let them move across borders.

On Sunday, Alexander Betts argued that states need to wake up to the reality of 'survival migration'. His point is crucial: it is not only those fleeing war and persecution who have the right to a better life for themselves and their families.

When the country of your birth overwhelmingly determines how much you'll earn over your lifetime – more than all other factors put together in fact, including individual effort and episodic luck – it beggars belief that movement across international borders is now being even further clamped down and criminalised.

Politicians talk of workable solutions to this crisis, but containing people, consigning them to an existence of immobility and destitution, is not the answer. Workable solutions are to be found not in the camps of Dadaab or Zaatari, or in the 'buy a goat' aid programmes, well-intentioned as they are. They exist at the borders of Europe.

With the shifting of European refugee resettlement policy towards slightly greater accommodation, the real challenge now lies in how we treat those not coming from warzones.

We risk creating a two-tiered system, occupied on the one hand by the deserving refugee, and on the other by the undeserving 'economic migrant' (if there ever were, right now, a less respected category of humankind).

This is an extremely problematic dichotomy. When Mohammed, a young, 'able bodied' Syrian man I talked to in Berlin, made his way to Europe after trying unsuccessfully for three months to find construction work in Turkey, the circumstances under which he fled Assad's regime became no less real, no less credible.

Such an approach also flies grotesquely in the face of our widely held belief that a world so rotten for so many ought to be addressed.

For too long, development and humanitarianism have been about using aid dollars to fix and contain the world's problems at point of origin. But it is mobility, not donations, that is the real solution.

Those states occupying the world's spaces of wealth, as well as those of us lucky enough (and it really is nothing more than luck) to be born into them, often talk the talk of wanting greater opportunity for all. Here is the ultimate test of whether we are prepared to walk the walk. We are failing spectacularly.