Can deterrent policies stop people coming to Europe?

Migration23 Mar 2016Jessica Hagen-Zanker, Richard Mallett

With some exceptions, the European response to the migration crisis has been guided by strategies of containment, restriction and deterrence. Rather than welcoming, settling and integrating the new arrivals, many EU member states have tried to drive them away from their borders by escalating restrictive migration policies designed to stop people from coming in the first place. The EU-Turkey Migrants Deal is the latest example, and proposes sending migrants and refugees that arrive in Greece back to Turkey.

This expert opinion is part of our living analysis on migration

While European policymakers are challenged to formulate unified migration policies, blind spots along the migration trails hamper our ability to understand the situation as it is.

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Will such an approach stop people from getting on boats to Europe? We talked to more than fifty recent arrivals – from Syria, Eritrea and Senegal, now living in Germany, Spain and the UK – to explore their migration decision-making processes. We set out to understand to what extent, and under what conditions, does migration policy matter?

It’s not always possible to stop migration

The people that are coming to Europe have made the decision to come because they feel they have few other viable options. They have made that decision on the basis of ‘trusted’ information. We find that who transmits the message matters as much as the message itself. Information becomes trustworthy when it is transmitted by known social connections – people with whom the individual already shares a relationship of (at least some) trust. Given that European governments have no such initial bond with potential migrants, it is unlikely that their attempts to change people’s mind about migration will have much traction or result in any significant change in behaviour. As such, the EU-Turkey deal is unlikely to stop people from trying to come to Europe.

Deterrent policies can shift migrants and refugees from one country to the next

Governments believe they can control migration flows. For example, Hungary’s government explained its decision to build a border fence as “a necessary step […]. We need to stop the flood’. Our evidence suggests this may be possible in some senses, but not in others. Preventive migration policies, particularly those that aim to deter migration, appear to matter little. At best, direct controls like border fences and detention can divert the flow of migrants and refugees, essentially passing the buck from one country to another. But they do not appear capable of preventing migration on a regional level. Indeed, we saw last summer that Hungary managed to keep people out by building a border fence, however, this did not stop people from coming to Europe. They went to Croatia and Slovenia instead. Looking to the future, if the Turkey-Greece route becomes more difficult, people will revert to alternative routes, for instance, through Libya to Italy.

Migration plans mutate, destinations change

Picture a road movie. So rarely are these about what happens once the protagonists reach their destination. They tell stories of transformation along the way – of people met, friendships made, chance encounters. All of these shape how the narrative plays out. So too in real life. Migration journeys are long, unpredictable, dangerous and expensive. For instance, the Syrians we talked to crossed six countries on average, spending more than £2,000 each on journeys that sometimes took years. The nature of these journeys means that people need to adapt their plans to what is happening to them along the way. These journeys are guided by the individual’s hopes for the future – perceptions which can change over time. It is not surprising, therefore, that a person’s initial choice of destination may not end up being their final destination.

Education and jobs are what really matter

Migration trajectories are influenced less by restrictive migration policies and more by perceptions of ‘welcoming-ness’, labour market opportunities and access to education. For those with young children – and even for those without, but who are thinking long-term – access to good schooling is central. The (perceived) likelihood of getting a job is also important, as are safety and human rights. These are all part of what it means for a country to be seen as welcoming by migrants. Likewise, those we interviewed seemed influenced by migration policies that made life a little easier (faster asylum-processing procedures, for example).

Managing migration better

Trying to prevent migration via tougher border controls is a race to the bottom. Draconian measures might occasionally (but not always) shift the burden onto neighbouring countries, but they make little difference to migration flows at the regional level. People will continue to come. Because of this reality, European governments need to manage migration better. And to truly achieve this, collective action that makes the most of the opportunities presented by migration is necessary.

European policy-makers should focus their attention on three stages of the migration process: the journey, arrival at European borders, and entry and integration into European countries. As a first step, policy-makers need to make journeys safer, through expanded search and rescue missions, the provision of humanitarian visas and the expansion of legal migration options. They also need to create a faster and better functioning EU asylum system that processes asylum requests more quickly, more evenly, and shares responsibilities fairly across Europe – for more detail, see the recommendations in The Broker blog. And, finally, policy-makers should make the most of the social and economic benefits that can be generated through migration, for example, by investing in economic integration programmes for new arrivals and opening up circular migration programmes.

In the current political climate, putting these kind of policy options on the table can adversely affect politicians’ popularity, as we have seen with Angela Merkel. But, still, we urge politicians to look past the short-term political gains and consider what is best in the long term. People will keep moving between countries, as they always have, and, therefore, we need to make the most of migration. Now more than ever, policy-makers need to make courageous decisions that will ultimately lead to better outcomes not only for citizens in their own countries, but, most importantly, those making the desperate journey in search of safety and a better life.

This article draws on the report by Hagen-Zanker and Mallett (2015) Journeys to Europe: the role of policy in migrant decision-making.