Refugees in Eastern Europe

Debunking myths about migration and asylum

Policy solutions to the refugees can stem from trade-offs and learning from past experience

As the tragedy of refugees unfolds in Europe, adequate policy response is still missing. The available evidence on the nature of migration may be used to inform better policy making. In this article, EuroScientist looks at the views of migration scholars. They stress the need to distinguish between the ongoing migration and the refugees flows towards Europe. These experts outline possible policy avenues to explore, while highlighting how future policies can learn from past failures. Their perspective also helps deflate a few myths pumped up by the xenophobic rhetoric surfacing in the public debate.

Global migration steady

The first myth is that overall migration is a massive turmoil, which is on the increase. On the contrary, the actual size of the global phenomenon appears steady. “Since 1995, we have seen a fairly stable global migration flow, involving about 0.6% of the world population in periods of 5 years – around 40 million people”, says Nikola Sanders, a population geographer at the Vienna Institute of Demography, Austria and the author of estimates of migration flows published in March 2014 in Science.

Indeed, migration has always existed, but it only affects a fraction of people. “Only 3.5% of people in the world live away from the country where they were born”, says Anna Triandafyllidou, a sociologist, expert in migration policy at the European University Institute, located near Florence in Italy. “Laypeople think that hundreds of millions of people are ready to move to Europe. Or that the global population of a country in crisis like Syria is a proxy for the likely number of arrivals of asylum seekers. But migrating is not easy, you have very good reasons when you migrate,” she points out.

Migrants versus refugees

If the volume of migrants is relatively small, that of refugees is even smaller. “Refugees was the first answer that 70% to 80% of UK citizens gave when asked who migrants are, according to a 2011 opinion survey on migration”, says Robert McNeil, spokesperson of the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) of the University of Oxford, UK, who is an expert in media and migration. “However, at that time asylum seekers represented only 4% of migrants in the UK! The largest group of non-EU migrants were university students,” he points out.

So what are the actual numbers? “It’s difficult to break up asylum seekers in the global migration flow,” Sanders says. “In 2014, there were 19.5 million refugees living outside their home country”, she points out. But this is the accumulated number of refugees, not the number of migrants that are seeking asylum at a given moment. However, rough estimates suggest that refugees are a minority in the global flow, while labour and family-induced migration is the largest proportion. Refugee crises produce changes in the global flows of the order of 0.1% or 0.2%, at most (although deviations can be larger at the regional scale), without changing the overall picture. This, of course, does not alleviate the personal challenges faced by refugees, but gives a sense of scale.

Europe, not the most attractive

Another easily debunked myth is that Europe is overwhelmingly affected by migrations. In fact, the largest movements occur between South and West Asia, from Latin to North America, and within Africa, according to Sanders’ figures. “There are fears that sub-Saharian emigration will invade Europe, but most people lack the resources and education to move away from Africa,” Sanders explains.

People are clearly moving from lower to higher GDP countries, in Sanders’ data. However, they climb the GDP ladder in steps: for example, from the low-income Indonesia, to the middle -income Malaysia, to the high-income Singapore.

So where do the majority of refugees go? “People think that Europe is the largest receiver of refugees. The EU has received 500,000 refugees in 2014 and they may be a bit more in 2015,” says Triandafyllidou. She adds: “But about 90% of the asylum population is hosted in the developing world. For instance, Kenya is hosting half a million Somalis. India is hosting half a million Nepalis. Refugees are often hosted in neighbouring countries: in the case of Syria, in Turkey, Lebanon, an Jordan.”

Migration policies: learning from past failures

When it comes to policy, failed past experiences can teach us some lessons. Beyond the obvious strengthening of Europe’s search and rescue capabilities, experts say that trying to seal the borders alone does not work. This is “because it will just convey the flow [of people] elsewhere”, says Triandafyllidou. “Moreover, tightened up borders discourages people to leave the receiving countries for fear of not being able to return,” Sanders observes.

Instead, signing development agreements, sending police support and fighting smuggling networks are more effective approaches. “There is a need for cooperation in Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Italy, Greece, to fight the smuggling networks from within,” says Triandafyllidou.

All experts agree that the Dublin regulation, the toolkit for refugees policy, designed in the 1990s, must be overhauled. It establishes a hierarchy of criteria for identifying the Member State responsible for the examination of an asylum claim in Europe. “It has collapsed in 2 days, because the current context is completely different,” says Triandafyllidou.

For example, the regulation contains the “first safe country” principle, under which the state in which an asylum seeker entered the EU is usually responsible for their claim. This system has created an inefficient division between the bordering countries facing emergencies and richer countries facing the largest fraction of asylum requests.

A more efficient system of asylum quotas is a unanimous requirement. This is the direction in which the European Commission appear to be going. It announced on 9th September 2015 quota allocations for each Member State. Whether it is sufficient and timely remains to be seen.

Another example of failed policy is the UK law preventing people from using asylum as a way to avoid being deported: refugees are not allowed to work, claim many welfare benefits and live out of dedicated social housing. “This policy resulted in an additional cost for the state, that refugees could not alleviate by paying taxes with their work,” says McNeal.

Boon in disguise

Alleviating the suffering of refugees is a moral imperative. But it is also more than this. “There is no such thing as a scientific approach to migration: politics always play a role,” McNeal argues. Each country and each moment has a specific set of costs and benefits associated to immigration. “If you are honest with the public about the tradeoffs, you are in a better position to deliver good policy making. It reduces the demand for symbolic policy making,” he says.

For example, Germany may face extra expense and the challenges of integration, by accepting almost a million refugees. But that compassionate reaction is also an economically beneficial way to address its demographic deficit. On the other hand, UK citizens are worried for the record levels of migration, that may put their social services under pressure. But migrants also provide the necessary input of workforce for a growing economy. Especially for social care services, which, due to public funding cuts, offer low paid jobs that the British won’t take.

In summary, solving the refugees puzzle in Europe does not call for a single solution. And it represents a very specific facet of the broader issue of migration policy. “The management of migration is not necessarily about immigration policy, there are numerous other policy leavers–including labour, education, etc.–that reduce or increase demand for migration. There are structural causes of the inflow of people, it’s never just about whether the borders are open or not,” McNeal concludes.

Michele Catanzaro


Photo credit: Stephen Ryan / IFRC (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Michele Catanzaro

Michele Catanzaro

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Michele Catanzaro is an Italian journalist based in Barcelona, Spain. He has a PhD in Physics and works as a freelance for Nature, Physics World, El Periódico de Catalunya, Spain, Le Scienze, Italy,and other media. He is the co-author of the book Networks: A Very Short Introduction and of the documentary Fast Track Injustice: The Óscar Sánchez Case.
Michele Catanzaro

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