The missing link between (academic) knowledge and the EU governance of migration


In March 2020, a number of academics in charge of different EU funded projects concerned with migration sent an open letter to the European Commission (EC). By addressing the President of the EC and the commissioners for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Home Affairs, and Crisis Management, about 50 prominent scholars lamented policymakers’ neglect for any empirical evaluation when dealing with migration and the governance of it. They highlighted authorities’ complete lack of engagement with the results of their studies and exposed the (resulting) brutality of Europe’s approach to the management of non-EU citizens’ mobility in(to) Europe.

As an academic myself who conducted several investigations to analyse and deconstruct the EU governance of migration where policies are actually implemented (for example on the border island of Lampedusa, in Maltese reception centres, in a family tribunal in Brussels, or in the office of the UNHCR representation in Rabat), I could immediately connect with what my colleagues blamed the EC for. When looking at European migration policies from the bottom (that is, from the perspective of migrants being subjected to them or border guards and other officials implementing them in their everyday lives) one quickly realises how irrational and inhumane they are. 

In this respect, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum does not mark any significant change. This comprehensive policy package does not diverge from the policies which the EU implemented in the past. The new measures keep ignoring evidence-based knowledge on migration – knowledge which is often generated within EU funded research projects. This is the case of, for instance, the proclaimed goal of strengthening ‘international partnerships’ with transit countries and countries of origin. 

To enhance the international dimension of migration management and control, the new strategies align with two major and long-standing priorities of the EU. First, by strengthening the cooperation with transit countries and countries of origin, EU authorities aim to establish more effective deportation schemes for unauthorised people who are present in Europe. Second, in promoting development in these non-EU partners, the EU aims to generate an incentive for local authorities to cooperate, while simultaneously reduce poverty and, by this, unauthorised migration towards Europe.

Altogether, from about three decades, these two key areas of intervention are the pillars of Europe’s ‘externalisation’ of border and migration control. Despite their relatively long history, however, both these strategies seem to be grounded on very little if no empirical understanding of how migration and the governance of it unfold on the ground. This is the case at least at two levels.

First, for how intuitive it might look, EU authorities’ view on the development-migration nexus is not empirically sound. In fact, as it is abundantly demonstrated in countless academic studies on the subject – some of which dates back to the 1990s – such correlation is not linear at all. In fact, up to certain levels of GDP per capita, people will increase their mobility and eventually decide to emigrate to another continent. It is only ‘when countries shift into upper-middle- and higher-income categories [that] further development [can eventually] decrease emigration levels’, as Hein de Haas writes in his 2020 chapter ‘Paradoxes of Migration and Development’ in the Routledge Handbook of Migration and Development. In other words, promoting economic development produces an increase in emigration rather than a decrease: a trend which is inverted only after high levels of individual or households’ income are achieved. 

Second, deportations are simply too complex and contentious to be successfully speeded up. Difficulties in obtaining the necessary permissions for repatriation come from the very fact that undocumented migrants do not possess an identity document. Regardless of their official commitment in cooperating with the EU in facilitating deportations, if the authorities from the country of origin of the deportee do not want to collaborate, identification can become simply impossible. We must keep in mind that most governments in transit countries and countries of origin are aware of how much public support they lose whenever they assist the EU with deportations. Similarly, they are also conscious of how important emigration is for their national economies – for example through remittances – as well as for maintaining public order and political stability – as dissidents are often among the first ones who are emigrating to escape repression and persecution. 

Such considerations can (and will) apply even if the EU increases the incentives – for example by expanding or developing ‘orderly channels for legal migration‘ – for countries to strengthen their cooperation on deportation. After all, for a forced return to take place, it is the country of origin of the migrant that must provide the necessary documentation. Even when a state has agreed to collaborate, a lot or room remains to its officers to de facto obstacle identification – for example by hiding any evidence on the returnee’s identity.

In sum, for how obvious it might sound, the most revolutionary move the EU could do to actually improve its governance of migration is to make use of its own investments in migration research. Besides turning Europe’s approach to migration and asylum, that could also make it more human and just.

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