European debates about migration are intractable, polarising, and broken, fuelling a downward spiral of ever more extreme policies aimed at keeping people out. To break this cycle, there’s a desperate need to reframe the conversation to focus on achievable policy goals that will benefit both people on the move and the countries they aim to reach.
Let’s start with this basic premise: Migration itself is not a problem. It is an inherent feature of human society and history that often results in positive outcomes for those who migrate as well as their countries of origin and destination. The real issues that need to be addressed are the abuses, dangers, and deprivation faced by refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who see moving irregularly as the only – or most viable – way they can reach safety and opportunity.
Migration itself is not a problem. It is an inherent feature of human society and history that often results in positive outcomes for those who migrate as well as their countries of origin and destination.
Reducing irregular movement to the absolute minimum to ensure that the smallest number of people possible face these risks should be a starting point we can all agree on for a more productive conversation about how to manage migration. The question we should be focusing on is how can the goal of reducing irregular migration realistically and humanely be achieved?
Here, I offer five ideas that should be viewed as a comprehensive package of interlocking suggestions. Alone, none of these ideas would work well – or even necessarily be morally acceptable. But taken together, they point to a potential way forward from our current migration morass:
1. Harmonise migration and economic policies:
European countries have sought to leverage hundreds of millions of euros in development funding to address “root causes of irregular migration”, such as joblessness. At the same time, European agricultural and trade subsidies and policies have disadvantaged producers and companies outside the continent, making it difficult for people to earn a sustainable living, and increasing pressure on some to migrate irregularly to Europe. Fishing agreements between the EU and Senegal that have contributed to an uptick in migration to the Spanish Canary Islands since 2020 are a good case in point.
Meanwhile, European countries spend millions of euros to try to fortify their borders while people who reach the continent irregularly often end up working informally in the same agricultural sectors that benefit from subsidies that played a role in pushing them to migrate in the first place. The entire model is contradictory, expensive, and only benefits the smugglers who profit from it. Harmonising migration and economic policies is a win-win that would reduce pressure on people to migrate and cut down on European countries’ perceived need to spend large sums of money on border fortification.
2. Increase regular migration:
European countries should use the money they save from adopting complementary migration and economic policies to invest in a massive upscaling of innovative and safe schemes for regular labour migration.
This could be done by introducing premium visa schemes – that could actually cost less than the thousands of euros people spend on smugglers and dangerous, irregular journeys. Or prospective migrants could deposit a significant sum of money with the government of their destination country that they would get back, with interest, if they returned to their home country at the end of a labour contract, thereby encouraging circular migration. People who cannot afford the cost of a premium visa or deposit could be allowed to take out a safe, non-predatory loan, which they would repay through the taxes they would pay as formal workers.
Opening up opportunities for seasonal migration in sectors other than agriculture and hospitality – already common – is another possibility. For example, many European countries face a shortage of healthcare workers. Providing seasonal work opportunities to medical professionals from other parts of the world during the fall and winter, when caseloads tend to surge, could be a good idea, as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t diminish healthcare capacity in the countries people are coming from.
3. Make safe and dignified returns easier:
Once regular labour migration pathways have been massively expanded, countries of origin will be more likely to cooperate on the return of asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected. Adding in better access to European trade markets could also help sweeten the pot.
The savings expected to come from harmonising migration and economic policies would have to be invested in fast, fair, high-quality asylum processing that would include the right to appeal and access to free legal support. This would allow cases to be adjudicated within several weeks of people arriving in Europe – instead of the months or even years it currently takes. People whose claims are rejected would be quickly returned to their home, and the incentive for people with little chance of being granted asylum to undertake irregular journeys to Europe would be diminished.
4. Allow for flexibility between asylum and labour migration pathways:
While increasing the number of rejected asylum seekers returned to their countries of origin is important, it shouldn’t be the only option. Forced returns are expensive, and so are economic assistance programmes for people who return voluntarily.
European countries should create other options for rejected asylum seekers by allowing them to change migration lanes by entering labour or work permit immigration channels if their skills are matched with the increasingly pressing labour market needs in many destination countries.
5. Decentralise authority to cities:
Cities must have a stronger role when it comes to refugee and migration policy. There’s a strong divide between the polemical, security-focused approach to migration at national level in Europe and a much more pragmatic and open approach being advocated for by local governments and cities that often want to welcome more refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants for both moral and economic reasons.
Ultimately, cities end up being responsible for many of the services and issues related to the reception and integration of these populations. As a result, the voices of mayors and other local leaders should be elevated and given more power in conversations about migration policy.
Finally, while considering solutions to the challenges posed by mixed and irregular migration, it’s important to remember that migration itself can be part of the solution to some of the most pressing global challenges – from inequality, poverty, and unemployment to labour shortages, and even climate change. In the search for better policies, we shouldn’t forget to search for ways to harness migration’s positive impacts.