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Policy Crisis? The M-word and the R-word

Migrants/refugees found hiding in truck in Calais trying to enter Britain. Border management is clashing with asylum and migration policy at different locations around an increasingly dis-harmonized Europe. Photo credit: Piet den Blanken / Panos

Policy Crisis? The M-word and the R-word

September 09, 2015. Written by: Chris Horwood / RMMS

Migrants/refugees found hiding in truck in Calais trying to enter Britain. Border management is clashing with asylum and migration policy at different locations around an increasingly dis-harmonized Europe. Credit: Piet den Blanken / Panos

The debate around what to call the current policy crisis in Europe is right to interrogate whether it is a refugee crisis or a migrant crisis: whether to use the M-word or the R-word. Closer analysis suggests it is both, although some also argue  the use of the term ‘crisis’ should not be applied given the relatively low numbers involved. Nevertheless, there is clearly a policy crisis in terms of Europe’s response

Concerning the R-word and M-word, those with vested interests or ideological positions try to insist on the framing of the current increased influx of people into Europe one way or the other but what most people appear to be rapidly understanding is that there is a contemporary confluence of two distinct flows: one dominated by economic migrants (the Central and Western Mediterranean flow) and another dominated by refugees (the Eastern Mediterranean and West Balkan flow).

If governments, institutions or news channels choose to describe the crisis by one or another term it may be argued that they merely reveal their own bias, or ignorance. EU Foreign Minister, Federica Mogherini, stated on September 5th, “[W]e need to start using the right words: [the crisis] is partially a migrant flow, but it is mainly a refugee flow, which puts us in a different situation when it comes to our legal and moral duties.”

Both movements have three things in common:

Ø  Firstly, all irregular movement into Europe is overwhelmingly facilitated by smugglers.

Ø  Second, the characteristics, or profiles, of those in both refugee and migrant flows illustrate why the lens of mixed migration is useful in understanding the nature, and nuances, of these large scale contemporary movements.

Ø  Thirdly, the combined influx is causing unprecedented levels of interest, debate, political positioning and confusion among the 28 states of Europe.


Human smugglers are pivotal to the successful arrival of most migrants and refugees in Europe. Unlike human trafficking gangs that are frequently part of transnational criminal structures, human smugglers are normally a loosely allied network of small gangs and local opportunists that only take their clients along certain parts of their journey on sea or land. Only at certain hubs or departure points do a few major players or king-pins dominate the market. Often smugglers are neglectful of their charges’ welfare, frequently they are rough, violent and abusive and sometimes brutally exploitative and murdering. They stretch from small villages and towns in Sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan or Turkish refugee camps deep into Europe itself, taking migrants and refugees by foot, in cars, busses, lorries, containers, boats, ships and planes.

The smugglers’ ability to cross geographical distances and obstacles, negotiate border crossings and make linkages with other onward smugglers is central to why migrants and refugees pay for their help. In turn, the smugglers cannot operate without a high level of collusion of certain corrupt state officials who often offer smugglers maximum protection and impunity.

What international observers may see as a chaotic, risk-filled, unfinished stumbling of thousands of humans onto European soil is the essence of initial success for migrants and refugee who, at any cost and in any way, need to get there. As long as smugglers can deliver this they are secured massive demand for their services now and for the foreseeable future.

Mixed migration

The lens of mixed migration show us that people with mixed status (broadly, refugee or economic migrant) are travelling together and use similar routes and means (smugglers) to get to their destination When boats capsize on the Mediterranean among the fatalities there may be Eritreans, Gambians or Somalis. Up to 40 per cent of the trainloads of ‘Syrian refugees’ currently arriving in Germany (early September) are in fact from Balkan states, in most cases fleeing neither conflict nor oppression. Amongst those who repeatedly attempt to breach the Channel Tunnel security in Calais are economic refugees as well as refugees and asylum seekers. Shoulder to shoulder.

But the mixed migration lens also illustrates that people move for complicated mixed motives. The so-called economic migrant from northern Nigeria (with a low chance of legally remaining in Europe) may also be fleeing localized conflict and chaos that has seen members of his family killed and almost total unemployment for educated youth. The Ethiopian migrant may have been barred from jobs because of his ethnicity and after failing to find work in Kenya decided to try his luck in Europe.

Equally, an Eritrean (with a high chance of being accepted as a refugee in Europe) may have successfully fled conscription and an oppressive regime at home only to find herself trapped as a refugee in Eastern Sudan with no hope for resettlement to a third country while facing daily risks from human traffickers predating on the camps there. She sees other refugees who have been in the camps for many years and soon decides to leave the camp with smugglers. She doesn’t just want refuge, she wants a future and so her motives for applying for refugee status in Europe are invariably mixed.

Refugees running from protracted conflicts or long-term political difficulties often choose ‘onward movement’. This is the story with Syrians. A staggering four million have sought refuge from violence in Lebanon, Jorden and Turkey. While they have refuge from violence they find no hope of decent housing, jobs, and adequate education and health services and after waiting to see if the war will end, have given up and now make the most logical choice they can. Migrants and refugees make logical option-maximising decisions and assess risk against benefit. The drivers compelling them to leave their homes may be as mixed as their reasons for wanting to be accepted in Sweden or Germany.

So refugees’ stories are also rarely simple and often reflect a range of genuine fears as well as  personal aspirations – some of the stories may come very close to those of economic migrants, leading to wide-spread confusion concerning the status of new arrivals and, perhaps more importantly, people’s perceptions of those arriving and the ethical dilemmas facing those designing policy. But it is clear that there must be policy, or two policies: for irregular migrants and for refugees.

Policy confusion

There is no doubt that the majority of those arriving in Europe now are asylum seekers and refugees. Over 60 per cent are fleeing persecution, conflict and insecurity and qualify as Convention refugees in any country signed up to the Refugee Convention (145 nations as of April 2015). Most of these are fleeing Syria with large minorities fleeing Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq along with smaller groups fleeing less recognized situations where governments may be predatory or just fail to offer security.

António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last week stated that, “Beyond the immediate response, it is clear that this situation will require us to reflect seriously about the future. This massive flow of people will not stop until the root causes of their plight are addressed”. But in the current globalised world, even if the ‘root causes’ were addressed and people no longer fled conflict or persecution, the reality is that irregular migration would continue.

Of course, there is on-going regular, authorized migration into Europe. It continues amidst, or behind, the current headline-grabbing phenomena but the irregular, unauthorized migration would continue whatever happens to the refugees.

Tens of thousands of those entering Europe, some hoping to be counted as refugees even, are irregular economic migrants. Often from Sub-Saharan countries (with Nigeria highest ranking) they also include Pakistani’s, Albanians, Chinese, Nepali’s and many others. Some are simply hoping to better their lives and narrow the unequal gap between North and South. This gap is not only an income gap as economists often describe it, but also a health, education, livelihood option, personal freedom gap. Global inequality factors are coupled with unprecedented levels of connectivity. People in previously more isolated societies are now exposed to life elsewhere through personal contacts, social media and broadcast media. And then there is the force of aspirations and desires of many young people trapped in what they experience as politically restrictive and socioeconomically stagnant cul-de-sacs.

Europe has been struggling to respond to the steady flow of these irregular, uninvited migrants for the last two decades or more – a flow that appears to be inexorably rising since 2012. This is the ‘migrant crisis’ which is occurring in tandem with the ‘refugee crisis’, offering unprecedented windfalls for smugglers and major headaches to European policy-makers.

The refugee and migrant problematic are distinct and require separate and clear policy responses. As the public debate and politicization of the current crisis escalates these distinctions have often been lost and responses are polarising.

Germany welcomes refugees while Hungary’s premier warns millions more are on their way and that soon Europeans will be a minority in Europe. There are those who are set against all ‘migrants’ and want stricter border controls implanted and others who would frame the problem as overwhelmingly refugee in nature and that Europe should assist all who come. However, as flawed as both extremes may be they do point to the mixed nature of the problem that deserve some analysis.

Not surprisingly, the High Commissioner for Refugees focuses on the immediate refugee crisis, “This is a defining moment for the European Union,” he stated last week, “and it now has no other choice but to mobilize full force around this crisis. The only way to solve this problem is for the Union and all member states to implement a common strategy, based on responsibility, solidarity and trust”.

In such a context of complex flows and mixed migration it will be for the people and governments of Europe to dissemble and develop policy  appropriate to what is manifestly a refugee crisis (of possible short to medium term duration) as well as a migrant crisis (of probable medium to longer term duration). Either way, the R-word and the M-word both remain relevant and demand clear and distinct policy responses. 

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