Global Development Institute Blog

This blog originally appeared on the Manchester Migration Lab website

Blog by Gabriele Restelli, PhD Candidate, HCRI, The University of Manchester

The title of the conference World on the Move made me think: Is the world on the move? Are we witnessing an era of unprecedented migration?

Indeed, in absolute terms, more individuals are moving; but that’s simply because the world population has increased to 7 billion. Global migration data show no evidence of discontinuity in overall international migration trends. The total number of people living outside their country of birth (migrant stock) has remained relatively stable as a percentage of the world’s population since 1960, ranging from 3.1% to 3.3% in 2015. Similarly, only 0.75% of the world’s population emigrated in 2014 (migrant flow) – just like in 1995.

Similar thoughts were shared by Professor Aderanti Adepoju in his keynote talk: “Why people don’t move? Why despite increasing inequality so little migration is observed?” According to him, the answer is in the data. People do move, but they vastly move regionally or circularly. For instance, around 80% of migratory movements from African countries are estimated to happen within the African continent.

Refugees and asylum seekers are no exception. The vast majority (78%) of the displaced population tends to find refuge within their own country (and are labelled as Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs) or in neighbouring countries (becoming Refugees). Only a very small proportion of all displaced people across the entire world (3%) travel to European shores.

In the year of the “crisis”, 2015, record numbers of Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis travelled to Greece and Italy. The total arrivals were slightly more than a million. While it does sound like a huge number, if all the EU countries had offered temporary protection to everyone proportionately to their own population, the whole “European migration crisis” would have been solved with 1 migrant/refugee/put-your-label-here hosted every 50 thousand citizens. In other words, the whole Greater Manchester would have contributed to solve the “migration crisis” hosting 50 persons. Five Zero.

Then, why has migration become so trendy in the media? Why do we keep seeing boats crossing the Mediterranean like the African continent is about to be emptied?

The tenth panel of the conference, titled creating and contesting borders, offered some points for reflections. In the cited Weapons of Mass Migration (2010), Greenhill posits that migratory movements have been used by states as a coercing tool to obtain more favourable policy concessions from other countries. For instance, Libya’s Gheddafi often threatened European donors to unleash hordes of African migrants had his aid demands not been met. Adapting this view to Croatia, Špoljar Vržina seemed to suggest that the migration crisis can be useful to push relevant policies forward without having to deal with “humanity standards”.

Migration used as a policy tool. Through this lens, rather than seeing the negative depiction of immigration as the cause for rising populisms and far-right parties throughout Europe, one could argue that immigration has served as a weapon of mass distraction to achieve policy objectives in other areas. Instead of focusing on, say, rising inequality, declining salaries in real terms, public funding absorbed by private banking system, in almost every European country the internal public arena has been hijacked by the debate on immigration.

From Brexit to Le Pen, from Germany to Austria, it is evident that immigration has played an increasingly polarizing role. The next one in line is Italy, where polls will open in March 2018. There, newspapers’ headlines covering immigration more than doubled in 2015 compared to the previous year, and raised again by 10% in 2016. As a result, 41% of the Italian population perceived migration as a security concern. We know what to expect during the electoral campaign.

In all this, Antoine Burgard’s intervention, during panel six on Agency and Activism, provided some food for thoughts for the role that activists, as well as academics, could play. Discussing post World War II pro-refugee activism, he reported that the Canada National Committee for Refugees adopted a resolution “to avoid drawing attention on Jewish immigration”. Given the hostile environment, they acknowledged that public efforts to “humanize” refugees and their suffering would have not contributed to any good.

That might be an option to consider for those interested in “normalizing” the debate on migration. “The world is not on the move and, certainly, not towards Europe; policy makers, please, deal with the relevant stuff”. This is the message to reiterate loud and clear.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.