Why Do People Migrate? Part 1: Facts

Forced versus voluntary migration - response to chapter by Liza Schuster

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Why do policy makers draw a distinction between migrants that are 'forced' to leave and those that 'voluntarily' do so? Why is this important for policies? How has this distinction informed the management of migration in different host countries?

The distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forced’ migration arose as part of an attempt to reduce the number of people moving into developed countries, and became a pressing issue in the 1990s when almost 4 million people became displaced during the Yugoslav wars. In 2006 a 10 Point Action Plan was launched by the UNHCR, which emphasised the need to control migration on the basis of those two categories. The distinction was ostensibly made to prioritise the protection of those who had been forced to leave their homes over the needs of those who had left out of choice. However, the question has to be asked, whether it wasn’t merely a reaction to the popular perception (and one promoted by the media) that most displaced people entering North-Western Europe were “bogus asylum seekers” not worthy of protection – a perception distorted by a fear of strangers rather than grounded in reality. It is indicative that the introduction to the Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: The 10 Point Plan in action (p.12) expresses concern that the provision of asylum to refugees “does not compound the difficulties that states experience in controlling more generally the arrival and residence of foreign nationals and in combating international crime.”

If policy-makers believe that there are two distinct and mutually exclusive categories of people, one of which is unworthy of reception, then measures have to be taken to keep such people out of host countries. This includes making migration as difficult and dangerous as possible and raising administrative hurdles. Such hurdles will supposedly still allow ‘genuine’ refugees to access protection, but the problem is that victims of ‘forced’ migration have basically no legal access to potential host countries, and are therefore relying on the same smuggling networks as anybody else. Furthermore, motivations for migration are always mixed and subject to change. Not only do people flee a combination of circumstances, but even someone who is purely a victim of ‘forced’ migration will start to look for work or education as soon as they find themselves in safety, and will keep moving until they find it. Do policy-makers regard such a person as driven by force or choice? Are they dealing with a refugee or an economic migrant?

In order to exclude so-called ‘voluntary’ migrants, European countries have focussed on restricting, if not stopping, the entry of all migrants. Already since the 1990s, access to visas has been severely limited, resulting in people having to turn to smugglers, paying exorbitant fees and (more importantly) risking their lives. For example: "When a Syrian applies for a visa in the French embassy in Amman, so that he can use it to apply for asylum in France, then his chances of getting this visa stand at about 1.5%. But if a Syrian succeeds in travelling illegally to Europe and applies for asylum at the French border, the chances stand at about 94%." (Translated from German, article by Kamel Dorai )

Secondly, border controls have been stepped up - with arms and security companies directly profiting. Frontex is surveilling the Mediterranean, intercepting smuggler’s boats carrying migrants, while the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are surrounded by razor-wire fences, a practice recently adopted by countries such as Hungary and Austria. The perception that we are dealing with two distinct categories of migrants has no doubt influenced the view of many Europeans that only refugees willing to stay in Turkey (or Lebanon or Jordan) are ‘genuine’ refugees. Any refugee who feels that being safe is not enough, that they also need work and education and will travel to access them, is regarded as an economic migrant and as such deserves no respect, never mind support. As long as the general population tends to hold such views, governments will get away with their current management of migration.

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