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It’s Time for a More Honest, Less Partisan Debate on Mixed Migration

Mixed migration flows represent a small proportion of human mobility but have seriously disrupted migration and refugee policy as well as politics worldwide. We need a sober, forward-looking discussion of the issues, argues Mixed Migration Centre analyst Chris Horwood.

Written by Chris Horwood Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Migrants arrive in Italy at the port of Salerno in 2017.Ivan Romano/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Mixed migration is a growing phenomenon, one that gained enormous attention in 2015 with the arrivals of vast numbers of refugees and migrants in Europe. It refers to the cross-border movements of people, including refugees fleeing persecution and conflict, victims of trafficking and those seeking better lives and opportunities. They travel along similar routes, using similar means – normally via irregular pathways and assisted by smugglers.

Think of the images associated with mixed migration: border police in riot gear face-to-face with women and children at national borders; naval rescue ships offloading hundreds of rescued migrants at Mediterranean ports; and caravans of people arriving at the U.S.–Mexico border.

Collectively these images represent chaos and can induce a degree of panic. But one of the most striking aspects of mixed migration is how distorting these images are, given the actual numbers. According to research:

  • Irregular migrants represent less than 1 percent of the annual global total of those living outside their birth country
  • The majority of people with irregular status arrived by regular means, normally by plane, and have overstayed their visas. Probably only around a quarter of those in the global north arrived via irregular pathways
  • Among this minority group who arrive irregularly, many apply for asylum and many are granted international protection as refugees once fully processed

These proportions belie the remarkable political noise mixed migration generates. Both controversial and toxic to politics and policy development, it is a significant disrupter: It has led to political and humanitarian crises and has been a dominating factor in European and American politics.

It seems that politicians and electorates increasingly conflate the issue of migration with asylum seekers. With rising levels of distrust, many assume refugees are merely economic migrants. Effectively, the separate designations of migrant and refugee have become interchangeable.

Five years ago, in his book “The Politics of Immigration: Contradictions of the Liberal State,” academic James Hampshire identified the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties across Europe, from Hungary to the Netherlands. Almost all of these movements and parties have subsequently grown. Some now lead their countries or are in pivotal coalitions with governments in a distinct swing to the right in mainstream politics. The U.S., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have seen equivalent shifts.

Analysts are asking if the European project can survive its divisions between liberalism’s defenders and those who increasingly reject some of its core principles. Migration and refugee politics play a central role. These splits are increasingly divisive, not only between nation states but within them. Even now that two global compacts have been signed – one on refugees and one on migration – we have seen countries pull out despite having been part of the process since 2016.

Mixed migration has also disrupted a more level-headed and rational approach to the discussion of labor migration and refugee protection. The exaggerated attention around it has disrupted the humanitarian project, too, with asylum seekers and refugees, as well as those assisting them or rescuing them from drowning, becoming more vilified than ever – even outlawed. Whether or not nationalists and anti-movement forces abuse, falsify, exploit or distort the facts, mixed migration is disproportionately disrupting politics. In this year’s Mixed Migration Review, sociologist Robert E. Horn calls the results of this disruption a “social mess.”

What of the future? We expect unequal population rises; accelerating consumption demand; continued global inequality; the unknown but certain impact of climate change; continued ideologically driven militancy; the rise of automation and artificial intelligence in labor markets. This will coincide with more conflicts and crises similar to those in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Venezuela. States will continue to be unable to control criminal infiltration or dominance of violent drug gangs such as those in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

At the risk of being alarmist, what we have witnessed in the past few years is probably the tip of the iceberg in relation to the disrupting impact of mixed migration. Our next Mixed Migration Review this year will focus on these futures. A joint project by the Mixed Migration Centre, IBM and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs called MM4Sight is underway: This attempts to model future trends to help us understand what they might look like. Other agencies, such as Save the Children and the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, and academics are also trying to develop similar models.

All of this points to the urgent need to fix the problem. But what is the problem? At one level, the high media visibility – often sensationalist – is fueling fears and raising emotions. Another problem is that people on all sides of the refugee and migration debate are unwilling to reconsider their views. Facts matter less than current beliefs.

The empirical and historical evidence indicates that migration is not only good but possibly essential for competitive economies. In addition, ample evidence from various studies shows that migrants do not negatively affect labor markets, wage levels or crime levels – nationally, they contribute more than they cost, especially in the medium and longer term. As for refugees, much of the world has already agreed they are entitled to international protection.

But we hold dear to our positions on migration and refugees. The rise of identity politics has brought with it an increasingly polarized debate and the narrowing of the space for sober discussion and compromise. And as various experts in this year’s Mixed Migration Review have argued, it narrows the space for innovation and bold new visions. Lastly, it forces most politicians to make short-term decisions in situations that cry out for medium- and long-term planning.

Behind all of this noise there are hundreds of thousands of individuals. They are you and they are me, struggling to do exactly what we might do in their situation. When we drill down to the root causes in a globalized, interconnected world, we find global factors – a world the global north has been instrumental in forming, and a structure and order it continues to shape.

Mixed migration is therefore emblematic of, and a touchstone for, the limits of pragmatism and principles, the limits of idealism and realism, and the tensions between short- and long-term goals. At their core, these discussions are about the very soul of humanity and what we like to call civilization.

A big error would be to minimize the importance of the disrupting characteristic of mixed migration and underestimate its impact. At the Mixed Migration Centre and through the essays and interviews of the Mixed Migration Review, we want to provoke a more honest, less partisan discussion on this relatively small phenomenon that packs such a powerful political and social punch.

This essay was adapted from a presentation at the launch of the 2018 Mixed Migration Review in November in Denmark and in December in Geneva.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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