Bram Frouws about the root causes of migration, migration policy and the impact of COVID-19

This interview was conducted by Alinda Lomonaco and Bob van Dillen of Cordaid Netherlands in the context of the MIND-project (see below). The interview was originally published in Dutch on 11th June 2020 on the website of Cordaid and can be found here: The text below has been translated from Dutch by the Mixed Migration Centre with the approval of Cordaid.

Since 2018 you are heading the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC). What are your primary objectives and activities?

First of all, we aim to contribute to a better and more nuanced understanding of mixed migration. Additionally, we aim to contribute to a better-informed migration policy and political debate. Finally, we aim to contribute to effective programmes to assist migrants and refugees. Knowledge, analysis, data collection and policy engagement are our main activities.  

What is the role of the 4Mi project in this?  

4Mi is our primary data collection project. Annually we conduct approximately 10,000 interviews with refugees and migrants in 24 countries and along different migration routes. These are not only routes from South to North, but also within regions and South-South. For example the routes from East Africa to Southern Africa, from Afghanistan to South-East Asia and from Venezuela to Peru. We also collect data along routes heading to Europe, like in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya and Tunisia and routes from East Africa to Yemen and Saudi Arabia.  

We have a network of approximately 120 monitors who on a daily basis are conducting structured interviews that could take one hour. They are using smartphones, allowing us to instantly work with the data. We analyse and publish the data in reports, like the annual Mixed Migration Review. In developing programmes to address the needs of refugees and migrants, we work together with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and other humanitarian organisations. With DRC, of which are part of, we work together in developing research questions, analysing results and developing recommendations.  

What is the impact of your work on policy makers?  

It is not always clear how our research contributes to changes in policy. But generally, I am positive that throughout the years, we have had an influence on policy. We regularly hear from policy makers from different countries that they use our research and concepts in developing policy. For example with a programme by the British government (DFID) of 75 million pound, aiming to help migrants and refugees along the Central Mediterranean route. For that programme, policy makers used our research to indicate where certain interventions were needed.  

“We have to conclude that the influence and implementation of the Global Compact for Migration has been limited so far” 

Moreover, we try to influence migration policy by having a seat at the table with policy makers. MMC takes on a balanced and neutral position, offering evidence and facts. Often these conversations happen in informal settings, where discussions can take place in confidence and in an open and frank manner. The International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) which organises dialogues between African and European policy makers for example contracts MMC to provide briefings, presentations and scenario building workshops during these dialogues.  

In the report Wheels in MotionMMC researched the implementation of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). What was your role in the GCM?  

We closely followed the negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration. We tried to influence these by publishing 5 analytical statements about the different drafts of the GCM.  

Did the Compact have an influence on migration policy?  

In the report Wheels in Motion, we provide an overview of the state of affairs, one year after the adoption of the GCM. The conclusion was that the impact and implementation has been limited. Portugal was the only country in the world which had developed a national implementation plan. Besides that, there were not many good examples of GCM implementation. Among other reasons, this is because countries are hesitant to place migration policy in the context of the GCM, given the sensitiveness and resistance against it that has been there in some countries before it was adopted.    

A positive consequence of the GCM is that there has been a good and positive discussion about migration  during the years it was developed. This has resulted in a good document. However, this has been primarily a discussion between diplomats, UN staff and NGOs. A broader public discussion in societies was missing when resistance against the GCM arose in several European countries.  

Especially during the COVID-19 crisis it is a pity that the impact of the GCM has been limited, given that we now see developments that can very well be linked to the GCM. Portugal for example is making sure migrants have access to healthcare. The UK has taken measures in relation to remittances. Not linking these development to the GCM is a missed opportunity. 

“Legal migration channels can reduce the necessity to use smugglers and dangerous, irregular migration routes.” 

 The GCM is also about encouraging legal migration channels. Why is this so important?  

Encouraging legal migration channels is not the the solution for everything, but it is crucial. Despite the fact that this is always included in migration agreements, like the GCM or the European Agenda on Migration, it is not happening sufficiently in practice. Small existing pilots are hardly ever scaled up to more structural, legal migration channels. Legal migration channels can reduce the necessity to use smugglers and dangerous, irregular migration routes. A large part of irregular migration might disappear.  

Legal labour migration offers benefits for both countries or origin and destination. Migrants can work temporarily or permanently, would pay taxes and don’t need to work illegally. Legal migration channels are advantageous for migrants themselves too. They no longer need to undertake dangerous journeys and they would be paid decently. The only losers of creating more legal migration channels are the migrant smugglers.  

Who would primarily use legal migration channels?  

If countries are opening up more legal migration channels, it is often only accessible to highly skilled migrants. Migrants who are coming to Europe are prepared to pay large amounts of money and are often not the poorest. These migrants would also be able to pay a more decent fare for a regular journey. In creating more legal migration channels it will be a challenge to keep the accessibility to different groups equal and fair.  

What is the role of migrant smugglers in irregular migration?  

The role of migrants smugglers is (too) big. Our data shows that their role in initiating migration is limited. However, once the decision to migrate has been taken, smugglers play an important role in facilitating. They help migrants to cross borders and provide necessary documentation and information. There is a unhealthy reliance on smugglers. 

Especially in places where borders are closed, smugglers offer their services. The more stringent the controls, the more dangerous the journeys”  

Is it important though to discuss smugglers in a nuanced way. On one side, where people tend to be ‘pro-migration’ smugglers are often portrayed as service providers or benign travel agents, just providing a service to migrants. On the other side, among governments, there is the tendency to equal smugglers to murderous criminals, abusing migrants and to deliberately conflate migrants smugglers and human traffickers.  

We constantly try to explain that the truth is in the middle. There are many smugglers who are indeed helping refugees and migrants to find safety, where it may not be possible to legally cross a border. But there are also many smugglers abusing migrants, torturing them, or sending them to see on un-seaworthy vessels. We constantly try to nuance this debate.  

How does migration policy influence migrant smugglers.   

Migration policy obviously has an influence on migrant smuggling. Because without travel restrictions, there would be no need for migrant smugglers. Especially in place where borders are closed, smugglers offer their services. The more stringent the controls, the more dangerous the journeys.  

In the UK, for example, refrigerator trucks were recently used to transport people. This is in response to more and more technology to detect migrants, like heat sensors. Transporting people in   refrigerator trucks can have deadly consequences.  

What are the root causes of migration?   

Migrants always indicate several reasons for migration. It can be insecurity (personal or societal), climate change, economic problems, love, education, adventure, aspirations, restrictive cultural norms, a need for freedom. The demand for migrant labour, for example in Europe, also drives migration. 

There is the idea that we need to stop migration and cut the problem at the roots. There is a lack of focus on the positive aspects of migration 

In the article Mistaken metaphor: the ‘root causes’ approach to migration is both dishonest and ineffectiveyou are critical towards policy focusing on the root causes of migration. Why is it problematic?  

First of all because this focus creates a negative picture of migration. There is the idea that we need to stop migration and cut the problem at the roots. With this, there is a lack of focus on the positive aspects. Migration itself is not the problem. The problem are the irregular journeys, during which refugees and migrants can be vulnerable and experience violence.  

Additionally, the ‘root causes’ policy only focuses on why people leave a certain place, not why they are going somewhere. This creates the false impression that addressing the root causes can stop migration.  

Third, in policy documents the real root causes are often not mentioned. For example the economic sanctions on Iran, which made a lot of Afghans residing in Iran to migrate to Europe. Or think about the war in Yemen, where weapons are used produced by Western companies, which creates a massive humanitarian crisis. Another example are subsidies for European agricultural and fishing companies. African companies cannot compete, which leads to job loss and people coming to Europe to look for jobs.  

You described that development cooperation policy is increasingly driven by migration. How does that work out?   

A focus on migration can help to ensure funding remains available for development cooperation. There are many examples of development cooperation projects, under a migration label, which led to positive projects with good results.  

However, there is a downside. First, there is a risk that the focus of development cooperation shifts to countries that are important from a ‘migration perspective’. Development cooperation funding then increasingly goes to countries where migrants are coming from, which are not necessarily the countries where the needs are highest. An example is a shift of development funding from Malawi to Tunisia. In Malawi, development cooperation might be more needed, but because there are hardly any migrants from Malawi coming to Europe, development funding might shift to Tunisia.  

A second problem is how to measure the success of development cooperation when it is tied to migration. How do you measure a change in the volume of migration and then attribute that to a development project. Moreover, it is know that development leads to more migration. But a increase in migration is not what policy makers envision as the measure of success of development project linked to migration.  

The third problem has to do with the origin and spending of development money, like the EU Trust Fund for Africa. A large part of this funding is spent on migration management, which does not contribute anything to development of these countries. There are even studies showing that investments in migration management can lead to further destabilization of regions. The result of which may be more migration and displacement.  

“We go against alarmist predictions about the hundreds of millions of migrants coming to Europe due to climate change”  

In 2018 and 2019 the MMC published the Mixed Migration Review (MMR). What are the most important developments described?  

The MMR is a collection of essays and interviews, primarily meant to contribute to debate, reflection and new insights.  

One of the concerning developments is the increasing criminalisation of migration. In addition to migrant smuggles, now migrants themselves are increasingly criminalised. Irregular migration is primarily an administrative offense, but is in several countries increasingly treated as a criminal offense. And now even people helping migrants are criminalised. For example those on rescue ships saving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Or people in the United States prosecuted for leaving water for migrants in the desert.   

Another development is the relation between migration and climate change. In the MMR we try to present a nuanced story. We go against the alarmist predictions about the hundreds of millions of migrants coming to Europe due to climate change.  

On the ‘right’ of the political spectrum this discourse tend to be used to warn against migration and argue for stricter migration measures. On the ‘left’ side of the spectrum, the fear of refugees and migrants is sometimes misused to get climate change on the agenda. This is not productive and only creates more fear.  

Most research shows that climate change does not lead to international mass migration over long distances. Most people migrating in relation to climate change do so over short distances, mainly within countries. They try to move to a city or to family, within the region. Those affected by climate change do not have the resources to migrate over long distances or spend thousands of dollars on smugglers to get to Europe. 

Another topic discussed in the MMR is the irrationality of migration policies. Collective, European countries spend millions to keep migrants out of Europe, for example through Frontex. They also spend billions to subsidise European companies making it difficult for companies in Africa to compete. An example is the tomato industry in Italy, which receives billions in subididies. Tomato products are exported to Africa. Result: local tomato producers cannot compete anymore. Subsequently, migrants collectively spend hundreds of millions on smugglers to get to Europe. They often work in informal jobs, for example on tomato farms in Italy. There are economically smarter and more humane ways of organising migration, organising money flows in a better way. The only losers will be the migrant smugglers.  

Is the coronavirus crisis a good moment to ask these fundamental questions and start organising things in a better way?   

We are seeing many negative consequences of COVID-19, but there are also some positive developments. Italy, for example adopted a law regularising hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. In Spain, migrants are released from immigration detention. The crisis clearly showed to what extent Europe is dependent on migrant labour, for example in agriculture or in healthcare. I hope this realisation does not disappear once this crisis is over and that it will lead to a positive change.  

You describe that over the past years, migration policy which would previously be labelled as extreme has been normalised. Can you elaborate on this?   

In the MMR we made a list of extreme examples of policies and actions that would unimaginable a few years ago. Just in the last few weeks, Greece proposed a floating fence; Turkey was shooting tear gas at Greek police to help refugees to cross the border; refugees were transported by Turkey to the border to put pressure on the EU; Malta sabotaged a boat full of migrants, on which several people passed away; and the Croatian police painted red crosses on the heads of asylum seekers before pushing them back across the border to Bosnia.  

It is a very big risk that these kind of extreme policies over time are increasingly regarded as normal.  

“Venezuela is not at all ready for the return of large groups of refugees” 

In the report Waning welcome: the growing challenges facing mixed migration flows from Venezuelayou describe the mixed migration flows from Venezuela. This migration goes in two directions. Due to COVID-19, Venezuelans are returning to Venezuela. What is the impact of this development on refugees?  

Over the last two months we focused our 4Mi programme on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants. We conducted almost 3,000 interviews, and published several short reports with this data. This data collection is ongoing in 12 countries, including Colombia and Peru. We look at the situation of Venezuelans there. A significant percentage of Venezuelan refugees indicated that they are considering to return to Venezuela because of the economic difficulties in Colombia. Our data shows that 90% of the Venezuelans in Colombia lost income and 85% lost their job. They see returning to Venezuela as the only option. Additionally, 50% said they can no longer send remittances to Venezuela. This will have a huge impact, because remittances are the only lifeline for many people in Venezuela. Additionally, there is the oil crisis. The extremely low oil price may take away the last bit of income for the Venezuelan regime. The country is not at all ready for the return of large groups of refugees. This is a very concerning situation, which will have a lot of impact on Venezuela and the Venezuelans themselves.  

What is the impact of the Venezuelan refugees on the small islands in the Caribbean and on the ABC islands?  

With a relatively small population and a large number of refugees, the impact of Venezuelan refugees on the ABC islands was already large and will only increase. The tourism industry, a large source of income for these islands, is collapsing. People who are working in the informal sector are working from one day to the other and are strongly affected by the measures and lockdowns. It is a concerning situation and support is needed. Even before this crisis, we saw the stories about how refugees on the ABC-islands are treated; with limited access to asylum and forced deportations to Venezuela. This is even more reason for the Netherlands to offer more support to the islands.   

Currently, all our lives are affected by COVID-19 and so are refugees and migrants. What is the impact of corona on the daily lives of refugees and migrants?   

We are currently on a large scale interviewing migrant and refugees about the impact of corona on their daily lives. One of the most important impacts is lack of jobs. They also mention fear, stress, loss of income, increased racism and xenophobia and lack of access to basic goods and services, such as food, water and shelter. The fact that there are such basic needs shows the extent to which refugees and migrants are hit by the crisis.   

Many are stranded in transit countries and because of border closures or lack of money they are no longer capable of traveling back or onwards. This can result in strong pressure on host communities. As long as migrants and refugees are passing through, they are temporarily part of the local economy in transit areas, spending money on food and shelter. However, when migrants become stranded, they might also start competing with the local population and their presence might become a burden. This can become the situation in Mali or Niger, where many migrants were in transit.  

How can the situation of refugees and migrants be taken into account in the global COVID-19 response? Is this happening?  

Migrants and refugees point to several barriers in access to healthcare. For example, lack of money or the right documentation, fear of arrest or a lack of knowledge about the healthcare system in the host country. Generally, they are well aware of the symptoms of corona and how to protect themselves. However, they are missing information on where to go in case of symptoms, the cost of healthcare services and whether they can access these healthcare services if they do not have a legal status. It is in the interest of both migrants and the public health to provide this information. Additionally, 90% of our respondents say they need extra help since the crisis began. One of the most important needs is cash, to compensate for the loss of income. In Colombia, for example, many Venezuelans are paying for their housing on day-by-day basis. Cash can help provide them with housing.  

What is the influence of the virus on migration decisions and routes?   

This differs per context and strongly depends on the phase of someone’s migration journey. The impact of corona on the migration decisions of migrants and refugees in Latin America is generally limited. These people are often no longer on the move, but were more settled in their destination. In that case, border closures have a limited impact, although we now see that a number of Venezuelans is deciding to return home. Among Afghans in Indonesia, we also see limited impact on migration decisions and routes. Although most of these Afghans actually do say they have not reached their final destination, they have often spend considerable time in Indonesia and they know there are very limited opportunities for onward travel to Australia. They are in a state of indefinite transit. The COVID-19 crisis didn’t really change this. In West Africa, and to a lesser extent in North Africa, the virus clearly has a bigger impact on migration decisions. Many of the migrants and refugees whom we interviewed there were still in transit but cannot continue their journey due to the corona measures. They are stuck, it becomes increasingly difficult to earn money, so moving back also becomes increasingly difficult. 

Most people in the world don’t migrate and live their whole lives close to where they were born”  

Also within countries we see clear differences. In Libya, COVID-19 has a bigger impact on migration decisions of Sudanese, compared to refugees and migrants from West and East Africa. Sudanese are relatively closer to their home country and more often decide to return. But this is a very different story for someone from Nigeria or Eritrea.  

Ultimately, we have to see how COVID-19 will affect migration decisions in the future, especially in countries of origin. On the one hand, the need to migrate might increase due to the enormous economic impact of the crisis. On the other hand, fewer people will have the resources to be even able to migrate. In the next phase of our data collection we are adjusting our survey to get a better insight in how COVID-19 affects the so-called drivers of migration.  

Are there any other issues that we have not touched upon yet in the interview, which you would like to address?   

First of all, we should not overestimate the phenomenon of irregular migration. Most people in the world don’t migrate and live their whole live close to where they were born. A small proportion migrates, but primarily within countries. That leaves a small proportion of international migrants, of whom the majority migrates regularly. Ultimately, that leaves an even smaller proportion of refugees and irregular migrants. But that small proportion receives disproportionate attention, especially in the media. It makes it bigger than it is. And it creates a feeling of powerlessness and lack of control among populations.  

Secondly: are populations really that negative about migration as we think? Reliable opinion polls show that in many European countries this is not the case. In some countries, people became more positive about migration and refugees since the so-called migration crisis in 2015. But that’s not the impression you get from media or social media. It seems that a very noisy minority which is very negative about migration has way too much influence on what is seen as the public opinion. Subsequently we see that politicians are inclined to follow this incorrect reflection of public attitudes.  

Finally, I think we need to look more at how cities are dealing with migration. This will be the theme of the Mixed Migration Review 2020. Whereas countries approach migration increasingly from a strongly ideological and securitised perspective, ultimately, it’s cities dealing with hosting refugees and migrants. At local level, we often see a much more pragmatic and progressive approach.

This interview was conducted by Cordaid Netherlands in the context of the MIND project. MIND stands for ‘Migration, Interconnectedness, Development’ and is a three year project co-financed by the European Commission. In this project, Cordaid works together with 11 European Caritas partners with the objective to create more awareness about the links between migration and development among policy makers and the general public.