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Op-Ed: Mistaken metaphor: the ‘root causes’ approach to migration is both dishonest and ineffective

In recent years, there has been a strong focus on and narrative around the so-called root causes of migration. It is a central element for example in the 4.7 billion euro ‘European Union Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa’ (EUTF). The idea is that displacement and irregular migration will fall when the root causes are addressed. While there is some validity in this premise and it has contributed to the implementation of some successful development projects, there are also many flaws.

A misleading metaphor

To begin, the term ‘root causes’ and the narrative which follows is overwhelmingly negative about migration: “we need to cut the problem at the roots, otherwise it keeps growing back”, i.e. the solution is prevention, not management. The root causes narrative means that migration as a whole becomes a problem. This leads to increasingly restrictive policies (including containment, deterrence and externalisation), which often exacerbate the very problems they aim to solve in the first place and lead to more instability, causing further migration and displacement. Obviously, unsafe, irregular migration comes with many problems, not least for the refugees and migrants in mixed migration flows themselves, who are vulnerable to violence, abuse and xenophobia. And these should be addressed. However, it is foolish to ignore the many positive aspects and opportunities that well-managed migration offers for migrants, origin and destination countries alike.

Second, the root causes narrative leads to an almost exclusive focus on why people are leaving the place they are leaving, often referred to as ‘push’ factors. It ignores why people are going somewhere, their expectations and aspirations, and the factors that make certain destinations attractive. There is a strong demand for migrant labour in destination countries, and as migration researcher Hein de Haas once phrased it, the only way to reduce irregular migration is to wreck the economy.

The ‘forgotten’ root causes

The third and possibly biggest problem is that many of the real root causes are in fact being ‘forgotten’. In recent weeks, the situation at the Turkey-Greece border attracted tremendous policy and media attention. But as we argued in a recent Op-Ed, these are the symptoms of the real crisis elsewhere, in Syria. After 9 years, there is still no solution to the conflict in which many different parties – states and non-state actors alike – are involved, millions remain displaced within and outside of Syria, and the humanitarian crisis and suffering of the people continue.

The largest number of people arriving from Turkey in Greece in 2019 and 2020 are from Afghanistan. Many of them did not come directly from Afghanistan, but have spent many years in Iran. The new sanctions imposed by the US in 2018 have hit the Iranian economy hard, and Afghan refugees are among those hit hardest. Lack of livelihood opportunities and the rising unemployment have encouraged many to move on to Turkey and Europe. Without commenting on the validity of these sanctions, this is a root cause that goes largely unmentioned.

In Yemen, there is no end in sight yet to the conflict and humanitarian crisis, and more than 3.5 million people remain displaced. Multiple actors are involved in what has been described as proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But many Western countries continue oil imports from Saudi Arabia, providing the government of Saudi Arabia with the resources to buy weapons, they continue to export the weapons themselves, as well as (in the case of the United States) provide intelligence used in Saudi airstrikes. Amidst all this, the 2nd Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum took place in March 2020, with attendance of many top UN officials. One of the panels discussed mass migration flows in humanitarian settings, but based on the programme and reports from media and organisations it seems Saudi Arabia’s role in causing a large part of these movements within and from Yemen was absent from the public discussion.

Incoherent policies are distorting the debate

In 2019, a study by the NGO Stop Wapenhandel showed how many of the big Western multinationals in the defence industry produce the weapons used in conflicts around the world that lead to the displacement of millions of people and onward migration flows. These same companies are winning multi-million dollar contracts in Europe and the US to produce the technology that is increasingly being used to keep migrants and refugees ‘out’, such as motion-detecting camera’s, fences, drones and other high-tech border control systems.

If European states are truly concerned about the root causes of migration and displacement, why are they so susceptible to the active lobbying of the military and security industry, to the extent that it has reportedly been highly influential in the shaping of EU border and migration policies?

A recent Quartz article explained how EU subsidies for European fishing companies cause overfishing in West Africa and are fuelling irregular migration, since African fishermen cannot compete and the seas off the West African coast are increasingly empty. In a similar example, described in an earlier article by MMC, Italy is subsidising its tomato industry, to then export cheap tomato products to countries in Africa. This puts local tomato businesses in African countries out of business. Many of the migrants working irregularly in Italy’s agricultural sector could have worked for local tomato producers, if only there had been fair competition.

The European Union made migration an increasingly central element of its foreign policy and, as part of the focus on the root causes of migration, is spending hundreds of millions on projects to create livelihoods and jobs to keep people where they are. At the same time, it is provoking job losses and incentivizing migration through agricultural and other subsidies worth billions of euros. The irony is hard to miss – and there are many more examples of this lack of policy coherence.

Development policy driven by migration

These are some of the examples showing that the ‘root causes’ narrative and policy focus is not only problematic and incoherent, but also dishonest. Furthermore, the focus on the root causes of migration increasingly guides the allocation of development funding. While not inherently problematic, if it leads to well-designed, effective and successful development projects, it is posing challenges.

First, development funding is increasingly shifting from countries that are not relevant from a ‘migration perspective’ to countries that are important origin or transit countries, regardless of development ‘needs’. This could lead to shifts from low-income countries like Malawi, which are more in need of development assistance, to middle-income countries like Tunisia.

Secondly, focusing development projects on migration leads to a problematic measure of success. Is a reduction in the volume of migration the criteria to measure their success? Apart from issues of how to measure ‘reduced migration’ and a near impossibility to attribute that to certain projects, this reasoning goes against established migration theory. According to migration theory increased development usually leads to more migration (even though a recent study has shed new light on this and the exact link between development (projects) and migration still merits further exploration).

Finally, a significant portion of the EUTF funding – which primarily is not ‘new’ development funding but already existing funding re-allocated into the EUTF – does not actually go to development projects, but to migration and border management projects. These contribute little to development and neither do they address the root causes of migration. Rather, they address some symptoms of the actual root causes. Even worse, as argued by the UK Foreign Affairs Committee in a recent report, “the EU’s migration work in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa risks exacerbating existing security problems, fuelling human rights abuses, and endorsing authoritarian regimes. Preventing local populations from crossing borders may help cut the numbers arriving in Europe in the short term, but in the long term it risks damaging economies and creating instability—which in itself can trigger displacement”.

To conclude, we need to be very careful about linking development funding to migration policy to address the root causes of migration. We need more policy coherence between different sectors. A truly coherent and comprehensive approach to migration governance not only takes into account all aspects of migration (including visa policies, returns, labour migration, etc.), but goes beyond migration, and takes into account other policy areas, including trade, agriculture, arms and oil trade, peace building and conflict resolution. But most of all, when we are discussing the root causes of migration, we need honest debate and actions that include the real and very serious causes of migration and displacement.