Understanding the views of migration and the aims of migration management
What is migration management?
Migration undoubtedly creates many challenges, as well as opportunities
, for national and local authorities. The arrival of migrants may increase labour supply and reduce wages, which is good for employers, but not so good for other workers. They may boost custom in shops and markets, creating more economic activity. At the same time, they may increase pressure on local services and infrastructure such as schools, clinics and water and sanitation services. Moreover, migrants may contribute to social tensions if they arrive with cultural practices that clash with the population among whom they settle – different languages, religion and other customs. Similar issues arise when we think about migrants leaving their home area, as they can take their labour and skills away with them, reduce local demand in markets, empty schools, and leave behind an ageing community.
Given these widespread impacts of migration on the socio-economic conditions for the whole of society (migrants and non-migrants alike) it is not surprising that there is a growing call from many quarters all over the world for migration to be better managed. What is less clear is what this means in practice.
Migration management in the Horn of Africa
In the Horn of Africa, governments, donors and international organisations have launched many initiatives to improve the quality of migration management across the region, most notably with the Better Migration Management programme, run by GIZ and funded by the EUTF. Their migration management activities are focused around four priorities:
- supporting the development of coherent national migration policies
- building the capacity of states to implement these policies, for example, training border guards in human rights
- boosting the protection of migrants who are vulnerable to abuse, in particular those who are subject to trafficking
- raising awareness of the dangers of irregular migration and the benefits of alternatives to migration.
While any of these activities may be valuable in themselves, it is not obvious that they will respond to the broad set of challenges – and opportunities – raised by migration that are outlined above. Thinking like this raises some important questions about the idea and implementation of migration management programming more generally:
- Who is defining the aims and objectives of migration management?
- Whose interests are being served – and whose are being neglected?
- What are the wider impacts of the migration management programmes for…?
REF research in Metema, Ethiopia
These were questions that the Research and Evidence Facility examined in recently-published research. The research focused on the town of Metema, in the Amhara National Regional State of Ethiopia, which sits close to the border with Sudan and on the main overland route between Addis Ababa and Khartoum. Migration across the Ethiopia–Sudan border at Metema is dominated by two broad sets of movements. The first and largest set of migrants are agricultural seasonal workers, known as the saluge. The second set of migrants are those who cross from Ethiopia into Sudan with the aim of reaching Khartoum and possibly further afield, including North Africa and eventually Europe. As a major hub for migration between Ethiopia and Sudan, Metema has been an important focus of migration management programmes.
Our interest in this research was not to assess the effectiveness or impact of a particular programme. Instead, we set out to understand the views of migration and the responses to it from the perspective of different key stakeholders or interest groups in the area. In particular, we wanted to hear from different parts of government, business and the community groups that might be strongly affected by migration but were not directly involved in running migration programmes. In particular, we wanted to look beyond the ‘migration industry’ – that set of organisations, government officials and others for whom migration is the focus of their work, their core business, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), state immigration departments, migrant associations, smugglers and traffickers, and so on.
What did we find?
Here I pick out some of the most striking findings. Full details and other findings can be found in the full report.
When we talk about migration, people have different things in mind!
This should not be surprising as we find this all over the world. As a social scientist, I may think of the former Governor of the Bank of England as a migrant who moved from Canada to take up a top job. However, I know that this is the not the image evoked by the term migrant in many people’s minds; they may well think of the agricultural labourer picking crops in the field, the cleaner vacuuming their office, or the Uber driver taking them home. Those ideas about what a migrant looks like, what they do and their impact on society shapes our views of how we should respond to migration.
In Metema, when we asked people what they thought about migration, many jumped immediately to talking about those who are crossing illicitly into Sudan with the hope of reaching Europe. These migrants often move in the hands of people smugglers along very dangerous routes that may end with them being imprisoned or dying in the Libyan desert. From this perspective, migration is an act of desperation and it is hard to understand why people take the terrible risks involved. In this context, stopping migration becomes a priority for action.
When pushed to think about other movements, such as that of the migrant workers (the saluge), some people discounted them: as one person told us, ‘they are not migrants. They are rather people on the move.’ However, some of those interviewed took a much broader view and saw all these movements simply as people moving in search of better livelihoods. From this perspective, it is not the migration that is the problem; rather, it is the social and economic conditions – in particular, the high levels of youth unemployment – that people face in Ethiopia. Here, the priority for action is not to stop migration but to improve people’s living conditions.
Some other people noted that stopping migration would be a disaster for Metema town, as the local economy depends on the flow of people – both in terms of customers for businesses (such as shops, hotels and restaurants) as well as agricultural production that depends on migrant labour. In common with many border towns, Metema has a thriving border market that relies on people’s comings and goings from both sides of the border. Many of the border crossings that contribute to the local economy may be informal or irregular. With this in mind, the migration industry doesn’t just have a migration effect – it also has an economic effect. As some also noted, there are many local businesses that provide services for those involved in smuggling and trafficking – and some local officials also profit from bribes, or direct participation in organising people smuggling. From this perspective, interventions to manage migration may run counter to the interests of many groups, ranging from legitimate businesses (such as hotels) to corrupt officials and criminal networks.
Taking account of these different views is critically important when it comes to planning migration management programmes. In particular, we have to think very carefully about what problem we are trying to address. Is it irregular migration that is the problem? If that conjures up images of people dying in the deserts of Libya, the answer is likely to be yes. However, if we are thinking of the tens of thousands of Ethiopians crossing irregularly into Sudan to work on farms there, we may say no, the problem lies elsewhere.
There are lots of different interests in different forms of migration – and migration management
Any attempt to change migration flows through Metema is likely to have impacts that reverberate beyond those directly involved (such as those who move or who are involved in the migration industry) to touch other actors and sectors that are not conventionally associated with migration management.
There is the local farmer in Ethiopia who relies on migrant workers to bring in his harvest: ‘if there are no saluge, there is no farm.’ His workers are mostly internal migrants from other parts of Ethiopia. Many have no interest in going to Sudan. But some are looking to travel further by working in Metema to fund their onward journey, while others have become stuck on the way. In practice, it is impossible to distinguish between these groups, as they include many of the same people, just at different stages of their journeys. This means that taking action to control one group is likely to have repercussions for the others as well as the agricultural labour market as a whole.
Hotels, restaurants and shops in Metema rely on migrants as customers. Whether people are under the control of brokers or making their own way, if they stop in town, they need to find shelter, food and other services. They also depend on the business of the migrant labourers who use the town as a resting place between stints of work – they may spend a large part of their wages before they move on to their next job.
School teachers are finding many students are setting their sights on a future outside Ethiopia. Some are neglecting their studies as they know they will be able to earn more money working on a farm in Sudan rather than facing an uncertain future with higher education. Others set their minds on moving to Europe. However, discussion about migration only comes into the classroom in the later years of schooling. This is arguably too late, as many students have already made up their minds by then.
Local government officials and staff working on programmes covering areas such as labour market, enterprise development, social welfare and such like, all felt they had something to contribute to the migration response in Metema. However, they found that their knowledge was unsolicited, and expressed frustration at participating in migration management training workshops that reiterated what they already knew.
‘We are not even given the chance to explain. Though we know better about the reality on the ground, we are told by a stranger from another place what needs to be done. After these trainings, there is no one that follows on the activities of participants. The trainings and meetings are mainly there to just raise awareness.’
If any initiatives are to improve the situation of migrants and the local community, they need to look carefully at the full range of organisations and groups that may be interested in the issues. In short, the impacts of migration in all its forms are far reaching in a place like Metema. With this in mind, migration management is not something to be left to the ‘migration industry’.
There are important contradictions in the aims of migration management
For most people involved in migration management, the idea of migration management is fundamentally about making migration safe and well-ordered; it is not about stopping migration. There is widespread recognition that international migration is critically important for the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of people.
These ideas echo those embedded in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and the 2018 Global Compact on Migration, both of which call for safe and orderly migration. However, these international instruments both add a further qualification for their support to migration – it must not only be safe and orderly, but also regular (the SDGs also add ‘responsible’ but I have yet to see any attempt to define what that means).
This brings us to the contradiction in Metema (which is also often seen elsewhere across Africa and in other parts of the world) whereby a large portion of the people crossing borders are doing so without the documentation and authorisation that makes it ‘regular’. They cross informally, without identification or registration. While this movement may not be regular in the eyes of the state or the international agencies, it plays a vital role in the lives of millions of poor people.
Migration management programming is focused on stopping irregular migration and moving people into safe and legal migration pathways. This may be desirable as a long-term goal; ideally, nobody should have to migrate using irregular routes. In practice, however, for many people, irregular migration is the only game in town and it will continue to play a critical role in their livelihoods and the wider local economy for years to come. This creates an important gap between the aims of programming (to curtail irregular migration) and the interests of many of the key actors involved (to facilitate migration, whether regular or irregular).
This contradiction is likely to undermine the effectiveness of migration management programmes. As long as migration management is being supported by external donor funding (especially from the EU), programmes may have some success in reducing irregular migration, improving the quality of border control and, ideally, ensuring migrants’ rights are respected. However, if migration management is seen as something that runs against local interests, it seems all too probable that it will be an uphill struggle. Gains are likely to be costly and the impact will be short-lived – when the money stops, other interests in migration will prevail.
Reducing the gap
This research has raised some critical questions about the ideas of migration management and how they are put into practice. The issues that have been identified are not easy to resolve. The Research and Evidence Facility concluded the report by putting forward a number of recommendations, which could apply to current initiatives in Metema and future programmes in other settings. Click here to read the recommendations.
However, I hope that this research also contributes to a wider discussion about the fundamental aims of migration management. In particular, I think we need to look more critically at the assumption that only regular migration (in the sense of movement regulated and endorsed by states) is positive for development. In some parts of the developing world, irregular migration – such as that practiced by many of the migrant workers crossing at Metema – may play an equal, if not greater, role in positive social and economic development.
- Read the full report: ‘Migration and migration management on the Ethiopia-Sudan border: Research from Metema’.