Author: Andrew Geddes
Dossier: Can we govern migration better?
Guest-editor: Elaine Lebon-McGregor
Migration governance is at all times, and in all places, a necessarily organisational process. What this means is that governance ‘actors’, meaning people working for organisations of varying types – such as national governments, international organisations and NGOs – and with starkly varying degrees of power, must address two basic and linked questions that confront all organisations: what is going on ‘out there’ and what should we do next? The result is that migration governance is necessarily based on judgements, perceptions, and understandings of international migration in its various forms, but these develop in the shadow of considerable uncertainty about the causes and effects of migration. In other words, how we think about the causes of migration affects how we design policies to influence migration, and these understandings vary considerably across the world.
Introduction: Understanding Migration Governance
Migration governance occurs in the shadow of considerable uncertainty about the causes and effects of migration. Facts matter, but so too do values and beliefs. International migration in its various forms and for varying motives is caused or driven by changes in underlying structural factors such as economic or political changes that can be amplified and powerfully influenced by social factors such as the role of kin networks, by demographic factors and also, of course, by the highly significant effects of climate change. But these changes are highly complex, uncertain in their effects and require interpretation.
Governance actors have to make sense of these potential drivers. What’s more, they often must do so in situations where time is short and where there can be a political demand for something to be done. This sense of urgency may lead migration governance actors to: look back and learn from past experiences; be powerfully influenced by what they have seen or heard from various media sources; or be influenced by public attitudes towards migration. Accordingly, (mis)judgements, (mis)perceptions and (mis)understandings matter.
This does not mean that migration governance is just something that occurs in the minds of migration governance actors, because there are powerful structural changes that can cause international migration. What it does mean is that the causes and effects of these changes require interpretation. This is why migration governance necessarily rests on understandings at a conceptual level of what is going on ‘out there’?
What is going on ‘out there’?
In my book, Governing Migration Beyond the State: Europe, North America, South America and Southeast Asia in a Global Context, I draw on interviews with more than 400 migration governance actors in Europe, North America, South America and Southeast Asia to try to understand more about how these actors make sense of what is going on ‘out there’, how these understandings then shape their actions and what this means for migration governance.
We can look at two examples to see how this plays out in two different regions – Europe and Southeast Asia.
In Europe, since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, there have been fears and concerns about large scale and potentially uncontrollable migration flows that emerged in the context of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and have intensified with concern about large-scale migration from African countries and the Middle East. Whether justified or not, these kinds of perceptions have very real effects. One key effect has been a focus on deterrence as a central feature of policy responses in Europe and at European Union (EU) level for more than 30 years. Such an approach is based on an understanding that migrants are ‘pulled’ to Europe by its attractiveness as a destination and by economic and welfare related factors. This understanding has become part of a long-standing EU repertoire, as this quote from an official of a national interior ministry makes clear:
I didn’t have the feeling that this was really a new discussion … I always remember my Dutch colleagues in Brussels, who had been around since the 1990s, what we are discussing, what we consider as new ideas, they’ve already been discussing that in the early nineties.
Europe is, of course, a particular kind of region that emerged from a distinctive context at the end of the Second World War and then further shaped by the end of the Cold War. The EU has also established supranational institutional structures with law-making powers that are independent of the member states. These factors are not present in the same way in other regions meaning that European regional integration is unlikely to be replicated in other regions. This becomes clear when we contrast Europe with Southeast Asian regionalism where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has emerged as an important regional structure but based on a strictly intergovernmental model with decision-making on a consensus basis.
A distinctive aspect of responses to migration in Southeast Asia is the way in which migration is understood as temporary, whether it be labour migration – referred to as temporary foreign workers – or temporary protection for those displaced by conflict or persecution with the idea being that more permanent protection can be provided outside the region. The result can be high levels of vulnerability for migrant workers with a powerful gendered dimension and an irregularisation and criminalisation for those seeking protection. What is also strongly evident in Southeast Asia is more informal mechanisms for cooperation, most notably the Bali Process focused on people smuggling, trafficking in persons and transnational crime. Informality means relatively lose frameworks for interaction and cooperation without decision-making power. Such informality is an important characteristic in other regions too and shows how alternative venues can be created that are not as challenging for states and their sovereignty. As an official of an international organisation put it to me:
The Bali Process…creates space for you to be able to do what you need to do or what you want to do. It’s easier to, for example, get that agreement through the Bali Process in some ways than through ASEAN because ASEAN is very politicised.
In Southeast Asia, migration is often viewed as temporary and informal solutions have been a preferred mechanism for dealing with transnational challenges. This is not to say that Southeast Asia is exceptional because temporariness and informality are features of other regions too but are particularly important components of migration governance in Southeast Asia.
What does this mean for global migration governance?
Contemporary discussions of global migration governance often set the bar quite high by equating migration governance with the development of comprehensive, rules-based structures at global level. While there are important global-level responses to particular issues such as refugees and people smuggling, an overarching global response is a highly unlikely outcome.
A sole focus on developing comprehensive rules can also distract from two other important components of actually-existing global migration governance. By actually-existing, I mean processes with the ability or potential to change the behaviour of states. This can occur through the creation of rules, but also in two other ways.
Capacity-building is a key component of contemporary global migration governance, which means providing specific resources such as funding and expertise to promote the development of migration governance capacity. One example would be the involvement of the Australian and Canadian governments in the ‘ASEAN triangle’ project designed to improve labour market standards in Southeast Asia. Another example is the funding provided by the EU Trust Fund for Africa that funds a range of projects designed to deal with the ‘root causes’ of migration.
Persuasion occurs via the sharing of ideas, information, and evidence and is a ‘softer’ mechanism but is present in the plethora of meetings, conferences, forums, seminars, and dialogues that now occur on migration and that bring a wide variety of actors together. One immediate issue with capacity building and persuasion is that they can reflect the interests of powerful and rich destination countries, which has evidently been the case in terms of the flows of resources from European to African countries with the aim of seeking to prevent or deter migration flows towards the EU.
The dominance of perspectives of richer and more powerful countries also highlights the scope for another way in which global migration governance can be politicised. There is a tendency to represent global solutions in functional, problem-solving ways that is consistent with a lot of the day-to-day work that is done by officials and experts dealing with often quite technical issues. However, it is also clear that ‘the global’ and international migration have become part of important new dividing lines in the politics of major destination countries in Europe and the United States.
Conclusion: representations matter.
Migration governance occurs across different levels from the local to the global and involves an increasing number of actors. It is also the case that migration governance necessarily involves coming up with a representation at a conceptual level of the underlying causes and effects of migration. The result is that analysing migration governance means identifying what it is that key actors know how to do. Put another way, how do facts, information and evidence shaped by values and beliefs coalesce into knowledge of, about, for or against international migration? What do these actors think they should be doing? How do they respond to signals and cues from the context in which they work? The forms that governance takes, meaning the laws, policies and associated practices that develop, will be affected by migration patterns but could also reflect other concerns. One could be understandings of public attitudes. Another could be organisational and institutional conflicts because, of course, migration is not the only issue that governments deal with and may not be a priority concern.
This means that the ways in which actors develop an understanding of what is going on ‘out there’ is crucial. These develop in specific organisational contexts and, crucially, where facts, information, data and evidence will be powerfully shaped by values and beliefs about the causes and effects of migration. This is why (mis)perceptions, (mis)judgements and (mis)understandings matter.
Andrew Geddes is a Professor of Migration Studies and the Director of the Migration Policy Centre. During his career, he has led and participated in a number of major projects on aspects of international migration working with a wide range of academic and non-academic partners. For the period 2014-19 he was awarded an Advanced Investigator Grant by the European Research Council for a project on the drivers of global migration governance (the MIGPROSP project see www.migrationgovernance.org for further details)