Highlights from the EU Policy Lab workshop on the future of migration in Europe

By Alice Szczepanikova & Tine Van Criekinge

On 16 October 2017, the EU Policy Lab of the Joint Research Centre organised a one-day policy workshop on the future of migration in Europe in collaboration with the European Commission’s Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography. The event brought together over 80 researchers, representatives of civil society, think-tanks, Member States and different sections of the European Commission. During the morning sessions, invited experts presented state-of-the-art knowledge on issues of high relevance for EU policy-making in the area of migration and integration and questioned some of the commonly held myths and taken-for-granted assumptions about migration and integration. The second part of the day offered hands-on experience of a range of engagement tools based on foresight migration scenarios that stimulate forward-looking and systemic understandings of migration. We developed these scenarios and tools over the past year and will present them in a final report and a toolkit published in the beginning of 2018. Below, we present highlights from the discussion about the myths and long-term trends and key insights that emerged from the interactive afternoon labs.

Myth #1: EU policy responses to the recent increase in migrant arrivals have been driven by substantial shifts in European citizens’ opinion on immigration

Despite the fact that migration has moved to emerge as one of the top concerns of citizens in many EU countries, public opinion polls show that overall, the European public has not become increasingly negative about immigration after 2015. However, the increase in negative perceptions did take place between 2013 and 2015. In most EU countries, citizens tend to be sceptical about the benefits of growing diversity but the attitudes to immigration seem to be more stable than one might expect in the context of the crisis rhetoric and the instrumental use of migration by some political parties. The European Social Survey shows that in fact, these opinions have become slightly less negative since 2002.[1] At the EU level, the direction of policies has too often been driven by some national politicians who misrepresented the opinion of their electorate as calling for more restrictions on migration.

In her contribution, Rosa Balfour from the German Marshall Fund of the United States discusses the complexities of referring to public opinion on migration and also explains why foreign policy is likely to play an increasing role in European migration policies and decision-making in the future.

Myth #2: The so-called “refugee crisis”, as it played out in the EU, was a result of unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers arriving to Europe in an uncontrollable manner

Rather than the crisis of numbers and the loss of control over arrivals, the 2015 increase in the number of asylum seekers coming to Europe revealed an institutional crisis driven by inadequate allocation of responsibilities among the Member States and the lack of effective burden-sharing mechanisms within the EU.[2] Philippe de Bruycker from the Free University of Brussels (ULB) argues that this institutional crisis can and needs to be addressed through a major reform of the system. Rather than making legislation on migration and asylum for the Member States to implement, the EU would need to take more responsibility in its implementation. In practice, this would mean that, whenever necessary, EU agencies would take the lead over Member States’ administration in areas of EU-wide importance such as migration and asylum. The agencies should become permanent and supranational in nature (i.e. overseen by the European Commission rather than by the Member States). The “refugee crisis” has shown the potential and the importance of agencies such as Frontex and the European Asylum and Support Office. Stronger EU agencies do not necessarily lead the way towards a federal system as some might fear. Rather, they should be flexible in replacing Member States only when necessary.

If instead of the institutional reform the EU relies on externalising border control, refugee processing and protection to unstable countries in the EU neighbourhood and beyond, de Bruycker warns that sooner or later, the EU asylum system may face another crisis.

Myth #3: The level of attention paid by the media and policy-makers to refugee and irregular migration as opposed to other migrant flows is justified by the numbers

Asylum seekers and migrants arriving irregularly in higher numbers during the years 2014-2017 have come to symbolise migration to Europe. Media coverage has strongly contributed to this bias and helped to shift the debate towards the need to regain control over the borders and away from (a) regular migrants who come to the EU in an orderly manner and (b) migrants who enter the EU with valid visa, as visa-free travellers or with short-term permits, but do not leave within 90 days or after their residence permit has expired. In 2016, according to Eurostat, there were 2.3 million first residence permits issued to non-EU citizens, either for employment reasons (853,000), family reunion (779,000), or education (695,000). In the same year, 1,204,000 people asked for asylum. A similar shift of attention happens with fatal journeys. Here the main focus is on those irregular migrants losing their lives in the Mediterranean while those who die when crossing the Sahara are usually not mentioned and never become the target of any rescue operations or other forms of humanitarian intervention.

In his intervention, Rainer Münz from the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC) illustrated the discrepancy between the flows we talk about and other flows that also matter.

You can have look at the presentation accompanying his intervention [3]

Myth #4: Migration policy determines migration flows

Migration policy is naturally seen as a key tool to control and manage migration flows. However, only a small proportion of migration flows can be directly controlled by migration policy. Consider free movement of people in areas without border controls. Family and humanitarian migration are both rights-based and depend on the fulfilment of certain criteria rather than on migration policy priorities. Jean-Christophe Dumont from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that less than half of all movements, mostly related to labour migration, can be directly controlled by migration policy.

Although migration policy also affects the rights-based flows, for example by setting conditions for family reunion such as minimum income or language requirements, it is clear that many factors with a major influence on determining migration flows lie outside of the remit of migration policies. For example, Dumont discusses the case of energy transitions and suggests that the extent to which we will be able to replace carbon energy with green energy will impact the price of oil and potentially the stability and prosperity of major oil producing countries such as the Gulf countries, Nigeria or Russia. Such changes could dramatically alter the demand and supply of migrants worldwide. He warns that if we do not anticipate what might happen in these migration hub countries, we may find greater pressures at our borders in the future.

Myth #5: Strengthening of borders and restrictive visa regimes are necessary to prevent uncontrolled migration

Evidence on global migration trends shows that countries with high migration restrictions do not necessarily succeed in reducing immigration. Simona Vezzoli from the Amsterdam University explains that, for example, Mexican migration to the US shows that increasing restrictions and border enforcements along the US-Mexico border did not stop migration, but pushed Mexicans desiring to migrate to use more smuggling services to cross the border at isolated and dangerous border points. This has made migration more costly and dangerous, lowered return rates and increased settlement of Mexican families in the US. In Europe, Moroccans could travel freely to Spain up until 1991. Young Moroccans would often work and visit Spain during the summer months and then go back home. Such circulation was halted with the introduction of travel visas. This pushed young Moroccans who entered to remain longer, eventually increasing their permanent settlement in Spain.

On the flip side of this, is the myth that liberalisation of border controls will expose countries to massive and uncontrolled migration flows. Vezzoli argues that the EU enlargement experience challenges this assumption. The enlargement of the 1980s did not lead to massive outflows from Greece, Portugal or Spain although this was in part also because of temporary restrictions on the free movement of workers from these countries. The 2004 enlargement resulted in higher emigration rates but only from some new member states (such as Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria). Although emigration from these countries continues, the initial increase in numbers rapidly normalized to lower migration volumes and circulation patterns.

Technology has been playing an increasing role in strengthening border controls. Various dimensions of the link between digitalisation and migration need to be further explored. For example, Jean-Christophe Dumont asks if digital currencies and automatic tracking of transactions could contribute to eliminating undocumented migration in the future. And could the spread of massive open online courses (MOOCs) diminish the demand for migration for educational purposes?

Myth #6: There is a direct link between environmental change and migration and it is possible to predict the numbers of people likely to migrate due to changes in the environment

Uncertainty is a fundamental part of environmental change, making its link with migration indirect and hard to predict. Rather than looking for a direct link between environmental change and human mobility, it is more sensible to examine what drives particular migration flows and see how these drivers (social, demographic, political and economic) are sensitive to environmental change. Alongside with those larger drivers, migration flows are also influenced by individual and household migration behaviour that shapes people’s perception of both the risks they face and mobility options they have. Although there are estimates of how many people were uprooted by extreme weather conditions over the last years, it remains practically impossible to predict numbers of people likely to migrate from changes in the environment and to assess future migration pressures for the EU.

Departing from his scepticism about the feasibility of reducing uncertainty and predicting numbers of migrants moving due to environmental change, Dominic Kniveton from the University of Sussex explains why we should rather focus on understanding how these changes are perceived by the affected populations. This can help explore possible future pathways and replace unrealistic predictions with no-regrets solutions that are both flexible and robust.

Myth #7: Migration data reflect the scale and the nature of human mobility

The 2015 United Nations figure of 244 million international migrants worldwide is well known. It reflects the number of persons living in a country other than where they were born for more than a year or, in the absence of such data, the number of people of foreign citizenship. The figure includes refugees and was 41 % higher compared to 2000. But does it adequately express what is happening with human mobility? By definition, short-term and circular mobility is missing from these statistics and so is data about actual cross-border flows of people. Yet, these are important elements of how people actually move.

In particular, the importance of tourism is poorly understood despite its potentially strong link to migration. Ronald Skeldon from Maastricht University points out that the number of international arrivals has grown more than fivefold between 1990 and 2016. Although this number does not reflect the actual number of tourists, its massive growth is indicative of the rising importance of the phenomena. Statistically and also in terms of policy, tourism is treated as separate from migration. However, it can both expand migration and act as a substitute for longer-term stays. In Europe, migrants have been a key source of labour to the growing tourism industry; the hospitality sector could hardly function without foreign workers. However, expanding tourism can also lead to the expulsion of local populations, for example due to rising prices and therefore generate internal or even international out migration. Open paths for tourist travel can also dissuade people from settling on a more long-term basis. Skeldon emphasizes that without systematic inclusion of short-term movers, our understanding of human mobility and migration dynamics is bound to be limited.

Myth #8: There is a direct link between participation in integration courses and immigrants’ language acquisition and labour market integration

The EU has strongly promoted ‘civic integration policies’ through its funding mechanisms, currently in the form of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). However, after a decade of implementation, they have rarely been evaluated and existing evaluations do not necessarily prove the benefits of the courses and tests. Rather, they show that language acquisition and labour-market integration are not always better for those who followed integration courses than for those who did not. Research has also shown that too strict integration requirements (such as integration tests in exchange for stable residence permits) might actually hinder integration if they are used as a form of migration control.

Ilke Adam, from the Free University of Brussels (VUB) makes the case that other public policies such as labour market, welfare, and education policies have a much higher impact on integration outcomes. She advocates for introducing immigrant-sensitive thinking into our general policies. This includes, for example, considering migrants socio-economic situation when increasing pension age or evaluating the impacts on migrant women’s labour-market participation when raising childcare costs. In the increasingly diverse Europe, assessment of how such changes may disproportionately affect immigrant populations and their integration prospects should become part and parcel of our policy-making in a wide range of policy fields.

Myth #9: Labour-market integration works out better for high-skilled immigrants than for the low-skilled

There is hardly disagreement that Europe needs and will need high-skilled workers and that some will have to be recruited from abroad. High-skilled immigrants are the desired group that many countries want to attract. Consequently, we might expect that their path to labour-market integration would be smoother than that of the low-skilled. In her intervention, Ilke Adam explains that the difference in employment rates between immigrants and natives (the so called ethnic employment gap) in OECD countries is actually higher for high- than for low-skilled immigrants. Paradoxically, this indicates that the “desired” immigrants may experience greater discrimination than those in the 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous and demeaning).

In a related comment, Jean-Christophe Dumont from the OECD notes that the very idea of countries using their migration policies to compete for high-skilled migrants is also a myth. Thanks to information exchange and continuous dialogue, OECD countries’ policies to attract and retain high-skilled migrants have converged so much so that other factors and migrants’ individual choices determine where they migrate. In other words, rather than countries picking high-skilled migrants, it is the people picking the country based on characteristics not necessarily related to its migration policies.

In the long-term, the EU should not be blinded by the strong policy focus on stemming migration flows and start considering a possible future in which it will face a shortage of immigrants of all skill levels. Dumont points out that other countries such as China with its ageing population and shrinking workforce may strive to become more attractive destinations than Europe.

Debating migration in a new way

After challenging the myths around migration, the workshop participants moved into interactive labs that delved deeper in to more specific issues by using a range of simulation and discussion tools developed by the EU Policy Lab in collaboration with an expert group. The aim was to test how these approaches could stimulate new ways of debating migration and to refine them for the inclusion into the final Toolkit report coming out in the early 2018. Below are some of the main conclusions from the lab discussions.

  • Migration narratives, public perceptions and the role of the media in shaping policies
    • Words we use to talk about migration matter; they create frames that carry with them certain attitudes and values and act as filters for information we receive (e.g. when migrants and refugees are referred to as ‘flows’ or even ‘flood’ it reinforces the idea that their migration is hard to control and potentially dangerous).
    • Trying to negate frames we oppose with the use of the same words only reinforces them. Countering them with facts is also not very effective.
    • Challenge to populist and anti-immigration frames needs to incorporate acknowledgement of the underlying concerns of citizens: e.g. concerns about free movement or sudden high numbers of refugee arrivals. Grievances deserve honest acknowledgement even if they are not based on reality.
    • It is better to replace impersonal and abstract frames that evoke imposition from the outside by more relational terms. For example, it is better to talk about ‘us’ or ‘we’ rather than to personify institutions such as the EU. Or to use ‘dignity’ instead of ‘rights’.
    • At times, it might be more helpful to shift the focus away from migration to a narrative around the future of Europe (or a country, city, community).
    • We do not need to be passive consumers of the mainstream media. Journalists do not always objectively reflect the concerns of citizens; they can and should be challenged. For example, by complaining to the media outlets about their use of language.
  • The effects and effectiveness of migration policies
    • Migration policies can either open or close options for migrants, such as to enter legally or to have a higher chance of getting asylum in a country. However, they do not fully determine migrants’ choices, which concern migrants’ willingness and determination to move to a country. This is why offering free mobility in certain areas will not necessarily lead to massive migration.
    • Populations living under constant security threats are more likely to migrate without taking into account the economic situation or the migration policies of a destination country. Therefore, migration policies can have a greater impact on migration of some types of populations but less impact on more desperate populations.

  • The link between demographic change and migration: demographic transitions, ageing, automation and migration to Europe
    • Europe is composed of demographically growing and shrinking regions.
    • According to Eurostat data for 2015, after reaching a low point between 2000 and 2003, the total fertility rate increased in most 28 Member States. However, with 1.58 live births per woman it still remains well below the replacement level of 2.1. Women’s mean age at childbirth has also increased to over 30. The future will bring fewer birth, as the number of potential mothers is shrinking and more deaths, as the number of people above age 65 is increasing. In a hypothetical zero-migration scenario, there would be almost no regions left in the EU that would have natural population growth in 2050.
    • Solutions to the population decline should be discussed with the objective of upholding economic output and maintaining the level of welfare in European countries.
    • Migration policy-making will not only have to adjust to the labour market needs that are expected in the future. It also needs to be geared towards allowing immigration as part of nation- or state-building processes.
    • Irrespective of policy, current fertility trends are unlikely to change Europe’s population decline in the short and medium term. However, policies to reduce the opportunity costs of having children by putting in place institutional arrangements such as accessible child care are clearly a no-regrets option that should be pursued no matter what.
    • Migration cannot and should not compensate for total population decline. The aim should be to look for migrants who can meet future labour and skills shortages rather than to strive to replace a certain number of people. Thriving regions will remain more attractive for immigrants. Allocating them to declining regions in order to make up for population decline may backfire – both in terms of not being accepted by the locals and not having access to adequate economic opportunities.
    • Areas undergoing de-population are generally not good for immigrant integration. Complete de-population of some areas should also be recognized as an option, especially if provision of services can be improved in other areas to which people can move.
    • Europe has difficulties attracting highly qualified migrants. It needs to become more attractive for mobile citizens of other parts of the world with the skills required in the EU labour market. This need will most likely increase in the future.

  • The migration-development-security nexus and making third-country partnerships work
    • The EU is in a difficult position regarding the migration-development-security nexus. It is mandated to deliver on an area where it currently does not have enough competence.
    • The two priority policy areas for the EU to focus are security and skills. They should be combined with a more active approach in introducing legal migration channels into third-country partnerships.
    • Divergence of policy objectives across sectors within the negotiating blocs currently seems to be the biggest obstacle to progress.
  • The future of immigrant integration in an increasingly diverse Europe
    • Immigrant integration is inherently multi-level and multi-sectoral. Considering that more and more actors are involved in this policy field, there is an opportunity for the EU to play a stronger coordinating role (e.g. through funding and the exchange of practices in different networks). National, regional and local governments can perform more of a supervisory and monitoring role.
    • Harmonization of policies within the EU can constitute a challenge because a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. The EU should invest in identifying and nurturing coalitions of interest and in creating networks of actors with the same mind-set about integration.
    • Different sectoral policies need to be better connected and include immigrant-sensitive approach.
    • Most migrants to and within the EU go to cities. Hence, tensions can emerge between the city and the national governance levels. Budgets of cities may be stretched at the same time as they are expected to deal with the integration of most of the immigrants to a state. The EU should try to find a way to support cities and regions that want to implement actions on integration.

While the above labs used scenarios, personas and role play to stimulate discussion, two labs took a more experimental form of serious games. The intersections between environmental change and migration were explored through a physical participatory activity that generated experiential learning and dialogue around mobility responses to environmental stress and shocks. Participants were prompted to make individual and collective decisions to either evacuate, migrate or remain in-situ and face the consequences. The lab that focused on the future of the Common European Asylum System explored our migration scenarios through a new version of the JRC board game Scenario Exploration System. This helped the players place themselves in the shoes of different actors in the asylum system (civil society, European Asylum Support Office, Member States, general public) and appreciate the importance of collaboration for achieving their long-term visions.

[1] European Social Survey (2016), ‘Attitudes towards Immigration and their Antecedents: Topline Results from Round 7 of the European Social Survey’, ESS Topline Results Series, Issue 7, November cited in Balfour, Rosa.The changing domestic determinants of US and European Foreign Policies; Polarisation in Europe: Public Opinion and European Foreign Policy (forthcoming 2017). However, these same results are not necessarily supported by Eurobarometer or Pew research.

[2] The perception of a crisis was induced by a particular way of presenting numbers of arrivals and related press photos.

[3] Due to technical reasons, video recording of this presentation is not available.

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