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Refugees versus migrants: the good into the pot, the bad into the crop

Refugees versus migrants: the good into the pot, the bad into the crop
In the course of the refugee crisis the debate about migration is taking an important turn. In a dangerous and false logic refugees are pitted against all other migrants. As a softened version of the ‘boat-is-full’-rhetoric, a picture of a boat with limited seats, that all ought to be reserved for refugees, is promoted. Across the EU this leads to the digging out of conservative arguments against immigration that seemed long overcome. The current turn will make it harder than ever to establish a much-needed sustainable policy of legal immigration as part of a comprehensive approach to migration.

Cementing a dichotomy
In an increasingly undifferentiated debate on ‘refugee policy’, policy makers across the EU currently cement a distinction and establish a link between two groups of people: the ‘good refugee’ from Syria or Iraq which is perceived and promoted to have a legitimate reason to flee his country and must be helped as long as his or her home country drowns in war; and the illegitimate, ‘bad economic migrant’ from the Western Balkans or somewhere in Africa which must be rejected without hesitation. The larger the first group becomes, the stronger is the rejection of the second.

The habit of linking up these two groups has found entrance into the political and societal discourse in many European over the past months. It’s possibly the only common European message in the debate: we have limited capacities and there is no room for those that are driven away by poverty, unemployment, corrupted and exploitive regimes, environmental damage or a general lack of perspectives in their home countries. In short, all those people that ‘solely’ want a chance in life.

In the EU’s compromise machine this logic is instrumental in balancing the well-known restrictive approach of ‘Fortress Europe’ to the management of migration – border controls, returns, burden shifting to third states, above all in the EU’s neighbourhood – with first careful attempts to introduce new forms of allocating refugees among Member States. It’s the EU’s usual, well established give and take. In order to find agreement on the relocation of 160.000 refugees landed in Greece and Italy to the rest of the EU, policy measures to contain immigration of so-called economic migrants see another heyday. For example, the European Council agreed mid-October that Member States will in future receive more support from Frontex in returning migrants. The agency’s funds and powers to initiate and organise common return operations will be extended. Equally cooperation with third states, most of which have at best a mixed democratic record, on return and readmission, border control, search and rescue and the investigation into people smuggling is being stepped up.

New in the tool box are the Migration Management Support Teams, which are deployed to parts of the EU’s external borders that are under particular migratory pressure – so called hot spots. Currently these hot spots are foreseen for the central migratory hubs in Greece and Italy such as Samos, Kos or Trapani in Sicily. They are being established with breathtaking speed; two are already up and running in Lampedusa, Italy and Lesvos, Greece. Headed by a concerted effort of the central EU agencies in the field – Frontex, EASO, Europol and Eurojust – the teams will be staffed with Member States experts. They will support the Italian and Greek authorities in identifying, registering and returning migrants and in facilitating intelligence sharing to support criminal investigations in the field of people smuggling. Again, this system is geared at identifying (and partly relocating) those that qualify for protection – the good refugees – and ASAP returning those that are not assumed to do so – the bad economic migrants.

A dangerous logic
Linking the treatment of these two groups the way it is currently done in debates across Europe is bound to backfire on those voices that have advocated a comprehensive approach to migration. In the Member States and at EU level the exclusive focus on refugees has eliminated any debate on further developing programmes and measures that promote legal and regular ways of immigrating into European countries as for example cooperation within the framework of the EU’s mobility partnerships. This complete lack of political focus on legal migration is dangerous for at least three obvious reasons:

First, the reality of migration to the EU is that the number of the so-called economic migrants (a term itself already trivialising and presumptuous) outweighs those that are granted international protection. In the mixed migration flows towards Europe, the number of migrants that according to Member States’ asylum decisions do not qualify for international protection is significant. One major reason for that is that Member States and the EU still offer very limited ways of immigrating to Europe, driving people into using the ‘asylum channel’. In 2014 the overall EU-wide recognition rate for first time applicants was only at 45 per cent. 55 per cent were denied protection. On top of that come those migrants that irregularly or regularly (e.g. through visa) enter the EU and don’t claim asylum. The number of these so-called economic migrants is set to increase due to a bunch of reasons like environmental and climate change, natural disasters and the growing global economic inequalities. Of course those on the losing side of globalisation, be it the people in Africa’s mines or Asia’s sweatshops, have an incentive to move if they can scrape together the cash for the journey. The world in ten years is going to be much more in motion than today. And it is an illusion that future migratory flows can be regulated by border controls or returns.

Second, stigmatising migrants the way it is happing at the moment completely ignores the long-term demographic and economic changes underway in European societies. Aging societies and a lack of skilled labour in many sectors do not make for growth, innovation and sustainable welfare. Yet, right before our eyes, the way people look at and think about immigration is changing significantly and falls back into old patterns that seemed long overcome. In the past decade Europe seemed to have reached a broad political consensus that immigration must be part of the solution; that we need selected and well-managed immigration into European labour markets that takes into consideration the needs of Member States’ economies; that immigration can be a source of modernisation. But this connection is rarely made anymore in the current climate of fear, anxiety and hate. To the contrary, the perception of ‘the immigrant’ is changing back into a mix of threat and abuse of European welfare states. This current branding of the potential migrant work force is going to make it harder than ever to convince European electorates of modern forms of legal immigration.

Finally, access to European education and labour markets is a strong incentive for third states to cooperate with the EU. The North African countries, for example, are not only transit and destination countries for migrants. They are also countries of origin for migration to Europe having a high proportion of young and partly very well educated men and women seeking jobs and opportunities. If the EU wants these countries to become true partners in the management of migratory flows and in the refugee crisis it must offer them more than border guard training, security sector reform and cash.

In short, the logic that pits refugees against other migrants is as false as it is dangerous. It mixes two phenomena that are in practise connected but for which distinct approaches are needed. The EU must come forward with a working refugee and asylum policy on the one hand, and equally important a legal migration policy that is worth its name on the other. Tragically, the ‘refugee versus economic migrant’ rhetoric may even be naively brought forward with the good intention to build support for the reception of the growing number of refugees. But it plays into the hands of radical conservative forces that still oppose the opening up of European societies to immigration – a challenge that is going to grow only stronger in future. There is no choice of dealing with migration or not, there is just a choice to do it in the messy or in a reasonably well managed way.

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