Ill-informed politics: what scientists understand and what politicians do

Dynamics of Migration in West Africa Image provided by Clemens Romankiewicz Source: World Bank 2010

Politicians and the media alike speak about the “refugee crises”, “the high influx of migrants” as well as the need to stop this “inflow” and to find ways to combat migration by tackling the “root causes”. The current narrative in politics within the Union undeniably has a negative character and the message seems to be clear: migration is a threat. It is a problem that has to be solved.

This current approach is viewed with growing concern by academic experts. Last week, the Fridtjof Nansen academy for political education offered a platform for researchers in the field of geography to share their insight on migratory movements with participants at the meeting “People on the Move – A Geographic view on Global and Regional Phenomena of Migration in the 21st Century”. Outcomes of the latest research informed the audience about common beliefs and myths that revolve around that topic.

While migration is commonly deemed a modern issue that requires urgent solutions, geographic experts agree that migration is in fact a continuous social phenomenon of human kind since the beginning of our time. This is not only in contradiction with the most common belief that migration is solely caused by crises, poverty and climate change, it also reveals the Eurocentric viewpoint that is taken in the debate. Following many debates in the European Union, it appears as the Union understands itself as “the promised land” which is a “pull-factor” for many migrants. However, Clemens Romankiewicz, migration researcher at the University of Bayreuth, says this is a short-sighted view and it fails to take sufficient account of the complexity of the issue. There are other migration theories which incorporate anthropological, social and ethnographic findings and offer more comprehensive explanations. Moreover, the neoclassical theory with the strong focus on “push-” and “pull-factors” misleadingly concentrates on the combat of root causes. This denies the fact that migration is inter alia driven by existing social networks and has in general a self-enforcing character. Therefore, the belief that migration could be simply stopped if only the root causes were eliminated is a misconception, according to Dr. Paul Gans, professor of economic geography at the University of Mannheim.  Assistance in development further fosters mobility since it creates incentives for people to make use of their acquired assets and to strive for new opportunities, Gans says.

This is a popular phenomenon in the European Union. Free movement of people and (their) assets is highly desired in the Union. It is seen as a driver of economic growth and therefore gains great support. Initiated movements within the Union are also followed by increased mobility due to the expansion of the international network. In light of these scientific findings it is questionable whether the discriminatory approach to migration of non-EU citizens is in fact reasonable or even desirable.

It stands to reason that some may argue that investing in development should stop out of fear that this could increase mobility and the number of immigrants trying to settle in Europe. However, the scientific research in the study of Romankiewicz shows that this is not a reasonable conclusion either. His research in the West African Sahel region demonstrates that migration is predominately defined by transnationalism. Transnationalism is characterised by a strong back and forth movement between the country of destination and the country of origin as well as the rotation between other countries. This means that migration dynamics are complex whereby migrants are more or less constantly on the move depending on their current occupation or on new job opportunities, forthcoming family or religious events, their current stage of life, their residence permit or simply the season of the year. Romankiewicz says that this mobility also allows migrants to not only maintain their ties with their community in their homeland, but also allows them to invest in it and resettle there. Further, his study shows that interregional migration in the Sahel region currently exceeds migration movements to Europe, while the latter must still be viewed in light of the concept of transnationalism.

This is also a phenomenon that is prevalent in Mali. According to Romankiewicz’s research, international migration to Europe is rather the exception than the rule. The fact that the EU recently engaged in another partnership contract with Mali and other priority countries in that region with the aim of returning migrants gives rise to the following question: Was this measure taken based on scientific research or is it in fact an ad-hoc measure driven by personal conviction and political need for action?

In the recent debate in the European Parliament and the European Commission on  “Addressing Refugee & Migrant Movements: The Role of EU External Action”, the Commission stressed its strong commitment to a holistic approach to migration, to finding long-term solutions and that a realistic concept was needed.  It is questionable whether the Union is in fact well informed what it means to realise this. Regardless of all scientific findings, the Union seems to keep pursuing its own course – whether or not it is reasonable and whether or not it is effective.


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