Chapter 6: Long-term Solutions
People migrating irregularly are not mindless. They have good reasons for making such a major decision. Migrants continuously report that they would prefer not to migrate. Large numbers genuinely want to stay in their own country where life is most comforting, with their family, culture and language.
If Eritrea went through reform, Afghanistan settled down and conflict in Syria abated, then the need to consider irregular migration among these populations would disappear and talk of a migration crisis would probably die down. However, that is not likely to happen in the medium term – and in the medium term there will probably be other catastrophes.
The international protection system established following World War II is ill-equipped to deal with these issues. It is not focused on the most vulnerable people. It is focused on people able to move. The poorest and those least able to escape conflict or persecution are under-represented in this system.
This bias away from the most vulnerable comes from skewed methods of selection. A destination country can be a passive recipient, in which case those arriving are simply the people most interested and able to reach its territory.
Or, the country can pay UNHCR to manage selection overseas. UNHCR has an interest in helping the most vulnerable but also a stronger pressure to fulfil the destination country’s criteria for selection, which often includes education and connections to the country.
More broadly, the only people this system considers are people who have left their country, excluding the people stuck at home suffering conflict or persecution.
As a result, many in need of genuine protection are in an impossible situation. Staying at home is dangerous or has few avenues for advancement in life. Meanwhile, the international protection system is useless for the vast majority.
As long as there are people who have been successful in settling in their destination country after embarking on an irregular migration journey, those back home considering irregular migration will have role models, and a source of hope.
Migration communications campaigns can only do so much. They can help migrants make more informed decisions but cannot remove the underlying structural and environmental factors driving irregular migration.
Especially for economic migrants, the discussion of safer, legal alternatives is vital. Economic migrants are those who are fleeing poverty, pursuing a better quality of life, or following in the footsteps of role models who have gone before. The bottom line is, they are unlikely to be granted asylum in the EU.
In our experience, the general narrative from potential migrants is that there is nothing in their country for them. There are no economic opportunities, no accessible legal migration options, and their children will suffer.
So campaigns respond by sharing viable alternatives. However, these alternatives may not always be attractive to the target segment.
For example, Jordanian businesses were incentivised to provide jobs to Syrian refugees. A good idea in theory, it also shows how difficult the practice can be. To refugees, transport to the special economic zones did not seem feasible or attractive. Moreover, the wages on offer were comparable to the stipend provided by UNHCR and informal labour.
In 2019, Ethiopia said it will allow refugees to live and work legally in the country. It is great news for 900,000 refugees in the country, many considering onward irregular migration. Engaging with those people to ensure they understand the facts and implications of this decision could become a central plank of a communications campaign. However, the refugee law has yet to turn into refugee policy and action.
In Afghanistan you may want to promote private enterprise as an alternative to migration. If you ask for an example of a successful person, you may hear about Ehsanullah Bayat, from Ghazni province, a tycoon who started one of Afghanistan’s major telecommunications companies. However, he now lives in Florida – a migrant himself. Another prominent businessman is Zmarai Kamgar, who created Kam Air, Afghanistan’s first private airline, in 2003. His career got a boost when he left for Uzbekistan during the Soviet invasion, and has now returned to a mansion in Kabul. These individuals either leave after they’ve made their mark, or require leaving to make that mark.
At lower levels of the business hierarchy, many Afghans start in the development or security sectors, or trading with or becoming seasonal labour in neighbouring countries. Alternatively, young men see the possibility for advancement by joining one of the myriad fighting groups.
Advertising alternatives to leaving home for a new country can be a highly effective strategy. Unfortunately, those alternatives are in limited supply.
Alternatives are vital, but our experience shows that simultaneously tackling some of the emotional drivers to irregular migration is also essential.
When we first started sharing alternatives, our field-based campaign team told us that for some potential migrants, the barriers to entry are simply too high and they are simply not interested in these alternatives. Some potential migrants do not have passports and find it too burdensome administratively to get one; the scholarship programme has too many forms and the admissions essay is difficult to compose; the visa application forms require too many documents; the microfinancing programme is too competitive; and corruption is too endemic to get a teaching job. They tell us it is silly to provide information about alternatives when it is simply too difficult to access them.
A proposed solution is to try to walk an individual through the process of exploring alternatives so that they can achieve increased satisfaction that will ultimately lead them to abandon their plan to pursue unsafe irregular migration.
However, when we dug deeper into why the alternatives were not attractive, we discovered that economic reasons are simply the default explanation for the desire to irregularly migrate. But it does not begin to scratch the surface of the prospective migrant’s underlying motivations.
In accepting the lack of employment or insecurity as the sole reason for irregular migration, we are assuming that decision making is linear and coherent. It rarely is. Decision making generally includes a variety of rational and logical reasons, mixed with a good dose of emotions, sometimes referred to as our instincts or our gut.
Through speaking to over 200,000 potential migrants over seven years, we’ve uncovered a range of these emotional cues. They are exceedingly wide ranging. For example, someone may have suffered a traumatic incident, like a terrorist attack close to their workplace or their children’s school. Something clicks, and the next thing they know, they are packing their bags. Another may have a cousin he’s always compared to and aspires to compete with. He pays a smuggler in the hopes of being as successful as his relative.
Without uncovering these underlying motivations for migration, the alternatives, no matter how well packaged, will never be quite right. Individuals can easily convince themselves and us that the barriers to entry are too high, there are simply no opportunities, and irregular migration is the only way. Only by simultaneously addressing the underlying emotions, such as fear, aspiration, and suffocation, can we create a conducive environment for potential migrants to consider the alternatives.