Mixed messages along mixed migration routes

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Today I read this appeal from UNHCR asking for more funds to assist refugees taking irregular routes to Europe. But statistics indicate that most people taking the Central Mediterranean route – which is now the most prevalent irregular sea route to Europe – are overwhelmingly migrants (from countries such as Nigeria, Bangladesh etc). An earlier UNHCR appeal noted that they estimate there to be 900 refugees and asylum seekers in detention and 60 refugees have been referred for resettlement. While every case is significant these are relatively low numbers. So rather than focus on people in greatest need using this route, we have a bifurcated approach between refugees and migrants.

There has been a lot of necessary attention on the way the media uses the word ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ when describing the people who are taking irregular routes to Europe. I think most people understand the basic difference between a refugee and a migrant. But there has been less attention on the way international organisations employ labels to invoke need. See this screen grab from twitter that discusses the use of the term ‘non-Syrian’ which has been used to describe other groups reaching Greece across the Eastern Mediterranean route.


One of the issues we rarely talk about is competition between agencies for funds. The aim of any press release or funding appeal is to highlight how a particular agency or organisation is best placed to assist a target group of vulnerable people. But in the case of mixed flows of migrants and refugees how do agencies like UNHCR with its focus on refugees and IOM with its focus on migrants work together? According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in one of the above-mentioned press releases “We have urgent work to do in Libya and can only do it together”. But are separate agencies and separate appeals the best way to achieve this.

Despite launching a Mixed Migration Working Group for Libya in late 2016 , it would seem that a jointly coordinated approach is still in the making. This could partly be due to working modalities – many international organisations working on Libya in reality do so from neighbouring Tunisia (albeit due to security reasons) and with the Libya funding appeal only 28.4% covered competition for funds is real. However there are funds for migration, with the EU launching a EUR 90million programme for migrants in Libya only a few days ago. So now we see read lots of tweets, press releases and appeals about how best to address the situation inside Libya and across the Mediterranean that arguably shows the international community is not speaking with one voice on this issue.

This makes for a very confused message that reaches Libyan actors, affected governments and the general public. While it may be too much to ask for everyone to speak with one voice, agreement on a few key messages is surely not too hard an ask.


3 reasons for Mediterranean sea arrivals you won’t see reported

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There are a multitude of reports about the Central Mediterranean route, which I’ve also contributed to myself. But with so few people reporting from inside Libya, there are a few internal factors that some recent reports may have missed:

1. Good weather + Ramadan/Eid = surge of departures. It has been noted elsewhere (by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat over the Horn of Africa-Yemen route) that during Ramadan and Eid, many people try to take advantage of changing work hours (quieter mornings etc) and the fact that border posts may not be as heavily guarded during Ramadan. Combined with calm seas this may have been a reason for people to consider departing Libya during the past few months

2. It’s the economy stupid: Libya is facing a significant financial crisis, the currency is dropping and inflation is high. This affects migrant workers as much as ordinary Libyans who may in the past have enjoyed relatively high wages when paid in Libyan dinar. Today those dinar will not buy them the same amount of goods and, most importantly for migrant workers, not allow them to send money home. If the financial situation in Libya was to normalise then perhaps some migrants would prefer to go back to earning local salaries in Libya where there is demand for skilled labour, guards, cleaners.

3. Money, money, money: Linked to the point above, some migrant workers (for instance Bangladeshis) were paid by public institutions for services such as rubbish collection. Today those services are not operating and even if a worker was to be paid, getting money from the bank is near impossible. This in turns affects Libyans’ access to currency, with ‘hard currency’ even more scarce which is possibly why smuggling has become such a lucrative business for some.

Of course there are other external reasons, rescue at sea being a key one, but without the full picture any interventions to address smuggling and trafficking will be misaligned. The overarching security situation, financial stability and political dynamics affect all people inside Libya including migrants and refugees.

Developing migration policies for Europe

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A recent IRIN article on the need for work visas highlights the limited thinking on realistic policies to address rising irregular migration. As the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, has said – the so-called migration crisis is policy driven. But as the numbers of people trying to reach Europe irregularly continues to cause alarm, beyond shock and awe where is the policy dialogue?

Most European countries have very few migration options outside of highly skilled employees or work sponsorship and, for refugees, small resettlement quotas. The UK probably has the largest range of immigration options including work, family reunion, short-stay and student visas. Further afield countries such as Canada, the US and Australia have large, relatively unproblematic annual immigration intakes.

Drawing on the country I know best – Australia – I would suggest a couple of options to start with:

  1. Temporary work visas: while this visa type has its critics (especially as it links the worker to an employer), it offers short term work opportunities in areas of skill shortages. Temporary residents pay tax, have no access to social services although for some temporary residence may be a pathway to permanent residence
  2. Seasonal work visas:  another short-term employer driven category for seasonal labour

For those who would argue that Europe has its own unemployment problem and cannot incorporate more irregular migrants, I would concur with Francois Crepeau who has highlighted how most irregular migrants end up employed in the informal sector already.

Currently most people reaching Europe irregularly have few, if any, options for applying for visas prior to leaving their own country. If the substantially large sums of money they spend on irregular passage could be instead put towards formal entry into Europe this could surely be money better spent. If Europe had better developed migration systems this could set a positive precedent in nearby transit countries, such as Libya, that also lack migration programs and regulations.

Surely in the face of continued irregular migration, countless deaths and overwhelmed reception systems, at least one of the above-mentioned options be trialed to show some new thinking in the migration policy space.


Research projects with community groups

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I’ve posted this on Research Whisperer, a great site for researchers, about research partnerships with the community, take a look –  http://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/community/