In the framework of the #whatishome campaign we conducted a phone interview with Ninna Nyberg Sørensen. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology and is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. She has worked on transnational migration issues for most of her career and published widely on migration, development, conflict and gender, for example Work and Migration (London 2002), The Migration-Development Nexus (Geneva 2003), Living Across Worlds (Geneva 2007) and The Migration Industry and the Commercialization of International Migration (London 2013). Her recent work explores undocumented migration of Central Americans and Dominicans, including the effects of deportation on local communities. She is also involved in policy analysis of the European ‘migration crisis’.

Esther Bohé: How do you define forced migration? Where do you draw the line between migrants and forced migrants?

Ninna Nyberg Sørensen: From a sociological point of view we cannot make a clear distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration, as little as it is possible to distinguish clearly between economic, social and political determinants. In more practical terms, I find forced migration to be when people flee war and political persecution but also when people flee societal conditions characterised by high levels of generalised insecurity. The work I have done on Central American youth migration, fleeing violent gang criminality would qualify here. And also work I have done previously on women fleeing violent family relationships or violent gender cultures from countries where the state cannot guarantee their protection. So as a researcher I would use a broader definition than UNHCR uses of forced migrants.

What are the main reasons compelling people to flee?

Very insecure lives – insecurity is a main driver but also state corruption, especially corruption at the judicial and police level and high levels of impunity.

Poverty is a main driver as well of course but not just poverty as such but more a generalised lack of future prospects.

And having the means to realise a life as an adult: I believe that much of the migration that we see of young men from West Africa – it is due to poverty but it is also due to a lack of belief that the situation will change within the period of time between their teenage years and adulthood. If you do not have the money to establish a family you cannot realise your potential as an adult.

So I guess there are many reasons that compel people to flee but insecurity is the main one.

What actions can help mitigate forced migration?

World peace I would say, like any beauty queen… but really a less unequal world. I mean this has to do with global inequality, so in terms of actions that are needed: very long-term commitments and integrated approaches targeting not only stabilisation, reconciliation, peace-keeping after wars but also development. Development being understood broadly as more than economic development – human development, a development approach that offers opportunities of personal progress: access to education, justice, democratic structures, jobs, security, and so on. But first and foremost a long-term committed integrated development approach would help mitigate forced migration.

Does it make sense to distinguish between refugees and forced migrants? What are the implications of such a distinction – from a human and a policy perspective?

My personal point of view would be research-based. I understand the need for the distinction among states to be able to determine who to grant refugee status. So yes, some kind of distinction is needed but that distinction needs to be dynamic because human needs and conditions change over time. So perhaps a definition stemming from the Second World War does not best suit the current situation.

On the other hand, I am very aware that beginning to even open up the discussion for a redefinition could easily lead to an even more vague definition so I do not necessarily recommend doing that. But the distinction between voluntary and forced migrants or refugees and forced migrants tells us more about a given migration governance system at a given time than about the specific qualities or motivation of any migrating or mobile person.

On EU policy and effects on migration

How has recent EU migration policy and the EU’s agreements with third countries affected the security of people fleeing conflict?

I think there is absolutely no doubt – and both research and critical newspaper articles have definitely shown a very negative effect: first of all in directing migration flows to longer and more dangerous terrains, co-producing the need for human smugglers. Human smuggling is not just demand-driven; it is also produced by politics. So obviously all these policies and agreements have affected human security negatively.

But it has also criminalised the mobility of people with well-founded asylum claims, which I find preoccupying. It has also negatively affected the perception of asylum-seekers and refugees among the ordinary populations in Europe, North America and Australia. And all these negative effects are perhaps as much a consequence of national migration legislation as of EU policies.

What are short- and long-term consequences of EU cooperation with third countries on migration management and border control?

The short-term consequences are probably a reduction in the number of refugees and irregular economic migrants entering European territory – we can already see that effect. So if that is the purpose it is successful but I do not think that many policy makers have taken the long-term consequences seriously into consideration. For instance the risk of undermining international UN conventions on refugees and human rights but also – and I have written about that with some colleagues – I see a serious consequence in a possible shift in the geo-political balance between countries. When we trust third country states with externalised European border control it also means providing these countries with an effective bargain tool – so they can say “If you interfere with our affairs we can open the gate for refugees or if you criticise our human right or democratic standards we can open the gates…” So I am not convinced that politicians have taken these larger consequences into consideration. It seems that these deals are serving a short-term purpose of showing the European population and the individual member states’ populations that yes, we are doing something and it is effective but what about the long-term consequences? Have they really been considered? I would say they have not.

You wrote about how increased border control has created considerable unintended human security consequences for people on the move. Could you elaborate on that?

Most migration control instruments are made with reference to our security, in this instance of European citizens, but looking upon the death toll, who is dying because of this – is it the European citizens that are threatened or is it rather the migrants. And when you then look upon the death tolls it seems that migrants and refugees have caused only very few casualties among European citizens, whereas the numbers dying on the various routes have escalated as a consequence of stricter barriers and as a consequence of illegalising rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

In your opinion, what kind of relationship exists between migration and development?

The link to me is that human mobility is and always has been an intrinsic part of development and it continues to be. But when talking about a particular kind of relationship between migration and development – that is a complex one. It is not just a lack of development that produces migration. It is rather decades of unfulfilled promises on development that are the main driver of human mobility. You could say that the international development community promised for more than 50 years that development is on its way but it did not come. Yes, development came perhaps, but it did not erode inequality. Instead inequality became perhaps more severe.

On the other hand, immobility also seems to be very detrimental to human and economic development. The Economist printed some very good articles recently on governments needing to find better ways to manage migration and on ways forward. The first highlighted stricter migration policies are detrimental to development in our parts of the world. So there is also literature there. There is also critical migration literature showing that yes, migrants contribute to development when allowed to do so. This needs to be facilitated by supportive policies in both countries of origin and of destination. However, migration and in that respect particularly migrant remittances, can never be a substitute for sound development policies.

In what direction do you think EU development policy should be going, where could it improve and how?

I think that development policies could improve in the current situation by being less connected to a form of conditionality linking it to migration control. I think that is a very dangerous mix; so, development for development’s sake and not for migration reduction purposes.

In one of your articles you mention the “contradictions between making migration work for development and using development policy to avoid unwanted migration.” Could you explain that further?

To make migration work for development means opening up legal ways of migration, on one hand, and developing supportive policy structures for both financial and human capital regulation on the other. So to use development for migration control purposes – that usually means to condition development cooperation – and we know from many studies looking at the efficiency of international development cooperation, also in other areas than migration, that conditionality is not the best way.

With this statement I also wish to draw attention to the inconsistencies between a discursive policy level, talking very positively about a migration development relationship versus some countries’ political practices that are somehow different. I mean the migration development policy discourse – also within the EU policy documents – has been quite supportive, quite progressive, mentioning that continued human mobility is necessary for this to work. But at the same time, the concrete political practices have not always been supportive of that broader goal.

The EU is increasingly using development cooperation instruments to tackle ‘root causes of irregular migration’. What is your opinion about such a strategy?

If tackling the root causes of irregular migration means to work towards less poverty, towards better conditions in the Global South – that is good but it is not enough. I think there is too little understanding of how long a transition period lasts, what should be expected. There is the promise to the electorate that yes, we give development aid and have development cooperation with certain migration producing countries so the flows will stop. This is very old research that is talking about the migration hump and more economic studies showing that the first thing to expect when any country gets better development standards is that migration would actually rise. But most of those studies were actually made in a period of time where human mobility was less restricted than it is now.

So actually I think that we know too little about the long-term consequences of using development cooperation as an instrument to tackle root causes under the current global migration control regime. I think there is a need for more research on that, but based on the research we have, I think tackling the root causes of irregular migration requires much more than development cooperation. It requires foreign policy, security policy, trade policy, I mean integrated approaches. This cannot be solved by giving more development aid alone.

What is the role of social and economic remittances in promoting development in countries of origin? Are remittances likely to reduce migration in the long-term?

Remittances can be used to finance the migration of other family members but it really depends on the specific migration control regime in place whether remittances are likely to either reduce or enlarge migration.

We have done a couple of studies on who are the migrants that are likely to return, especially to post-conflict countries, and we have found that those who do return to their countries of origin are those who have acquired citizenship status in their host country. So I think that remittances are a fantastic tool to maintain circular migration patterns but for circular migration patterns to work you need some legal migration channels (towards citizenship acquisition) and the problem is that we do not always have those.

That being said, most research finds a positive direct effect of remittances on improved living standards of the families but many also point to increased inequality on the basis of those who have or have not gained access to remittances. So again, if somebody sees that his neighbour who has a migrant in his family is getting a nicer house he might also consider migrating to achieve the same improvements in his life as his neighbour. We have also found that connection in various studies.

However, what we have found most interesting is that collective remittances (remittances that are being sent by migrant associations, diaspora organisations, etc.) are often smaller in amount than those sent to families, but may have a much larger impact on development and migration patterns. But they also need to be distributed and invested in democratic ways and then supported by progressive local or state policies.

And those remittances may also be more likely to reduce migration in the long term because those migrants who are established in Europe, for instance, are the first to know how much more difficult it is to establish oneself as a migrant. Which has become even harder. So working with these groups in the channelling of development and humanitarian assistance sometimes may be a very effective way to establish a link between remittances and the likelihood of reducing migration movements.

Where does the narrative of “migrants as engines of development” come from? What are the risks of such an approach?

The early approach among policy makers using that kind of language came from World Bank reports and statistics on international remittance levels. There is no doubt that many migrants are economic migrants. I used to say that an economic migrant is someone who got tired of waiting for development wherever he or she was born and went elsewhere to find it. Then I became aware of transnational, diasporic relations sustained between migrant communities abroad and communities at home. Many migrants actually left in order to be able to develop themselves and their families. They did not leave with the wish to establish themselves for good abroad, but restrictive migration regimes, of course, intermingle here. This is easy to see with the Turkish, Yugoslav, Moroccan workers who came to Europe before the oil crisis – they did not bring their families; they travelled back and forth and only after the migration ban was imposed in many countries did they started to settle and try to unite with  their families. So I don’t think that migrants are an engine of development as much as human mobility is a process, which is a necessary condition for development.

Looking ahead

What are your key recommendations for EU policies on migration and development?

I am not a politician and when I occasionally give recommendations I do it based on evidence-based research. But maybe the most important issue we have talked about is the long-term perspective. Any form of development cooperation needs long-term commitment in terms of cooperation agreements.

Another recommendation would be to provide access to legal labour migration and safe ways for people to apply for asylum. Sometimes I find the EU to be a more progressive player than many of the individual Member States.

Based on my work on the migration industry, I can definitely say that the EU should be much more aware of the potential unintended consequences of current border and migration control initiatives – both in terms of sustaining and nurturing various parts of the migration industry. Not only thinking of the obvious human smuggling industry, but also the private security industry that is increasingly taking over our border control functions. What are the long-term consequences of outsourcing traditional state functions to private actors? That is a really important consideration.

And then also thinking of the EU-Turkey Agreement, maybe the EU should consider how much political leverage it is willing to give up in return for externalised border control. Looking at the criticism of this agreement, it has been criticised for legitimising an increasingly authoritarian regime and now it is not just Turkey but also Libya and other countries – many with whom we usually say we have very little in common. I think considerations on political leverage are thus very important.

Interview conducted by Esther Bohé, Policy and Campaign Officer, Caritas Europa