How should the international community respond to migration and refugees?

In our previous blog, we looked at some of the key facts about international migration and identified a few areas that, from an economist’s perspective, need attention. However, the question still stands: how should the international community respond to migration and refugees?

There are no perfect or easy answers to the challenges related to migration and refugees (see Sachs, 2016); responses must vary depending on circumstances. When the causes are structural, long-term development is called for. In acute crises, other initiatives — often of a more political and military nature — are needed. This is often easier said than done and requires political will. 

Responses to the root causes of forced migration must differ for different groups of people — even in conflict situations. This point has been emphasized repeatedly in UNU-WIDER research — such as the ReCom Governance and Fragility position paper and the PDIA project. Take, for example, disadvantaged minorities versus dominant groups, young working-age people versus older folk or children. Policy recommendations and responses must vary to address the issues most relevant to the groups most likely to migrate. 

It is important to keep in mind that a one-size-fits-all response to development work is, in general, unlikely to be successful. This applies, in particular, for development in fragile states and conflict situations. 

What is the role of development aid in addressing these crises?

Angenendt et al. (2016) point out three concerns when formulating responses:

First, it is problematic if development funds are not primarily used in compliance with their actual purpose (to achieve sustainable improvement of the living conditions in recipient countries), but are used to try and prevent undesired migration to donor states. It is very unlikely that aid geared in this way will achieve its goal (i.e. payments to governments to try and stop their nationals moving, as such controls are often easily circumvented). It would be better to focus aid on achieving inclusive growth (and therefore higher living standard at home) and help war-to-peace transition. 

Second, a focus on addressing root causes of displacement may raise unrealistic expectations about what development cooperation can actually achieve in situations of mass displacement (funds will be just too small to have major impact).

Third, a debate that focuses solely on tackling the structural root causes of displacement — important as that is — may distract attention from the need to reform European/global asylum policy and to achieve greater responsibility sharing at European level.

The call to tackle the structural causes of displacement is helpful insofar as it contributes to the provision of more financial resources for development-oriented projects in countries of origin or host countries. There is the risk, however, that successful structural programmes, aiming at long-term effects, are replaced by short-term projects to prevent acute refugee movements. 

It is thus clear that development cooperation can only make a partial contribution to tackling the root causes of displacement in the case of the violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, or the African Great Lakes region. In these cases, involvement of other policy areas — such as foreign policy, security policy, trade policy, economic policy — is primarily called for. Only if these policy areas get productively involved can the factors driving displacement and war economies be overcome.

Lack of international norms and standards making acute crises worse 

The present refugee crisis has, as highlighted by Sachs (2016), exposed the lack of international global norms and standards regarding burden-sharing and the access of migrants to social services, work permits, family unification, as well as other important issues. 

This lack of international policy cohesion seems to us to be one of the most important areas where more could be done. It is therefore important that the UN General Assembly will host a high-level meeting on 19 September 2016 ‘to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach’. This follows the January 2016 appointment by the UN Secretary-General of Special Adviser, Karen AbuZayd, to work with United Nations entities and undertake consultations with Member States and other relevant stakeholders in the lead up to the Summit (more information available here). 

Work at all levels is underway and, with its mandate to undertake research and policy analysis related to the living conditions of the world’s poor, UNU-WIDER continues to take part in this vital discussion.

UNU-WIDER’s ‘Responding to Crises’ conference, held on 23-24 September in Helsinki, will improve knowledge about continuing, unexpected, and future crises. It will also serve as a forum to discuss the options available for governments, international agencies, NGOs, civil society and private citizens to respond.