Populism Won’t Solve the Migration Crisis


As Europe comes to grips with the horror of the Paris attacks, one group, more than any other, is exposed the brunt of the continent’s anguish – the refugees gathering precariously on its doorstep. With rumours swirling that one of the Paris attackers might have posed as a refugee, there is renewed furore over migration policy, particularly here in Britain. But Dr Vicki Squire and Maurice Wren, in a briefing to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Migration Crisis earlier this month, beseech MPs to focus instead on the complexities underlying the nature of migration.

Perhaps the most powerful message from the panel was the need to look past simplifications in our understanding about refugees and migrants, even in the face of so much grief. In particular, to resist the tendency to group all refugees into a single, monolithic bloc.

Not all of the migrants on Europe’s doorstep are coming from the conflict zones of Iraq and Syria – indeed, many come from places much closer to home, such as Albania or Kosovo, or even Iran. Not all are driven to migrate by war, either; Dr Squire points out that viewing the ‘crisis’ solely as a recent phenomenon ignores the longer-standing history of precarious migration to the EU, and the diversity of migratory experiences – both before and after they come ashore.

The level of resources available to support migrants, and indeed, the attitudes of their local police and immigration taskforces, vary considerably, and will impact on migrants’ health and wellbeing. If European countries are to avoid being overwhelmed, they would do well to identify specific areas of support, and direct resources to those with the most urgent need.

The other dangerous simplification is the idea that legal migratory routes act as ‘pull factors’ for would-be refugees. Both panellists left no doubt that this was very much overstated. On the contrary, they argued, the decision-making calculus of migrants is a fluid and fragmented process. Journeys are not usually premeditated; many refugees undertake the journey in ad-hoc scenarios, and the disparate routes and multiple migrations undertaken appear to illustrate this.

It is difficult to imagine many of the policy solutions raised during the session – including the idea of expanding family reunification visa applications (visa approvals have fallen to about 40% of applications since March), and creating a new asylum visa, to facilitate more legal travel routes – being adopted in the current political climate here in the UK. The Government’s commitment to take 20,000 refugees over the coming five years, while simultaneously moving to strengthen our borders, represents a clear effort to convince the public we have a measured migration policy, on our own terms.

On the continent, citizens are reaching above and around their governments to assist refugees with their own resources. For their part, refugees have begun to use social media to figure out safe overland routes and overcome language barriers, and avoid having to rely on people smugglers. The ingenuity, and cost-effectiveness, of some of these solutions bears important lessons for policy-makers – and showcases the possibilities of social media as a responsive and adaptable platform to crowd-source and deliver social services.

How viable such methods will be in the longer term (and on what scale) remains to be seen, but one thing is apparent: the far-right is not the only faction waiting to capitalise on the migration crisis for their political gain. ISIS is watching as well, and they too are keen on fermenting conflict between anxious Europeans and the migrants aspiring to live alongside them. In a recent issue of its publication, Dabiq, ISIS revealed its intention to destroy the ‘grayzone’ – essentially, to provoke Western governments into adopting draconian security and refugee policies that will undoubtedly drive more Muslims from Europe into its radical fold.

There may not yet be a right or clear answer to the dilemmas posed by the migration crisis to the EU as a whole or its individual member states. But the surest way to make a mistake would be to craft policy based on populist or poisonous narratives – whether peddled by far-right hardliners or the religious extremists of ISIS. Both groups seek to divide, when it has never been more evident that peace, stability and prosperity will only come through working together.