Interview on migration policy

“People want to see that leaders have things under control.”

The EU wants to do more to curb irregular migration and is tightening asylum laws. Bram Frouws, director of our partner Mixed Migration Centre, explains why it would be wrong to focus on more deterrence in migration policy.

Julia Rommel
IMAGO/Le Pictorium; IMAGO/NurPhoto
December 20, 2023
Reading time
7 Min.

The total numbers of migrants have stayed quite stable; around 3 percent of the global population are migrants. Why is sentiment growing in some European countries that we cannot handle any more migrants?

There are definitely challenges in terms of reception capacity, of course, concerning the availability of housing or employment. And certainly, there are countries like Germany that have previously taken in very high numbers of refugees – in 2015/16 – and now again with the Ukrainians. In general, asylum applications all over Europe have been increasing quite rapidly over the past year. So, reception is certainly operating at full capacity.

I think it is a matter of political will, of where you direct your resources. You could decide to invest more in reception capacity. It is important that governments signal to their populations that they are in control, even if there are challenges, even if numbers are quite high. People don't like the idea that things are out of control. They want to see that leaders have things under control. 

We spoke to

Bram Frouws

Director of the Mixed Migration Center - a research centre providing high quality data, research, analysis and expertise on migration.

What do you think of the current reform of the EU asylum law?

There was a clear need for a reform and overhaul of the system. So it’s good countries agreed to develop a new Migration and Asylum Pact. But there are a lot of concerns and it’s unlikely it will really solve some of the key problems. Pushbacks are likely to continue, the use of immigration detention will increase, externalisation policies are likely to continue, it might undermine people’s right to seek asylum. But with European Elections coming up next year, if this Pact is still not addressing the real issues, that’s only going to be playing into the hands of the more anti-migration political parties that might gain more seats in the EU Parliament. 

How has the migration debate changed over the past years?

One strong positive development is the increasing role of cities, also in the global migration governance discussions. Cities deal with the day-to-day reality of hosting migrants and refugees. Cities offer a positive and quite pragmatic view on what's needed to address migration challenges. With support by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and others, cities have also raised their voices within the global migration governance discussions. That's been a very positive development. Another is the Global Compact for Migration. The fact that such a large majority of states in the world managed to negotiate this comprehensive and progressive document is a very positive step. Here we see an upward trajectory.
At the same time, we are seeing things that were unimaginable a couple of years ago – like states trying to stop migration by all possible means. Ten years ago, there was a huge boat disaster where more than 300 people died off the coast of Lampedusa and everyone was saying, “Never again.” But now it’s happening again and again. So many migrants continue to lose their lives on journeys across the Mediterranean or globally on other migration routes.  

There are border guards in Saudi Arabia deliberately killing Ethiopian migrants with snipers and artillery shelling. We’ve never seen something so extreme. Overall, my assessment would be that the situation is taking a turn for the worse, even though it’s important to remain positive.

Concrete fence and watchtower

Greece extends its borders with Turkey with a concrete fence and police patrols.

The EU has focused on combating so-called root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa. How effective has this been?

Not very effective. Out of the 5 billion euros of this EU trust, 2.2 billion went to Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. If you look at how this money was divided among the different strategic objectives, the largest share went to security and governance. Since then, these three countries have experienced at least one military coup. And even more striking: The funding was meant to address the root causes of forced displacement and irregular migration. But if you look at the number of people forcibly displaced in those countries before these investments, there were 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the Sahel. Now there are 1.5 million. Before they started, there were 50,000 internally displaced persons. Now there are 3.2 million. So, the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees have massively increased despite the 2.2 billion euros put into addressing the root causes of displacement. 

Mixed Migration Centre

Mixed Migration Review 2023

The Mixed Migration Centre publishes an annual report on mixed migration movements with a changing thematic focus. Based on a selection of data from the approximately 10,000 interviews conducted annually with refugees and migrants around the world, the report contributes to a more nuanced understanding and critical analysis of the issue.

Mixed Migration Review 2023

What do examples of good migration management look like?

What we need is a much more comprehensive approach that combines different policy areas like subsidies for agriculture, trade policies, visa policies, migration policies, and return policies. We need to set up more innovative and larger-scale programs for labor migration, including circular or temporary labor migration to create safe and legal migration channels for a significant number of people. 

The United States is doing something interesting. It is trying to offer access to legal pathways into the country by setting up safe mobility offices, starting in Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica. People can go there to be assigned one of four different regular migration channels into the US, which could be temporary labor, refugee resettlement, humanitarian parole or family reunification. The idea is that people can go there and don't need to embark on the long, dangerous journey overland and then arrive unexpected at the southern border of the US. There will probably be a number of flaws with this new system, and the implications of these safe mobility offices for the right to seek asylum at the border will have to be carefully monitored. Nevertheless, it is an interesting trial. Maybe this is something that we should set up in Europe as well. 

And upscaling of resettlement would help. I'm not saying that Europe should take in all the refugees in the world, but numbers can be increased quite substantially. Upscaling of asylum reception and asylum processing capacity at Europe’s external borders is possible with the right investments. If we channel just a bit of the money Europe puts into deterrence and curbing migration to a fair and fast asylum processing at Europe’s external borders, ideally with a fair and equal system of relocating accepted asylum seekers across the entire European Union, it will make a big difference. 

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What role does the return of asylum seekers play in this process?

This is one elephant in the room. Good migration governance can only work if it is accompanied by a fair, but also fast and dignified system for returning of people who have no right to stay. And the fact that this system of returns is simply not working also limits progress for better migration governance. Less than one third of people who receive a negative decision actually go back to their home countries. Most stay in Europe. There is a lack of cooperation with countries of origin on the issue of returns and a lack of legal channels offered by destination countries. 

For example, the Netherlands: There is quite a large number of people from Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia in asylum reception centers with a very high likelihood of receiving a negative decision. But even then, they stay there because there is no possibility to return them to their origin country. This limits space for other refugees. It is also undermining the public perception of asylum and migration management. This needs to be organized much better on a European level. There are many different aspects that must be taken together for better migration governance. As long as people are bent on deterrence and stopping migration by all possible means and as far away from Europe as possible, we will not succeed.

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