No.37-January 2016

by Nicholas Micinski and Thomas G. Weiss

The European Migrant Crisis: can development agencies do better?  


The unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants to Europe has increased the visibility of the long-standing nexus of migration, development, and security. The emphasis on terrorism and national security is understandable but myopic if the essential benefits of migration and development are to be realized. The UN will host three key meetings on migration in 2016, an opportunity to rethink how development agencies can contribute.

Over the last 15 years, the UN and the EU have spearheaded new practices that link development and migration. Preoccupations with national security and terrorism—including the threat to the 20-year-old Schengen area—should be tempered in order not to forfeit the crucial benefits of migration and development.

Migration and development projects can have a crucial impact if insulated from an obsession with national security. The migration and development (M&D) nexus emphasizes the potentially reinforcing connections among root causes, remittances, state capacity, and migration. These synergies may be compromised, however, if the EU—or the UN or NGOs—make development assistance conditional on securing external borders to the detriment of wider objectives.

More than half of those arriving in Europe in 2015-2016 are fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. These are refugees fleeing war, not economic migrants fleeing poverty. They are a security and political not development concern. Development cannot end civil wars and eradicate terrorism, but some initiatives have been proposed to provide vulnerable people with alternative livelihoods in neighboring host countries.

To be clear, there are economic migrants who have traveled the same routes to Europe for decades and are intermixed with current refugees. In certain circumstances, development assistance can help reduce poverty and create economic opportunities that address the root causes of migration while facilitating greater growth. Yet much of the recent financing is designed to secure borders and fund larger and more militarized forces. A different approach is urgently needed.

In 2004, the European Commission created the Aeneas Programme to facilitate cooperation on migration, particularly the deportation of irregular migrants. Along with other migration and development programs, this effort conditioned funding on the support of EU migration control. Economic incentives were visible, but they also reaffirmed that irregular migrants were deportable when European governments found it politically advantageous. From 2005 to 2015, high-level dialogue among EU member states and partners continued, sweetened with more resources and driven by the arrival of some 1 million refugees.

In 2015, the SDGs recognized the role of migrants in four of the 17 goals, particularly in labor rights (Goal 8) and inequality (Goal 10). In addition, the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda acknowledged the “multidimensional reality” of migration, while focusing on combatting human trafficking and reducing transfer costs of remittances.

This rhetorical base is an important step, but greater integration is required across all UN organizations active in this arena.

The M&D nexus still is rife with contradictions. Funding and projects have increased in the last 15 years and are likely to continue, and so it is worth probing further the underlying assumptions about merging migration and development.

Three Debatable Assumptions
Originally conceptualized to convey the multiple links between migration and development, the framework has led to questionable logic behind funding. Actors have used the M&D nexus based on three different and sometimes contradictory assumptions:

1. Development aid addresses the root causes of migration by reducing poverty in migrant-sending countries.
2. Migrants are a key development tool because of remittances.
3. Irregular migration stems from the lack of state capacity and border controls in transit countries.

EU migration policy was securitized because migrants were seen as a threat to the welfare state and as potential terrorists. As lower internal frontiers created a common market, the EU securitized borders to limit access to its area of free movement.

The EU began to implement its external migration policy by subcontracting to neighboring states the task of preventing irregular crossings and readmitting deported migrants. The EU focused on building the capacity of states like Morocco and Ukraine with border fences, detection of migrants at the frontier, detention facilities, and biometric databases of repatriated migrants. The development of state capacity, not the economy, is the motivation behind increasing the state’s ability to control and suppress migration.

The logic of reducing root causes and embracing the benefits of migration contrasts sharply with the third assumption of the M&D nexus. Indeed, it abandons the hope of genuine development in favor of more authoritarian state control.

Given the domestic politics in most host countries, especially in the West, the continued emphasis on national security in debates about migration and development is likely. Nonetheless, development assistance should reflect clear assumptions about its relationship to economic development and migration.

The UN, EU, and NGOs should reflect on the following:
1. Recognize that development in lower-income countries leads to increased emigration
2. Embrace circular migration policies and the economic drivers of diasporas
3. Integrate refugees into labor markets with the right to work in special economic zones in neighboring countries
4. Decouple security agreements from development funding
5. Reinforce the human rights infrastructure for migrants


This briefing calls for rethinking the migration and development nexus. Rather than being a clear-cut economic trade-off, it fuses three assumptions that do not necessarily reinforce one another: that M&D addresses the economic root causes of migration; that it fosters development by increasing remittances; and that it develops state capacity to manage and prevent irregular migration.

The M&D nexus has been used mainly to justify building higher barriers and cordoning off borders. Instead, the EU and other development actors should reframe migrants as new constituents and ask, “In what ways can ODA be used to support the livelihoods of vulnerable migrants? How can development facilitate productive circular migration? In what ways can aid prioritize the human rights of migrants in transit?”

Linking M&D assistance to security compromises the potential contributions from large diasporas and the potential for return migration. Future development funding should work to harness the power of migration, not resist it.

2016 is a propitious year for rethinking UN approaches to migration and development with the election of Filippo Grandi as the new UN high commissioner for refugees and three UN meetings on migration. Ban Ki-moon will host the Syria Donors Conference in February; UNHCR will host a conference on resettlement of Syrian refugees in March; and OCHA will host the World Humanitarian Summit in May. They provide the opportunity to reinvent UN action by focusing on the economic benefits of migrants and delinking programs from security. In addition, Grandi’s decades of experience with forced migrants from several wars—ranging from Syria to Lebanon, from Iraq to Afghanistan—provide the UN system with a new voice for a conversation about how best to reimagine the sequencing and priorities from UN organizations across the development and humanitarian spectrum.

Download the full briefing paper 'The European Migration Crisis: can development agencies do better?' in pdf.

Nicholas Micinski is Research and Editorial Associate at the FUNDS Project at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and a PhD student in Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center. Previously, he worked in the NGO sector in London for five years on refugee and social enterprise issues.
Thomas G. Weiss, is Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center; he also is Co-director of the FUNDS Project and of the Wartime History and the Future UN Project. Past President of the International Studies Association (2009-10) and chair of the Academic Council on the UN System (2006-9), his most recent single-authored books include Governing the World? Addressing “Problems without Passports” (2014); Global Governance: Why? What? Whither? (2013); Humanitarian Business (2013); What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (2012); and Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action (2012).

Thumbnail photo on homepage: A volunteer life-guard helps a young girl after the boat she used along with other Afghan refugees to cross part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek Island of Lesbos crashed on a rock. Photographer: Achilleas Zavallis  ©UNHCR

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