Why The Debate Over Europe's Migration Crisis Is Full Of Myths

An interview with migration expert Hein de Haas.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Hein de Haas, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam and former co-director of the International Migration Institute.

European nations' struggle to cope with an influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees in recent years has exacerbated a growing humanitarian crisis in the region.

The number of people seeking a better life in Europe currently shows no signs of decline. Countries including Germany and France have signaled the need to create a cohesive common policy that could address this migration, but EU leaders have so far rejected plans like spreading asylum claims throughout the union.

Hein de Haas, a professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam and former co-director of Oxford's International Migration Institute, believes that this debate over migration is lacking a number of key facts. The WorldPost spoke with De Haas to discuss some of the myths surrounding policy making and migration.

You wrote in a blog post that “much conventional thinking about migration is based on myths rather than facts.” Could you clarify that idea?

A lot of policy making around migration is based on politics rather than a real understanding of migration. The primary aim of a lot of politicians when talking about migration is to give the public the impression that they’re going tough on migration, but reactions like building a fence, deporting migrants or increasing border controls are not really based on real insight of what drives migration and are therefore ineffective.

A lot of politics is relatively fact-free in this arena, and we need to much better understand what drives migration before we can form the right policies.

We should acknowledge that to a certain extent migration is inevitable, and that saying that is not a judgment on whether migration is something good or bad, it’s just a statement of fact.

Are you referring to people who are migrating because of economic reasons, or does that also include forced migration and people who would be classified as refugees?

The vast majority of migration is still economic migration and family migration. What we’ve seen in Europe right now -- where the issue of refugees has come to the fore -- that’s still a minority of migrants coming to Europe.

The main drivers of migration are clearly economic and social, and there I think there’s a failure to understand how migration works.

To give you one example, there’s the myth that in order to prevent irregular border crossings we should combat smuggling. It’s based on a failure to understand that the smuggling is a reaction to the border controls, and that where there is a systemic demand for labor migration or conflict in origin countries, it means that some level of migration is inevitable.

In terms of this latest period of European migration in the last few years, is there a certain type of language we should be using to describe it? It's been termed both a "refugee crisis" and a "period of forced migration."

As a matter of framing, the real crisis is not about migration or refugees. The real crisis in Europe is the incompetence of Europe to come to a common response.

With more than half a billion inhabitants, the European Union has the resources to cope with this, and can make sure that people arriving at the European border get access to asylum procedures.

These are big numbers if you are reading about a small island like Kos with tens of thousands of people arriving, but not on a European scale. And not if Europe would get its act together and show real solidarity -- not just between member states, but also towards the people arriving.

The big increase we’ve seen in irregular migration is clearly people fleeing conflict, with a large percentage of them Syrian. We have asylum procedures in place, we have an international legal framework in place for that. The real crisis is European impotence to respond, and it would be outrageous if Europe can’t cope with that when the vast majority of refugees are in much poorer countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

How is this migration into the EU affecting European economies?

As far as the impact of migration, there is a lot of research on that, and it shows that migration increases GDP because migrants add to the workforce. There’s very little real evidence to support the claim that migration is crowding out labor or bringing down wages.

However, various studies have shown that the effect on migration on GDP per capita and growth is very small and it is, apart from the migrants themselves, primarily businesses and the higher income earners that benefit from migration. In public debates, the negative or positive effects of migration are generally exaggerated by adversaries or proponents of migration. Migration is primarily driven by economic processes, but it’s not a big economic game-changer.

It would be outrageous to suggest that migration is either the cause of structural unemployment, which is one example, or the precariousness of labor. Or, on the other hand, to propose that migration is a panacea for structural problems like aging.

What is missing from media coverage and representations of migration?

What is really missing is an understanding of how the way we have reshaped societies and economies over the last decades has also changed the structure of labor demand and migration.

There is a huge incompatibility between economic policies that have very much trended towards liberalization, increasing economic openness and deregulation of labor markets on one hand and on the other hand an increasing call for less migration.

If you create societies that are wealthy, open and de-regularized, then you also create much more demand for migrant labor. These societies inevitably attract migration, and if you close the door, we know what you get -- you get more smuggling and more irregular migration because there are no legal channels to match the labor demand.

So I think that’s the biggest trouble and biggest lack of understanding. There is a sort of progress in people’s understanding of migration though. For instance, people increasingly realize that 25 years of fortress Europe have completely failed. People are arriving anyway, and the main result has been an increase of smuggling, suffering of migrants and the number of recorded border deaths.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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