Migration and Development. Interview with Alexander Betts

'Survival migration' is not trying to create new catgeory for its own sake so much as to draw attention to a group of people who have existing entitlements under international human rights law (even if they are not 'refugees') but whose rights are too frequently not recognised by states. The way forward is not to create new institutions but to make existing institutions work better to fill this gap.

In this interview, Alexander Betts (Oxford University) explains the concept of survival migrants, and how it differs from that of refugees and forced migrants. He describes how the debate on migration and development has evolved in the last decade and what governments, institutions and development cooperation need to do in order to strenghten the global governance of migration. Looking at the Euro-African relations, the migration agenda seems characterized by a divergence of needs and interests; however it is the presence rather than the absence of these diverging aspects, namely issues-linkages, that can explain cooperation between states, Dr. Betts points out.


Interview with Alexander Betts, Oxford University

Q.: Can you explain the concept of 'survival migration' and in what way it differs from that of forced migrants and refugees?

A: Formally, 'survival migration' can be defined as people who are outside their country of origin because of an existential threat to which they have no access to a domestic remedy or resolution. The concept of survival migration is intended to highlight people who have a human rights-based claim not to be returned to their country or origin, whether or not they fall within the international legal definition of a 'refugee'. It draws attention to the increasing numbers of people who flee the complex interaction of state fragility, environmental disaster and food insecurity, and yet fall outside the international refugee law framework developed in the 1950s. All refugees are, by definition, survival migrants but not all survival migrants are refugees in the sense that who is a 'refugee' has a very particular meaning in international law. Meanwhile, 'forced migration' is a broader category, implying people who are displaced not only across borders but also within their country of origin. 

Q.: People move for many different reasons and in the most diverse conditions. Don't you see the risk for this kind of conceptualization to hamper rather than facilitate the understanding of different statuses and conditions of migrants? How should one proceed to guarantee legal and political protection to this category of migrant?

A: Yes it's absolutely true that people cross borders for a range of reasons. However, it's important to have a non-arbitrary basis on which to ensure that those people with a human rights-based right to receive temporary or permanent sanctuary have access to that entitlement. 'Survival migration' is not trying to create new catgeory for its own sake so much as to draw attention to a group of people who have existing entitlements under international human rights law (even if they are not 'refugees') but whose rights are too frequently not recognized by states.

To me, the way forward is not to create new institutions but to make existing institutions work better to fill this gap. This has a normative aspect and an institutional aspect. First, on a normative level, the rights already exist under international human rights law. However, they are often poorly understood and weakly implemented by states. The precedent of how the international community addressed the emerging challenge of internally displaced persons is instructive in this regard. Rather than creating a new treaty, a 'soft law' framework called the 'Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement' consolidated existing international human rights law and international humanitarian law standards into a single, authoritative document. I would propose to do something similar to address survival migration. Second, in an institutional level, a better division of responsibility is required between international organizations to address the protection needs of survival migrants.

Q.: In your view is a global governance of migration possible? How multilateralism can be strengthened? Can the regional/interregional space be a viable alternative?

A: In reality, we already have global migration governance. It may be a different kind of global governance to the formal UN-based multilateralism of the post-Second World War era, but it exists. Today, global migration governance is a complex tapestry of bilateral, regional, inter-regional and networked structures, at a formal and informal level. At the multilateral level, migration governance is relatively thin. The refugee regime is the only area of migration with a formal, UN-based multilateral framework. Irregular migration and low-skilled labour migration is mainly governed by a series of regional and inter-regional structures; in particular through the emergence of so-called 'Regional Consultative Processes'. High-skilled labour migration is mainly governed at the bilateral level or through unilateral decisions by states to liberalize their visa structures.

There are three immediate priorities for strengthening multilateralism in this area. The first is to strengthen the oversight of existing norms. While there is very little multilateralism formally labelled 'migration', there are a lot of multilateral treaties that imply obligations for states in the area of migration. These are in areas such as International Human Rights Law, WTO Law, and International Maritime Law. Some people refer to the application of these areas to migration as 'International Migration Law'. At the moment, though, there is no international organization with clear responsibility for normatively overseeing International Migration Law. This is a particular problem in relation to the human rights of migrants. No organization, for example, has a clearly defined responsibility for the protection of migrants. Second, although labour migration is generally regulated through bilateralism and unilateralism, multilateralism can play an important 'facilitative' role in these areas.

The Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) is playing this role at the moment. Rather than seeking binding normative agreements, it offers a forum within which states can exchange information and ideas on best practice. Through these dialogues, bilateral agreements may begin to emerge that mutually benefit states and hopefully also create opportunities for migrants. This facilitative function of global migration governance has to take place on a multilateral level, and still needs to be strengthened. Third, greater coherence is urgently needed within migration governance. As the range of institutions has proliferated, it has created a range of pathologies and challenges, not least that states can engage in forum-shopping across multiple venues, and often bypass important normative standards of behaviour.

Even though it is unlikely we will see a fully integrated single UN-based framework in the area of migration, it is important to ensure that there is an overall and integrated vision that connects the different pieces of the puzzle, and that there is some multilateral coordination mechanism, capable of playing an effective role. At the moment, the Global Migration Group created to enable regular meetings between 18 international organizations with an interest in migration is not able to fulfil that function. The emerging regional and inter-regional structures hold much promise for allowing states to cooperate on migration in ways that address regionally-specific challenges. There is also a logic to having governance structures that relate to particular migration systems, which are often regional, inter-regional and trans-regional. However, at the moment, many of the RCPs and regional arrangements are overly focused on migration control and irregular migration. They need to develop a greater integration of normative standards ñ especially relating to the human rights of migrants.

Q.: Looking at the Euro-Africa relations, a divergence of needs and priorities emerges clearly. If brain drain is the major concern of the African countries, the European countries are investing energy and resources to reduce or prevent the arrival of low skill migrants (in spite of an ageing population and an increasing demand for low skill labour in Europe). How far are we from a shared perspective/vision on this matter? How can the EU and Africa agendas be reconciled?

A: Different African states and different European states have different concerns relating to migration, and their concerns cannot be generalized. For example, South Africa, Libya, Ghana, and Kenya all have radically different structural positions in the international politics of migration. Neverthless, in terms of the characterization of the overall 'migration and development' debate, one can discern a North-South impasse between an African concern to maximize the developmental benefits of migration (whether relating to brain drain, remittances or development assistance) and a European concern to securitize its external borders and improve its 'migration management'.

On a political level, this is the essence of the 'migration and development' debate an attempt to use issue-linkage to connect Northern concerns with security to Southern concerns with development, and to channel these into commitments in the area of international migration. Where EU-African cooperation takes place as in the pilots of the EU's Global Approach or in bilateral agreements it is usually explained by the presence of these kinds of issue-linkages, such that it is the presence rather than the absence of these diverging perspectives that tends to explain cooperation. However, the resulting cooperation may or may not be positive. If Europe gets an African country to accept readmission agreements in exchange for concessions on some additional access to its labour markets for skilled employees, for example, these will be 'win-win' for both states, but whether or not it is 'win-win' for all migrants, for example, for the human rights of those involved in the readmission process, may be open to question.

This dynamic underscores the need for i) better political facilitation to enable North-South cooperation on migration and development but also ii) the need to ensure that normative and human rights issues (drawn from International Migration Law) play a full part in those migration and development debates.

Q.: After a few years from the establishment of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, it seems that the migration and development nexus has lost some of the initial emphasis, both at policy and research level and in terms of resources allocation. What is your perception? Is the debate still alive? Do you see any interesting advancements in the policy process?

A: The migration and development debate needs to be seen in its political context. It originally emerged in the early 2000s in a European context in order to explore ways in which development could lead to a reduction in the need for onward migration. Academics, however, quickly pointed out the problem of the so-called 'migration hump', whereby increased development in the short-run actually increases people's ability and preference to migrate.

Hence from around 2005 the migration and development debate began to reinvent itself, with a broader focus on brain drain and remittances. However, the underlying political motives were similar to the initial debates: to find ways to use 'development' as a hook through which to facilitate improved South-North migration management. Migration and development is attractive because it promises pay-offs to both Northern and Southern states. For Northern states it promises security (through migration management); for Southern states it promises development (through development assistance, privileged labour market access, circular migration, and remittances). The logic of striving for bilateral cooperation across these areas has driven the migration and development debate. There is still a large amount of acedmic work that is looking at the empiricial relationship between aspects of migration and development, but there is now and increasing body of academic work that is more critical and often sceptical about the relationship between migration and development, and the way in which ideas and knowledge are being used to support particular sets of interests.

Because the GFMD is conceived as an informal and non-binding dialogue and because it takes place behind closed doors, it is very hard to identify developments in the policy process or to attribute new forms of international cooperation to the GFMD. However, inevitably, if a process is to build momentum it needs to move at some stage from being a open-ended dialogue to one that shows substantive progress. A core weakness of the GFMD is that each year it does not build on the previous year's discussions but begins again with a new set of topics, often proposed by the particular host. To become more meaningful it needs both a secretariat to work between forums, and the ability to pick up and return to previous years' themes.

The hope must be that with the second UN High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development scheduled for 2013, the minds of states, civil society, academics, and international organizations will be sufficiently focused to enable new ideas and vision to revitalize the debate.

Interview by Angela Zarro 


Related Publication by Alexander Betts: Policy Brief, Global Migration Governance - The Emergence of a New Debate, University of Oxford, November 2010. Click here to download. 



Alexander Betts, (Dr) is Hedley Bull Senior Research Fellow in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he is also Director of the Global Migration Governance Project. His research focuses on the international politics of migration, and his recent books include Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime (Cornell University Press 2009), Refugees in International Relations (Oxford University Press 2010), and Global Migration Governance (Oxford University Press 2011). His current book project is entitled Survival Migration: Old Institutions and New Challenges, and is based on extensive fieldwork in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has also been an advisor or consultant for UNHCR, IOM, the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and a number of governments and NGOs. His research has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust and the Economic and Social Reearch Council. He is currently teaching and researching at Stanford University.


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