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Why ‘Fortress Europe’ does not work: Challenging the European migration policy from the migrants’ perspective

Although European border fences are getting higher and higher, they are still not leak-tight. Fortress Europe is clearly in the making but will hopefully never be finalized. Fences, be they material fences or fences made by laws, are highly anachronistic in a globalizing world, with global markets, global capital flows, global communication and global elites. The humanitarian refugee crisis has a lot to do with the effects of globalization – it is part of it and it is therefore very unlikely that any border-fence will stop people migrating from the Global South to the Global North.

However, this does not mean that the world is helpless, overwhelmed and paralyzed by the current crisis. On the contrary, we face a historical challenge that demands joint efforts on the international, regional, European, national, and sub-national level. Problems need to be addressed simultaneously from many different angles and by a multitude of actors. Governments and institutions cannot do it alone, society is just as important including the migrants. Innovative ideas are needed because there is no precedence we could learn from, and courage is needed because the future is uncertain and a lot of things perceived as ‘normal’ will most probably change. To identify adequate strategies and instruments, it is a prerequisite to first of all understand what’s going on. To do so, I plea for a drastic change of perspective.

Overcoming State- and Euro-centrism

Borders are not only contested by migrants trying to cross them but also by academics who question the significance of borders in line with a general critique of state-centrism in International Relations. State-centric perspectives confine our cognitive horizon because they neglect the agency of non-governmental actors and the complex structures that determine their logics of action. To fully understand the dynamics of migration it is therefore of utmost importance to adopt a much wider analytical perspective. Despite all the obvious problems immigration currently creates in receiving countries, Europe should not be the starting point of a thorough analysis. Instead, the focus should be placed on migrants themselves, especially the political, socio-economic and ideational factors that determine their logics of action.

Many of the factors that determine people’s decision to migrate transcend national borders, such as highly asymmetrical transnational trade-regimes, dubious transnational security regimes framed as war on terror, or the transnational human trafficking industry, to give only a few examples. Family ties may be transnational, even personal identity can be transnational, through bi-nationality or by the simple fact that a person lives and works in more than one country, be it voluntarily or un-voluntarily. All these factors have a high impact on people’s lives and the choices they make. By identifying individual logics of actions, actorness is given back to people who are all too often not represented as individuals anymore, but rather as ‘masses’ that are channeled by human traffickers on the one hand and governmental migration regimes on the other. To converge to a migrant’s perspective makes sense for academic and normative reasons but also with regard to policy relevance.

Migrants are agents and follow their own logics of action

Neglecting the actorness of migrants is one of the main reasons why so many measures taken by governments to control migration fail. People who are forced to leave their country do not refrain from doing so only because some new laws are passed in Germany or elsewhere. Whenever a ‘receiving country’ introduces new restrictions on migration, people who feel pressured to leave their country will adapt to the new situation and look for new ways to accomplish their goal, most likely with support of the human trafficking industry. ‘Fortress Europe’ misses a long-term strategy and an overarching master plan how to address the root causes of migration that are embedded in dense transnational interdependencies, including the EU and its member states. In the long run migration policy can only be successful if migrant’s interests, fears and aspirations are taken into consideration, as well as the manifold factors that determine them. This issue needs to be approached because only substantial changes in Europe’s political and socio-economic relations with the MENA region and beyond can have an impact on the root causes of migration.

In November 2015 an international and interdisciplinary Dahrendorf workshop on migration was held at Helmut-Schmidt-University in Hamburg, consequently adopting this perspective. The results of the workshop will be published in 2016 as a contribution to the Dahrendorf Symposium which will be held in Berlin in May 2016.

Annette Jünemann is Working Group Member of the Dahrendorf ‘Europe and the MENA-region’ and Professor for Political Science and International Relations at the Helmut-Schmidt University, Hamburg (University of the Armed Forces). Her main areas of research are: international relations, Euro-med relations, democracy promotion and protection as well as gender studies.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.