“Distress Migration”: Moving Beyond Vulnerability-Based Paradigms

Refugee women depart a Médecins Sans Frontières ship that intercepted 12 boats in the Mediterranean. Naples, Italy, May 28, 2017. (Michele Amoruso/Pacific Press/Associated Press)

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that over 100,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in the first half of 2017, with the vast majority of these arriving in Italy. The IOM has also documented more than 2,300 deaths along the Mediterranean migration routes in 2017 alone, with almost 95% of these occurring on the so-called “central route” from Libya to Italy. On one single day—May 9—the capsizing of two boats is believed to have led to almost 250 deaths; the number of arrivals by sea to Italy in 2017 is already 30% higher than the comparable figure for 2016, so it is reasonable to conclude that tragedies will continue to occur with numbing regularity.

The challenges of responding to migration across the Mediterranean have also contributed to tensions within the European Union. With only 23,228 persons having been resettled between October 2015 and June 2017, Italy has sought greater assistance in providing for refugees and migrants in their countries of arrival. French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged in May that EU support to Italy had fallen short, but Italian officials say that little concrete action has followed. Meanwhile, Italy has postponed a vote on granting citizenship to children of migrants, and the EU is examining how to limit the sale of rubber dinghies to Libya.

In looking to respond to the challenges of migration, the international community has often focused its attention narrowly, seeking mainly to alleviate urgent humanitarian needs while restricting human mobility across state borders. Yet such restrictive approaches are unlikely to yield the desired results: Measures to limit movement are inherently difficult to implement in the era of globalization, contributing instead to a rise in illicit migration and trafficking, and to worsening humanitarian outcomes. The alternative would be for the international system to recognize migration as one response to conditions of distress and hence best addressed as part of a holistic strategy that affirms the rights, dignity, and resilience of those undertaking these difficult journeys.

Inadequate Systems and Policies

Existing humanitarian and state institutions are overwhelmed by these large flows of migrants and refugees arriving or seeking to reach their shores. The lack of capacity—or even policies—to respond to such a situation is not a particularly new development: Mediterranean migration has always been a critical geopolitical issue in Europe, and particularly in Italy. Political scientist Kelly Greenhill describes how Muammar Gaddafi, the former leader of Libya, manipulated migrant flows to Italy as a key tool of foreign policy. Gaddafi threatened EU leaders with a “human flood from North Africa” if they supported protests against his regime in 2011; it was a threat he had used to successfully extract financial assistance, equipment, and the removal of sanctions on four separate occasions since 2002.

In 2010, the EU paid €500 million on the understanding that migrants would not be allowed to take ship for Europe from Libya, and Gaddafi upheld his end of the deal, although even his control began to fray as migrant flows from Tunisia increased. The ethics of paying Libya to police EU borders against migrants have been frequently questioned, with Gaddafi’s brutality only part of the problem. New border restrictions—now on European territory—engender similar debates: A deal between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, to restrict refugee movements into Greece, was severely criticized in the humanitarian community. As South African migration scholars Loren Landau and Caroline Kihato write, this global trend towards securitizing borders is “bad for migrants, development, and democracy.”

In part, the lack of effective systems or policies toward migration arises from the growing scale and complexity of the issue. The IOM estimates that there were over 244 million international migrants in 2015, with 37% of them—over 90 million persons—moving between countries in the Global South. That figure includes over 19 million refugees (per UN High Commissioner for Refugees records at the end of 2015), with another 3.4 million persons becoming refugees or asylum-seekers in 2016. Combined with the over five million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), this brings the total number of refugees in the world today to over 22 million.

Those figures do not include internally displaced persons (IDPs), whose numbers grew even more precipitously in 2016. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reports that there were almost 31 million new internal displacements by conflicts, violence, and disasters in 2016, bringing the global total of IDPs to over 40 million. In addition, as the IDMC and others note, the global norm is now one of persistent or recurrent conflict: 90% of armed conflicts in the 21st century arising in countries that had previously experienced civil war. This has led to an increase in protracted displacement, with the average length of displacement being over 17 years.

Writing in Lancet, Director of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Humanitarian Health (and former senior UNHCR official) Dr. Paul Spiegel notes that the current humanitarian system cannot adequately respond to displacement of this scale or duration. The system was set up to respond rapidly in emergencies, providing interim relief while measures were taken to resolve crises. The current level of displacement and migration can no longer be called a crisis, he argues—it has become the new normal. Current institutional and policy responses are yet to adapt to this reality.

Mixed Migration and Distress Migration

A second factor complicating both measurement of and policy responses to displacement and migration is that their causes increasingly tend to blend together, especially when considered over the longer periods of time that are now typical. Persons who were not displaced during a war might still leave their homes because their ability to earn a living (or to receive education or healthcare) is disrupted in the aftermath of war. Further, the routes along which migrants, refugees, and displaced persons travel— whether within or across state boundaries—are often the same; given the constraints of geography, these are often routes that have been historically used by travelers, traders, and traffickers. Acknowledging this complexity, scholars and practitioners today speak about the challenges of managing “mixed migration.”

It may be difficult to sort a given individual into a specific category (migrant, refugee, asylum-seeker, stateless, IDP), or their legal status may change over time. IDMC notes that displacement itself increases the risk of subsequent displacement; for instance, a study by Handicap International finds that most Syrian IDPs experience multiple displacements, with some refugees being displaced over 20 times before leaving the country—a pattern that reflects the repeated bombing of civilian populations. If, in the process, they lose documentation that would let them establish their identity—or are too afraid of persecution to reveal their national origin—then they may be classified as “stateless,” and so on.

In this article, we prefer to speak of “distress migration,” a term that recognizes and reflects the common thread in the experiences of migrants and the displaced: That their choice was fundamentally coerced, or even an act of desperation. This theme of desperation and distress is starkly evoked by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, who writes:

No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark…
no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly…
you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

The factors that drive and sustain forced displacement can be seen as resulting from a constellation of governance and economic deficits: The inability or unwillingness of some states to protect human rights within their borders, or to provide the economic and social opportunities that provide meaning to life beyond mere subsistence. Where these deficits are further exacerbated by climate change, armed conflict, or extremist violence, the results can be devastating. Unless those parts of the world that are affected by conflicts or disasters can return to some measure of peace and normalcy, there is little reason to expect that the flow of distress migration will reduce; a similar point may be made in relation to migration on account of economic distress or lack of opportunity.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres outlined his message for this year’s International Day of Refugees as: “Don’t stop the refugees. Stop the wars that drive them from their homes.” This might in turn be extended to “stop the famine” or “stop the corruption” that prompt people to decide that they must physically escape from their current situations.

Sustaining Peace Through Responses to Distress Migration

The global response to distress migration cannot consist primarily of controls and restrictions at transit and destination points, even when humanitarian aid is provided at these locations. The only sustainable long-term strategy is to recognize that distress migrants have capacities, as well as needs, and to find ways to identify and build upon these resilient capacities. As the UN and wider international community continue to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the sustaining peace agenda unveiled in 2016, human mobility will need to be built into the design of all endeavors.

The sustaining peace approach is motivated by the desire to learn from what still works well in societies in distress. A strategy to address distress migration from a sustaining peace perspective would thus aim to identify, support, and enhance resilient capacities within these societies and communities, and provide avenues for the displaced to contribute to fulfilling both their own needs and those of the communities in which they find themselves. To be comprehensive, it must include the prevention and resolution of conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance to migratory populations in transit, and the creative restoration of societies and communities in both origin and destination communities.

It remains under-appreciated that the decision to escape, rather than participate in conflict or otherwise exploit weaknesses of governance, makes displacement a non-violent self-protection strategy. Those fleeing armed conflict are making a choice to avoid violence, often at great cost to themselves and their families. This desire to escape belies characterizations of the displaced as a security risk, or as being “at risk of radicalization.” It also lacks statistical basis, in that most persons living in areas of ongoing conflict do not participate in violence either. Those who stay develop creative responses to avoid, mitigate, or contain violence. A prevention strategy that recognizes the agency of those who continue to resist desperation and violence will be able to build upon existing local efforts to avoid, mitigate, and resolve conflict.

The extended duration of displacement further challenges the typical view of distress migrants; 17 years is sufficient for a primary school-age child to graduate from college, provided their education is not interrupted. Even as they face severe challenges and losses, displaced persons also develop new identities, skills, relationships, and networks. Displacement is a condition, not an identity: The “displaced” are doctors, teachers, bakers, poets, farmers, students, and more long before they come to be displaced, with skills and capacities in addition to needs. These enable them to contribute to the communities in which they find themselves, provided that the relevant policies and institutions are in place to enable such cooperation—for instance, innovative financial mechanisms to enable aspiring entrepreneurs among displaced groups to set up new businesses in their host communities. In the words of UNHCR Spokesperson Melissa Fleming, the goal should be to “help refugees thrive, not just survive.

A focus on community-based responses to distress migration, finally, also requires attention to those who return to their former homes. The situations to which they return may have changed significantly in their absence, as they themselves may also have changed. Particularly in conflict-affected countries undertaking disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programming, the questions of returnees and the questions of erstwhile combatants can and should be addressed as part of an integrated, community-based strategy for reconstruction and rehabilitation. Again, this strategy can build upon the skills and resilience of those returning or being reintegrated, and learn from the experiences and efforts of those who have already undertaken these difficult processes on their own, perhaps even without state support.

In September 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which pledged “…profound solidarity with, and support for, the millions of people in different parts of the world who, for reasons beyond their control, are forced to uproot themselves and their families from their homes.” UN member states are now drafting two “global compacts”—on refugees, and on safe, orderly, and regular migration—to be adopted in 2018. To fulfill this promise of solidarity, it is imperative for these compacts to move beyond a border control-centric view of migration, to recognizing and supporting the full potential of refugees, distress migrants, and all those who are forced to move in pursuit of a better life.

Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Ameya Naik previously worked in IPI’s Center for Peace Operations and tweets @kianayema. This article was based on a speech by Dr. Mahmoud at the 47th Annual IPI Vienna Seminar.