A ‘Culture of Migration’

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Caitlin Vito currently works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and has also held positions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Her research focuses on migration flows from the Horn of Africa.

The images are stark. Groups of people looking exhausted, anxious and moving with resolve towards the EU’s border thousands of miles away from their countries of origin in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Many of them are Syrians fleeing the four and a half year civil war: the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) estimates that Syrian refugees make up approximately 39 percent of those arriving to Europe. The plight of Syrian refugees dominates public discourse at the moment and is undoubtedly a critical component of the current migration situation; however, our focus here is on another group of migrants: economic migrants who take illegal and often highly dangerous migration routes. They migrate for a complex variety of reasons, facing their own hardships, but they are not considered refugees as defined by the Refugee Convention.

On the surface, it is relatively well known why economic migrants take such risks. They flee poverty and deteriorating security in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Pakistan, among others. However, this betrays precious little about the everyday worlds from which they come – their communities, villages and families. To understand why they migrate to places such as Europe – the most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world according to the IOM – it is exactly to their home communities where one must look. An important motivating factor found at the local level is what some describe as the ‘culture of migration’ that exists within some communities in sending countries. Understanding this culture of migration and its role and influence in motivating irregular economic migration should be a part of any durable approach to the influx of people to the European Union.

This ‘culture of migration’ denotes an environment, both cultural and physical, in which migration is viewed as a highly favourable (if not the only) means out of unfavourable circumstances, such as unemployment and poverty. This environment has a high degree of influence and, over time, migration can become the norm, especially among youth. Critically, migration is often seen as an effective household or even community strategy to improve their situation. Frequently, those from the community who have successfully migrated are expected to support those back home by sending some of their income back.

This means that the act of migration reaches beyond the individual migrant. Families, and sometimes even whole communities, invest in the journey of those migrating with the hopes that a successful migration will lead to the improvement of their own conditions. This important element was highlighted by an Ethiopian villager discussing the local situation with the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), an organisation focusing on mixed migration in the Horn of Africa and Yemen sub-region. The interviewee noted that “migration might be driven by the decision of the youth but it is mostly a parental venture involving selling of crops, cattle and leasing land by parents. Parents participate in the decision by raising money as well as by establishing communication links with the brokers”.

In certain instances, migration is so deeply rooted that young people expect to live and work abroad. Migrating allows them to live up to expectations and even to establish their social position within the local community. Of the potential migrants who were surveyed in the RMMS study, 87 percent of respondents reported that the ‘sense of responsibility’ was a leading migration driver for them. This sense of community expectation, family duty and social standing are all powerful driving factors. As pointed out in a study examining the cultures of migration in regions of Turkey, people do not  migrate because of “abstract concepts such as demographic transitions, declining fertility, ageing, population density, environmental degradation or factor productivity” but rather if they perceive better opportunities elsewhere and have the capabilities to move”. These perceptions, and the means with which to make the journey, are directly affected by families, communities and the environment from which they come.

Moreover, the same RMMS study highlighted the importance that potential migrants place on relatives and friends, including those already in transit and destination countries, as reliable sources for information about the migration process. This runs contrary to the belief that brokers and smugglers are the main sources of information at the local level. Although the so-called ‘misinformation campaigns’ by smugglers and brokers are a factor for some migrants, for many the real influence is exerted by those closest to them.

Just as migration goes beyond individual gain, reaching deep into home and community networks, an unsuccessful migration attempt is often accompanied by a sense of shame and failure. This was demonstrated in the case of a migrant who had returned home from Saudi Arabia after being expelled from the country. To pay for her journey, her family had borrowed money, despite their extreme poverty. After seven months, the migrant returned to home, having suffered abuse while abroad. However, the girl explained that she was afraid to see her family, asking how she could face her father after he had invested the family’s resources in her migration with the belief that she would support them.

This story is not unique. Of those returnees surveyed by the RMMS, 98% stated that they felt they were failures. In such a culture of migration, even choosing not to migrate can be associated with failure, especially when others in the immediate community are benefiting from having friends and family who have migrated and are sending back financial support. This pressure, while not easily quantifiable, should not be underestimated as a motivating factor driving migration and remigration.

This is a powerful factor driving migration, and one which the EU simply cannot afford to overlook as it grapples with an influx of migrants. The response of some Member-States – to look inwards, to build walls and to view the issue as one of national security – is misguided. History has demonstrated that walls do not work in the long term, especially when faced with immense human will motivated by a sense of duty and an entrenched belief that migration is the only way forward for them and their family. It is critical that the EU’s response look beyond the securitization of its borders and towards the local motivating factors, including the cultures of migration which exist.

In terms of action, one step would be to intensify the EU’s current efforts to promote awareness-raising programs at the grassroots level highlighting the dangers and misconceptions surrounding migration. However, this will bring its own challenges as potential migrants place greater trust on the information provided by those close to them, rather than external campaigns. Therefore, any such efforts must work closely with community members. Equally important would be to review the experiences of migrants who have returned to their countries of origin, and to find where gaps exist in supporting their reintegration.

With careful planning and action, this could help to limit the desire for remigration. These efforts must be long-term; countering the prevailing social norms in which migration is considered a good and necessary act is no easy task. Ultimately, however, such efforts to address the culture of migration must be part of a multi-pronged approach. It is critical that it be implemented in tandem with the opening of more legal channels for migration. This can help to limit the sense that irregular – and highly dangerous – routes are the only option.

However, cultures of migration are not relegated only to developing countries outside the EU. It is important to keep in mind that cultures of migration can be found within the European Union, as seen with the flows of people from east to west within the Union. Historically as well, a culture of migration has ebbed and flowed within Europe as people have faced times of critical hardship. As with all communities, a culture of migration can play a decisive role in the decision to migrate, with the sense of personal success, familial and community obligations, as well as the fear of failure all tied into the act of migration. This is a unique and powerful motivating factor. Any long-term and durable strategy to address irregular economic migration would do well to take into account this culture of migration and to start to develop an approach to address it at the local level.

PS21 is a nonpartisan, nonideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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