Refugees at the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Refugees at the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Photo credit: ©UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
On the limits of deterrence
by Jessica Hagen-Zanker and Richard Mallett September 2016

Is it possible for European governments to put people off the idea of migrating?+ This article is based on J. Hagen-Zanker and R. Mallett, Journeys to Europe: The Role of Policy in Migrant Decision-making, Insights Report (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2016). Some parts of it draw directly on the original report. This is the question we set out to answer in the summer of 2015, at the height of the so-called ‘migration crisis’ – the height, at least, as defined by the extent of media coverage around the time. Our research was motivated by a desire to interrogate the assumption among European policymakers and politicians that it is within the power of states to stop people from coming to Europe.

In the broadest sense, the European response to mass population movements has been guided by strategies of containment, restriction and deterrence. Rather than welcome, settle and integrate the new arrivals, European Union (EU) member states have largely sought to drive them away from their borders through increasingly restrictive migration policies. We have seen the construction of border fences, the militarisation of frontiers (accompanied by violence towards refugees and migrants), increases in aid to ‘regions of origin’ and countries deemed powerful enough to contain flows, and the intensification of information campaigns designed to convey the risks in journeys to Europe, as well as the lack of support upon arrival.

Each of these measures are geared towards deterring migration and are in one way or another premised on the idea that regulation occurs by changing people’s minds: make the journey (appear) more difficult or the destination more unwelcoming and people will think twice about selecting that option; instead, they might take their chances elsewhere or stay put. To put this to the test, we talked to people who did make the journey to Europe, most of them through irregular means. We carried out 52 interviews with Eritrean, Senegalese and Syrian respondents recently arrived in four European cities – London, Manchester, Berlin and Madrid. In these interviews, we spent time going through people’s journeys in great detail, homing in on their decision points at key moments of the process. We asked why they left when they did, how they got from place to place and their reasons for ending up where they have. For the purposes of this article, we focus on the forced migration of interviewees from Syria, and to a lesser extent on the journeys of Eritrean respondents. Given that the experiences of the Senegalese in our sample are characterised by a non-humanitarian form of migration, we do not include them in the analysis.

Information drives movement, but trusted information is what really matters

In one sense, the policy-makers have got it right: people act on the basis of the information available to them. This squares with the logic of sending signals that intend to deter migration, such as the adverts taken out in Lebanese newspapers paid for by the Danish government highlighting the tough regulations awaiting any would-be asylum-seekers from the Middle East, or the messages on the Norwegian government’s Twitter page threatening Afghans with deportation back to Kabul should they try to enter the country without documents. Of course, there are other versions of deterrence policy at play: visa regulations and carrier sanctions are one, as is the securitisation of international borders, including those beyond European territory. But both of the above ‘messaging’ cases nonetheless exemplify a long-popular approach, where ‘new’ pieces of information might be considered, by their architects, powerful enough to change people’s minds. The problem with such an approach is that it essentially operates out of context. The information these messages contain might be perfectly credible; to many of us, knowledge about a certain country’s asylum policies or a particular route’s precariousness would appear useful. Under certain circumstances, however, there is not a great deal of value or meaning in their content. Testimonies from Syrians and Eritreans suggest that they were actually very aware of the risks awaiting them in transit – but years of exposure to violence at home had rendered those risks acceptable. In other words, a dangerous migration became preferable – indeed, became a more rational choice – than staying put.

The question of whether to cross an international border is ultimately a subjective one: migrations are driven as much by people’s perceptions of their circumstances (‘how safe do I feel here?’; ‘do I think I would fare better elsewhere?’) as they are by the objective characteristics of those circumstances (the onset or intensification of conflict, a deteriorating labour market). Given that such decisions are so intensely personal, it perhaps comes as little surprise that external information campaigns have little effect.

Not all information is equal: information does influence the decision to migrate, but to be meaningful it first needs to be trusted. Our research suggests that information becomes trusted or credible when it comes through known personal connections. Almost everyone we interviewed recalled making key decisions on the basis of other people’s advice. More often than not, these people were members either of our interviewees’ closest social circles – parents, siblings, good friends – or of their wider communities. For Syrians, it seems that some of the most trusted information regarding routes and options came through Facebook and Whatsapp groups shared by fellow Syrians who had already made the journey. This was particularly the case for those moving through the Balkans route. Likewise with the choice of smuggler: Syrians transiting through the Balkans tended to work with smugglers who came recommended by personal contacts. When it comes to changing someone’s mind about migrating, it seems that the messenger is as important as the message.

Jobs and education: two things that offset deterrence policy

Migration policies, and deterrence policies in particular, can potentially shape people’s decisions on where to go and how to get there. Just as some pieces of information matter more than others, so too different kinds of policies exert different degrees of influence over a person’s thinking. For young people and those with children – and even for those without, but who were thinking long term – education was central in shaping decisions on destinations. People were interested in finding places with a decent school system. In one focus group with five Syrian women recently arrived in Berlin, this was the most influential factor driving their movement towards Germany. Amin, also from Syria but currently in Madrid, summed it up: ‘When you have children, you need good places’. For people escaping conflict and oppression, education must also be seen in the context of lost schooling: migration then becomes a way, for those affected by chronic humanitarian crises, of recapturing foregone human capital. It is also part of an attempt to restore a stronger sense of human dignity and to re-establish some order and autonomy over daily life.

Work is another key factor driving people towards particular places. Many of those we interviewed expressed a desire to find work in the countries they had ended up in, and talked about this as one of the things that drew them there originally. Abdu, 29, arrived in the UK in 2015 after a year-long journey from Eritrea. When we talked to him last summer, he explained he was ‘not waiting for benefits. I’m not here for that. I want to help myself. I don’t want to stay in my home every day’. At the time of our interview, Abdu was spending his days either at the job centre or simply going from one warehouse to the next, trying to find out if any work was going. While this search for decent work might often take people to Europe, it does not always start off that way. Several Syrian interviewees talked about how they initially had no inclination to spend a small fortune getting to Germany or Spain, planning instead to reassemble their lives just across the border in Turkey or Lebanon. But as Nabil’s story below illustrates, the challenges associated with doing so, particularly finding a place in the labour market, often compel onward movement.

Aside from the presence of family and friends, our interviews suggest that education and employment are the two most important factors influencing people’s thinking about where to go. Following this, it is theoretically possible for European governments to put people off coming – but only by sending their countries’ education systems into decline and collapsing their economies.

Nabil’s story

Nineteen-year-old Nabil was living with his family just outside Aleppo when the actions of ISIS fighters made their home unliveable: ‘executions every week, parading decapitated heads in the central square’. Prior to ISIS, Nabil explained, he had no intention at all to migrate. But now more than 90% of his community have left. In January 2015, Nabil fled to Gaziantep in Turkey, a city not too far from the border. Once there he tried to find work on construction sites. But after three months, he was yet to find anything. It was this inability to scrape a half-decent living across the border which drove Nabil onwards towards Berlin, where his older brother had arrived a few months previously.


Diversion is more likely than prevention

The factors that compel people to migrate in the first place do not appear to be significantly offset by European countries’ deterrence policies. This seems to be because the influence is marginal to the range of other forces governing migration decision-making (trusted information, perceptions of opportunity and dignity abroad). Yet, while we found that deterrence policies don’t stop people from coming to Europe, they can influence people’s decision on where to go and how to get there, and, as such, shift migration flows from one country to another. Hungary provides a clear example of this. In justifying the decision to build a border fence, Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimed that Europe had ‘sent out invitations to the migrants’, and that these fences were key to protecting Hungarians against the ‘brutal threat’ of mass migration. One government spokesperson put it more directly: ‘This is a necessary step … We need to stop the flood’.

Through our interviews, we tried to get a sense of how effective such controls are at changing people’s minds about coming to Europe. When we posed this question to a group of Syrian men in Berlin, they told us fences were unlikely to affect people’s journeys: ‘Syrians will find a way. It may be harder and more expensive, but they will find another route’. This was clearly illustrated last summer. Although Hungary (partially) managed to keep migrants and refugees out once they had built the fence, at the same time this did not stop people coming to Europe. Instead, they re-routed themselves through Croatia and Slovenia. More recent evidence suggests that, with the latest EU–Turkey deal (deporting people back to Turkey who had previously entered Greece through irregular means), a decline in Aegean crossings has been accompanied by a rise in flows through the central Mediterranean.+‘Migrant Influx into Italy from Libya Resurging: IOM’, Reuters, 15 April 2016.

There are two related points here. First, alternatives usually always exist, and routes perceived as unusable at one point in time can later emerge as possibilities depending on how wider circumstances develop. Second, and as mentioned above, harder or more expensive journeys are often not in themselves enough of a deterrent to absolute mobility. When your ‘home’ is consumed by a humanitarian crisis, the level of risk presented by departure – usually very well understood by the Syrians we talked to – may be deemed acceptable.

The need for a coordinated European approach

Governments believe they can control refugee flows. Our evidence suggests this may be possible in some senses but not in others. Preventive policies, particularly those concerned with deterrence, appear to matter little. At best, direct controls like border fences and detention can divert flows, essentially passing the buck from one country to the next, but do not appear capable of preventing movement in the first place. Thus, while such measures might alleviate individual countries’ concerns, at the regional EU level they make no difference.

Of course, research focusing either on people in transit or on those still deciding whether to travel might reveal a different picture. It is perfectly possible that some kinds of people are put off more by deterrence than others – and that it might play a preventive role in certain circumstances. This is important further work to be done, which researchers at ODI will be engaging in this year. But in our study we find that migration trajectories are influenced less by restrictive migration policies and more by things like information transmitted through close social networks, perceptions of ‘welcoming-ness’, labour market opportunities and access to education.

At its core, this is a regional crisis. Policy-makers should be stepping away from unilateral policy-making towards a more coordinated European approach. Given that there is an inevitability to certain types of (forced) migration, and that barriers and disincentives to travel are not necessarily effective, the clear response is to manage it better. Improving the safety of transit, implementing better European reception systems and strengthening integration policies are three obvious measures to that end.

Jessica Hagen-Zanker is a Research Fellow in the Overseas Development Institute’s social protection team. Richard Mallett is a Research Fellow at ODI, where he works primarily on the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium project.