Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Arab Spring and Migration

Last Tuesday, I attended a workshop hosted by the Refugees Studies Centre and the International Migration Institute of the University of Oxford on the consequences of the ‘Arab Spring’ on human mobility and forced migration in North Africa and the Middle East. The workshop also investigated how states and international organizations have responded to these events. A range of researchers and representatives of international organizations shared their expertise. I will summarize some of my observations I made during the day. Please look at this link for a full programme and the list of speakers.

First of all, the workshop dispelled the myth that the ‘Arab Spring’ has led to large-scale migration to Europe. Since the outbreak of the popular uprisings, European media and politicians have been obsessed with the imaginary fear of massive waves of North Africans invading Europe.  These sensational predictions were speculative and lacked any scientific basis, so it should come at no surprise that these have never materialized. The number of refugees moving to Europe in response to the crisis has actually remained very small. 

The presentations at the workshop emphasized that the Arab Spring had much more significant implications for migration and mobility in the region itself. While the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have remained relatively peaceful, the violent conflicts in countries like Syria and particularly Libya have generated large flows of refugees, most of whom gone to neighbouring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt in the case of Libyans and Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and even Libya for Syrians.

The second group of displaced people consist of the migrant workers that have lived in these countries for years, such as the Bengali, Turks, Egyptians, Nigeriens, Chadians and Europeans working in Libya. Most of them have tried to return home in the wake of the conflict.

However, the most vulnerable group consists of migrants and refugees who were not able to return because it was too dangerous and/or because they lack the money and contacts to flee. They have become trapped into a situation, which the migration researcher Jørgen Carling has aptly described as ‘involuntary immobility’.

Others do not necessarily want to return, as they have fled insecurity, persecution and deprivation in their own countries, and they have often been living in North Africa for many years or decades. These include sub-Saharan and Tuareg migrants in Libya and refugees and Iraqis, Palestinians and Somalis in Syria and Sudanese and Somali in Egypt. Political instability, economic crisis, increasing costs of living and unemployment, and the decrease of security (due to decreased policing) have made these groups more vulnerable than they were already.

For instance, due to less effective policing, a city like Cairo has experienced a rise in crime, theft, kidnappings and overall violence, which affect all Egyptians, but which have made refugees and other foreigners particularly vulnerable.

Violation of basic rights of refugees and asylum seekers remain a daily issue in the region .In Egypt, Libya and Syria, the overall climate of insecurity and increasing suspicion against foreigners has also made it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach out to vulnerable refugee and migrant populations. In Libya, sub-Saharan migrants still fear retaliations because they are associated to “Black mercenaries” Khaddafi has reportedly employed, and Tuareg and Tebu populations in the south are equally vulnerable. The revolutions severely disrupted the livelihoods of Tuaregs who fled the violence, and who have ended up in Saharan towns like Tamanrasset in Algeria.

The workshop also emphasized the profound impacts of the Arab Spring on origin countries, an issue that Eurocentric accounts of the Arab Spring have almost completely ignored.  This does not only pertain to the possible role of returnees in the political violence in countries like Mali, but also the fact that many families in extremely poor countries like Niger and Chad are now deprived from vital remittance income since migrant workers returned home from Libya. In many ways, return migrants moved from one to another situation of insecurity.

Notwithstanding the adverse consequences of the violence in particularly Libya and Syria on the situations of citizens, migrants and refugees in the region, the workshop also showed that the Arab Spring has not fundamentally altered the long-term migration patterns and trends, although they might have accelerated them. For instance, although the falling away of policing has encouraged more Tunisians and Egyptians to cross the Mediterranean Sea on fisher boats, these migrations are anything but a new phenomenon, and should certainly not been qualified as ‘refugee flows’.  

In the case of Tunisia, these crossings of prospective labour migrants have been a ‘regular’ phenomenon since south European countries introduced visa requirements in the early 1990s. In the case of Egypt, migration to Italy and other European countries from villages in de Nile Delta and regions such as the Fayyoum oasis south of Cairo has already been increasing over the past decade.

In terms of policy responses, international organization such as IOM and UNHCR have collaborated relatively effectively in responding to the crisis, particularly around the refugee and migrant flows engendered by the violence in Libya. Also regional governments have been relatively collaborative in hosting refugee populations. By contrast, the response from EU countries has been embarrassing. Although European governments continued to pay lip service to “supporting democracy”, policies remain driven by imaginary fears about a “Biblical Exodus” from North Africa, and this obsession stood in the way of offering protection to refugees . Migration continues to be portrayed like a threat to stability and security, and the trend towards externalizing border controls had continued, as if nothing has changed.

It is rather unlikely that long-term migration patterns will drastically change due to the revolutions. In this context, it is important to observe that the same processes that have created the conditions for the revolutions to occur are also conducive to emigration, and both phenomena seem to reinforce each other. A new generation has come of age, who is better educated, more aspiring and more aware about opportunities elsewhere and injustice at home than any other previous generation, but at the same time feels rejected, disrespected and angered due to high unemployment, corruption, inequality, and political repression. This has been reinforced by decades of neoliberal reforms and privatization, which have benefited small elites, but have made lives of ordinary people more insecure.

The coming of age of a new, wired and conscious generation of “angry young men and women” have increased both the emigration and revolutionary potential of Arab societies. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, the idea that emigration will stop is as unlikely as the idea of a “mass exodus” towards Europe. Certainly a populous and deprived country like Egypt seems to have a significant emigration potential for years to come. However, the extent to which these migrants will go to Europe or elsewhere primarily depends on future economic growth in Europe.  At the same time, it is likely that Libya continues to rely on migrant labour, and Egyptian and sub-Saharan migrants have in fact started to return.

An intriguing question in this respect is whether the economic crisis in Europe has played an indirect role in triggering the uprisings in emigration countries like Tunisia.

It is important to remember that, for political elites in the region, migration has fulfilled an important role as a political and economic ‘safety valve’, since the opportunity to migrate abroad relieved unemployment, discontent and internal political pressures for reform. Has this lack of emigration opportunities perhaps turned the attention and anger inwards, and tipped the balance in favour of revolutionary forces? Also, political exiles and emigrants have played an important role in supporting the revolutions, certainly in Tunisia and Egypt.

Another key question is what the impact of political reforms and more democratic modes of governance will be on migration and migration policy. This impact seems very ambiguous, and very much depends on the nature and course of future political reform. Some participants argued that more conservative, religiously inspired nature of current and future governments may possibly increase migration aspirations among secular elites, minorities and women, whose rights might possibly be infringed upon.

On the other hand, possible increases in respect for human rights for their own citizens may also push North African societies to become more reflective and self-critical towards xenophobia and violations of the rights of migrants and refugees. Finally, democratically elected governments may be less enthusiastic about collaborating with European governments in joint border controls and the expulsion of irregular migrants, as preventing emigration may makes them unpopular at home.  

What will happen this is uncertain, and dependent on the future course of political and economic change in the region, but it should certainly not be taken for granted that European governments can continue to conclude ‘migration control deals’ as they used to do with Khaddafi and their other dictator friends in the region.


  1. Insightful commentary.. indeed it is interesting part on how EU recession has triggered the Arab Spring as well as future developments in "safety regions".

  2. Excellent as usual. I have shared this with the ACP Observatory on Migration, which should be tracking politically-oriented migratory movements between regions on the African continent.

  3. Very good review, I like your analysis and insightfullness. I have read indeed that the number of migrants to EU have not raised drastcially - so far


Leave your comments here

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.