Refugee family being helped off a boat
A tragedy of epic proportions. Sailors and Royal Marines of HMS Bulwark help migrants ashore. Photo ©

Carl Osmond, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.


October 2015

How can the underlying causes of migration be addressed?

This summer European governments have been forced to confront a huge migration crisis and are taking action to respond. Following a recent expert seminar hosted by the British Council, Miranda Swanson and Daniel Stevens reflect on whether the rush to deal with refugees in urgent need of help could mean that the international community fails to sufficiently address the underlying issues that could stem the future flow of refugees and irregular migrants over the longer term.

A tragedy of epic proportions

This great movement of people has become a pressing issue for the whole of Europe

The number of people migrating from the Middle East and Africa to Europe is unprecedented and growing. This great movement of people has become a pressing issue for the whole of Europe. In the short-term the situation is only set to worsen, given escalating violence in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and the on-going problems experienced by large populations in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The UN has called the crisis ‘a tragedy of epic proportions’. 

The international media has maintained a spotlight on the appalling living conditions, risks and brutality to which refugees are frequently exposed. In the UK, much of the media and political debate has had a dual focus on both alleviating immediate human suffering and curbing migration flows in the short term.

The impact of migration on origin and neighbouring countries is less widely discussed, yet it is these countries that have taken by far the largest number of refugees. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey alone have already absorbed over four million Syrian refugees. Lebanon’s population has grown by 25% since 2011 and now has the highest per capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world. Such large-scale shifts place substantial demand on local economies and infrastructure, creating further challenges in finding shelter, healthcare, work and education. Over time, worsening conditions for refugees in these countries contribute to further migration, as many see no other option but to move on. 

Meanwhile, the route through the Central Mediterranean has shifted from being used by mostly Syrian refugees to being used by migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, including countries in conflict such as Eritrea (20% of total numbers) and Somalia (10%). Many of those travelling from these countries have been labelled ‘economic migrants’, as their reasons for migrating do not meet the legal definition of persecution and they are not technically refugees. Yet these people are taking substantial risks to travel to Europe, and are generally fleeing poverty and deprivation as a result of economic and social instability in states that are unable to meet their basic needs. Dr Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Study Centre at the University of Oxford, who addressed the recent policy seminar on migration hosted by the British Council, argues that this group should therefore be more accurately described as ‘survival migrants’.* 

The factors that lead to these large movements of people are complex and diverse. However, they all have in common the fact that the security and development challenges in source countries are not currently being met. 

A Marshall Plan for the Middle East and North Africa?

The UK is one of the leading providers of overseas aid for refugees

The Government has increasingly recognised a moral imperative for the UK to act. The UK is one of the leading providers of overseas aid for refugees. It has already spent £1 billion helping those escaping the war in Syria. The Prime Minister has also announced a range of measures to try to help alleviate the crisis in the short-term. In September, he made a commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK over the next five years and appointed a new Minister responsible for resettling them. He also made a commitment to double the funding the UK provides for education for refugee children in Lebanon. These announcements are welcome steps forward.

But as the Government has also recognised, the solution to this crisis does not lie only in resettling and meeting the basic needs of existing refugees. There needs to be a further focus on interventions in source countries that build resilience, increase stability and enhance development, in order to help to reduce further mass migration. Some have even called for a new ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Middle East and North Africa, taking inspiration from the US plan that funded the re-building of much of Western Europe following the Second World War, in order to boost the private sector and drive institutional reforms.  

Hope for a better future

Through substantial investment in source countries in the region that targeted economic development and institutional reform, it should be possible over the longer term to bring about the stability and prosperity that might lead to improved human development indicators and hence a long term reduction in migration flows. The UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on Official Development Assistance represents a major step in this direction and is clearly making an impact in many source countries for the current migration and refugee crisis. However, this commitment must be matched by other developed economies and multilateral institutions. Funding must also be targeted at interventions that contribute to systemic reform in key countries, improving skills and employability, promoting stability and the institutions that are vital for prosperity, providing positive opportunities for young people, supporting entrepreneurship and strengthening education and civil society. 

Such interventions should include efforts to increase education, skills, human capital, the rule of law, the capacity of judicial systems, and the strength and role of civil society, and to give young people increased opportunities and hope for a better future. The US academic Francis Fukayama has recently argued that economic growth, developing state capacity, and strengthening rule of law and mechanisms of accountability can be important means of helping countries become more prosperous and secure places for the next generation to live their lives.  

Miranda Swanson, Government Relations Manager

Daniel Stevens, Policy and External Relations Officer


 Additional sources

*  Betts, A (2013) Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement, Cornell University Press

See also