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‘Migration diplomacy’ on the rise

18 February 20190 comments

Migration is increasingly becoming an important factor in diplomatic relations between nation states, a raft of new research has found.

The story of Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teenager granted asylum by Canada after barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel room, sparked headlines around the world.

And the plight of Bahraini refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, who was locked up in Thailand after becoming the subject of an Interpol red notice sparked by his criticism of human rights in his homeland, also illustrates how migration, asylum policy and foreign policy are intersecting.

British researchers Gerasimos Tsourapas and Fiona Adamson say migration is becoming a key dimension of states’ diplomatic relations, particularly as the number of migrants across the world has risen to almost 270 million.

The researchers says US President Donald Trump’s attempts at securing funding for a wall along the nation’s southern border included amounted to offering a mixture of carrots and sticks to Mexico and that in the UK, the issue of immigration and border controls has been an ongoing issue in the nation’s relations with the EU.

Conversely, they say that when the UK leaves the EU, a trade deal with India will see demands that visas for workers be part of the agreement.

“Meanwhile, European elites continue to engage with Turkey’s inclusion of migration in its foreign policy,” they said.

“In 2016, President Recep Erdogan was promised six billion euros of European funds in return for exercising stronger control over Syrian refugees seeking to cross into EU territory. As part of the deal, refugees who cross the Mediterranean can be sent back to Turkey,” the researchers said.

The researchers point to Ethiopia, saying it employed a more conciliatory approach that culminated in a 2018 jobs compact which secured $500m in international funding towards offering employment opportunities for some of the 900,000 refugees hosted within Ethiopia’s borders.

“As migration becomes a more prominent part of foreign policy strategies, countries are using diplomatic tools and procedures to manage the cross-border movement of people,” the researchers said in a recent article.

“These can include intergovernmental agreements that aim to manage migratory flows, such as the Global Compact for Migration signed in late 2018.

“Other types of bilateral co-operation can involve the creation of guest-worker or other temporary labour migration schemes similar to Canada’s longstanding seasonal agricultural workers program with Mexico and numerous Caribbean countries.

“Or, in a more extreme example, countries of destination, such as Jordan and Libya, choose to expel foreign workers to create political leverage against the workers’ countries of origin that depend on the money migrants send back to their families,” the researchers said.

They say governments have realised they can use migration policy as a bargaining tool and as a way to pursue other goals, such as enhancing their security, achieving economic interests, or boosting their soft power via cultural or public diplomacy.

The researchers have described two forms of diplomatic bargaining that leverages migration.

They say the first, a ‘zero-sum’ perspective is where states seek to gain an advantage over a competitor.

“In the course of the 2015 negotiations on resolving the Greek debt crisis, for example, the country’s defence minister Panos Kammenos frequently threatened that unless Europe provided a satisfactory solution, Greece would “flood it with … millions of economic migrants” the researchers said

“Historically, the US also pursued zero-sum migration diplomacy during the Cold War. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, introduced under President Lyndon Johnson, granted permanent residence status to any Cuban living in the US for more than a year and underlined the tense diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.”

The second approach is a ‘positive-sum’ perspective which stress co-operation on migration issues, and, in which both parties gain benefits.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, West Germany introduced a guest-worker program, which facilitated immigration of Greek, Turkish, and other countries’ labourers into the country. It aimed to provide a solution to both West Germany’s shortage of low-skilled labour, and the unemployment issues that plagued the partner states,” the researchers said.

“As international migration continues to rise on the global political agenda, countries’ interests in either promoting or deterring the movement of people significantly affects the dynamics of their diplomatic relationships. Migration diplomacy is set to become an increasingly significant area of foreign policy and statecraft,” the researchers said.

Assistant Professor Tsourapas is a lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Birmingham and Associate Professor Adamson, teaches International Relations at the University of London.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist