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Blog: Swisspeace: A migration perspective on visions of a sustainable future

On the 26th of October, the second event of the Sustainability Science Dialogue event series took place online together with swisspeace. The overarching theme was how research can contribute to sustainable development at the intersection of migration, conflict and peace(building), as envisioned in the Agenda 2030.

Logo of swisspeace

The vulnerability of migrants and the institutional violence they experience en route and in their destination countries is an unsolved societal issue. At the same time, unsustainable lifestyles and practices in receiving countries, leading to externalities in other regions of the world, are often a cause of migration in itself. What is our vision for peace and migration as part of a sustainable and responsible society? What should peace and migration research look like to address these questions?

Keynote presentation by swisspeace

In her keynote, Andrea Grossenbacher (program officer, policy & platform at swisspeace) talked about swisspeace’s vision of migration being an integral part of a sustainable society. She informed about the work, vision and case studies at swisspeace, hoping that insights from practice will spark ideas for research.
Many nations see migration as a threat to their economy and identity. Europe is investing in human rights and peace building in origin countries with the aim to prevent migration. “Peacebuilding in places of origin is of course essential” says Grossenbacher. However, this approach is in strong alignment with an antimigrant discourse and policy. It sees migration as an undesired issue and undermines people’s rights to mobility. One should keep in mind that peacebuilding alone cannot eliminate the roots of forced migration, and that migration will always exist. swisspeace therefore suggests a holistic approach aligning policies and human rights in and outside of nation’s borders, with peacebuilding needed not only in the country of origin, but also during transition and in the destination country.

Another key message given by Grossenbacher is that three areas of engagement are necessary if peacebuilding is to succeed:

  1. Improving migration governance,
  2. Fostering the participation of diverse actors in the peacebuilding process
  3. Working on improving social cohesion, for example between authorities, migrants and their host communities.

How can migration be dealt with in ways that support sustainability?
The Agenda 2030 formulates the principle to «leave no one behind» and is therefore a highly relevant framework for dealing with migration. Andrea Grossenbacher added that “the peace-migration nexus offers entry-points to better understand how to address migration in ways that correspond to sustainability principles.”

But what kind of research is specifically needed? To answer this question, participants gathered in three breakout sessions grouped according to the three stages of migration: Causes of migration, transit migration and destination. The goal of the breakout sessions was to look at key practical and policy challenges and to discuss how research could help in addressing these issues by formulating unexplored themes and existing research gaps.

Breakout session: Causes of migration
This session wanted to widen the discussion of the causes of migration from war and political violence to include also forms of economic and social violence and show how they are interrelated. The workshop moderator, Metka Herzog (research coordinator, swisspeace), evoked that international and national migration has many causes, with a convergence of several factors (e.g., conflict, natural disasters, political instability, food insecurity) often leading to increased vulnerability of populations and then migration. Populations already destabilised by one such factor may only need a minor disaster to lose their livelihoods and migrate.

Destabilisation may also be induced by major decisions or changes in policies that are originally well-meaning, but can have unforeseen consequences that lead to migration. An example that was given is the green revolution. Major changes and mechanisation of the agricultural system led to greatly increased yields, but also livelihood loss of smallholder farmers, inducing their mass migration to urban agglomerations. Participants discussed that the belief in the simple solution or “silver bullet” is often wrong. The system needs to be understood as a whole (which is a main principle of sustainability), as well as the consequences of decisions and the complexities of outcomes. Understanding the undesirable effects of well-intended policies and their effects on migration was identified as a major research need.

Forecasting methods should be much more widely employed to predict areas and populations where a risk of migration exists. Climate change models make it possible to foresee where droughts, heat waves and rising sea levels will occur, forcing local populations to migrate. Ideally, migration can be anticipated and measures to alleviate migrants’ vulnerability taken. Research should therefore focus on widely testing and implementing such risk forecasting to better adapt to migration.

We should also bridge the gap between studying internal and international migration, as one often leads to another. To better understand causes of migration, it is important to study them together thereby covering the gap in knowledge production.

Breakout session: Transit migration
This session, moderated by Andrea Grossenbacher, explored sustainable pathways to reduce migrants’ vulnerability and support migrants’ resilience, thereby contributing to sustainable peace and development.

Many actors are involved in “managing” transit migration, such as international and national governmental and non-governmental organizations from different sectors (i.e., humanitarian, development, human rights, peacebuilding), as well as health institutions, security agents, civil society associations, activists and other informal actors (e.g., human smugglers). One important question is how they can better collaborate, and how migrants can also be heard and involved in decision-making.

The European development and security policy, for example, is not sensitive to its impact on violence and conflict in transit migration settings. Security and containment policies are successful - why can European countries’ policies not also be successful with respect to the protection of migrants? One problem is that political understandings of development tend to ignore migrants in transit. Transit migration issues are not understood to be part of development concepts, but are rather treated as humanitarian issues. In turn, the temporary nature or reading of a so-called transit situation poses significant challenges to development policy and practice. Mainly due to above-mentioned security and containment policies, transit migration often turns into protracted migration situations. Research could play an important role in exploring and unpacking the notion of transit migration to better reflect reality and generate evidence to inform policy.

For example, in settings such as Calais (France), civil society has stepped in and provides basic infrastructure for migrants in transit. Originally planned as a short-term measure, such support often becomes long term for lack of alternatives. As a consequence of civil society engagement, governments partly feel less of a responsibility.

Research could help in finding new political concepts that reconcile human rights and securitization approaches, as well as proposing viable trade-offs. These would need to be truly inclusive processes, as they address the “fault lines” that run through and divide our societies. Both migrants and citizens of transit and destination countries that see their own livelihoods threatened (for example through competition for jobs) would need to have a voice in this process.

Moreover, the SDGs provide entry-points in transit migration contexts, such as in Southern Europe, to address questions regarding sustainable (responses to) migration. Many of the actors involved in ‘managing’ transit migration are familiar with and committed to the language and objectives of the Agenda 2030. A sustainable response to migration would for instance demand a “whole of route” approach.

Breakout session: Destination
Migrants face numerous challenges in destination countries, where they are exposed to institutional and structural violence, for example in bureaucratic processes. How can migrants be part of a vision of a good life for all that is compatible with sustainability goals? And how can we address the fears of citizens that see migrants as a threat to commonly shared values such as gender equality, religion, climate and nature protection? Participants of this session, which was moderated by Julie Bernath (senior researcher, swisspeace), raised a number of themes where research is still needed:

  • An important question is «What makes peace so fragile?» One answer could be: fear and incomprehension. Therefore, inclusivity is so important: Decision-makers should include refugees and the host population in the migration discourse in order to better address the fears which are the main barriers towards migrants.
  • Is peace a human right? It needs to be acknowledged that peace is more than the absence of physical violence. Violence can take different forms, such as bureaucratic and institutional violence, and violence of waiting and uncertainty. Peace is usually thought of in a national context, but research should open the conversation up. Peace is not only the absence of violence, but about the daily experiences of a good life.
  • A term that is only timidly used in research on “the refugee crisis” is racism. Racist motivations that inform the perception of the migration of racialised bodies into Europe as a major threat or “crisis” and that motivate a large part of security expenditure merit further attention.
  • A big problem for migrants and refugees is that often their job skills are not recognized in the destination country, leaving very little career choice and usually only unskilled jobs. A job according to their skills would lead to more stability and feeling secure. How can these bureaucratic barriers be overcome?
  • Can the voices of migrants and host communities be amplified by integrating them better in research processes and knowledge co-creation?

  • How should research deal with right-wing political forces that counter pro-migration policies with populist discourses that appeal to emotions and affect? How can the passion in this discourse be adequately addressed?

How to proceed?
The event revealed the high complexity of dealing with migration and its intersections with peace and sustainability from a scientific viewpoint. As Claske Dijkema, senior researcher at swisspeace pointed out in her summary: In our globalised world, everything is interconnected. Our lifestyles and consumer decisions in Switzerland have wide-ranging consequences that lead to loss of livelihoods and migration in other parts of the worlds. Migration points to fissures and unsolved issues in our own society that need addressing. How can societies create common ground towards sustainability and make migrant and host community voices heard? More participatory action in research across boundaries and disciplines is certainly needed.

Co-organiser Metka Herzog highlighted the diversity of participants having attended the event. “They are almost exclusively people we interacted with for the first time”, she says. A next challenge is to continue this discourse, to bring different points of view that were heard in the workshop together and to formulate very practical research questions that initiate action. An invitation by one of the participants to swisspeace researchers to contribute a chapter to an edited book on SDGs and migration is already a promising first outcome.

swisspeace migration, peace and sustainability
swisspeace migration, peace and sustainabilityImage : swisspeace