People on the move and challenges for stalling EU governments

by Despina Syrri

© Symbiosis

Despina Syrri is director of Symβiosis, a migrants’ rights organisation based in Thessaloniki that supports the political, economic and social integration of migrants, refugees and marginalised communities, and of the Council of Europe Civic School for Political Studies in Greece. Since 1988 she has worked with International Organisations and NGOs in Southern Africa and Southeast Europe on post-conflict development, migration and refugees. Syrri publishes articles and book chapters in Greek, South Slavic and English, and authors research papers and documentaries. Previously she also taught Political Science and Anthropology.

Europe is on the verge of a political crisis over the issue of how to respond to the recent migratory influxes, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. Governments lament the human losses that occur while boat people try to reach Europe. Yet leaders seem to disagree on the measures needed to contain the crisis. Civil society organisations in Europe highlight the humanitarian emergency and are usually baffled by the voices of those who stress the security aspects of such influxes. The population and governments in Western Europe seem to be reluctant in sharing, even partially, the burden resulting from the influx currently borne by Southern Member States whose borders are also the EU borders in its periphery. Lately several governments have outright rejected a timid new European Agenda on Migration adopted by the European Commission. The latter toys with the idea of relocating some 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy, Malta and Greece to the rest of the EU on the basis of a quota related to the population and the economic situation of individual Member States. In the meantime, the flux of boat people, now mainly coming from Syria, Eritrea and other African countries, continues – same as the death toll of those drowning in the Aegean or in the seas below Lampedusa. Southern European governments have openly stated their inability to cope with the increasing flows without substantially sharing this common challenge with the rest of its European partners. While the number of asylum seekers to be relocated is a very small percentage compared to the influx of refugees and migrants, the agenda avoids addressing the pressing but politically thorny issue of the hundreds of thousands of irregular immigrants residing already on European soil who will not be able to return in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, even if it was not much welcomed, the new agenda appears to have opened a debate which has long been a taboo in EU politics. It has also forged new perspectives and has created space for alliances and political moves, more precisely; it has stimulated a debate on the linkages between migration and development. Recent declarations by international agencies state that migration should be incorporated more explicitly in the Post‐2015 Development Agenda. Moving beyond simple notions that development will stop migration or that migration is a recipe for development, alternative perspectives in policy making are needed that empower migrants’ agency and rights. Even more so, it is important to focus on the intersection of migration and development policies and trends, and on the actual and potential contributions of migrant communities to sustainable development and the reduction of poverty in their home countries.


Dominant state-based policies interested in border control have so far overlooked the central issue of migration and development; so have earlier global development policies, including those embedded in the Millennium Development Goals. Yet, globalisation has given rise to new, intensified transnational and translocal relationships as people and institutions are becoming ever more interconnected. The intensification of new flows and movements of individuals and communities, together with goods, money, and knowledge, create linkages that shape places, development trajectories and livelihoods in varied yet specific ways. Individuals and communities of diverse geographic and socio-economic backgrounds, which include highly-skilled academics, business consultants, less-skilled workers, volunteers and student exchanges, residential tourists, refugees and asylum seekers, all create new environments. In this ‘age of migration’ migrants’ identities are produced on the move, while migration is mediated by brokers providing services that facilitate, constrain and assist international migration, such as security companies, transporters, NGOs, recruitment agencies and international human resource management. The largest eastward EU enlargement in 2004 set up a new framework for European mobility as migrant communities grew and interethnic relations were redefined. More recently, the increased flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East towards Europe originate from war-torn places and authoritarian regimes, human rights abuses and humanitarian crises in the countries of origin resulting in security fears and anti-immigration discourses in the North of the Mediterranean. It also questions established notions of development aid, particularly when it is disbursed to states that violate human rights.


New migration-related discussions focus on poverty, social vulnerability, political instability and human rights abuse. Displacement is almost always a result of a complex mix of factors. People adapt to changes, while governments can influence what kind of movements take place, for example in response to environmental changes. Mobility is caused by multiple drivers that are not so visible to policy makers in the “aid industry”, thus it is relevant to take into consideration the impact of migration in destination countries as well as in countries of origin. The movement of skilled workers represents on one hand a brain gain for the countries that benefit from their skills and experiences, as welcomed by the EU, and on the other hand, a brain drain for their countries of origin. In a classical North-South divide paradigm, some countries are increasingly looking to attract the types of international workers and students whose skills they need, while overlooking the detrimental development impact such demographic changes can have when losing educated and highly skilled workers.
Some important questions arise from this: How does this new translocal movement create new development opportunities, but also restrict people’s possibilities to escape from poverty? How to deconstruct discourses on migrants’ illegality and how to observe situations of exploitation and unsafe conditions for people staying in urban slums for an unplanned period of time? What kind of contribution do the home country households receive beyond financial remittances? The recent economic crisis has posed additional challenges to the migrant-versus-native economic and social relations, often resulting in xenophobic responses and closed societies, a major challenge for democracy today (24th June 2015).

Further reading and links

Schuster, Nadja (2015) Nurturing the development potential of migration, in: The New European, Issue 5, pp. 36 - 39, UNITEE (New European Business Confederation), Summer 2015, Brussels.

Ilker Ataç, Michael Fanizadeh, Albert Kraler und Wolfram Manzenreiter (Hg.) (2014) Migration und Entwicklung - Neue Perspektiven. Promedia, Wien.

Gammeltoft-Hansen, T. (ed.), Nyberg Sorensen, N. (2012) The Migration Industry and the Commercialization of International Migration (Global Institutions), December 12, 2012.

Castles, S. & Miller, M.J. (2009) The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (4th edition). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Cresswell, T. (2006) On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, May 24, 2006.

Is there room in Thessaloniki for refugees and asylum seekers?, 13th December 2011, Symbiosis.

Migration Policy Institute

Symbiosis Greece