6 takeaways for re-imagining migration partnerships

10 November 2021

Takeaways from the Vienna Migration Conference 2021, held 19-20 October 2021

The Vienna Migration Conference 2021 featured two days of intensive and wide-ranging discussions exploring challenges, opportunities and strategies for re-imagining, and ultimately strengthening, migration partnerships. Participants shared many different experiences and perspectives – but also some common points on what should come next.

With the understanding that migration is a complex and often politically sensitive phenomenon, panellists stressed the need for holistic, yet multiple, solutions to solving current challenges. While partnership is an important governance tool, it is necessary to maintain a sense of realism as to what migration cooperation can actually achieve. For partnerships to deliver the desired outcomes, building trust is fundamental – both within the European Union and between Europe and partner countries – and focussing first on areas of common interest can pave the way for discussions on more controversial issues. Trust building needs time and partners often under-invest in or under-estimate the time needed to really listen to and try to understand each other. Also central, cooperation must take place on an equal footing – an approach that might be characterised by joint leadership and shared responsibility. All parties should provide a credible offer and credible demands to their partners. It is also critical that the right people are on board, and cooperation should overall encompass multiple levels of government, in addition to migrants and labour market actors.

Given the myriad complexities and considerations, how should migration partnerships be re-imagined? Below are six fresh takeaways.

1.    Migration partnerships are synonymous with foreign policy.

The internal and external dimensions of migration policy are inherently interconnected, yet finding the right expression for this in terms of diplomatic priorities can be complicated. Although Ministries of Interior are usually the authorities entrusted with migration management, their bargaining power is often limited, meaning that foreign policy can and should play a greater role in forging partnerships. Panellists underscored that better coordination, and the use of foreign policy, would enable the EU to make more compelling offers to its counterparts. However, although foreign policy actors should empower migration partnerships, foreign policy should not be dependent on such cooperation to the exclusion of all else.

2.    Don’t forget the neighbours of your neighbours. 

In supporting partnerships, Europe often focuses on its direct neighbourhood or on countries of origin. But countries in between – those along the migration routes – are also important to engage. For instance, the southern borders of North African countries are often disregarded when responding to migration flows – despite the fact that most mixed-migration movements in Africa take place within rather than beyond the region. These gaps and realities need to be acknowledged via programming that supports neighbours in working with their neighbours, so that ultimately people do not feel a need to migrate or can do so safely. Taking a whole-of-migration-routes approach follows a similar logic.

3.    To engage or not to engage?

Partnerships can be controversial. When potential partners are controversial, like the Taliban, political leaders face a common challenge: Is it better to have no partnership or to enter into a controversial one? Panellists expressed different opinions, particularly regarding the Taliban. However, there was a consensus that, regarding Afghanistan, humanitarian aid trumps all – and engagement and dialogue with the Taliban is a precondition for providing humanitarian assistance – but this does not have to mean recognition. The ongoing situation at the EU’s border with Belarus also received special attention, where the instrumentalisation of migrants as a foreign policy tool brings the crisis outside the realm of migration management. In this exceptional case, the EU is in a uniquely difficult situation because there is no partner. 

4.    Pave the way for public acceptance.

It is not just the partner but the topic in question that can spark controversy. Public opinion can be an impediment to migration cooperation and must be considered in the design of and narratives about partnership. For Europe’s partner countries, expanding legal pathways is key for selling cooperation to their publics, so a narrow focus on controversial issues such as return often leads to deadlock. Focusing the narrative around common interests can create needed political space for entering into and implementing joint initiatives. A common interest is controlled migration, for all partners involved, but there should be an understanding that control does not only mean discouraging irregular migration, it also means providing legal pathways. 

5.    Be a fair and foul weather friend.

We tend to redirect attention – and funds – if we don’t see an urgency, but partnerships should be seen as a tool in both good and bad times. Migration partnerships should be reliable and long-term, whether in a time of stability or crisis. Instead of jumping from crisis to crisis, panellists stressed that partners should invest in enduring cooperation, maintaining dialogue even if there are no immediate results. Zooming in on the EU’s immediate neighbourhood, the case of Belarus highlights that migration is an ever-changing phenomenon and both routes and flows can shift rapidly. 

6.    Don’t reinvent the wheel. 

Re-imagined partnerships do not necessarily mean introducing new initiatives – quite the contrary. Implementing the commitments partners have already taken, and using existing migration dialogues (e.g. the Rabat and Khartoum Processes), is a useful way forward. Panellists mentioned the Joint Valletta Action Plan several times as a tool that needed dusting off. In other words, what is needed now is less paper and more action. The appointment of an EU migration partnership coordinator, whose job it is to bring together stakeholders working on various aspects of migration partnerships and support work towards common objectives, was suggested as one potential way to achieve better coordination and operationalisation. 

By Caitlin Katsiaficas and Justyna Segeš Frelak