Getting to grips – Is mixed migration the ultimate ‘social mess’?

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The debate around mixed migration has become highly polarized. Several articles and interviews in the Mixed Migration Review 2018, as well as current public discourse, media coverage, and changes in the global political context, offer clear evidence of this. It often seems that on one side of the debate there are those with a more principled perspective who prioritize solidarity, the upholding of the rights of people on the move, and the obligations of states in applying principles according to national, regional and international legislation. And that on the other, there are those who believe that political and social realities necessitate a more pragmatic approach.

Hark the silent majority

Human rights organizations feature on the “principles” side of the debate, while populist governments and conservative groups inhabit the other — although even traditionally centrist parties are increasingly adopting a more conservative discourse on migration in order to attract voters. There are those sometimes described as idealists, or even radicals, who advocate open borders, versus those who argue the only realistic and pragmatic option is to control migration.

Yet even presenting this debate as one between principled idealists and pragmatic realists is an oversimplification. It falsely assumes all people fall neatly on one side or the other. It is more likely the two poles are mainly occupied only by vocal minorities, while the silent majority lies somewhere in between.

Mixed migration is such a complex phenomenon, especially in terms of how to respond to it, that it could be described as a “social mess”. The concept of social mess, introduced by the political scientist Robert Horn, refers to political-social problems that are so complex and ambiguous that they have no real solution. In aiming to shed further light on what it is that makes mixed migration such a polemical issue, this article applies the social mess concept to better frame and comprehend its characteristics.

Characteristics of social mess1

Horn identified the following characteristics of a social mess:

Source: R.E. Horn, Standform University (Used with appreciation).

This article explores a selection of these characteristics that are most relevant to analysing the complexities of mixed migration, namely:

  • Absence of a unique “correct” view of the problem
  • Most problems are connected to other problems
  • Considerable uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Ideological and cultural constraints, multiple value conflicts
  • Radically different views of the problem, contradictory solutions and numerous possible intervention points
  • Political constraints
  • Uncertain or missing data
  • Problem solver(s) are out of contact with the problems and potential solutions

1) Absence of a unique ‘correct’ view

This is clearly the case with mixed migration. What exactly is the problem? Migration in itself is not a problem. Rather, it is an inherent feature of human society and history, and often has many beneficial outcomes for migrants themselves, countries of origin and destination countries. Is it the number of people in mixed migration flows? Taking Europe as an example, even though the numbers decreased sharply since 2016, a sense of crisis has persisted, so, no, it not just about numbers. Is it that people in mixed migration flows come to destination countries with a different set of norms and values? Or that they come to take the jobs of native workers, or are underemployed and so do not contribute sufficiently to the economy? Again, no: when we look at the United States, Canada or Australia — all popular destination countries for refugees and migrants — we see countries that have been almost entirely built by successive waves of migration.

While it is impossible to point to one single problem, mixed migration is causing, or is at least associated with, several problems. There are large numbers of deaths at sea and on overland routes, and extreme levels of abuse — including physical abuse, kidnappings, sexual abuse, torture, and killings — of people on the move in mixed migration flows. The primary mode of movement in mixed migration is irregular, which raises various questions about national border management, security, sovereign right of nations, as well as immigration and multicultural policies.

Irregular movement also fuels criminality, in the form of a multi-billion-dollar migrant smuggling industry. It is associated with widespread collusion and corruption of state officials in transit and destination countries, which erodes the authority and integrity of states. The mixed composition of the flows leads an increasing number of people to question the motives of those within them, and to increasingly open calls for an adjustment, or even an abandonment, of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This threatens asylum space.2 And due to the polemical nature of the discussions around migration, minority and single-issue populist forces in politics are gaining more and more traction. Moreover, the impact of irregular mixed migration on politics in liberal democracies is causing deep concern, effecting significant changes in many countries, and threatening the cohesion of political and economic blocs, most notably the European Union.

2) Most problems are connected to other problems

All the problems described above are interrelated. Furthermore, the issue of mixed migration is related to an almost endless list of other, sometimes deeper, and at least equally complex issues. In the case of migration and forced displacement, this list includes: armed conflict (including inter-communal conflict); trade in arms and oil; geopolitics; globalization; climate change; colonial histories; corruption and poor governance; unemployment; economy; and socio-structural and socio-economic changes.3 There has been a growing interest in policy circles in the drivers and root causes of unsafe, irregular migration. These too are related to and overlap with the abovementioned issues.  All this complicates constructive discussion of mixed migration and obstructs efforts to address it.

3) Uncertainty and ambiguity

Mixed migration is a social mess because it is not clear-cut. By definition, its flows include a wide variety of people with mixed motivations. It includes refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution, and migrants seeking better lives and opportunities. However, as described in the introduction to this review, migrants who left their home countries voluntarily may also be fleeing situations of insecurity, while refugees are also seeking better lives and opportunities. How are we to distinguish between refugees and migrants in these mixed movements, or to define who needs international protection and who does not? What is to be done with those who, under international law, are not in need of international protection? While international law, including refugee law, provides some answers, these answers leave a gap when it comes to many more ideological and value-driven questions.

4) Ideological and cultural constraints, multiple value conflicts

Legislation often determines whether someone arriving irregularly in a destination country is granted international protection. But how does this align with fairness? Why should one person be more deserving of such protection than another? Who are policy makers to decide that someone who felt compelled to leave his home country and took the risk to embark on a long and dangerous journey does not have the right, or deserve, to stay in their destination country? While everyone on the move believes their reasons for doing so are justified, when these are based on economic factors they can expect to receive less sympathy from the host population in their destination.

What about migrants who moved to Libya primarily for economic reasons but then move on to Europe because of the deteriorating security and abuse of migrants in Libya? What about recognized refugees who leave refugee camps or urban areas where they enjoy international protection and some material support but lack decent livelihood opportunities, dignity and hope? Do they have a greater right to settle anywhere in developed countries than the millions in the global South who live below the poverty line but have a near-zero chance of being granted asylum because they are not fleeing war or persecution? In other words, why should physical safety trump economic safety when it comes to meriting international protection?

Migration and refugee issues touch upon many other broader aspects of life, such as identity, culture, faith, ideology, ethics, values, society, history, solidarity and compassion. But is this solidarity with — and compassion for — those far away who come to one’s country, or those nearby who are worried about migration?

The highest of stakes

The fundamental, indeed existential, problem for governments and advocates alike is that discussion around migration policies is not just technical as it is in other policy areas, even those that inspire passion in some. It is of an entirely different category to, say, an efficient national transportation network, or a well-managed healthcare system with a sufficient number of hospital beds, or decent education. Migration is not just about numbers crossing borders. It quickly becomes a matter of culture, social values, access to services, jobs, (i.e. issues that touch everyone) and human rights. For the refugees and migrants themselves, the stakes are even higher: they are increasingly a matter of life or death.

Ideological positions also play a prominent role in the debate around borders and free movement, one where idealists might clash with realists. There are those who reject the very concept of nation states and believe in the ideal of free movement globally.4 There are those in favour of free movement because of the perceived injustices of the world’s current border regime, in which those born in prosperous states enjoy prospects unknown to many in poorer parts of the world. Similarly, there is the argument that Western states have profited from colonial relationships with many of the countries where migrants are coming from, and that Western countries still set the rules of the global economy to their own advantage.

Freedom’s limits

Those on the other end of the spectrum might point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights only enshrines the right of freedom of movement within states, and the right to leave your country, but that there is no fundamental right to enter another country. Or they might simply dismiss arguments in favour of free movement and open borders as the utopian fantasies of philosophers or unrealistic and naïve idealists. A July 2018 article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, for example, argued that “to maintain social cohesion, you need to control immigration. To control immigration, you need strong borders. And to have strong borders, you need to be prepared to adopt tough policies.”

However, even in the debate around open borders and free movement, it is not only social-cultural values and ideological arguments that play a role. It can be basic economic arguments as well. According to the economist Michael Clemens, there would be “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” for our global economy if only we removed the existing barriers to free movement of people on a global scale. According to Clemens, policies that restrict emigration are the “greatest single class of distortions in the global economy”, and their removal may have a positive impact “much larger than those available through any other shift in a single class of global economic policy”.

Others argue that sustained migration is simply a matter of survival for many rich countries. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ International Migration Report 2017, “between 2000 and 2015, positive net migration contributed to 42 percent of the population growth observed in Northern America and 31 percent in Oceania. In Europe, instead of growing by two percent, the size of the population would have fallen by one percent in the absence of a net inflow of migrants.”

5) Different views, contradictory solutions, multiple intervention points

How mixed migration should be addressed; why, where and how to intervene; and pinpointing the problem to be solved, are all areas where the pragmatic realist and the principled idealist might clash most fiercely.

Several examples clearly show how difficult it is to strike a balance between being pragmatic and being principled, and how often one comes at the expense of the other. Not necessarily in the idea, but clearly in the implementation.

For those in peril

As described in the Mixed Migration Review 2018, one of the most pressing problems associated with mixed migration is the high number of deaths at sea. There are diametrically opposed ideas about how to reduce or altogether stop such fatalities. Some argue that if you open borders and create legal migration channels anyone would be able to board a safe ferry or airplane and so there would be no need for dangerous sea crossings. But how realistic and politically feasible is such a “solution”? Aren’t those who advocate for the rights of people on the move and who want to end deaths at sea also morally obliged to come up with proposals that stand a chance of getting implemented? Or is it sufficient to advocate for principles and ideals that might not be implemented soon?

On the other hand, there are those who argue that irregular migration should be stopped. That, for example, fast returns of those ineligible for asylum or other forms of legal stay would deter and discourage people from undertaking dangerous crossings and thereby end deaths at sea.

The price of pragmatism

For example, Australia, faced with a high number of deaths at sea, adopted a pragmatic approach by introducing a “stop the boats” policy under its Operation Sovereign Borders in combination with well-managed, regular labour migration, and a high number of resettlement places for refugees. (Australia ranks high among the countries taking in the largest share of resettled refugees, both absolutely and per capita.) In doing so, Australia has been successful at ending irregular maritime migration and, by extension, ending all migrant and refugee deaths in Australian territorial waters. However, it has also breached international legislation by not allowing asylum seekers who reached Australian territory to apply for asylum. Moreover, Australia has sent asylum seekers to detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they housed in poor conditions and where a range of abuses have been reported. Clearly, by adopting a “pragmatic” approach, Australia did end the tragedy of migrant deaths at sea, but it also compromised on its principles and replaced one tragedy with another.

In a slightly different example, the EU has tried to control refugee and migrant flows between Turkey and Greece and to end deaths at sea through the EU-Turkey deal. While the number of such deaths did indeed decrease, the deal has left thousands of migrants stuck on the Greek islands in inhumane living conditions, leading to preventable deaths within the European Union. The architects of the EU-Turkey Statement would argue that, if correctly implemented, the deal would offer the most humane way of ending deaths at sea and of sharing the burden of refugees in Turkey, while avoiding the disastrous conditions on Greek islands.

Germany’s backlash

In the midst of the so-called migration and refugee crisis in Europe, Germany initially took on a principled approach by welcoming a large number of refugees and saying it could handle the volume. However, there has been a backlash. Chancellor Angela Merkel lost much support in the 2017 federal elections and xenophobic sentiment has been on the rise across Germany, with anti-migration and refugee demonstrations. As a result, Germany’s approach has changed to become more pragmatic. Germany was one of the driving forces behind the EU-Turkey deal, and Angela Merkel toured several countries in Africa in 2017 and 2018 — including Niger, Algeria, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria — to discuss cooperation on migration. Merkel’s open-door decision has been described “the right mistake” in a situation in which every possible policy choice was in some way an error.

In short, it is difficult to do it right, and solutions can appear contradictory. It is not always clear where exactly to intervene. Should people be discouraged from leaving their countries of origin in the first place? Should the flows of refugees and economic migrants be “de-mixed”? If so, should this be done as close as possible to countries of origin? Should interventions focus on why people are leaving and fleeing their countries? Should the focus be on conflict-resolution and peacebuilding to avoid forced displacement? Or on improving conditions in refugee camps to avoid onward movement? Or should destination countries invest in regular labour migration and increase resettlement places for refugees, in order to change the modality of movement from “unsafe and irregular” to “safe and regular”? Or should interventions primarily be focused on arrivals, in terms of investments in quality integration for those who can stay, and on fast, dignified and sustainable returns for those who cannot?

Where to start?

A comprehensive approach to mixed migration should probably answer all these questions and more, but where to start? Currently, examples from across the world point to a tendency where “control” takes primacy over the desire to uphold principles. Not just liberal humanitarian values in general, but specific, agreed principles, and stipulations of international protection. The US government’s approach to people irregularly crossing its southern border with Mexico, including its “zero tolerance” policy, which has led to family separations and widespread detentions; Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders and placement of boat migrants in detention on Nauru and Manus Island; and European governments’ handling of people trying to cross the Mediterranean, their increasing denial of access to ports and bans on NGO rescue boats, are all illustrations of this tendency.

There are brutal contradictions between solutions that are being developed and agreed upon and the reality of daily practice. The Global Compact for Migration includes in Objective 8 a commitment to “cooperate internationally to save lives and prevent migrant deaths”. Yet September 2018 saw the highest death rate ever recorded in the Mediterranean. Almost one in every five people attempting the crossing from Libya died or went missing that month. This tragic statistic resulting from the current approach to migration and protection is a far cry from the ideals agreed upon during the compact’s negotiations.

6) Political constraints

To some extent, this lack of comprehensive approaches is caused by the political constraints that many governments in destination countries face. Migration has become a topic to win or lose elections over. Populism is on the rise and in many countries populist parties have migration as their top agenda item. Meanwhile, more mainstream political parties wrestle with how to appease voters by adopting more restrictive policies and discourse on migration. Even if evidence points to the overall positive contribution of migration or to the fact that many destination countries need migrant labour, politicians feel increasingly constrained to embrace the positive aspects of migration.

7) Uncertain or missing data

There are many unknowns, and there is still limited data on mixed migration, partly because of its irregular nature. How many people are on the move in mixed migration flows? How many people reside in countries of destination irregularly? Over the course of 2015 and 2016, regular claims were published about the hundreds of thousands, or more than a million, migrants apparently waiting in Libya to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Nobody knows the actual number, though with arrivals in Italy between 95,000 and 180,000 per year between 2015 and 2017, clearly “hundreds of thousands” was an overestimation. There are many other examples where the volume of (potential) migration is being overestimated. According to the Gallup World Poll, there are more than 700 million people in the world expressing a desire to migrate, with the highest percentage in sub-Sahara Africa. However, far fewer are actively planning to migrate, and fewer still have taken specific steps to embark on journeys.

There are also examples where the volume of future migration has been underestimated. Migration from Eastern European countries to the United Kingdom is a good example. In other words, there are limited data to rely on when it comes to preparing and developing longer term migration policies. Statistics on irregular migration are generally missing from regular and official migration statistics, including the data from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the World Bank. In 2013/14, Saudi Arabia started a campaign to deport irregular migrants. According to UNDESA statistics, there are around 20,000 Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia, which was the figure used by the Ethiopian government and other actors to prepare for the reception of deportees. Over the course of four months, Saudi Arabia deported 170,000 Ethiopians, most of whom had travelled to Saudi Arabia irregularly and did not feature in official migration data.

Conclusion: burst your bubbles

This article explored whether mixed migration has become a “social mess”. It has. But applying the concept of social mess does not provide answers or solutions to the many difficult questions raised by mixed migration. It does not provide guidance on where to stand on the continuum between principles and pragmatism, or between realism and idealism.

It does help us, however, to understand that presenting mixed migration as a single “problem” that we need to “solve” is a simplification of reality. Just like presenting the choice as one between idealism and realism, or between principles and pragmatism, is an unhelpful simplification. The social mess concept also helps to grasp that not all those presenting views from the extremes of the continuum are uninformed naïve idealists at one end, or inhumane pragmatists at the other. Their perspectives are often more nuanced.

The debates and the searches for comprehensive approaches and policies are not well-served by dismissing others’ arguments out of hand. The challenge is to find the right balance between pragmatic approaches that manage to uphold principles and values. Or between principled approaches that are feasible and can be pragmatically implemented. Sometimes compromises may need to be made, just as democratically elected coalition governments need to strike a balance between the interests of many different segments of society.

Those who seek the pragmatism of exclusionary solutions need to be more realistic and accept that we have principles for a reason. Those who seek only a principled position also need to be more realistic and find a way, not to surrender their principles, but to go back to some of the basics and see how they can be adapted to the reality of the current situation.


1. This article draws heavily on a 2015 article on the Dutch media outlet De Correspondent whose editor-in-chief, the philosopher Rob Wijnberg applied the concept of social mess to the European refugee crisis: Wijnberg, R. (2015) ‘Waarom de vluchtelingenkwestie een goud-wit-zwart-blauw jurkje is’ (‘Why the refugee issue is a gold-white-black-blue dress’)

2. Betts, A. & Collier, P. (2017) ‘Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System’ p266. Penguin Random House.

3. Wijnberg, R. (2015) ‘Waarom de vluchtelingenkwestie een goud-wit-zwart-blauw jurkje is’

4. Jones, R. (2016) ‘Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move’, Verso.