The Reframing of the Migration Challenge

Immigration and border control have been central topics to electoral debates in France since the late 1980s. Heavily politicised, they have been framed in many different forms over the years, from issues regarding the access to citizenship to discussions around “regularisation”, or the opposition between “chosen” vs. “suffered” immigration, not to mention the controversies concerning the Roma people in more recent times.

Since the summer of 2015, the challenge of migration has formed part of a wider crisis that has strained the cohesion of the European Union (EU), caused by a lack of consensus and solidarity among member states when it comes to accepting migrants who have arrived via Greece and Italy.

A new narrative

This wider context explains why the debate is now centred on a new category, the refugee. This category has eclipsed older issues, such as the relationship between familial and professional immigration, or an amnesty for irregular immigrants.

This new context also governed how the question of the Calais migrants was framed when the government dismantled the “jungle” in 2016. The people who lived there had long been described in terms of irregular immigration and transit to Great Britain. But once the public reasoning was framed around the issue of asylum, many of these same people ended up being recognized as in need of the sort of international protection accorded to refugees.

Nonetheless, by focusing on the figure of the refugee, the debate has come to be organised around a distinction between “genuine” and “fake” refugees. Yet this distinction does not mean much in practice, because it does not account for the complexities of the situation on the ground.

The European dimension

To a large extent, the future of the EU is at stake in this reframing of the migration issue. While the current tensions between member states stemmed from their inability to anticipate the situation in Syria and in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, they also show, above all, that the stances adopted by different European countries are incompatible. Many governments, with Hungary’s Viktor Orban as their flag bearer, believe that those who have entered Europe since 2015 are, for the most part, “economic migrants” who pose a threat to the cohesion and security of European nations. One of the biggest challenges ahead will be to overcome these divisions. This can be achieved in three ways.

Crafting a new long-term strategy that is coherent and global

The negotiations that are beginning on the reform of the Common European Asylum System could, in theory, represent an opportunity, but the proposals that have been submitted so far do not appear to recognise it as such. Consensus is in short supply, with members states having agreed only on the short-term fix of “off-shoring” the EU’s border controls. Yet even here, ambiguity hangs over the agreements struck with third parties, such as Turkey, and how these will affect the EU’s foreign policy. Over the long term, these “partnership” agreements have never proved effective in resolving the migration issue in such a way as to address its many different dimensions, such as sovereignty, border control, respect for fundamental rights, the obligations of international protection, and economic development. Crafting a more coherent and long term strategy is therefore urgent.

Preparing for a new influx, similar to that of 2015

Since September 2015, the EU has buckled down on the task of responding to the humanitarian emergency on its territory and of laying the foundations for a new Common European Asylum System. Yet the measures and mechanisms required to improve asylum policies have been known about for a long time. Indeed, they were set out by the Tampere European Council in 1999: harmonising national systems, European solidarity and the enlargement of legal routes for entering Europe. The problem is that individual states have not committed to these measures. National concerns have taken precedence and generated friction, including between Germany and France, which approach the subject from very different angles. With this in mind, we need to acknowledge the true scale of the problem: the European process itself is failing and the refugee question is merely an alibi.

Overcoming the identity question

In view of its history and the values it proclaims, France is in a good position to drive this agenda forward. Current circumstances could help in this respect. France has not been affected by the increase in the number of refugees to the same extent as other countries. Yet, the framing of immigration as a threat to national identity is an obstacle to any possible progress in this area. The 2017 Presidential election campaign and the many uncertainties surrounding it have politicised the debate on immigration, as the Right and the Centre-Right and Socialist Presidential primaries have shown. It is the Front National, however, which has set the tone on immigration since the mid-1980s. What is new is the resonance that these identity-centred approaches to the “migration challenge” have found abroad, from Brexit to the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders has exploited this theme to dominate the electoral campaign even if he lost the election, to the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

Christophe Bertossi and Matthieu Tardis, Ifri’s Center for Migration and Citizenship