▲ Flood rescue in the Afghan village of Jalalabad, in 2010 [NATO]
ESSAY / Alejandro J. Alfonso
In December of 2019, Madrid hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25, in an effort to raise awareness and induce action to combat the effects of climate change and global warming. COP25 is another conference in a long line of efforts to combat climate change, including the Kyoto Protocol of 2005 and the Paris Agreement in 2016. However, what the International Community has failed to do in these conferences and agreements is address the issue of those displaced by the adverse effects of Climate Change, what some call “Climate Refugees”.
In 1951, six years after the conclusion of the Second World War and three years after the creation of the State of Israel, a young organization called the United Nations held an international convention on the status of refugees. According to Article 1 section A of this convention, the status of refugee would be given to those already recognized as refugees by earlier conventions, dating back to the League of Nations, and those who were affected “as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…”. However, as this is such a narrow definition of a refugee, the UN reconvened in 1967 to remove the geographical and time restrictions found in the 1951 convention, thus creating the 1967 Protocol.
Since then, the United Nations General Assembly and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have worked together to promote the rights of refugees and to continue the fight against the root causes of refugee movements. In 2016, the General Assembly made the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, followed by the Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, in which was established four objectives: “(i) ease pressures on host countries; (ii) enhance refugee self-reliance; (iii) expand access to third country solutions; and (iv) support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity”. Defined as ‘interlinked and interdependent objectives’, the Global Compact aims to unite the political will of the International Community and other major stakeholders in order to have ‘equitalized, sustained and predictable contributions’ towards refugee relief efforts. Taking a holistic approach, the Compact recognizes that various factors may affect refugee movements, and that several interlinked solutions are needed to combat these root causes.
While the UN and its supporting bodies have made an effort to expand international protection of refugees, the definition on the status of refugees remains largely untouched since its initial applications in 1951 and 1967. “While not in themselves causes of refugee movements, climate, environmental degradation and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements”.3 The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that the increase of the average temperature of the planet, commonly known as Global Warming, can lead to an increase in the intensity and occurrence of natural disasters. Furthermore, this is reinforced by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which has found that the number of those displaced by natural disasters is higher than the number of those displaced by violence or conflict on a yearly basis, as shown in Table 1. In an era in which there is great preoccupation and worry concerning the adverse effects of climate change and global warming, the UN has not expanded its definition of refugee to encapsulate those who are displaced due to natural disasters caused by, allegedly, climate change.
Table 1 / Global Internal Displacement Database, from IDMC
This present paper will be focused on the study of Central America and Southeast Asia as my study subjects. The first reason for which these two regions have been selected is that both are the first and second most disaster prone areas in the world, respectively. Secondly, the countries found within these areas can be considered as developing states, with infrastructural, economic, and political issues that can be aggravating factors. Finally, both have been selected due to the hegemonic powers within those hemispheres: the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. Both of these powers have an interest in how a ‘refugee’ is defined due to concerns over these two regions, and worries over becoming receiving countries to refugee flows.
As aforementioned, the intensity and frequency of natural disasters are expected to increase due to irregularities brought upon by an increase in the average temperature of the ocean. Figure 1 shows that climate driven disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean have slowly been increasing since the 1970s, along with the world average, and are expected to increase further in the years to come. In a study by Omar D. Bello, the rate of climate related disasters in Central America increased by 326% from the year 1970 to 1999, while from 2000 to 2009 the total number of climate disasters were 143 and 148 in Central America and the Caribbean respectively. On the other hand, while research conducted by Holland and Bruyère has not concluded an increase in the number of hurricanes in the North Atlantic, there has been an upward trend in the proportion of Category 4-5 hurricanes in the area .
This increase in natural disasters, and their intensity, can have a hard effect on those countries which have a reliance on agriculture. Agriculture as a percentage of GDP has been declining within the region in recent years due to policies of diversification of economies. However, in the countries of Honduras and Nicaragua the percentage share of agriculture is still slightly higher than 10%, while in Guatemala and Belize agriculture is slightly below 10% of GDP share. Therefore, we can expect high levels of emigration from the agricultural sectors of these countries, heading toward higher elevations, such as the Central Plateau of Mexico, and the highlands of Guatemala. Furthermore, we can expect mass migration movements from Belize, which is projected to be partially submerged by 2100 due to rising sea levels.
Figure 2 / Climate Risk Index 2020, from German Watch
The second region of concern is Southeast Asia, the region most affected by natural disasters, according to the research by Bello, mentioned previously. The countries of Southeast Asia are ranked in the top ten countries projected to be at most risk due to climate change, shown in Figure 2 above. Southeast Asia is home to over 650 million people, about 8% of total world population, with 50% living in urban areas. Recently, the OECD concluded that while the share in GDP of agriculture and fisheries has declined in recent years, there is still a heavy reliance on these sectors to push economy in the future. In 2014, the Asian Development Bank carried out a study analyzing the possible cost of climate change on several countries in the region. It concluded that a possible loss of 1.8% in the GDP of six countries could occur by 2050. These six countries had a high reliance on agriculture as part of the GDP, for example Bangladesh with around 20% of GDP and 48% of the workforce being dedicated to agricultural goods. Therefore, those countries with a high reliance on agricultural goods or fisheries as a proportion of GDP can be expected to be the sources of large climate migration in the future, more so than in the countries of Central America.
One possible factor is the vast river system within the area, which is susceptible to yearly flooding. With an increase in average water levels, we can expect this flooding to worsen gradually throughout the years. In the case of Bangladesh, 28% of the population lives on a coastline which sits below sea level. With trends of submerged areas, Bangladesh is expected to lose 11% of its territory due to rising sea levels by 2050, affecting approximately 15 million inhabitants. Scientists have reason to believe that warmer ocean temperatures will not only lead to rising sea levels, but also an intensification and increase of frequency in typhoons and monsoons, such as is the case with hurricanes in the North Atlantic.
Taking into account the analysis provided above, there are two possible migration movements: internal or external. In respect to internal migration, climate migrants will begin to move towards higher elevations and temperate climates to avoid the extreme weather that forced their exodus. The World Bank report, cited above, marked two locations within Central America that fulfil these criteria: the Central Plateau of Mexico, and the highlands of Guatemala. Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, climate migrants will move inwards in an attempt to flee the rising waters, floods, and storms.
However, it is within reason to believe that there will be significant climate migration flows towards the USA and the Popular Republic of China (PRC). Both the United States and China are global powers, and as such have a political stability and economic prowess that already attracts normal migration flows. For those fleeing the effects of climate change, this stability will become even more so attractive as a future home. For those in Southeast Asia, China becomes a very desired destination. With the second largest land area of any country, and with a large central zone far from coastal waters, China provides a territorial sound destination. As the hegemon in Asia, China could easily acclimate these climate migrants, sending them to regions that could use a larger agricultural workforce, if such a place exists within China.
In the case of Central America, the United States is already a sought-after destination for migrant movements, being the first migrant destination for all Central American countries save Nicaragua, whose citizens migrate in greater number to Costa Rica. With the world’s largest economy, and with the oldest democracy in the Western hemisphere, the United States is a stable destination for any refugee. In regard to relocation plans for areas affected by natural disasters, the United States also has shown it is capable of effectively moving at-risk populations, such as the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement program in the state of Louisiana.
While some would opine that ‘climate migrants’ and ‘climate refugees’ are interchangeable terms, they are unfortunately not. Under international law, there does not exist ‘climate refugees’. The problem with ‘climate refugees’ is that there is currently no political will to change the definition of refugee to include this new category among them. In the case of the United States, section 101(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the definition of a refugee follows that of the aforementioned 1951 Geneva convention, once again leaving out the supposed ‘climate refugees’. The Trump administration has an interest in maintaining this status quo, especially in regard to its hard stance in stopping the flow of illegal immigrants coming from Central America. If a resolution should pass the United Nations Security Council, the Trump administration would have no choice but to change section 101(42) of the INA, thus risking an increased number of asylum applicants to the US. Therefore, it can confidently be projected that the current administration, and possibly future administrations, would utilize the veto power, given to permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, on such a resolution.
China, the strongest regional actor in Asia, does not have to worry about displeasing the voter. Rather, they would not allow a redefinition of refugee to pass the UN Security Council for reasons concerning the stability and homogeneity of the country. While China does accept refugees, according to the UNHCR, the number of refugees is fairly low, especially those from the Middle East. This is mostly likely due to the animosity that the Chinese government has for the Muslim population. In fact, the Chinese government has a tense relationship with organized religion in and of itself, but mostly with Islam and Buddhism. Therefore, it is very easy to believe that China would veto a redefinition of refugee to include ‘climate refugees’, in that that would open its borders to a larger number of asylum seekers from its neighboring countries. This is especially unlikely when said neighbors have a high concentration of Muslims and Buddhists: Bangladesh is 90% Muslim, and Burma (Myanmar) is 87% Buddhist. Furthermore, both countries have known religious extremist groups that cause instability in civil society, a problem the Chinese government neither needs nor wants.
On the other hand, there is also the theory that the causes of climate migration simply cannot be measured. Natural disasters have always been a part of human history and have been a cause of migration since time immemorial. Therefore, how can we know if migrations are taking place due to climate factors, or due to other aggravating factors, such as political or economic instability? According to a report by the French think tank ‘Population and Societies’, when a natural disaster occurs, the consequences remain localized, and the people will migrate only temporarily, if they leave the affected zone at all. This is due to the fact that usually that society will bind together, working with familial relations to surpass the event. The report also brings to light an important issue touched upon in the studies mentioned above: there are other factors that play in a migration due to a natural disaster. Véron and Golaz in their report cite that the migration caused by the Ethiopian drought of 1984 was also due in part to bad policies by the Ethiopian government, such as tax measures or non-farming policies.
The lack of diversification of the economies of these countries, and the reliance on agriculture could be such an aggravating factor. Agriculture is very susceptible to changes in climate patterns and are affected when these climate patterns become irregular. This can relate to a change of expected rainfall, whether it be delayed, not the quantity needed, or no rainfall at all. Concerning the rising sea levels and an increase in floods, the soil of agricultural areas can be contaminated with excess salt levels, which would remain even after the flooding recedes. For example, the Sula Valley in Honduras generates 62% of GDP, and about 68% of the exports, but with its rivers and proximity to the ocean, also suffers from occasional flooding. Likewise, Bangladesh's heavy reliance on agriculture, being below sea level, could see salt contamination in its soil in the near future, damaging agricultural property.
Reliance on agriculture alone does not answer why natural disasters could cause large emigration in the region. Bello and Professor Patricia Weiss Fagen find that issues concerning the funding of local relief projects, corruption in local institutions, and general mismanagement of crisis response is another aggravating factor. Usually, forced migration flows finish with a return to the country or area of origin, once the crisis has been resolved. However, when the crisis has continuing effects, such as what happened in Chernobyl, for example, or when the crisis has not been correctly dealt with, this return flow does not occur. For example, in the countries composing the Northern Triangle, there are problems of organized crime which is already a factor for migration flows from the area. Likewise, the failure of Bangladesh and Myanmar to deal with extremist Buddhist movements, or the specific case of the Rohinga Muslims, could inhibit return flows and even encourage leaving the region entirely.
Recommendations and Conclusions
The definition of refugee will not be changed or modified in order to protect climate migrants. That is a political decision by countries who sit at a privileged position of not having to worry about such a crisis occurring in their own countries, nor want to be burdened by those countries who will be affected. Facing this simple reality should help to find a better alternative solution, which is the continuing efforts of the development of nations, in order that they may be self-sufficient, for their sake and the population’s sake. This fight does not have to be taken alone, but can be fought together through regional organizations who have a better understanding and grasp of the gravity of the situation, and can create holistic approaches to resolve and prevent these crises.
We should not expect the United Nations to resolve the problem of displacement due to natural disasters. The United Nations focuses on generalized and universal issues, such as that of global warming and climate change, but in my opinion is weak in resolving localized problems. Regional organizations are the correct forum to resolve this grave problem. For Central America, the Organization of American States (OAS) provides a stable forum where these countries may express their concerns with states of North and Latin America. With the re-election of Secretary General Luis Almagro, a strong and outspoken authority on issues concerning the protection of Human Rights, the OAS is the perfect forum to protect those displaced by natural disasters in the region. Furthermore, the OAS could work closely with the Inter-American Development Bank, which has the financial support of international actors who are not part of the OAS, such as Japan, Israel, Spain, and China, to establish the necessary political and structural reforms to better implement crisis management responses. This does not exclude the collusion with other international organizations, such as the UN. Interestingly, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has a project in the aforementioned Sula Valley to improve infrastructure to deal with the yearly floods.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is another example of an apt regional organization to deal with the localized issues. Mostly dealing with economic issues, this forum of ten countries could carry out mutual programs in order to protect agricultural territory, or further integrate to allow a diversification of their economies to ease this reliance on agricultural goods. ASEAN could also call forth the ASEAN +3 mechanism, which incorporates China, Japan, and South Korea, to help with the management of these projects, or for financial aid. China should be interested in the latter option, seeing as it can increase its good image in the region, as well as protecting its interest of preventing possible migration flows to its territory. The Asian Development Bank, on the other hand, offers a good alternative financial source if the ASEAN countries so choose, in order to not have heavy reliance on one country or the other.
The Trump Administration’s Newest Migration Policies and Shifting Immigrant Demographics in the USA
New Trump administration migration policies including the "Safe Third Country" agreements signed by the USA, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have reduced the number of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries at the southwest US border. As a consequence of this phenomenon and other factors, Mexicans have become once again the main national group of people deemed inadmissible for asylum or apprehended by the US Customs and Border Protection.
▲ An US Border Patrol agent at the southwest US border [cbp.gov]
ARTICLE / Alexandria Casarano Christofellis
On March 31, 2018, the Trump administration cut off aid to the Northern Triangle countries in order to coerce them into implementing new policies to curb illegal migration to the United States. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala all rely heavily on USAid, and had received 118, 181, and 257 million USD in USAid respectively in the 2017 fiscal year.
The US resumed financial aid to the Northern Triangle countries on October 17 of 2019, in the context of the establishment of bilateral negotiations of Safe Third Country agreements with each of the countries, and the implementation of the US Supreme Court’s de facto asylum ban on September 11 of 2019. The Safe Third Country agreements will allow the US to ‘return’ asylum seekers to the countries which they traveled through on their way to the US border (provided that the asylum seekers are not returned to their home countries). The US Supreme Court’s asylum ban similarly requires refugees to apply for and be denied asylum in each of the countries which they pass through before arriving at the US border to apply for asylum. This means that Honduran and Salvadoran refugees would need to apply for and be denied asylum in both Guatemala and Mexico before applying for asylum in the US, and Guatemalan refugees would need to apply for and be denied asylum in Mexico before applying for asylum in the US. This also means that refugees fleeing one of the Northern Triangle countries can be returned to another Northern Triangle country suffering many of the same issues they were fleeing in the first place.
Combined with the Trump administration’s longer-standing “metering” or “Remain in Mexico” policy (Migrant Protection Protocols/MPP), these political developments serve to effectively “push back” the US border. The “Remain in Mexico” policy requires US asylum seekers from Latin America to remain on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border to wait their turn to be accepted into US territory. Within the past year, the US government has planted significant obstacles in the way of the path of Central American refugees to US asylum, and for better or worse has shifted the burden of the Central American refugee crisis to Mexico and the Central American countries themselves, which are ill-prepared to handle the influx, even in the light of resumed US foreign aid. The new arrangements resemble the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey.
These policy changes are coupled with a shift in US immigration demographics. In August of 2019, Mexico reclaimed its position as the single largest source of unauthorized immigration to the US, having been temporarily surpassed by Guatemala and Honduras in 2018.
US Customs and Border Protection data indicates a net increase of 21% in the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador deemed inadmissible for asylum at the Southwest US Border by the US field office between fiscal year 2019 (through February) and fiscal year 2020 (through February). All other inadmissible groups (Family Units, Single Adults, etc.) experienced a net decrease of 18-24% over the same time period. For both the entirety of fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2020 through February, Mexicans accounted for 69 and 61% of Unaccompanied Alien Children Inadmisibles at the Southwest US border respectively, whereas previously in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 Mexicans accounted for only 21 and 26% of these same figures, respectively. The percentages of Family Unit Inadmisibles from the Northern Triangle countries have been decreasing since 2018, while the percentage of Family Unit Inadmisibles from Mexico since 2018 has been on the rise.
With asylum made far less accessible to Central Americans in the wake of the Trump administration's new migration policies, the number of Central American inadmisibles is in sharp decline. Conversely, the number of Mexican inadmisibles is on the rise, having nearly tripled over the past three years.
Chain migration factors at play in Mexico may be contributing to this demographic shift. On September 10, 2019, prominent Mexican newspaper El Debate published an article titled “Immigrants Can Avoid Deportation with these Five Documents.” Additionally, The Washington Post cites the testimony of a city official from Michoacan, Mexico, claiming that a local Mexican travel company has begun running a weekly “door-to-door” service line to several US border points of entry, and that hundreds of Mexican citizens have been coming to the municipal offices daily requesting documentation to help them apply for asylum in the US. Word of mouth, press coverage like that found in El Debate, and the commercial exploitation of the Mexican migrant situation have perhaps made migration, and especially the claiming of asylum, more accessible to the Mexican population.
US Customs and Border Protection data also indicates that total apprehensions of migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador attempting illegal crossings at the Southwest US border declined 44% for Unaccompanied Alien Children and 73% for Family Units between fiscal year 2019 (through February) and fiscal year 2020 (through February), while increasing for Single Adults by 4%. The same data trends show that while Mexicans have consistently accounted for the overwhelming majority of Single Adult Apprehensions since 2016, Family Unit and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions until the past year were dominated by Central Americans. However, in fiscal year 2020-February, the percentages of Central American Family Unit and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions have declined while the Mexican percentage has increased significantly. This could be attributed to the Northern Triangle countries’ and especially Mexico’s recent crackdown on the flow of illegal immigration within their own states in response to the same US sanctions and suspension of USAid which led to the Safe Third Country bilateral agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
While the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration from the Northern Triangle countries has effectively worked to limit both the legal and illegal access of Central Americans to US entry, the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration from Mexico in the past few years has focused on arresting and deporting illegal Mexican immigrants already living and working within the US borders. Between 2017 and 2018, ICE increased workplace raids to arrest undocumented immigrants by over 400% according to The Independent in the UK. The trend seemed to continue into 2019. President Trump tweeted on June 17, 2019 that “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in.” More deportations could be leading to more attempts at reentry, increasing Mexican migration to the US, and more Mexican Single Adult apprehensions at the Southwest border. The Washington Post alleges that the majority of the Mexican single adults apprehended at the border are previous deportees trying to reenter the country.
Lastly, the steadily increasing violence within the state of Mexico should not be overlooked as a cause for continued migration. Within the past year, violence between the various Mexican cartels has intensified, and murder rates have continued to rise. While the increase in violence alone is not intense enough to solely account for the spike that has recently been seen in Mexican migration to the US, internal violence nethertheless remains an important factor in the Mexican migrant situation. Similarly, widespread poverty in Mexico, recently worsened by a decline in foreign investment in the light of threatened tariffs from the USA, also plays a key role.
In conclusion, the Trump administration’s new migration policies mark an intensification of long-standing nativist tendencies in the US, and pose a potential threat to the human rights of asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. The corresponding present demographic shift back to Mexican predominance in US immigration is driven not only by the Trump administration’s new migration policies, but also by many other diverse factors within both Mexico and the US, from press coverage to increased deportations to long-standing cartel violence and poverty. In the face of these recent developments, one thing remains clear: the situation south of the Rio Grande is just as complex, nuanced, and constantly evolving as is the situation to the north on Capitol Hill in the USA.
▲ US border patrol vehicle near the fence with Mexico [Wikimedia Commons]
ESSAY / Gabriel de Lange
I. Current issues in the Northern Triangle
In recent years, the relationship between the Northern Triangle Countries (NTC) –Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador– and it’s northern neighbours Mexico and the United States has been marked in mainstream media for their surging migration patterns. As of 2019, a total of 977,509 individuals have been apprehended at the Southwest border of the US (the border with Mexico) as compared to 521,093 the previous year (years in terms of US fiscal years). Of this number, an estimated 75% have come from the NTC. These individuals are typically divided into three categories: single adults, family units, and unaccompanied alien children (UAC).
As the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports, over 65% of the population of the NTC are below 29 years of age. This is why it is rather alarming to see an increasing number of the youth population from these countries leaving their homes and becoming UAC at the border.
Why are these youths migrating? Many studies normally associate this to “push factors.” The first factor being an increase in insecurity and violence, particularly from transnational organised crime, gangs, and narco-trafficking. It is calculated that six children flee to the US for every ten homicides in the Northern Triangle. The second significant factor is weak governance and corruption; this undermines public trust in the system, worsens the effects of criminal activity, and diverts funds meant to improve infrastructure and social service systems. The third factor is poverty and lack of economic development; for example in Guatemala and Honduras, roughly 60% of people live below the poverty line.
The other perspective to explain migration is through what are called “pull factors.” An example would be the lure of economic possibilities abroad, like the high US demand for low-skilled workers, a service that citizens of NTC can provide and be better paid for that in their home countries. Another pull factor worth mentioning is lax immigration laws, if the consequences for illegal entry into a country are light, then individuals are more likely to migrate for the chance at attaining better work, educational, and healthcare opportunities.
II. US administrations’ strategies
A. The Obama administration (2008-2015)
The Obama administration for the most part used the carrot and soft power approach in its engagement with the NTC. Its main goals in the region being to “improve security, strengthen governance, and promote economic prosperity in the region”, it saw these developments in the NTC as being in the best interest of US national security.
In 2014, in the wake of the massive surge of migrants, specially UACs, the administration launched the reform initiative titled the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P). The plan expanded across Central America but with special focus on the NTC. This was a five year plan to address these “push factors” that cause people to migrate. The four main ways that the initiative aims to accomplish this is by promoting the following: first, by fostering the productivity sector to address the region’s economic instability; second, by developing human capital to increase the quality of life, which improves education, healthcare and social services; third, improving citizen security and access to justices to address the insecurity and violence threat, and lastly, strengthening institutions and improving transparency to address the concerns for weak governance and corruption.
This initiative would receive direct technical support and financing from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In addition, major funding was to be provided by the US, which for the fiscal years of 2015-2018 committed $2.6 billion split for bilateral assistance, Regional Security Strategy (RSS), and other regional services. The NTC governments themselves were major financiers of the initiative, committing approximately $8.6 billion between 2016-2018.
The administration even launched programs with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The principle one being the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), with a heavy focus on the NTC and it’s security issues, which allotted a budget of $1.2 billion in 2008. This would later evolve into the larger framework of US Strategy for Engagement in Central America in 2016.
The Obama administration also launched in 2015 the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which currently allows individuals who were brought to the US as children, and have unlawful statuses to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation. It is a policy that the Trump administration has been fighting to remove these last few years.
Although the Obama administration was quite diplomatic and optimistic in its approach, that didn’t mean it didn’t make efforts to lessen the migration factors in more aggressive ways too. In fact, the administration reportedly deported over three million illegal immigrants through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the highest amount of deportations taking place in the fiscal year of 2012 reaching 409,849 which was higher than any single one of the Trump administration’s reported fiscal years to date.
In addition, the Obama administration used educational campaigns to discourage individuals from trying to cross into the US illegally. In 2014 they also launched a Central American Minors (CAM) camp targeting children from the NTC and providing a “safe, legal and orderly alternative to US migration”. This however was later scrapped by the Trump Administration, along with any sense of reassessment brought about by Obama’s carrot approach.
Number of apprehensions and inadmissibles on the US border with Mexico [Source: CBP]
B. The Trump administration (2016-present)
The Trump administration’s strategy in the region has undoubtedly gone with the stick approach. The infamous “zero tolerance policy” which took place from April-June 2018 is a testimony to this idea, resulting in the separation of thousands of children from their parents and being reclassified as UAC. This was in an attempt to discourage individuals in the NTC from illegally entering the US and address these lax immigration laws.
From early on Trump campaigned based on the idea of placing America’s interests first, and as a result has reevaluated many international treaties and policies. In 2016 the administration proposed scaling back funds for the NTC through the A4P, however this was blocked in Congress and the funds went through albeit in a decreasing value starting with $754 million in 2016 to only $535 million in 2019.
Another significant difference between the two administrations is that while Obama’s focused on large multi-lateral initiatives like the A4P, the Trump administration has elected to focus on a more bilateral approach, one that goes back and forth between cooperation and threats, to compliment the existing strategy.
Towards the end of 2018 the US and Mexico had announced the concept of a “Marshal Plan” for Central America with both countries proposing large sums of money to be given annually to help improve the economic and security conditions in the NTC. However in this last year it has become more apparent that there will be difficulties raising funds, especially due to their reliance on private investment organisations and lack of executive cooperation. Just last May, Trump threatened to place tariffs on Mexico due to its inability to decrease immigration flow. President López Obrador responded by deploying the National Guard to Mexico’s border with Guatemala, resulting in a decrease of border apprehensions by 56% on the US Southwest border. This shows that the stick method can achieve results, but that real cooperation can not be achieved if leaders don’t see eye to eye and follow through on commitments. If large amount of funding where to be put in vague unclear programs and goals in the NTC, it is likely to end up in the wrong hands due to corruption.
In terms of bilateral agreements with NTC countries, Trump has been successful in negotiation with Guatemala and Honduras in signing asylum cooperative agreements, which has many similarities with a safe third country agreement, though not exactly worded as such. Trump struck a similar deal with El Salvador, though sweetened it by granting a solution for over 200,000 Salvadorans living in US under a Temporary Protection Status (TPS).
However, Trump has not been the only interested party in the NTC and Mexico. The United Nations’ ECLAC launched last year its “El Salvador-Guatemala-Honduras-Mexico Comprehensive Development Program”, which aims to target the root causes of migration in the NTC. It does this by promoting policies that relate to the UN 2030 agenda and the 17 sustainable development goals. The four pillars of this initiative being: economic development, social well-being, environmental sustainability, and comprehensive management of migratory patters. However the financing behind this initiative remains ambiguous and the goals behind it seem redundant. They reflect the same goals established by the A4P, just simply under a different entity.
The main difference between the Obama and Trump administrations is that the A4P takes a slow approach aiming to address the fundamental issues triggering migration patterns, the results of which will likely take 10-15 years and steady multi-lateral investment to see real progress. Meanwhile the Trump administration aims to get quick results by creating bilateral agreements with these NTC in order to distribute the negative effects of migration among them and lifting the immediate burden. Separately, neither strategy appears wholesome and convincing enough to rally congressional and public support. However, the combination of all initiatives –investing effort both in the long and short run, along with additional initiatives like ECLAC’s program to reinforce the region’s goals– could perhaps be the most effective mechanism to combat insecurity, weak governance, and economic hardships in the NTC.
 Nowrasteh, Alex. “1.3 Percent of All Central Americans in the Northern Triangle Were Apprehended by Border Patrol This Fiscal Year - So Far”. Cato at Library. June 7, 2019. Accessed November 8, 2019.
 N/A. “Triángulo Norte: Construyendo Confianza, Creando Oportunidades.” Inter-American Development Bank. Accessed November 5, 2019.
 Orozco, Manuel. “Central American Migration: Current Changes and Development Implications.” The Dialogue. November 2018. Accessed November 2019.
 Arthur, R. Andrew. “Unaccompanied Alien Children and the Crisis at the Border.” Center for Immigration Studies. April 1, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019.
 Members and Committees of Congress. “U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America: Policy Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service. Updated November 12, 2019. November 13, 2019.
 N/A. “Budgetary Resources Allocated for the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity.” Inter-American Development Bank. N/A. Accessed November 10, 2019.
 Schneider, L. Mark. Matera, A. Michael. “Where Are the Northern Triangle Countries Headed? And What Is U.S. Policy?” Centre for Strategic and International Studies. August 20, 2019. Accessed November 11, 2019.
 Nagovitch, Paola. “Explainer: U.S. Immigration Deals with Northern Triangle Countries and Mexico.” American Society/Council of Americans. October 3, 2019. Accessed November 10, 2019.
 Nagovitch, Paola. “Explainer: U.S. Immigration Deals with Northern Triangle Countries and Mexico.” American Society/Council of Americans. October 3, 2019. Accessed November 10, 2019.
 Press Release. “El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico Reaffirm their Commitment to the Comprehensive Development Plan.” ECLAC. September 19,2019. Accessed November 11, 2019.
The avalanche of unaccompanied foreign minors suffered by the Obama administration in 2014 has been overcome in 2019 by a new immigration peak
In the summer of 2014, the United States suffered a migration crisis due to an unexpected increase in the number of unaccompanied foreign minors, mostly Central Americans, who arrived at its border with Mexico. What has happened since then? Although oscillating, the volume of this type of immigration fell, but in 2019 a new record has been registered in the wake of the recent “caravan crisis”, which has increased again total apprehensions on the border.
▲ US Customs and Border Protection agents processing unaccompanied children, in Texas, at the border with Mexico, in 2014 [Hector Silva, USCBP–Wikimedia Commons]
ARTICLE / Marcelina Kropiwnicka [Spanish version]
The United States hosts more immigrants than any other country in the world, with more than one million people arriving every year either as permanent legal residents, asylum-seekers and refugees, or in other immigration categories. While there is no official measure of tracking how many people successfully cross the border illegally, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities measure the changes in illicit immigration using the amount of apprehensions per fiscal year; apprehensions being an indicator of total attempts to cross the border illegally. Looking at data, it can be concluded that there have been notable changes in the demographics of illegal migration on the southwest border with Mexico (or Southwest border) over the last few years.
The soaring peak of apprehensions on the Southwest border was in 2000 when 1.64 million persons were detained for trying to enter the US illegally. The figures have generally declined since. Interestingly enough, in recent years, there has been more overall seizures of non-Mexicans than Mexicans at US borders, reflecting a decline in the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants coming to the US over the past decade. The surge, in fact, was largely due to those fleeing violence, gang activity and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, known collectively as the Northern Triangle.
The nations included in the Northern Triangle are among the poorest in Latin America—a high percentage of the population still lives on less than $2 a day (the international poverty line is $1.90)—with minimal advancement occurring to reduce poverty in recent years. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, Honduras has the second-highest share with 17% of the population living below the international poverty line, after Haiti, according to the latest data from the World Bank.
Unaccompanied Alien Children
Far fewer single adults have been attempting to cross the border without authorization over the past decade, and a surge of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) crossing the Southwest border occurred. The migration of minors without an adult is not new; the novelty today is the size of this migration and the generation of policies in response to the issue. The spike of UAC apprehensions in FY2014 caused alarm and prompted media scrutiny and policy responses, and attention remained even as the number decreased; numbers dropped back down to just under 40,000 UAC apprehensions the following year.
The international community defines an unaccompanied migrant child as a person, “who is under the age of eighteen” and who is “separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult who by law or custom has responsibility to do so” (UNHCR 1997). Many of these unaccompanied children immediately present themselves to US-border security whereas others enter the US unnoticed and undocumented. Not only this, the children have no parent or legal guardian available to provide care or physical custody which swiftly overwhelms local border patrols.
In 2014, many of the unaccompanied children claimed they were under the false impression that the Obama Administration was granting "permisos" to children who had family members in the US, as long as they arrived by June. These false claims and “sales pitches” have become more potent this past year, especially when President Trump continues to reinforce the idea of restricting migrant access to the US. Cartels have continued transporting soaring numbers of Central American migrants from their countries to the United States.
Critical moments of 2014 and 2019
During Obama’s second term, in FY2014, total apprehensions along the Southwest border reached the number of 569.237 (the figure includes "inadmissibles"), a record only surpassed now. The apprehensions soared 13% compared to FY2013, but the main increase was for UAC seizures, which surged immensely from 38,759 in FY2013 to 68,541 in FY2014, a nearly 80% increase, as well as more than four times as many UAC as in FY2011. In a year, the figure of minors from Honduras increased from 6,747 to 18,244; minors from Guatemala rose from 8,068 to 17,057, and those from El Salvador, from 5,990 to 16,404 (minors from Mexico, on the other hand, dropped from 17,240 to 15,634). Apprehensions were highest along the Southwest border in the month of May, where 17% was made up by UAC seizures.
Since FY2014, UAC apprehensions have fluctuated considerably. In FY2019, however, apprehensions of UAC reached 76,020, a level that now exceeds the peak reached in FY2014. The maximum level was registered in May; however, that month they accounted for only 9% of total apprehensions, because this time it was not properly a UAC crisis, but a remarkable peak of total apprehensions. Although general apprehensions decreased significantly during the first six months of Trump’s tenure, they rose alarmingly in FY2019, reaching a total of 851,508 (977,509 if the "inadmissibles" are added). Current data shows that seizures along the Southwest border have more than doubled from the previous FY2018. The number of overall apprehensions increased by 72% from FY2014 to FY2019 (in the case of UAC increased 11%).
Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Alien Children on the US-México border, between 2012 and 2019 (figure 1), and comparison between 2014 and 2019 by month (figure 2). Source: US Customs and Border Patrol.
The US had established numerous domestic policies which dealt with the massive rise in immigration. With the overwhelming peak in 2014, however, Obama requested funding for "the repatriation and reintegration of migrants to countries in Central America and to address the root causes of migration from these countries". Though funding was fairly consistent the past years for the program, the budget for FY2018 proposed by President Trump would cut aid to these countries by approximately 30%.
While Trump’s administration has made notable progress in its immigration agenda, from beginning the construction of the wall to enforcing new programs, the hardline policies that were promised before inauguration have thus far been unsuccessful in stopping thousands of Central American families from trekking across the Southern Border into the US. With extreme gang violence being rampant and the existence of “loopholes” in the US immigration system, the pull-factor for migrants will remain.
The illicit money outflows to foreign safe havens is another negative impact suffered by countries of origin
The people smuggling networks, as any other organized crime groups that operate across different countries, are very sophisticated, not only in their operational structure but also in the organization of their finances. Fighting against money laundering internationally and against the outflow of the illicit profits from the countries of origin should ameliorate the severe burden that people smuggling means for a lot of African nations.
▲ A rescue of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea [Spain's Navy]
ARTICLE / Pablo Arbuniés
According to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, 116,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in 2018 and more than 2,200 died in the process. The majority of these migrants are believed to have used smuggling services. This flow of irregular migrants moves around 4 billion euros yearly worldwide and has a crucial impact on African economies.
People smuggling is possible due to the constant interaction and cooperation of many specialized networks. These networks are part of different Organized Crime Groups (OCGs) across many different countries, constituting an even bigger highly-organized network. The global smuggling network provides a wide range of different “services” including other illegal features such as document fraud, and involves a certain degree of infiltration in both sending and host societies (1).
Separation of tasks is extremely important for the survival of the business, as a well-organized network is less vulnerable to criminal investigations, and if the investigations succeed, only small units of the network are exposed. The migration process can be divided into three main stages: mobilization, requirements en route and integration into the destination countries. Each stage is managed by one or more specialized networks that can be independent actors or part of a bigger network.
The process of mobilization involves the recruitment of the migrants in their countries of origin. At this point, it is important to remark that recruiters will only deal with “clients” of their same nationality. After the recruitment, the smugglers ensure them a safe passage to the meeting points located in Khartoum (Sudan) and Agadez (Niger). These cities, respectively located in the south-eastern and south-western entries of the Sahara, serve as focal communication points and are home to some networks’ headquarters. From here, another part of the network takes charge of the migrants and safeguards their journey to Libya often crossing the Sahara on foot. Once in Libya the migrants go under the custody of a third network that takes them to the coast of either Tripoli or Benghazi with the paid protection of the local militias, and once in the coast they can finally embark on one of the overcrowded boats that hopefully will take them to the closest European islands, often being Lampedusa and Malta the destination.
This journey is very expensive for the migrants, as they have to pay the different smugglers in each step. However, the exact prices are hard to estimate due to the scarce reliable sources on the subject and the heterogeneity of the networks involved. Moreover, not only is it expensive, it is also extremely dangerous, with a vast number of fatalities all along this odyssey. Only in 2016, a record number 4,720 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the number of deaths in the Sahara is impossible to estimate. However, the variety of offers can provide much safer—and thus much more expensive—options such as embarking on a plane with false documentation, which grants the clients a non-existing risk of dying during the journey and a much lower risk of being caught and deported.
As we can see, people smuggling networks offer a wide range of services and prices in order to suit best the demands and financial capabilities of their potential clients, just like any other successful business in the world, involving different forms of interaction and cooperation. Indeed, these networks operate as cartels with centralized systems of management and planning. Another critical part of the business is the gathering of information, mainly about border patrols, changing routes and armed militias that could be a threat or potential co-workers, but also on asylum procedures. This information gathering is tasked to a core group of individuals that manage the constant flows of information and have access to well organized and centralized communication systems.
To deal with the overwhelming amounts of money involved in the process, these networks need a highly organized financial branch, able to deal with the payments and also to launder the money obtained and reinvest it on other legal or illegal activities.
Money laundering and impact in the local economies
International smuggling of migrants is said to move around 4 billion euros yearly all around the world. According to Frontex, most of this money is used to fund other illegal activities such as drugs trafficking or buying weapons to reinforce the network’s power. But also, a big amount of money is laundered in order to be invested in legal activities or to be transferred to tax havens.
The money moved by these networks which carry illegal activities is classified as Illicit Financial Flows (IFFs), which we can define as illegal movements of money or capital from one country to another, or those in which the funds have been illegally obtained, transferred or utilized. IFFs are considered very harmful for developing economies such as the ones we can find in Africa, because usually they involve international monetary aids leaving the country for tax havens instead of being utilized according to their intended ends.
In order to launder the money, the most complex networks have what we could consider to be accountancy branches, just like any other OCGs around the world. These accountancy branches seek to place the money outside the countries of origin or operation in order to avoid scrutiny and look for stable economies with predictable financial systems and weak anti-money laundering policies. There they can diversify their investment portfolios and spread the risk without a major threat of being caught by Financial Intelligence Units (FUIs). OCGs seek to invest in products that move extremely quickly in the market such as food products, which makes tracking the money even harder.
An interesting case of money laundering takes place in Europe involving the Pink Panthers, a Serbian band of thieves formed during the Yugoslavian war and now extended as a method, which only reinvested their benefits in their cities of origin back in Serbia. These investments proved to be very beneficial to local economies and helped the country fight the devastating effect of the war. In the same way, IFFs originated by people smugglers could in some way be beneficial for the receiving countries, but in reality only a small part of the network’s income is reinvested in Africa, and overall, the continent losses a big amount of money in favour of tax havens and funding other illicit activities. In addition, we shall not forget that the source of these funds are illegal activities involving violence and connected to other illicit activities.
In conclusion, it is crucial for the development of the continent to efficiently tackle not only money laundering but also all kinds of IFFs such as tax evasion, international bribery and the recovery of stolen assets. This is an indispensable step in order to have the financial stability required for a sustainable economic development. Moreover, repatriation on flight capital should be prioritized, as it would help a higher sustainable growth without depending on external borrowing and development funds.
Main routes for African irregular migrants [UNODC, before Sudan's split]
The case of Nigeria
We must take into consideration that Nigeria had often been referred in the past as the most corrupt country in the world, and it has serious problems involving money laundering and capital flight. In addition, effectively tackling money laundering could potentially cut the finances of the terrorist group Boko Haram, which operates in the north of the country. These financial characteristics added to the inefficiency of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) and its dependence from the government, made Nigeria a very suitable country for money laundering.
In 2017, the Egmont Group, a body of 159 national Financial Intelligence Units focused on money laundering and terrorist financing, suspended Nigeria from its membership due to the lack of a legal framework and its dependence from Nigeria’s state Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
However, in the past months the Nigerian government, headed by Muhammadu Buhari, has been an example on how to tackle money laundering and deal with the institutional problems that it involves. In March 2018, the parliament passed a new law that aims to tackle money laundering and funding for terrorism by allowing its financial technology unit to operate independently from the control of the state, thus eliminating the unnecessary bureaucracy that used to slow down the investigations. More precisely, this law makes the NFIU an independent body able to share information and to cooperate with its counterparts in other states.
The international community showed its conformity with the new legislation and the NFIU was readmitted in the Egmont Group in July. Whether these policies will fulfil their potential or not, only time can tell.
(1) Salt, J. and Stein, J. (1997). Migration as a Business: The Case of Trafficking.
ESSAY / Marina Díaz Escudero
Since 2015, Europe has been dealing with an unprecedented scale of migration from different parts of the world, mainly from MENA (Middle East and North Africa). People flee their countries due to war, bad living conditions or a lack of opportunities for wellbeing.
Although Europe characterises itself for its solidarity, liberty, values and respect for other countries and cultures, such a large flow of inmigration seriously tests the European project. For instance, the Schengen system of passport-free travel could collapse as fearful countries enhance their border controls, to the disadvantage of European citizens. “The Schengen system is being more and more questioned and most opinion polls highlight the correlation between the fear of inmigration and the distrust of the citizens of the member states towards European institutions.”1 The migration crisis is also considered a “threat for the European project’s constitutional stability and for its fundamental values” (Spijkerboer, 2016). 1
Divisions between northern and southern EU countries, and between them and the Visegrad countries have clearly intensified due to this problem, specially after the approval, in 2015, of some quotas of relocation of refugees that were critisised and voted against by Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Due to this lack of consensus but also due to the delay of other EU countries in complying with the quotas, a treaty was signed between the EU and Turkey in March 2016 so that most refugees arriving to Europe through Greece would be inmediately returned to Turkey2.
Understandably, EU countries are mostly concerned with the prevention of illegal inmigration and with border-control policies, as well as with the need of reaching an agreement for an egalitarian distribution of arriving migrants, most of them being asylym seekers and refugees. Nevertheless, this will probably not be enough to satisfy both the European citizens and the migrants: root causes of migration may need to be solved as soon as possible to prevent people from fleeing their homes. This gives the EU food for thought: addressing the migration problem without focusing on the prevention of migration in the countries of origin may not be a lasting, long-term solution. “The instability, insecurity, terrorism, poverty, famine and climate change besetting large parts of Africa and the Middle East are the root causes of migration, but the European Union (EU) governments have come around to this too late, engaging essentially in damage-limitation exercises at our borders.”3
According to World Bank data, in 2017 over 8 million migrants came from “the Arab world” and from these, 6 million fleed the Syrian Arab Republic4. The war in Syria, originally between Bashar al Assad’s regime and the rebel opposition, and currently a proxy war involving various international actors, turns the country into one of the greatest sources of migrants. The fact that over a million of them live in Lebanon (currently accounting for a 30% of the population) , a country who didn’t sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and who has been trying to deport the migrants for years now, is worrying. Due to the “fuelling tensions between Lebanese host communities and the Syrian refugees” the Lebanese government has taken some more restrictive measures towards migrants, such as the banning of the construction of formal refugee camps. This for sure puts additional pressure on the EU5.
In order to comprehend the European Union’s vision and strategy on Syria, and whether the institution and its members are willing to fight the root causes of its situation, one must consider the words of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, in her discourse at the Conference of Brussels in April 2018:
“[In this conference] we had representatives of over 85 countries and international organizations, international and Syrian civil society. […] We identified common ground on at least 2 or 3 issues: one is that there is no military solution to the war in Syria and that there is a need that everyone recognizes to relaunch the political process. The second element on which I have not found any divergent view is the key role of the United Nations in leading this political process. This is extremely important for us, the European Union, because we have always consistently identified in the UN and in Staffa de Mistura the only legitimate leadership to ensure that the political process represents all Syrians in intra-Syrian talks and happens along the lines of the United Nations Security Council resolutions already adopted. The third element is the need to support Syrians inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries, with humanitarian aid, financial support but also to support hosting communities, in particular neighbouring countries”.6
The Vice-President of the European Comission basically makes three clear statements: the European institution will by no means intervene militarily in Syria, neither will it take the initiative to start a political process or peaceful negotiation in the country (it will only support the UN-led process), but it will clearly invest economically both in the country and in its citizens to improve their conditions.
Defence of the UN-led political process
Once a solely-European military intervention has been discarded (due to a lack of consensus among countries on a common defense policy and to the already effective existence of NATO in this regard), the EU considers its role in a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which would clearly reduce migration numbers.
According to the European Council in its conclusions on Syria of April 2018, “the momentum of the current situation should be used to reinvigorate the process to find a political resolution of the Syrian conflict […] A lasting peace in Syria is the ultimate objective of the EU”.7 The Council makes clear that it will not create a new EU-led political process but that it will support the UN’s: “…any sustainable solution to the conflict requires a genuine political transition in line with UNSCR 2254 and the 2012 Geneva Communique negotiated by the Syrian parties within the UN-led Geneva process.”
The UN currently takes part in two parallel processes: inter-Syrian conversations in Geneva and the Conversations in Astaná. The first looks for a dialogue solution to the conflict and participants are the Syrian government, a delegation from the opposition and the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Until now, 9 rounds of conversations have taken place, the last focused on the elaboration of a new constitution for the country. The second process is promoted by Russia, Iran and Turkey, guarantors of the peace process in Syria. Conversations started in 2017 with the aim of consolidating the cease-fire and preparing the way for a political solution to the war. The last round of conversations took place in Sochi this past July8.
But things aren’t as easy as they seem.
UN special envoy for Syria will soon be replaced by the Norwegian Geir Pedersen making future lines of action unpredictable for us. We know, however, what the starting point will be. In the ordinary UN session celebrated on the past 20th december, de Mistura stated that they had “almost completed the job of starting a constitutional commitee to write a constituional reform, as a contribution to the political process, but still have to go one more mile.”9
Such a commiteee would be composed of 150 persons, a third of which should be appointed by the Syrian regime, another third by the opposition and the last one by UN designated persons. This last point has been repeatedly opposed by Syria. The biggest problem at the moment is that the UN is not fully comfortable with the 50-name list proposed by Iran, Russia and Turkey9.
On the other hand, the strategy of the US, a very relevant actor in this process due to its position in the UN as a permanent member of the Security Council (with veto power on resolutions), has been unclear for a long time. US Special Envoy to Syria Joel Rayburn stated in November that the objectives of the US in Syria were three: the defeat of the Islamic State, the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces and “a political settlement under the auspices of the UNSC Resolution 2254 and the political process supported by the UN in Geneva.”10
In other words, it seemed that unless the first two objectives were covered the US wouldn’t wholeheartedly compromise for a definitive political settlement in Syria and given US relevance, the UN would have it very difficult to advance the political process anytime soon. Most recently however, there was a turn of events: in December the US declared its intention of gradually withdrawing its troops from Syria. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”11
Does this mean that the US is finally willing to head its efforts towards the third objective? US diplomat Rodney Hunter said: “the US is ready to impulse the political process, to isolate more the regime diplomatic and economically, we are willing to do it.” 9
Although a positive answer would facilitate discussions for peace and thus, EU involvement, a reduction of violence in the region (and therefore a reduction of migration to Europe) is not assured for two reasons: the US now leaves Turks with free hands to attack Kurdish militants and, although ISIS has lost 95% of its territory, “2,500 Isis fighters remain […] The group retains the capacity to do even more damage, especially if let off the hook now.” 11
Soft power: humanitarian aid and investment
Given the fact that the EU can not really influence the military and political/diplomatic decisions regarding the Syrian conflict, it has been focusing, since the beginning of the war in 2011, on delivering humanitarian aid and development support to the country and its nationals. The next phrase from the European External Action Service summarises very well the EU’s aims on this respect: “Our objective is to bring an end to the conflict and enable the Syrian people to live in peace in their own country.”12
Although bilateral, regional and technical assitance cooperation between the EU and the Syrian government came to an end due to the violent situation that was emerging in the country, the international organization directly supports the Syrian population and its neighbours13.
Through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the EU worked hand in hand with its neighbours to the East and South (including Syria) with the aim of fostering stabilization, security and prosperity and achieving cooperation in key areas like the “promotion of democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights and social cohesion.”14 After the cease of cooperation between the EU and the regime, support to the ENP countries is given through the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI), with a predicted budget of 15 billion dollars (2014-2020)15.
Under the financing og the ENI, the Commission approved in November a special measure “to help the Syrian population to cope with the effects of the crisis and prepare the grounds for a sustainable peace.”16 The main action has been entitled as “Preserving the prospects for peace and stability in Syria through an inclusive transition” and counts with a maximum contribution of EUR 31 million. According to the European Comission, if the Syrian situation turns into a “post-crisis state-building and reconstruction scenario,” special measures will be revised in order to suit the new needs of the population14.
The ENP is part of the EUGS or European Union Global Strategy (for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy) presented by Federica Mogherini to the EU Council in 2016, and whose main aim is to achieve an integrated approach and a “coherent perspective for EU’s external action.”15 As part of this broader strategy, the EU wishes to prevent fragile contexts from becoming serious humanitarian crises17.
Within this, another particular strategy for Syria was developed in 2015, the EU Strategy for Syria. Some of its most important objectives are “saving lives by addressing the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable Syrians across the country,” “promoting democracy, human rights and freedom of speech by strengthening Syrian civil society organisations” and “support the resilience of the Syrian population and Syrian society.”18 The European Council, in its Conclusions on Syria of 2018, agreed that the objectives of the “European Union Strategy on Syria” remain valid.
Although all these initiatives are well-intentioned and show that the EU is not only concerned about the end of the war but also with how it will be done and its aftermath, history has proved that Western political intervention in the Middle East is far from optimum for the region. In the 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement between France and the UK drew an artificial political line on the territory that would later trigger the Arab-Israeli conflict and promote present ISIS action. Later on, the US-leaded intervention in Iraq in 2003 (one of its objectives being the “liberation” of the Iraqi people) has caused an increase of Sunni-Shiite tension, the rise of Al-Qaeda and the strenghtening of Iran in the region.
The point here is that the EU might be interested in helping Syria and its citizens in ways that improve living conditions and welfare opportunities without messing up with the country’s cultural, social and political system. Imposing the notion of democracy in these states, knowing that they have a completely different historical and cultural background, might not be a feasible solution.
Thus, other types of EU initiatives like the New Partnership Framework (NPF, June 2016), focused on the role of economic development in fighting the root causes of migration, might be more effective in the long-term. “It will address all aspects of this migration crisis, from its root causes to the daily tragedies that occur in the Mediterranean. These ambitions […] illustrate EU's willingness to address specific migratory challenges, but also the long-term drivers of migration.”19
Through the NPF, the EU explains how private investment can be a very useful tool for promoting the economic growth and development of Syria, which would in turn improve the living conditions of its citizens making it less necessary to flee their homes in search of a better place to be. “Instead of letting irregular migrants risk their lives trying to reach European labour markets, European private and public resources should be mobilised for investment in third countries of origin. If deployed intelligently, leveraged use of the limited budget resources available will generate growth and employment opportunities in source as well as transit countries and regions […] This should adress the root causes of migration directly, given the high impact of those investments in terms of employment and inequality reduction.” This is what the EU calls innovative financing mechanisms.
This project is called the External Investment Plan and is being organized in three steps. First, the mobilization of scarce public resources in an attractive way to attract private investment. Then, helping local authorities and private companies to be known in the international investor community. Finally, the EU would try to improve the general business government by putting a solution to some corruption issues as well as some market distortions. “The EU, Member States, third countries, International Financial Institutions, European bilateral development institutions, as well as the private sector, should all contribute.” The EU hopes to collect, through this External Investment Fund, a total of 62 billion euros.
Long story short, European countries believe in the expansion of this type of innovative financing “in those fragile and post-conflict countries which are often important for migration flows but where the potential for direct private or public investment is currently limited.”
An interesting factor to take into account in this matter is who will be the most involved international actor in the project. Will it be the US, allowing us to compare the current situation with the 20th century Marshall Plan? (where investments in infrastructure and the spread of domestic management techniques was also a key element). Or could it be Russia? As the President of the Russian Chamber of Commerce stated in March 2018, “$200 billion to $500 billion will be needed for the reconstruction of the Syrian economy, and the first priority will, as President Bashar al-Assad has said, be given to Russian businesses.”20 What is clear is that investing in Syria will clearly give the investor country some important influence on the newly-recovered state.
Conclusions and forecast for the future
Since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, Syria has been one of the major sources of migration towards Europe. Although EU members currently need to discuss the prevention of illegal inmigration and the distribution of legally coming asylum seekers, some attention must also be given to the elimination of factors that activate migration in the country of origin.
While it is true that a definitive end to the war between the regime and the opposition would be the best and most inmediate solution for disproportionate fleeings from Syria, the EU doesn’t seem to be able to intervene more than it already does.
Not having an army of itself (and not seeming to want it in the near future) and being the “assistant” of the UN in the political and diplomatic resolution of the conflict, it can only apply its soft power tools and instruments to help to the country and its citizens.
Although humanitarian aid is essential and the EU is sparing no expense on it, the institution has come to realise that the real key to improving Syria’s situation and the wellbeing of its citizens may be investment and development. This investment could be “short-term”, in the sense that foreign countries directly invest in Syria and decide what the money will be used for (i.e reconstruction of buildings, construction of new infrastructure…) or “long-term”, in the sense that the main role of the EU is improving the country’s business governance to facilitate the attraction of private investors in the long-term.
Regarding the last option it is very important that “the receptor countries establish transparent policies, broad and effective that propiciate an appropiate atmosphere for investment, with the consequent formation of human resources and the establishment of an appropiate institutional climate.”21 Taking this into account, Syria will be a difficult challenge for the EU, as in order to achieve an appropiate institutional climate, a diplomatic solution to the conflict and a peaceful political transition will be required, as well as the collaboration of the future government in promoting political transparency.
All in all, the EU is clearly aware of the root causes of migration and is developing feasible strategies to counter them. The rate of progress is still slow and it may be due to the fact that, in order to effectively apply many of this soft power strategies (except for the humanitarian aid), the receptor country must be stable and ready to collaborate. In other words, EU investment and development plans will most probably bear fruit when the war is over, a peaceful political transition is on the move and the general atmosphere is favourable for economic growth and innovation.
Political stability in Syria could be achieved through two scenarios: the success of the UN-led process and the drafting of new constitution for the country; or the victory of one of the sides (most probably the Syrian regime) and its establishment in power. Meanwhile, the EU and its members will have three challenges: developping the forementioned long-term investment strategies in the view of a future peace (while mantaining already-functioning soft power initiatives), dealing with the refugee crisis at the European borders, and preserving the European project and unity by avoiding major disagreements on migration policy and an exacerbated fear of inmigration.
Moreover, one of the key issues that will need to be followed closely in the following months is the effect that the, maybe early, withdrawal of US troops can have on the region and on the power dynamic between the actors, together with the potential changes in US strategy with regards to the UN-led process.
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