The unbearable lightness of leadership

Contrary to prevailing mainstream political narrative, the recent migration flows across the Mediterranean to Europe are not the problem. But they have exposed the real problems we face.

The most significant of these is the crisis of leadership that has set states against each other, and citizens against newcomers, in a race to the populist bottom.

Migration policy “breakthroughs” are heralded by reduced numbers of people making it to Europe and rewarded inversely by higher poll numbers and more votes. These indicators tell us nothing about how migration is really being handled, but a lot about the current state of migration governance.

The numbers game is playing out as mainstream policies continue to move towards the populist right, where xenophobia is the ruling principle, in what has been described as a tactical move to ‘neutralise’ extremist parties and recover their voting base. Instead, pandering to anti-migrant sentiment legitimises and strengthens them.

Extremist forces have therefore become the policy setters and opinion-leaders. Ironically, they are the ones, in their fashion, demonstrating the most convincing leadership, and adherence to their values. It looks as if we have lost our faith in visionary leadership, and the attractive power of optimism, integrity and commitment to the fundamental values that constitute our moral compass.

Dark side of history

Migration has been for far too long an issue around which politicians can win or lose elections. And unfortunately, success in gaining votes is all too often contingent upon the fear whipped up among constituents toward migrants or migration. And yet, the dark side of our recent history should remind us of the deadly downward spiral that fear-mongering entails.

People in Europe have legitimate concerns about the arrival of immigrants and we recognise how this can create uncertainty and scepticism. However, we also see that certain politicians and political groups deliberately distort the picture to generate unreasonable fears and panic for short term gains.

We are facing systemic, structural challenges that can only be met with longer-term, strategic solutions. However, some politicians find it expedient to draw attention away from the systemic problems, leaving migrants exposed to bear the brunt of public fears and frustrations and scapegoated for failed social policies.

Reducing flows in itself has a real positive effect on the root causes of irregular migration only when no harm is done to the people we should be protecting and assisting and if not detrimental to the communities hosting people in transit or back in home countries.

Containment tactics such as reinforced borders and over-reliance on forced returns only serve to ‘kick the can down the road’ and exacerbate the root causes whenever they are not balanced by more legal routes, community-based stability, reintegration and development initiatives.

We are also witnessing the downplay of recent key international commitments on migration and rights such as contained in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New York Declaration to be realised in the Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration next year. It is striking, and worrying, that these international commitments are not fully reflected in our political actions when addressing migratory flows. This does not bode well for the future.

The drafting of the Global Compact on Migration represents a historic opportunity for the international community to put an end to ad-hoc, fragmented and emergency-based response. The EU and member states have the expertise, experience and responsibility to take a leading role in shaping the Global Compact and building a system for human mobility where people can move safely, legally and voluntarily in full respect of their human rights.

Leaders need to step up and offer a new narrative that puts the fundamental rights, needs and vulnerabilities of everyone on the move at the center of migration policy instead of the overarching focus on reducing the number of arrivals. The measure of successful policy should not be only a decrease in arrival numbers but an increase in the well-being, protection and integration of migrants, which we know from experience benefits communities and the larger society.

Next election vs next generation?

James Freeman Clarke, the 19th century American theologian and author once said, “A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

Young and working-age migrants also represent a future generation. We need to tirelessly remind our public of migration’s overwhelmingly positive contributions to the economic and social dynamism of home and host societies. Political leadership at all levels from global to local is essential.

There is no ready-made model for the governance of social diversity and none that may be universally applicable, but we must reaffirm a common base of core, universal values, that form the bedrock of our ambition to create policies for harmonious societies.

If we fail to do this, the deeply ingrained problems that lead to forced displacement and irregular migration will simply continue to fester and grow and risk creating a generation of trapped people who can become easier prey to criminal and extremist groups.

Is this our legacy?

Eugenio Ambrosi is the Regional Director of the International Organization for Migration’s Regional Office for the EU, Norway and Switzerland. 


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