Søren Jessen-Petersen currently teaches "Migration and Security" at SAIS Europe. He has previously served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Kosovo, Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Director of the UNHCR Liaison Office at UN Headquarters in New York,  and Director of External Relations at UNHCR Headquarters

During the last several months the European migration crisis has filled both print and social media.  These stories recount the continuing tragedy of people forced to leave conflicts in Syria and other countries in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa. As they try in desperation to cross the Mediterranean in search of survival and freedom, many ultimately see their dreams turn into nightmares on the open sea or when making their way through a Europe of closed borders rather than open doors.

There are many reasons why migration is already today one of the most serious challenges defining the kind of world we want to live in and why it will remain so over the coming decades. The current root causes behind migration are many and will only intensify and multiply if adequate and timely action to address them is not taken.

Since the end of the Cold War, inter-state and proxy conflicts have largely disappeared only to be replaced by a multitude of internal conflicts, which tend to be more violent. These conflicts are characterised by violence between insurgent groups, taking place in and around population centres. Civilian populations are no longer collateral damage but have in fact become the very targets of violence in conflict. For example, during the now almost five years of conflict in Syria, 250,000 people have been killed of which 75,000 are civilians (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 2015).

At the same time, post-Cold War conflict resolution mechanisms, notably the UN Security Council, are neither structured nor willing to take decisive action to prevent or resolve these conflicts. In its annual report, Amnesty International said that 2014 had been a catastrophic year for victims of conflict and violence and stated that the UN Security Council had “miserably failed” to protect victims (Amnesty International 2015, 2). The continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and Ukraine are just a few examples of the new types of conflicts engendering horrendous humanitarian consequences including millions of refugees and displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of deaths. International and multilateral conflict resolution agencies have failed to prevent, manage, and resolve these conflicts and the resulting mass displacement.

Meanwhile, growing social and economic inequalities between the world’s poorer and richer countries will prompt many to move towards countries and cities where opportunities for jobs, education and health facilities are better. A growing youth population in the developing world facing limited job prospects at home will continue trying to reach the developed world.

Finally, the effects of global climate change will also prompt many to use migration as an adaptive tool when local environmental conditions deteriorate or indeed become deadly, as when rising waters or spreading desertification threaten the very survival of people. This can only be curbed or managed by decisive international agreements and timely action to halt global warming and finance adaptive measures.

Many recent media stories on migrants have two features in common. One, they are often negative, describing the migrants as a threat to stability rather than victims of conflicts, failing to highlight the causes and policies that prompt or force them to migrate in the first place. Two, they frame the discourse around migration as one of fear. For the migrant, it is the fear of conflict and war or the fear of hopeless living conditions and changing climates that threaten their survival and livelihood. For the recipient states, this fear is of threats to social cohesion and cultural dilution as well as the related fear of having to share their resources with newcomers.

Political parties, notably on the radical right, exploit and magnify this discourse regardless of whether such fears are real or perceived. Populist media outlets in turn give these parties a platform, feeding on these fears in a mutually reinforcing vicious cycle. Meanwhile, mainstream parties try to recover what they are losing in electoral support to parties on the radical right by appearing tougher with policies to clamp down on migration, focusing on security measures such as more police and border control and often sacrificing civil liberties in the process.  Disgruntled citizens now feel legitimized in attacking both migrants and centres for migrants as we have seen recently in both Germany and Sweden, who offer Europe’s most generous asylum policies but have paid a heavy price for the humanitarian examples they are setting. 

Migration has since the birth of mankind enriched societies and been largely a win-win situation benefitting both migrants, the recipient societies and migrants’ countries of origin. Today, it risks becoming a lose-lose situation unless responsible states and politicians move from short-term, defensive and inward-looking migration policies to the development of long-term and constructive migration policies that maximize the opportunities for migrants and recipient societies while minimizing the costs and risks that flow from migration.  Recent events in Europe have painfully demonstrated that migrants cannot be stopped by building walls, by failure to rescue them when in danger on the high seas or by restrictive policies and closed borders. Such measures are not only inhumane but tend to be both immoral and counterproductive when governments act in contradiction with humanitarian values and further, risk legitimizing the sometimes violent response of anti-immigration elements of society.  

On the other hand, it must be recognized that migration initially brings costs and challenges to recipient societies through pressures on jobs, salaries and social infrastructures. This should be addressed and managed while developing migration and integration policies that support migrants to become economic, social and cultural assets. The World Bank, for example, has argued in a 2010 report that a 3% increase in global migration will yield tax gains of 350 billion dollars annually (Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan 2011, 162-3). In Europe, we see the same developments when migrants integrate and begin paying taxes that more than pay back in a significant and durable way initial investments linked to their arrival and settling down process.

Migration is today global in reach and scope but still managed largely by states without structured international coordination and cooperation. In response to the current migration crisis in Europe, the UN Secretary-General has repeatedly been appealing to European leaders to act responsibly and in solidarity. He has referred to migration as one of the developments which will continue to remake our societies and suggested that we set in motion a process that would eventually lead to the endorsement of a set of guiding principles on the global management of migration. These principles would confirm that states have rights and responsibilities in the management of migration but suggest that national action be part of a system of global responsibility sharing.  At the same time, by building on human rights and humanitarian law the principles would give equal status to the human security and human rights of migrants.  

We have to recognize that the chances of reaching such an agreement may be slim in today’s world. On the other hand, as European states continue to struggle in tackling the current migration challenges there is a growing recognition among most EU member states and large segments of the public that only by working together can these challenges be met in an orderly and constructive way that respects the security and dignity of migrants while safeguarding the stability and cohesion of recipient societies.  The alternative is to continue current ad hoc, haphazard and uncoordinated national migration policies in which the European Union, states, communities and migrants are all losers.  


"More than 250,000 People Killed in Syria War." Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. October 17, 2015. Accessed October 31, 2015.

“Annual Report 2014/15.” Amnesty International. February 25, 2015. Accessed October 31, 2015.

Goldin, Ian, Geoffrey Cameron, and Meera Balarajan. Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

PHOTO CREDIT: "An Aerial View of Zaatari Refuge Camp" by the U.S. State Department is licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0