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‘Migration is more about hope than economy’

Afghans who came to the Netherlands in a hurry, refugees who were used as leverage by Belarus and boat refugees who tried to reach Europe in an increasingly desperate manner: the newspapers were once again filled with news about migrants. Today, on International Migrants Day, we talk to professor Marlou Schrover.

Schrover is an expert on migration history. Her most recent research concerns mainly the period after World War II. According to her, the number of people who came to the Netherlands in recent months is relatively small. ‘A lot of issues in the world have not been solved, so people still migrate. This autumn, a relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions made it a little easier to travel. Added to this were Afghans fleeing from the Taliban, but because it is not easy to leave Afghanistan, those numbers are quite low.’

‘Benefiting from extremes’

According to Schrover, the fact that we think that this autumn showed an almost unique migration peak is caused by various parties who like to emphasise how exceptional the situation that we see is. ‘For my research, I do not only look at government, the national government, but also at governance. That is the interplay between the national government and players such as the European Union, media and NGOs. Together they influence the creation of policies, but also how they are put into practice.’

'It was clear as day that this migration would happen.' 

A lot of these parties benefit from ‘constant surprise’. Schrover: ‘Ankie Broekers-Knol, State Secretary for Justice and Security, says, for example, that they could not have seen this migration coming and that there was therefore not enough shelter. But it was clear as day that this migration would happen. At the same time, it is difficult to say: always keep a certain number of asylum seekers’ centres open as a buffer. By closing such a centre, policymakers also create the need to find housing for people with a residence permit more quickly. When centres remain open when the number of newcomers decreases, it is tempting to let people continue to live there, leaving no room for when a new group does arrive.’

Politicians were not the only ones who presented the flood of refugees as a crisis. Amnesty International also did. Schrover: ‘This is done with the best of intentions. It is easier to convince people to help when there is a big problem than when you say that the situation is in fact similar to previous years.’


The movement from crisis to crisis is in part caused by the ‘restrictionist paradox’ with which policymakers are confronted, Schrover explains. ‘People vote for restrictive policies, but simultaneously ask for compassion when certain people might be deported. This was the case for, for example, Lili and Howick, Sahar, and Mauro. That is why aid organisations and media often use a personifying strategy in the hope of helping people. It can be very effective to present children and women as vulnerable and helpless. The disadvantage for women is that you make them the victim, possibly causing a hindrance when they go looking for a job.'

Marrying, dying and migrating

There is thus a big chance that within now and a couple of years a new ‘unique’ situation will arise. ‘There will always be new migrants,’ says Schrover. ‘Even if we wanted to, we cannot stop migration. We cannot close the borders or prohibit family reunification, we would have to leave the EU or break with the Convention of Human Rights or the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.’ According to her, it is better to consider migration a given. ‘People are born, get married, die, and some migrate, it is a part of life.’ 

'As long as people have hope, they will remain where they are.' 

And what can we do when we do want to try to prevent people from feeling the need to flee? ‘As long as people have hope, they will remain where they are,’ says Schrover. ‘People often think that migration is a result of economic inequality and that is partly true. But more important is hope. When the Iron Curtain fell, centres were set up to take in refugees from the Soviet Union who would surely come to the rich West en masse. Those people did not come, because they had hope that the situation in their own country would improve. Only when people have lost all hope, migration will increase.’

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