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How migration policy in autocracies and democracies differs from what we expect

What is the effect of a certain regime on a country’s migration policy? Political scientist Katharina Natter compared the migration policy of autocratic Morocco with that of democratising Tunisia. Her findings challenge some of the core assumptions.

Why have you written a book about migration policy in Morocco and Tunisia?

‘The comparison between these two countries is interesting. Morocco is an autocracy in which the monarchy is becoming stronger and stronger. In Tunisia, there has been a democratisation of political life since the Arab Spring (which started at the end of 2010, ed.). The literature suggested that migration policy would become more restrictive in an autocracy and that with democratisation migrants would gain more rights.’

Did these assumptions about migration policy in autocracies and democracies hold?

‘No, exactly the opposite happened. In Morocco, there was a migration reform and the policy became more liberal, whereas in Tunisia the restrictions for migrants remained unchanged. To examine the role of the political regime in migration policy since the start of the 21st century, I interviewed 130 people in both countries. These were ministers, civil society leaders and bureaucrats at ministries and parliament.’

‘Put simply, the liberalisation of migration in Morocco was a way for the king to consolidate his power.’ 

How did the migration policy in Morocco and Tunisia come about?

‘Put simply, the liberalisation of migration in Morocco was a way for the king to consolidate his power. By liberalising migration, he could quieten domestic voices that were asking for more rights and democracy. And he could present himself in the international arena as a kind of liberal monarch.

‘People in Tunisia were given more freedom of speech after the Arab Spring and started to mobilise on all sorts of topics. But in the end, there was a kind of consensus in politics not to touch upon the issue of migration. It can be a very divisive and tricky topic. So politicians focused on other issues like economic stability. As a consequence, the restrictive policies stayed in place.’ 

Since you finished your book, the President of Tunisia has broken the consensus not to talk about migration. What does this mean for migrants?

‘President Kais Saied made racist comments about migrants in a public speech in February. He said that immigration from sub-Saharan Africa is part of an EU conspiracy to change the demographics and identity of Tunisia. The speech was a month ago and it’s unclear what will happen now but I don’t think future changes will benefit migrants.’

‘Almost all the research focuses on Europe, the US and maybe Australia, which is problematic.’

Does migration policy in Morocco and Tunisia say anything about migration policy in countries with similar regimes?

‘It’s difficult to say because very little research is done on this in the Global South. Almost all the research focuses on Europe, the US and maybe Australia. That’s problematic because it’s as if there’s nothing to study in the rest of the world when it comes to migration, although 50% of migrants go to the Global South.

‘I think it’s a real problem that there is not more research on these areas because it would really help us understand the world we live in. It’s important to look for the similarities and differences across political regimes or geographic regions, instead of assuming there is one European or liberal-democratic way of doing migration politics.’

Click on the link for more info about Katharina Natter’s book The Politics of Immigration Beyond Liberal States.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Unsplash

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