On 20 March 2012, the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC), in association with the International Migration Institute (IMI) and Oxford Diasporas Programme, convened an international workshop to examine the extent to which political and economic developments in North Africa and the Levant have impacted migration dynamics and migration and refugee governance since the start of the Arab Spring. The workshop built upon the insights gained at a symposium that IMI and RSC organised in May 2011 following the height of the migration crisis in the region.
The Arab Spring serves as an important and instructive case, both in terms of migration theory and practice, to examine migration patterns under conditions of conflict, crisis and regime change, and appropriate institutional and policy responses. Several key issues emerged during the workshop. One of the most important themes was the diversity of migration patterns resulting from, interacting with and related to the revolutions and crises associated with the Arab Spring. Far from being a catalyst for waves of refugees to flee to European shores, participants argued that the Arab Spring played a greater role in generating intra-regional displacement, constraining and changing migration patterns, and drawing attention to pre-existing migration flows. Another theme was the way in which the Arab Spring impacted migrants differently, according to their ethnic group, language fluency, dress and appearance, legal status and possession of identity documents.
A third theme was the necessary cooperation of migrant and refugee organisations to address the different protection and assistance concerns arising from the population movements generated and constrained by the Arab Spring. One of the initial steps taken by IOM and UNHCR in Libya was to jointly recognise the majority of movements connected to the revolution as being a part of a ‘migration crisis’ rather than a ‘refugee crisis’. Crucially, this meant that most movement required IOM’s mandate and operational expertise in ‘migration management’ and in ensuring that states fulfil human rights obligations towards migrants. Participants agreed that the Libyan crisis was a unique operation for UNHCR and IOM as it required that they merge their mandates, expertise, operations and institutional cultures to prevent the crisis from escalating into a humanitarian or a protracted displacement crisis, and it obliged them to coordinate their efforts to provide assistance and protection to migrants as part of ‘mixed’ flows. Positioning movements related to the Arab Spring as a ‘migration crisis’ has also had important implications for migration flows to Europe, for it allowed European governments to categorise arrivals to their borders as economic migrants who needed to be returned to their countries of origin, rather than as asylum seekers deserving protection.
Lastly, the presentations and discussions raised some key questions and issues for future research. First, how can researchers develop a more holistic approach to studying displacement, which accounts for constraints but more importantly recognises and examines the exertion of migrant agency? Second, does the Arab Spring provide a case to explore the extent to which migration acts as a valve to relieve social, economic and political pressure on governments with high unemployment and high youth populations? Finally, while UNHCR and IOM were prompted to merge and coordinate their operations on an ad hoc basis, because of the unanticipated nature and scale of the intra-regional migration crisis, how should the two agencies proceed to develop operation and protection procedures to respond to future ‘mixed’ migration crises?