Xenophobic discourses, distraction tactics, fear and economic recessions mean that containment strategies intended to prevent people from the Global South from migrating to the Global North are becoming normalised and entrenched. Beneath the rhetoric lies a racist, almost paranoid, belief that everyone outside of Europe aspires to come to Europe. This has resulted in a whole range of migration policy measures intended to change migrant decision-making, from tackling the ‘root causes’ of migration (e.g., through skills training) to stopping those already on the move through restrictive entry measures or border fences.

Despite the popularity of these approaches, the effectiveness of migration management in influencing migration decision-making remains contested and unclear. While in part this perceived policy ‘failure’ may be because of a gap between narratives and the actual policies put on paper and ineffective implementation, policies can also fail because of the ways in which people encounter and engage with them. Looking at the lifecycle of a policy – from public discourse to implementation – can help us understand what might be going on.

The encounter of migration policy

This encounter with migration policies by the intended ‘target population’ is the focus of a recent paper published in International Migration by Richard Mallett and myself. We argue that in order for migration policy to produce the effects intended by policy-makers, the people whose intentions and behaviour the policy ultimately seeks to alter must, at the most basic level, be aware that a policy exists, understand what they are expected to do in relation to that policy, and accept it. In our research, and that of others, we see that those basic preconditions are often not met.

Our paper focuses on the migrants’ encounter with, and understanding of migration policies, and their awareness, perceptions and reactions to such policies. We introduce the concept of the ‘encounter space’ of policy. It shows that policy can undergo further transformation once implemented and does not necessarily always result in the intended migration outcomes.

Efficacy Gap graphic.jpg
Graphic via Jessica Hagen-Zanker and Richard Mallett

What happens within the encounter space

There are three things that happen within the encounter space that can affect the effectiveness of policy.

  1. The sharing and retrieval of information about policies. Are (potential) migrants even aware of the policies? It won’t be a surprise to many, that this is often not the case or that information about migration policies is often shared in languages or channels not accessible to the target population.
  2. The interpretation of information received and retrieved. How is the information analysed by (potential) migrants? How do they make sense of acquired information in light of personal circumstances, innate preferences and other subjective factors and the wider policy, legal and political characteristics of their current context? How information is shared or by whom is also critical here. Social networks can enhance or prioritise certain information, while information shared by foreign governments is more likely to be distrusted.
  3. Potential actions in response to policies. Do people agree with the aim of the policy and do they take the intended action? Research suggests that migration decision-making appears to be more strongly influenced by policies that made travel and access a little easier than those that seek to restrict movement. Again, this step is influenced by personality traits, emotions, beliefs and values.

What this means for policy-making

As policies move through multiple stages – from legislation to implementation, and then to encounter by the intended ‘target’ or ‘end user’ population – details can get lost, diluted, misinterpreted or simply not acted upon. This not only means that resources may be wasted, but more importantly, that such policies often just make migration riskier and more expensive. Understanding the encounter of and engagement with policy across different contexts remains a major policy gap, particularly within contexts where North-South migration often plays a minor role. We are exploring this issue further in MIDEQ’s work. Migration policies may, in fact, play a minor role compared to other factors. We will also shift the focus to how policies and programmes in the Global South – ranging from migration to social protection – may influence decision-making and how.