The Tragedy of Migration Management and the Role of Concerned Scholars and Activists

By Hannah Cross

‘Searching for a better life’ is a phrase that appears repeatedly in the UK press as migration disasters and successes continue to shock and overwhelm in Europe. Its frequency of use among diverse commentators suggests it is sometimes applied as a neutral description, or in other cases to encourage sympathy, but a more calculated usage invokes the opposite and trivialises migrants’ pre-departure predicaments and decisions, whether they are leaving camps, villages or cities [1]. Often voiced by migrants themselves, it seems an innocuous phrase, but as an explanation of the multitude of voluntary migrations it is both meaningless (aren’t many life decisions made for a better life?) and, at the same time, undervalues people and their societies. It is wrapped up in the barely questioned assumption that life here is better than life there, and that migrants are actively seeking to attain a life here as the end-goal.

The reality is far more complex. As part of my earlier PhD research in 2007-9, I interviewed and spent time with migrants in and from West Africa, along with their families, stayers and returnees. Many would attempt, and sometimes had attempted more than once, clandestine and overcrowded voyages of four days or more through a tempestuous stretch of the Atlantic towards the Canary Islands, or had departed for Europe from the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa.

Though ‘searching for a better life’ seems tautological as a motivation to migrate, the predominant logic that I encountered was different: whether disappearing into the sea in secrecy or as a result of family pressure, Europe would be the means, not the end. ‘Searching for a sustainable standard of life, here in Africa’ sounds more accurate. This can only be understood in the context of the rich social fabric that has bounded economically ravaged communities. The income earned from unskilled work in Spain or Italy would overturn household insecurity, covering medical care, education, retirements, or the acquisition of tools and other means of production in a way that could not be achieved locally or elsewhere in Africa, though it might take 15 years of remittances to reach this goal. Sometimes, land, livestock or jewels would be sold to fund a journey, leading to local controversies over the possibility of using the money for local enterprise instead of a risky migration – but it was as common for people to leave home with nothing, and to exchange their skills or friendship for free passage, or find work en route in a Saharan town, earning the money to pay for transport.

Those interviewed were the exactly the kind of migrants who might find themselves on a boat with other West Africans and a much larger number of refugees from Syria, the Horn of Africa, and other countries in turmoil. Boats such as the one that left Tripoli on the morning of 18 April 2015, but which capsized 60 miles from the Libyan coast, when over 700 people are thought to have died. This humanitarian crisis brought the total number of Mediterranean deaths in 2015 to an estimated 1,727 towards the end of April and has now surpassed 2500 [2]. The distress calls continue several times per week [3]. Towns like Tambacounda in Senegal have experienced the loss of people in the Mediterranean sea or in unstable areas of the Sahara desert that they must cross to reach it.

People leaving Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone and other West African countries to go to Europe are often considered ‘economic migrants’, with varying emphases given to seeking wealth or fleeing poverty. What was more consistent in my fieldwork was a sharp decline in living standards, experienced over a generation or as a more recent rupture from the conditions of everyday life. What created these ruptures, whether in Senegalese and Mauritanian fishing communities, in Gambian farms, in Ghanaian mining towns, in Nigerian cities, or in Malian villages and elsewhere, was local economic dispossession, compounded by national political crises and household vulnerabilities. It is not an entire social class that is attempting to leave, but instead a range of people of different backgrounds whose departures are triggered by an inability to meet the needs of the household by other means. One Senegalese resident in Barcelona told me, ‘life is not only about food and drink’ as his funds to his home country over more than a decade continued to be used for schooling, the maintenance costs of his family’s house and other unexpected expenses; while others’ families would face more immediate hunger if they did not send money.

What I found was how externally-driven macroeconomic policies, founded on indebtedness, restricted countries’ economic and political sovereignty and development. As a result, families would be unable to sustain themselves as diverse but limited articulations of globalised neoliberalism took hold within this broader structure of domination. Migrants’ personal histories showed the consequences: factories closed, crops would not sell because local markets were flooded with imported goods, resources were looted, staple food prices increased dramatically, workers were not paid, and the state was often too weak to provide social security or support industrial development, sometimes unable to defend its own territory. Young people, geographically spread, found themselves a drain on household resources, unable to contribute, or parents lost the means to provide for their children.

It is staggering to consider that each surviving boat passenger has reached the most successful of a range of arbitrary outcomes, leaving others behind who have faced failed journeys and years of transit, destitution, imprisonment and death. Humane migration management seems an almost insurmountable cause in this sense, and is inseparable from an unequal world order. Humanity towards stricken people, if not an imperative for its own sake, is not merely a matter of ‘colonial debt’, but of a continuing debt as wealthier countries have continued to benefit disproportionately from raw materials, land and cheap labour in former colonies.

‘Fortress Europe’ is a well-known construct, depicted in concrete form here. The EU’s response to this round of drownings includes a dual strategy of criminalisation and bureaucratised brutality as it jumps towards military action in Libya against traffickers. It is abhorrent and tragic to respond to a refugee crisis, located in a country suffering from the charge to war by the US, UK and France in 2011, with drones, a naval mission based on destruction, and the need to calculate collateral damage! [4]

It is convenient but inaccurate to propagandise the infrastructure of clandestine migration as a criminal network worthy of military action – militarisation is undoubtedly forcing trafficking towards higher levels of organisation and internationalisation, but captains of grossly overcrowded fishing boats are in reality in the same predicament as the passengers. In the late 2000s in Senegal, for example, artisanal fishing was so greatly undermined by large foreign trawlers (facilitated by EU agreements), and the unmanageable cost of fuel and basic household supplies, that it ceased to be profitable, while the labour market more generally was in a state of collapse. When I returned to the Senegalese coast last year, environmental destruction was evident as returned migrants reported the plundering of halieutic resources with no rest periods granted for their renewal. Trafficking became one viable way for fishermen to apply their knowledge of the sea, though the endangerment of so many people would deter the vast majority. Libya, however, is facing the different circumstances of civil war.

The passengers also face more punishment. A successful journey to European shores has typically been followed by immediate repatriation, or 40 days of detention followed by repatriation or entry into the European country. A new system is in process to ‘quarantine’ migrants, and possibly detain them for up to 18 months, in the southern European countries that are handling the bulk of arrivals from Libya. Meanwhile, the political elites in wealthier countries to the north harbour a wave of extraordinary callousness towards immigrants for political gain, creating a crisis of humanitarianism. It is imposed on Italy, Greece and Malta to overcome a system that is not ‘sufficiently fast and effective’, as though bureaucracy could solve this horror [5]. The Malian activist Aminata Traoré wrote of an ‘Afrique humiliée’ [6]. after migrants had been shot at and killed trying to enter Spanish enclaves in Morocco in 2005, humiliated not only by people’s encounters with the migration regime, but by the indignities of the capitalist structure of power which created the desperation to enter its epicentres.

Migration as a research field

The widespread assumption that life is better for migrants in Europe than in Africa does not appear in spite of academic research, but is heavily influenced by it. It is underpinned by the assumption in neoclassical economics that decisions are individualistic and motivated by wealth, creating ‘rational’ choices. The most well-known migration model is the push-pull framework, which considers how people are pushed away by certain adverse socio-economic conditions, and pulled towards better ones. This certainly describes a flow of migration, but it becomes problematic when applied to individuals. It is dehumanising because it only applies to abstract others, while if we turn such a lens on ourselves, we see that life is more complicated. Decisions on where we live, who we live with, where we work, and what we consider a ‘better life’, are not (for most people!) driven by the maximum enrichment we can attain as individuals, but instead are bounded in social and cultural histories and chance, while financial survival, however that is understood, plays a major role. In reducing migrants to ‘economic agents’, rather than locating them in the economic situations they find themselves in, we are contributing to their humiliation and more precisely, to the simplistic and vain idea that all the world would spend their lives in Europe if they could, and must thereby be treated with suspicion and hostility. Further illustrating the need to challenge the influence of economics on migration discourse and policy, a knighted Oxford-based development economist was recently found to be wrongly inflaming myths in the popular press, including the Daily Mail, about the composition and number of immigrants in the UK [7].

Outside the more economistic approaches to migration are engaged and empirically rich forms of research which still, sadly, have little to say in the political arena. Migration research has a tendency to mark its progress with new descriptive terms and fashionable re-conceptualisations, obscuring the more serious political questions that are considered in other areas of political economy. Structure-agency debates are rehashed at conferences and show that migration studies are often averse to considering the broader historical processes that lead to migration, constrain it and result from it – the collapse of earlier labour regimes, economic dispossession, border control and the construction of illegality, the ways that wealthy receiving countries benefit from a continuous supply of cheap labour in a world financial system that persistently pushes production costs down, often with underdevelopment in sending countries as the outcome and inequality intensified. Debate and analysis of these processes of political economy does not ignore agency or detract from the complexity of individual migrations, but instead presents an explanation that migrants themselves are often acutely aware of.

Focusing on the characteristics of the migrant’s trajectory, whether the geographical movement or life cycle, through the lens of ‘waithood’, mobility/immobility, precarity and so on, has a descriptive usefulness but cannot contribute to the politically engaged approach that migration studies should contribute to the realms of policy and activism in a time of emergency. The focus on migrants’ coping skills, isolated from the bigger picture, can constitute acceptance of the economic and political agendas that push people to their limits and tear families apart, especially as it is the most successful people who are in focus and not those who perish. Moreover, the realities of the modern migration regime and unfree forms of labour mobility pose important intellectual challenges in imagining what could happen to borders, cheap labour and freedom of movement in a post-capitalist world.

The left is unified in opposing violent and undignified deportations; the administrative maze and structural violence of detention centres; the erosion of state support for asylum seekers to pre-welfare state levels; and stance of violent racist groups. It is difficult to go beyond opposition to the regime: well-intentioned ‘pro-migrant’ initiatives can become a surreal affair that creates more distance between new migrants and longer-term residents, or sustains the illusion that the receiving society can choose whether or not to have immigrants. A progressive approach will overcome the illusion that clandestine immigration is a choice – something to be liked or disliked, or that it is positive or negative, rather than an inevitable and sometimes tragic outcome of the predatory nature of the world economy, to be dealt with accordingly. The promotion of counter-narratives, solidarity and defence of migrants has shaped progressive movements in the last century and goes to the heart of democratic struggle.

Hannah Cross is author of Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism: West African labour mobility and EU borders, Routledge 2013. She is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster, and an editor of ROAPE.


[1] Prime Minister David Cameron said, for example, of migrants attempting to enter the UK from Calais: “you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live” [italics added]. Guardian, 30 July 2015,

[2] Al Jazeera, 21 April 2015, accessible:

[3] Watch the Med,

[4] Le Monde, 19 April,; Guardian, 18 May 2015,; EU Observer, 14 September 2015,

[5] Guardian, 23 June 2015,

[6] Traoré, A, 2007. ‘Afrique humiliée’. Paris: Fayard.

[7] Al Jazeera, 7 August 2015.


  1. a valuable empirically based argument for an engaged, political economy approach with grounded anthropological sensitivities towards migration – as indeed towards social analysis generally – migration studies have for too long been dominated by either individualistic models derived from geography-economics (eg the bulk of livelihood studies to which migration studies are often linked) or mechanical structuralist models (also derived from geography-economics( eg push-pull factors, gravity models etc.). Much of my own work – from early studies in the 1970s on migration from the Maghreb to Europe to studies from the 1980s onwards on migration and remittances in the context of the political economy of Nepal, I have adopted an engaged political economy approach with grounded anthropological sensitivities.

  2. Excellent article. Here in the US, the more sympathetic media portrayals of migrants and refugees invariably draw on “American dream” mythology– this is a really useful way of breaking through that to talk about how neoliberalism and capitalism create the problem in the first place.

    I particularly like the way Cross complicates the idea of “trafficking” as “a criminal network worthy of military action.” There’s a parallel here in much recent writing on sex work; the campaigns against “human trafficking” which have become so popular in liberal circles often wind up erasing the agency and thus limiting the real, practical options of migrant sex workers, painting them as victims rather than as workers in ways that prevent them from organizing.


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