Reducing Displacement

Dare to be more complex!

Schraven, Benjamin / Charles Martin-Shields
The Current Column (2018)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), The Current Column of 19 February 2018

Bonn, 19 February 2018. Even in times of great political uncertainty and the painstakingly long government-forming process, one thing remains clear: the commitment of the (possible) coalition partners of the SPD and Union parties to tackling the causes of flight. As it states in the coalition agreement negotiated the week before last, development co-operation should be employed above all in Africa to create “local future prospects”. This primarily refers to jobs, which are intended to stop people from embarking on the perilous journey through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean in the first place. However, this objective of the new German government indicates once again that the subject of “causes of flight” is still not being addressed with the necessary complexity.

Mono-causal explanations enjoy great popularity in the public and political discussion of the subjects of flight and migration. There is actually one key cause of flight in international law: the constant increase in the global refugee figures - around 65 million people are currently designated refugees or internally displaced - is above all due to armed conflict. The intensity of armed conflict has increased dramatically in the last ten years. This is due not Republic only to the war in Syria, but also other conflicts such as that in South Sudan or in the Democratic of the Congo.

However, the flight causes debate not only centres around refugees from wars, it also covers the - from a European viewpoint - “irregular” migration between Africa and Europe. A large portion of these migrants do not originate from countries affected by wars; their migration can be seen as a response to a range of different - and mutually reinforcing - conditions. As suggested by the term “mixed migration”, flight reasons such as conflict, repression, weak state institutions and terror are combined with classic migration motives such as the strive for better economic prospects.

The popularity of simple or one-dimensional explanations for complex migration causes became apparent at the end of last year when the scientific journal “Science” published a <link http: content external-link-new-window external link in new>study illustrating a supposed interrelation between global warming and the number of asylum seekers in Europe. Whilst the scientific world <link http: wissenschaft natur mehr-fluechtlinge-durch-klimawandel-asyl-studie-entsetzt-wissenschaftler-a-1184640.html external-link-new-window external link in new>was largely aghast at this over-simplification of the link between climate change and (flight) migration, numerous <link https: environment climate-consensus-97-per-cent jan study-finds-that-global-warming-exacerbates-refugee-crises external-link-new-window external link in new>media sources reported uncritically, taking the questionable forecasts of future refugee numbers in Europe as gospel.

As the coalition agreement shows, there is another highly popular explanation for migration which, like the Science study, eschews complex interrelations for a simple cause-effect logic: poverty. It has long been known in migration research that poverty hinders migration much more than it aids it. The poorest countries in the world, such as Niger, Chad or Burkina Faso, have scarcely any international migrants. It is only when <link record:tx_ttnews:tt_news:7751 internal-link>wages and employment increase that rates of outward migration rise. If the economic situation in the various African countries improves (further) in the coming years, this does not necessarily mean that many more people will embark on the hazardous journey to Europe. However, it could certainly mean that the desire grows in many people to migrate internationally along safe, regular channels. The logic of using the promotion of economic growth and employment to stem migration fails to apply, and could indeed have the reverse effect.

As a consequence, we need to consider both the apparently simple explanations and their seemingly logical political solutions when pondering global flight and migration. For example, the desperate migration of thousands of young people from Africa towards the Mediterranean and Europe cannot be explained “solely” by European arms exports, the Western lifestyle, corruption, the failure of local elites, unfair global trade structures or environmental change. Instead, we need to recognise that all of these factors - and many more besides - cause migration. We need to dare to be more complex. The Grand Coalition could itself aid us in this. Because it also intends to establish a “Causes of flight” committee in the Bundestag, in order to address this subject in greater depth. We should regard this as an opportunity to be grasped.

About the authors

Martin-Shields, Charles

Political Science


Schraven, Benjamin

Political Scientist

Further experts

Christ, Simone

Social Anthropology 

Ekoh, Susan S.

Environmental Research 

Flaig, Merlin

Social Science 

Jaji, Rose


Kuhnt, Jana

Development Economist