Linking Aid to Migration: A worrying direction of travel

This blog was written with contributions from Inge Brees, Celine Mias and Chiara Cestaro, and was first posted on CARE Insights in 2018.

Aid, including humanitarian aid, is increasingly being related to, and justified by, a goal to limit migration from poor and fragile countries to wealthier countries [1]. This is a problematic approach for several reasons, so how should humanitarian and development NGOs respond?

EU Trust Funds, though funded by official development assistance, were not established with a vision to reduce poverty or meet humanitarian needs or human rights, but to stem migration flows to the EU. “Addressing the root causes of migration” is a key theme of the UK Aid Strategy, and also features heavily in the 2016 Bilateral Development Review. Similar rhetoric, if not policy, is evident amongst other donor governments in Europe, North America and Australia.

root causes migration

Above: Extract from DFID’s 2016 Bilateral Development Review

While many of the approaches and priorities resulting from funding instruments like the EU Trust Funds can be welcomed (such as a focus on sustainable livelihoods, reducing conflict, addressing climate change, etc), there are some fundamental concerns about the focus on migration; not least the painting of migration as inherently undesirable and harmful.

The trend appears to be one of larger percentage of development and humanitarian funding being spent in migration-producing countries and regions, with the primary purpose to address the internal political challenge of migration, rather than necessarily helping the people most in need [2].This causes both a shift in the geographical allocation of development funding, but also on the selection of its beneficiaries. Funding from EU Trust Funds is partly disbursed based on the assumption that those who migrate are mostly young men, not the poorest people or women. Above all, the discrepancy with commitments to ‘leaving no one behind’ in the Sustainable Development Goalsand the World Humanitarian Summit is stark. 

Furthermore, donors are increasingly explicitly linking development and migration agendas in choosing how to allocate funding; potentially leading to situations where if there is no cooperation on readmission and return, then there will be no more development funding [3].

Myths vs reality

There are some demonstrable fallacies that underpin some of the thinking around using aid to discourage or limit migration [4]. Some of the main ones are:

  • That there is a refugee or migration ‘crisis’. While the number of refugees recorded is increasing year on year (UNHCR, 2017), it is not the case that unprecedented numbers are reaching Europe, and it remains the case that the great majority of refugees are hosted in neighbouring or nearby countries. Overall global levels of international migration have not increased significantly as a proportion of global population. The vast majority of migrants entering Europe do so using formal, regular channels (and thus controlled by the authorities). The idea that Europe, or the USA, or Australia, are unable to cope with the numbers of migrants, including refugees, is false. This myth is repeatedly used to justify wealthy countries not taking their fair share of the responsibility (and opportunity) represented by refugees and migrants.

“Countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan currently host the largest refugee populations. Western societies, by contrast, receive a comparatively low number of refugees, and current numbers are anything but unprecedented. Currently, about 0.4 percent of the total EU population is a refugee. That figure hovered around 0.5 percent between 1992 and 1995.”

  • That development reduces migration. It has been demonstrated by a number of studies that development increases migration until countries significantly higher levels of income and prosperity [5]. Effective development assistance is likely to increase migration in the short and medium terms. The concern is that this myth is used to justify spending of aid money not on effective development assistance, but instead on approaches which deter or limit migration without effectively or sustainably increasing prosperity (such as encampment, exploitative labour arrangements, increased border security, etc).
  • That migration is inherently bad, or harmful. This is implicit in much of the policy to use aid to deter migration. Terms such as ‘mass migration’ and ‘illegal migration’, and the conflation of migration and terrorism, are frequent in the discourse, including in the UK Aid Strategy (in section 3.7 it states that ‘illegal migration’ is one of the ‘drivers of violent conflict which threaten stability and development’). The UK Aid Strategy does not however provide any justification for implying migration is bad; clearly assuming it goes without saying. Well, it doesn’t. There is in fact strong evidence that migrants, including refugees, are in the long term an economic benefit to host countries, where policies allow them to contribute, work, and pay taxes (European Commission, 2016OECD, 2017). It is well established that the flows of remittances from migrants, which are larger than the global aid budget, are highly effective drivers of development and highly important in times of crisis [6]. Furthermore, the discourse that migration is bad obscures the fact that limits on the migration of poor people are a significant symptom of global inequality, which CARE and other development actors seek to eliminate. There is no doubt that coping with inward migration can be difficult and politically sensitive, and can be expensive in the short term, but it is equally clear that migration is not an automatic ill, and that migration itself contributes to international development. The assumption that it is bad must be challenged.

What does this mean for humanitarian & development NGOs?

Migration is unquestionably important. Even if it wasn’t, as limiting migration is currently a key theme of several major donors’ strategies, it is not easy to simply refuse to engage with it, or to avoid all funding with aspects of this agenda. It is however all too easy to just go along with it without question. There are some key things that humanitarian and development agencies must avoid if they are to navigate this highly political area without compromising on their principles and harming the very people they exist to help. They must not:

  • Fall into the trap of using the myths outlined above when analysing or designing projects. If these myths form part of the programme rationale, principled agencies should think twice about taking part without challenging the design and objectives.
  • Engage in refoulement (the forcible return of refugees), or involuntary returns of migrants in any situation. This should include situations where people are given a ‘Hobson’s choice’ where they have no real alternative but to accept, or where their situation is made so unpleasant that return becomes the only viable option, or where the information they are given to encourage a decision to return is biased, untrue or incomplete.
  • Engage in projects (or activities within wider projects) which offer humanitarian assistance or other aid to people which is contingent on them surrendering or limiting their rights, or making agreements which limit their future choices and may not be in their own best interests. For example, this could include programming in which people are offered assistance in exchange for agreeing to return to their place of origin (offering aid in exchange for return to often desperate people cannot be classified as voluntary returns).
  • Engage in projects where participants or beneficiaries are selected based on whether they are ‘potential migrants’, or report on indicators related to the number of migrants stopped due to programming (this is one of the 19 indicators of the EU Africa Trust Fund), or the number of potential migrants reached with programming.
  • Engage in projects with implicit or explicit migration-related objectives unless it’s clear that the activities are in their own right beneficial to the people they seek to help. Projects which aim to make migration safer, or offer sustainable and beneficial alternatives to migration without discouraging or preventing migration, may be justifiable. Nonetheless, great care should be taken to analyse and understand the potential consequences of involvement in such projects.
  • Engage in projects which support reintegration of returnees in their countries or locations of origin unless that return is voluntary and safe, and returnees have adequate protection (including from sufficient access by NGOs). It is critical to ensure that involvement in such projects is not used to provide legitimacy for involuntary or unsafe returns, such as in this case:
Luke de Noronha tweet

Above: Screenshot of Luke de Noronha’s tweet

  • Place consideration of migrants’ or programme participants’ legal status above consideration of what is in their best interests and what their choices are.

At a time when the US is separating children from their parents and locking them up, Australia is interning migrants on remote islands, the UK is deporting long-standing permanent residents and Europe is funding abusive Libyan coastguards to prevent people from travelling over the Mediterranean it is vital that humanitarian agencies take a clear stand and do not become complicit in increasingly outrageous abuses at home or abroad.


[1] Apodaca, 2017Clemens and Postel, 2017LOC, 2011
[2] Bermeo & Leblang, 2018Funk et al, 2017
[3] CNN 2018Adepoju et al, 2017Koenig, 2017
[4] De Haas, 2017Davitti and La Chimia, 2017
[5] Clemens, 2014De Haas, 2007Lanati and Thiele, 2017
[6] CARE, 2016IOM, 2016World Bank, 2016