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Are Mobility and Fragility Here to Stay?

October 1, 2015

Last night I attended an informal discussion at the British Council in London, about migration. This was addressed by Prof. Alexander Betts of the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre. The discussion was under Chatham House Rule, but I doubt Prof. Betts will mind me reporting that among other things, he explained the phenomenon of increased migration volumes is above all driven by a combination of fragility and increased mobility. I interpret this to mean: a fragile state is a state which lacks the institutional capacity to gather to itself and fairly wield the monopoly of violence, and to protect and provide other basic services and opportunities to its people. If they can, they seek better circumstances elsewhere. And mobility has become easier and easier, so more and more people can do so.

I think he is right. Fragility is not going away any time soon, most obviously in parts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the ex-Soviet Union. Because fragility is by its very nature, something which takes time to evolve into its opposite –  resilience – and may never. Indeed, the combination of increasing demographic, environmental  and resource pressures, along with the raised citizen expectations which come with improved education and global communications, seems if anything to be reinforcing fragility.

This led me to two reflections. First, there is a massive risk that Europe, and the West generally, will respond to the current “migration crisis” by shoring up fragile, unfair, repressive regimes, because of their fear of being “overrun with migrants”; and reflecting their inability to reduce mobility, except temporarily. This would in may ways be a natural response by democratic governments heeding voters’ fears and concerns. But it might just be putting the lid back on the pressure cooker. So as a policy it ought at least to be leavened by a considerable investment in mitigation measures: education, livelihood, peacebuilding, civil society development, etc.

Second, it seems likely that the combination of increasing mobility and fragility (or at least, comparative fragility) are with us for some time to come: perhaps a couple of generations. So I imagine the world is simply going to have to come to terms with changed paradigms of sovereignty. A post-Westphalian international order. Perhaps we are heading towards a world in which the idea of Schengen – international borders drawn more faintly on the map – becomes a ‘new normal’. I find this hard to imagine: what will citizen mean, how can democracy work, who pays taxes where, does a ‘refugee’ continue to be different from an ‘internally displaced person’, what will become of the superpowers?…. and a host of other questions, too. But that’s perhaps my failure of imagination, rather than a reason to question the logic of my analysis. Because I only see the numbers of people wanting to move to where they may have better living conditions going up, not down.

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