Migration, Refugees and Free movement of People

I have been attending the 17th annual Symi symposium on Kos Island entitled Exodus: Population movements in a changing world. Naturally, it’s the refugee crisis that’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind. But is it only the refugee crisis seen from the perspective of European member states?

In a session about the Brexit and its impact on both the UK and the EU, it became clear that – at least for the British – the question of free movement of people in  the EU was also very much a problem, for at least for the 52% of the people who voted for the Brexit.

Admittedly, I was somewhat surprised. The free movement of people was something that the Union has been advocating for the longest time. What kind of single market would we have, what kind of economic movement would it be if Europeans could not move freely across the borders. In fact, for the longest time, the critique was that Europeans were reluctant to move to other European countries primarily because of language barriers but also because of strong family ties as well as different professional accreditation systems.

Yet, in the past decade, the UK experienced an inordinate influx of other Europeans who came there to not only work in finance, the arts, and the universities. All sorts of professionals chose to make the UK their home, (just as over 500.000 British chose to make Spain theirs, I might add.)

While counting for ½ of the migrants entering the UK, British resentment was directed toward them  – their fellow Europeans . This was particularly intense on the part of those who saw their wages drop considerably through competition making it clear that for many the ‘free movement of people’ posed more of a threat than a step toward greater European Unification. Hearing it from the British themselves at this symposium, I was puzzled that the word migration did not conjure up this image in my mind at all. Was this a fundamental difference between the British experience and the one that the Continent is going through? Is it again an aspect of British exceptionalism? Either way, it became clear that new questions were now arising and a meaningful conversation was now necessary.

An interesting point to note was that Institutions are warning us that climate change and economic inequality globally is a sure push for mass migration above and beyond the repercussions of conflict. As inevitable as this movement seems to be the Brexit reminds us that there is an even more fundamental question that emerged over the  movement within member states of the EU itself. To draw a comparison with the United States the question that arises is whether Texans should or should not be able to move to New York and vice versa.

I am still processing this information hoping to understand what it might mean in terms of policy formulation, the framing of mass population movement and the amendments that might be necessary to the economic model of open economies to respond to these challenges.


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