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Migration Uncertainty: Feature, not a Bug

Reflections on the crisis in Afghanistan and COVID pandemic, by Jakub Bijak (University of Southampton)

Jakub Bijak (University of Southampton) looks at how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the public perception and attitudes towards risk and uncertainty, by becoming a feature of the public discourse and how it relates to the current crisis in Afghanistan.

The chaotic withdrawal of western troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, and wide expectations of another asylum crisis, akin to the one from 2015–16, brought migration preparedness back into focus. As argued in a recent Policy Insight, even though individual migration shock events, such as this one, cannot be predicted, there is still scope for rational action and response, despite the overarching uncertainty of the migration processes and their drivers.

At the same time, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the public perception and attitudes towards risk and uncertainty, by becoming a feature of the public discourse. Successive changes to public health policies, unintended consequences of many political decisions, repeated lockdowns, sometimes introduced at a short notice, or emergence of new viral variants, all brought uncertainty openly into the day-to-day civic debate, not to mention specialist discussion and advice. Coupled with that is the notion of trade-offs: that in reality, there are no easy options, and everything has its price, in economic, social and individual (e.g. health-related) terms.

There are clear parallels with the uncertainty of migration processes, with the added caveat that migration dynamics is even less predictable than the course of an epidemic. This is largely due to the agency and free will of the many actors involved, from migrants and their families, to intermediaries and other interested parties, to decision makers. The complexity of migration processes can bring about non-intuitive outcomes, which means that there are no easy policy or political solutions, and trade-offs are present everywhere. Once the complexity is defined and described, what may at first seem like ‘common sense’ optimal solutions can reveal themselves as being ineffective, too costly, or outright counterproductive (see a discussion of the effectiveness of limiting humanitarian assistance for maritime migrant journeys across Central Mediterranean in this book).

To deal with complexity and uncertainty effectively, the way in which they are perceived needs to shift, from something to be afraid or ashamed of, to something to manage. As we argued with Mathias Czaika in a recent essay in Migration Policy Practice, reducing whatever uncertainty can be reduced is a worthy aim of research and policy. Still, it is even more important to facilitate adaptation to other aspects of uncertainty – and to allow for surprises. This, in turn, requires proactive planning and early warnings, spare capacity to respond to shocks, agility to do that, and operational capability to scale up the response adequately, sometimes at a short notice. In Afghanistan in August 2021, all these elements have been found wanting to some extent.

In the policy arena, there is already an increasing recognition of the uncertain nature of migration and the need for adequate responses. Still, at the EU level, even though the admirable crisis migration blueprint already exists, the political will in its implementation seems to be lagging – or in some cases lacking. At the UN level, the Global Compact for Migration is a first step, also including aspirations related to preparedness. Still, as illustrated by the example of Afghanistan, migration challenges can be very rapidly compounded by the changes in the balance of power in a country or region, which can only exacerbate regional and even global migratory pressures.

One of the crucial lessons we should have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, readily transferrable to the area of migration, is that uncertainty is ubiquitous, and is here to stay. To borrow a phrase from software development, uncertainty is a feature, not a bug of the social world, and migration is a prominent example of that. For all sorts of reasons, we should therefore learn to better live and cope with it, and flexibly adapt to ever-changing circumstances. With another asylum crisis likely unfolding in the wake of the situation in Afghanistan, the question how to organise a response to such events, and to find public support for it in the host countries – now and in the future – becomes paramount.

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This work has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 870299. This document reflects the authors’ view and the Research Executive Agency of the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains. Special credit to Rainer Münz for flagging the potential Afghan refugee crisis already in June 2021 at the Meeting “Estimating International Migration Flows: Past, Present & Future” co-organised by the QuantMig project.

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