Home / Why do refugees flee to the countries they do?
Interview with immigration researcher Martin Lemberg-Pedersen from Centre for Advanced Migration Studies (AMIS), University of Copenhagen

Why do refugees flee to the countries they do?

The refugee camps are filled up in the neighbourhood areas, therefore refugees seek to Europe. This picture is from a UN camp in Chad. Photo: European Commision

Interview by Michael Bang, editorial assistant

New Times: How is the situation of refugees around Europe right now?
Lemberg-Pedersen: It is unstable and comprehensive. Globally, we see more refugees than we have done since World War II. Around Europe, there are a number of crises and conflicts, which are leading to more refugees, who are trying to get to Europe.

New Times: Why do refugees to Europe?
Lemberg-Pedersen: The neighbourhood areas where refugees traditionally fled to, is filled or has become unstable. For example Turkey and Lebanon each have 2 million refugees, and Lebanon has a population of only 4.4 million. Libya has been a migration country for many workers, but is now also unstable. Therefore, Europe is now the next neighbourhood area. Of course there are also myths promoted by some smugglers of Europe as an Eldorado, but with a comparison of Somalia and Europe, it is of course not entirely wrong.

New Times: Why do refugees flee to the countries they do?
Lemberg-Pedersen: There is not made any specific studies of the reasons why people flee to Denmark. There are made some studies that have compared the idea that people seek to countries because of welfare or because of social networks, and they found out that friends and family were the primary cause – and not the social services. Governments and political parties have often launched the claim that welfare is a pull factor for migration, but there is no research substantiating that claim.

New Times: How many of the refugees who come to Europe, you will designate as “comfort refugees”?
Lemberg-Pedersen: I have a problem with the category because it implies that one can make a meaningful analogy between a refugee on the Mediterranean Sea and a consumer who must choose between different types of soap in a supermarket. I don’t agree with analogy. On a fundamental level, one can of course say that both people make choices, but I do not think it makes sense to make that comparison.

Of course there are some who flee because they are personally persecuted, then there are others who flee because they have lost their livelihoods, for example because of drought, and then there are others who flee because they are looking for work. Of course, you must distinguish between the three categories. It is vital if we want a functioning asylum system, to evaluate who have genuine protection needs and who has not, but it is certainly something other than to say that some are economic refugees.

New Times: Will it result in fewer asylum seekers in Denmark if we reduce the welfare benefits for refugees?
Lemberg-Pedersen: No, I do not think so. I think that the reasons refugees are looking towards for example Denmark is much more complex than what the Danish politicians decide through different initiatives. There is no research indicating that political decisions have a real impact.

The argument that if we now cut the benefits for refugees in Denmark, to deter more to come, is indeed a really cynical way to use some people we believe are legitimate refugees. It is using them and their living conditions to deter others, and it is even some people who you believe need of protection otherwise they would not have been granted residence permit.

New Times: Is there ever a calculation of what the long-term costs to host a refugee?
Lemberg-Pedersen: The Rockwool foundation research made the calculation in January 2014, but it is difficult to say whether it is correct and what assumptions it makes use of. It shows that it provides an economic net loss to accept immigration, whereas calculations in Sweden and the UK show a net profit. It is strange that there should be such a big difference in countries.

New Times: If you want to avoid thousands of refugees to drown in the Mediterranean, what should you do?
Lemberg-Pedersen: In the short term you have to save them, by expanding the scope for search and rescue missions, and ensure that you have a coherent approach with a humanitarian mandate. Both are somewhat lacking in the Triton and Poseidon mission today. In the longer term, it is about the foundation of the smuggling industry. The EU has launched plans for military intervention in Libya. I do not think that is the solution. I fear it will capture a lot of refugees in Libya, which is unstable and dangerous to live in. Secondly, the smuggling routes just move, as they have done it before. It is only treating the symptoms and the causes of refugees will remain.

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