On 19 September the United Nations General Assembly will host its first ever High-Level Summit to Address Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach to addressing the worst refugee crisis since the end of WWII. The summit provides an historic opportunity to develop a blueprint for a better international response. On the occasion of this meeting, UNAI has asked researches at UNAI member institutions to submit articles highlighting their research and its implications in helping to solve the issue. Through this series, UNAI hopes to provide an understanding of refugee/migrant flows to its readers, highlight the importance of addressing refugee and migration flows in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and showcase the work of professors and researchers at UNAI institutions. Please note that the articles are for discussion, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

Laura Zanfrini, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano

The current refugee crisis is emblematic of Europe's ambivalence and failure to manage forced migrations in the present time. Despite being the cradle of human rights and of the very concept of political asylum, Europe is at the same time dominated by the securitarian logic that currently prevails on a global level. Faced with largest movement of migrants and refugees since World War II, Europe has displayed the arbitrariness of its borders, both internal and external.

The integrated borders management strategy to contain migration has gone hand in hand with the process of the European Union's enlargement to 28 Member States, thus reinforcing the move towards the abolishment of internal frontiers. But today, it is exactly the call to safeguard its external borders that would risk putting into question the very idea of a European common space, as is demonstrated by an increasing tendency to suspend free circulation inside Europe, reintroducing internal controls and boundaries.

The management of humanitarian migrations constitutes one of the areas where significant progress has been made in the process of communitarization, that is in developing an EU-wide approach to an issue that was once the prerogative of individual states; but unfortunately, this has led to an increase in national interests and national egoisms. It is important to note how the many insistent appeals to Europe tend to focus on distributing the burden of refugees, and not on the propensity to share the responsibility of managing this monumental challenge. The situation that emerges touches upon the very cornerstone of the international system of protection given that a State-centric government system with inherent limitations must interact with a phenomenon such as forced migration, whose very nature transcends the boundaries of individual countries. Ironically, the desperation which makes it possible to scale walls of barbed wire as well as walls created by laws and regulations, has resulted in a level of cooperation, albeit modest, that until now European countries had not been able to achieve. Finally, Europe is faced with the need to rethink the concept of border which is difficult to reconcile with the idea of universal human equality, one of the fundamental principles on which European civilization is based.

The refugee issue reveals the unavoidable gap between the inclusive logic of universal human rights and the nation state's prerogative to exclude undesirables. Indeed, as a result of a unilateral process of definition by the countries of destination, the figure of the refugee is emblematic of the contradiction of a State-centric system in response to the demands for justice and belonging in the current global society, and demonstrates the limitations of our systems for protecting the poor and vulnerable, based on the fiction of national societies delimited by national fences.

Entering more deeply in the discussion, and beyond the contrasts dividing countries, the events of these last months have revealed the main weaknesses of the European approach in this matter:

  • First of all, having reduced border management to a technocratic task, measured in terms of economic costs and efficiency, as is clearly demonstrated by the crude bookkeeping approach regarding expulsions whose increase is hailed as a success, Europe has discovered that it lacks convincing, persuasive and ethically based criteria for distinguishing between authentic and fictitious refugees.

  • At the same time, Europe has sought to contain migrant arrivals through the questionable practice of outsourcing boundaries. The need to restrain migration flows and reduce the number of refugee/asylum applications, including through agreements with countries defined as secure (that signed with Turkey is only the last in a long series), has definitely prevailed over the actual management of migratory fluxes. As a consequence, Europe has discovered that it lacks those instruments, such as humanitarian channels, which would have made it possible to manage the emergency in a way that would have been more in line with the principle of inalienable human dignity.


It took the shocking image of the dead body of a small child washed up on the beach to remind Europe that over time it had forgotten the principles of justice, equity and freedom upon which the very delicate issue of border management should be based. Not incidentally, this kind of approach is in contradiction with the effort to promote the European brand among potential talented immigrant workers, in order to become a competitive destination with respect to the traditional settlement countries.

Within the current framework of human mobility the distinction between economic and humanitarian migration is increasingly shaky and uncertain, and sometimes openly questioned by those who believe in the existence of a universal right to migrate (founded on the principles of freedom of movement, the equality of all human beings, or the right to go abroad in search of dignified life conditions whenever they are not guaranteed in one's home country).

Obviously this distinction cannot be based on shallow criteria such as the country of origin, or on the prototype of the refugee as defined in the 1951 Geneva Convention, for example as a political dissident persecuted by the authorities of his own country. Today, forced migration has a collective, not individual, configuration and reflects a shared need to flee from situations of crisis whose consequences and evolution are unpredictable. The threat from which one may flee is not necessarily the State, but may be non-state actors or even family members.

The fear of persecution is not limited to imprisonment, but can include a wide range of human rights violations, including the fear of being subjected to sterilization or excision, violations of the rights of homosexuals and survival jeopardized by environmental catastrophes to name only a few. In addition, fleeing migrants do not necessarily reach a foreign territory, but often end up in one of the many overcrowded refugee camps for internally displaced persons, in locations where many of them will also end up living for years in some sort of captivity that is the very antithesis of the yearning for freedom that had once marked the journey of people migrating for humanitarian reasons. Migration is sometimes not only forced, but even compulsory, achieved through various forms of trafficking and enslavement. Finally, protection systems have been built in compliance with a male archetype, although we are now aware that the paths of forced migrants are deeply gendered, a condition that makes them inadequate to meet the needs and the specific risks posed to female migrants.

It is precisely the inclusion of new categories of people in the system of protection that has contributed to the rise of requests, making the distinction among voluntary and forced migrations increasingly porous and disputable. However, forsaking this unsatisfactory distinction would not be helpful in managing mass arrivals such as the ones recorded in recent months. Undoubtedly, in the gap opened by the lack of shared criteria, it is relatively easy to submit unjustified and instrumental requests for humanitarian protection. Quite often, this is done with the complicity of actors and organizations who may be motivated by charitable intentions, but underestimate the impact their actions have on resources and on building the consensus necessary for dealing with situations of greater vulnerability. Therefore, it is necessary to consider the essential difference between individuals fleeing various kinds of persecution or war, those fleeing economic and environmental conditions that threaten their lives, and those who migrate because they want to improve their condition.

At a time when the main concern of European society is to control, oppose and defend itself from arrivals rarely solicited by the countries of destination, both forced and voluntary migration tends to be considered an undesirable phenomenon, and there is a widespread belief that requests for humanitarian protection often represent a way of bypassing the more restrictive rules regarding labour migration. Moreover, the discretion exercised when processing applications for humanitarian protection, as shown by the great variance of approval rates, demonstrates the arbitrary nature of this distinction in a world where migration is often due to poverty, human rights violations, violent civil conflicts or environmental disasters. In this context, the general tendency towards acceptance that prevailed in the past has been replaced, even in countries traditionally more willing to receive migrants, by discontent and hostility towards humanitarian migrants, who are often seen as a threat from an economic, identity and political viewpoint; this also exposes refugees and asylum seekers to the danger of racist and xenophobic violence. These processes encourage the use of asylum as an instrument for policing borders and the adoption of policies weakening the condition of humanitarian migrants, a vicious cycle that only undermines the prospects of people forced to migrate.


Immigration is a phenomenon which, by definition, challenges the borders of a community; not only the physical and political boundaries, but also those which define its identity, hence putting into question principles and values upon which a society is based, both those shaped by a shared history and those imposed by nationalistic myths. It is consequently almost inevitable that when this phenomenon appears on such a large scale and with such an unpredictable evolution, it engenders alarmist reactions. These reactions have led to various attempts to select immigrants based on arbitrary criteria.  For example, there is strong pressure in several EU countries to consider the cultural and religious backgrounds of asylum applicants and migrants and favor Christian over Muslim immigrants, despite the fact that the proposal to mention the Christian roots of Europe in the EU constitution was rejected. Applying religion as a selection criterion also risks undermining the very principles on which the EU was founded, namely universalism and the dignity of all human beings.  The inclusion of education and skill levels as criteria for entry has reintroduced a class-based element to membership, and while choosing more educated and skilled refugees helps with their insertion in the labor market, it is discriminatory.  The consideration of country of origin under the euphemism of merit is ambiguous and could undermine protection of migrants coming from certain countries. 

The application of these arbitrary criteria attempt to present immigrants as advantageous to the receiving community and mitigate fears that the new arrivals will irreparably change the features on which the process of nation building was based. In this light, we can also understand why the young East-European democracies, fresh from a history of forced relocations and ethnic cleansings and the difficult shift to the post-communist era, are reluctant to open their frontiers to ethnic and religious minorities of whom they have no direct experience, but only a knowledge influenced by alarmist declarations and the fear of terrorism.

Given that a shared collective identity is a basic element of each political community, the problem lies, in fact, in the reluctance to include new members when a community feels it is in danger of losing its identity. However, we should not forget that it is precisely the most profound identity of Europe, the one which generated the principle of individual dignity and the idea of an institutionalized solidarity, which would be in danger of disappearing should we decide to abdicate the fundamental principles of our civilization or if the call to defend ourselves against migrants and refugees prevails over our desire to welcome them.

Finally, policies for the granting of asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection represent a conscious way of affirming principles, values and worldviews. Policies addressing humanitarian migrations, which today are often subject to security and budgetary pressures, should be an opportunity for societies to reflect on the values on which they are based and deserve to be handed down as a legacy to future generations. It is with this awareness that European societies must deal with the most severe refugee and migration crisis since World War II.

Laura Zanfrini, PhD in Sociology, is currently Full Professor at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the Catholic University of Milan where she teaches Sociology of Migrations and Interethnic Relations and Organizations, Environment and Social Innovation. She is the scientific director of the research centre WWELL (Work, Welfare, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning) and of the Summer School Human Mobility and Global Justice.  She is head of the Economic and Labour Department and chief officer of Cedoc (Documentation Center) at the Ismu Foundation, the main Italian scientific institution studying international migrations and intercultural relations.

Prof. Zanfrini has worked as a consultant to numerous Italian and international organization, serves as a Councilor of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People and is Member of the Scientific Committee of several reviews. She has authored more than 300 books, essays and articles.