There are perhaps few terms that are used so frequently in the study of migration yet have as little definitional clarity as ‘governance’. This is perhaps not surprising, for, as the political scientist Claus Offe (2009) has observed, governance might best be understood as an ‘empty signifier’. What he meant by this was that governance acquires meaning through the ideas, processes, and practices that become associated with it rather than through a prior independent meaning that it possesses. For example, if migration governance is described as ‘multilevel’, as it often is, then this tells us that it occurs in lots of different places across ‘levels’ (local, national, international), whilst the actual meaning of governance remains unclear. This is a useful observation to take forward for the analysis that follows.

This chapter shows that a key aspect of ‘migration governance’ is that it acquires meaning precisely because of what various kinds of actors, such as local authorities, national governments, and international organisations actually do, i.e. how they try to regulate and manage migration as well as the ideas that inform these actions. This then leads to the main argument developed by this chapter, which is that migration governance is not simply an ex post or after-the-fact reaction to migration patterns and flows, but is much more closely involved in shaping migration. In turn, this means that the meaning of governance can be elusive, but the effects of governance are very real.

This then raises the obvious question of how do these governance effects occur? As this chapter shows, one of the most important ways in which they happen is as a result of the classifications and categorisations that are central to migration governance. Put in more concrete terms, when a person moves internationally and seeks to enter the territory of another country, then they must seek admission to that state for a particular reason and for a stated duration. By creating categories and putting people into them, governance processes impose meaning on international migration with decisive effects on their possibilities to migrate. Migration governance is about inclusion, but also, powerfully, about exclusion. These processes of inclusion and exclusion typically occur at state borders, but it is also clear that the meaning of borders and of the practices associated with borders can differ very markedly between states.

Using the word ‘governance’ can seem quite technical and could be seen to act as a disguise for an intensely political process and therefore a stark manifestation of the power of states (typically) over people. Terms such as ‘good governance’ might appear neutral but can be loaded with the ideological preferences of powerful states and a way to impose these preferences on less powerful states.

While the context for governance differs very markedly across the world, there are also some common elements that are linked to the core dilemmas that face all governing organisations as they try to make sense of the environment in which they operate, and then, through their actions, have effects on that environment. The reference to organisations is highly relevant to the analysis in this chapter because governance is always everywhere and necessarily an organisational process. It is about how governing organisations of various types understand the challenges that they face and then decide what to do, or not to do because inaction is also an option. These organisations might be public (such as local and national governments) or private (such as businesses and recruitment agencies), but they are all present in migration governance.

This chapter looks more closely at the term ‘governance’ to trace its origins and also to understand more about how it has become so central to the study of migration policy and politics. The main argument that is developed throughout the chapter is that it is a mistake to think of governance as simply a reaction to migration, i.e. a response to migration flows that have already happened. Instead, governance systems—through their organisation, their effects, and the ideas that animate them—play a crucially important role in defining the challenges that they face. This is because migration governance is always an organisational process and these organisations do not simply respond to the environment in which they operate, they also actively shape it. As such, migration governance is entirely dependent on the organisational contexts in which decisions are made, and, of course, by whom these decisions are made. All these organisations—of whatever type—must ask themselves, ‘what’s going on out there?’ (how do we make sense of the environment in which we operate?) and, based on this understanding, ‘what should we do next?’. Migration governance as an organisational process always involves addressing these two questions, which means it is necessarily centred on an understanding of the causes and effects of migration in the past, now, and in the future. These understandings, accurate or not, have powerful effects that can be understood as governance effects, which, in turn, have powerful effects on human mobility because they form the basis by which this mobility is organised and categorised by governance systems (Geddes, 2021). This chapter first extends its analysis of governance and draws from empirical examples from Europe. It then extends its analysis to think about migration governance in Africa, before also looking at South America. This allows us to see how governance processes are based on some underlying conceptualisation of the issues or challenges; how these can spread from one region to another (from Europe to Africa); but also that alternative approaches are possible that involve different ways of thinking about international migration.

1 The Meaning of Migration Governance

The use of the words ‘migration governance’ has become ubiquitous when any analysis occurs of what various kinds of actors—such as local governments, national governments, private companies, regional organisations, and international organisations—are doing when they try to manage or regulate migration in its various forms (Geddes, 2021). These actors must try to make sense of the structural factors that can cause international migration. These structural factors are predominantly the effects of economic and political change on international migration in its various forms. A key point is that these underlying structural changes that can cause people to move are highly uncertain in their causes and effects. This helps us also to see that international migration is epiphenomenal; or, put more straightforwardly: it happens because other things change. So, economic inequalities or conflict could lead people to cross international borders. There is, however, significant uncertainty about the effects of these underlying drivers on actual migration flows, which means that migration governance is also plagued by uncertainty about patterns of migration both now and in the future. Just because a ‘driver’ is present does not mean that migration will happen. In fact, a neglected issue in migration research is immobility. Put simply, the presence of a driver is not a simple trigger mechanism. It is more relevant to ask whether a so-called driver actually leads to migration and then also to ask who moves (male or female? Older or younger people?); where they move to (shorter or longer distance?); and for what duration (temporarily or more permanently?). The result is that “migration governance occurs in the shadow of the past in the face of risk and uncertainty” because there is considerable ambiguity (Geddes, 2021, p. 1).

Governance is generally seen as “a signifier of change”, by which could be meant change in the meaning, processes, conditions, or methods of governing (Levi-Faur, 2012, p. 7). Typically, this is seen as movement away from state-centred modes of governance to less state-centric modes of governing that can be more network-based and more dependent upon “steering” than direct regulation (Levi-Faur, 2012; Pierre, 2000; Betts, 2011; Geddes et al., 2019). Governance is often seen as ‘multi-level’ meaning that it involves actors at local, national and international as well as non-governmental actors and the private sector (Lavenex, 2016). Focusing on this multi-levelness does not mean that the state is written out of the analysis. States remain central to migration governance because it is the borders of states that define international migration as a social and political concern and it is usually local authorities within those states that govern migration and its effects at the level of communities and neighbourhoods.

To capture the centrality of states, Levi-Faur (2012) discusses “state-centred governance” that, despite changes in the state (such as limits on capacity, interdependence with other states, and an increased role for private actors such as multinational businesses) also recognises their continued centrality. Similarly, Offe (2009) talks about the “resilience” of the state. While states are clearly key actors in migration governance, comparison at regional level of institutional settings can show how state and non-state actors potentially operate across multiple levels of governance. This creates the potential for institutionalised modes of coordination to produce decisions ‘above’ the state that can be both binding and implemented (Scharpf, 1999) or they can also have a more informal character. Governance can thus be formal or informal. It should also be added that there is very significant variation across the world in forms of state and in their power, authority, and capacity to perform governing tasks. It can also make sense for states to work together and cooperate on aspects of migration policy.

This tells us that governance is often understood as being about the changed role of the state, but this still leaves open the question of what is the ‘content’ of governance? To help address this question and apply it to migration governance, we can draw from Pierre (2000) who defined governance as possessing a “dual meaning”. The first element of this dual meaning is that governance requires some attempt at a conceptual level to understand change in underlying social systems. This means that governance necessarily requires some understanding of what is going on ‘out there’. The second element is that, on the basis of the understandings that develop, governing organisations seek to manage or steer the effects of these changes, as understood.

If we apply this idea then migration governance depends on the conceptual representation of change in underlying economic, political, social, demographic, and environmental systems that can potentially cause or ‘drive’ migration (Black et al., 2011). These factors are complex both in their effects and their interaction (see Chap. 3, this volume), which returns to the point made earlier that migration governance occurs in the shadow of uncertainty and risk. This is not to say that the conceptual representation that emerges is necessarily accurate. In fact, given complexity and uncertainty, it is likely to be partial and even inaccurate. More than this, it would be a mistake to imagine that migration governance is based on some kind of politically neutral appeal to ‘the facts’ and ‘the evidence’. Of course, facts and evidence matter, but they will always be filtered by values and beliefs. More particularly, they will be filtered by the values and beliefs of the more powerful actors in migration governance systems, which tends to be richer, high-income states.

A further consideration is the extent to which analysis of governance is Eurocentric. This is a highly relevant concern because the analysis of governance emerged from a European context where there are particular configurations of state and society and also of relations between public and private actors that might not apply outside of the European and EU context (Draude, 2007). Moreover, it is clearly the case in the international system that the views and policy preferences of more powerful states have tended to prevail to the effect that migration governance could be seen as an attempt by more powerful states to impose their preferences on less powerful states (Frowd, 2018). Governance could also hide or conceal ideas about migration and migrants that can lead to the racialisation of certain migration flows that are viewed as problematic because of the supposed race or ethnic origin of those that move. This has been evident in Europe’s fear of ‘invasion’ by migrants from Africa and the Middle East and in the actions of the US government towards Mexican migration, particularly the openly racist and nativist approach of the Trump administration (de Haas, 2007; Abramowitz, 2018).

By now it should be clear that migration governance includes but is broader than migration policies. The latter refer to laws, regulations, decisions or other government directive related to the management of migration. Governance encompasses not only these elements, but also the factors related to the organisational contexts in which decisions are made and also within which implementation occurs. To sum up the discussion so far, analyses of governance typically focus on:

  • norms, rules, policies, laws institutions that can be binding or non-binding norms and frameworks, at global, national or sub-national levels;

  • actors, institutions and institutional mechanisms;

  • processes or methods of decision-making and of governing processes from the local to the global.

But added to this is the way in which, to do these things, governing organisations have to make sense of the environment in which they operate and, by making sense of it, they also have effects on it. They do this by deciding what are the issues, challenges or problems that need to be addressed.

2 Governing Migration

2.1 Europe

We now develop the analysis by exploring actually-existing migration governance. We start with Europe, which is the best example of multi-level migration governance because of the distribution of power and authority across levels from the local to the regional, but also because the term multilevel emerged to describe the European context, particularly in the context of the development of European integration. Distinctive about Europe is the presence of the supranational European Union (EU), that is the world’s most developed regional organisation with its own institutions and law-making powers. The EU guarantees free movement for its own citizens and has developed a common migration and asylum policy.

In Europe, as in other parts of the world, migration flows are organised by governance systems in ways that define issues, challenges and problems. Migration policy and politics in Europe has been powerfully shaped by the ‘crisis’ of 2015 when more than one million people arrived, mainly from Syria (Alpes et al., 2017). Although there is scholarly debate about the meaning and relevance of the term crisis. There is widespread agreement that the crisis about the numbers was also a wider crisis of politics, institutions, and political leadership (and of solidarity) that predates 2015. With the large influx of arrivals across the Mediterranean, the EU’s free movement regime, the Schengen area, also reached a crisis point (Börzel & Risse, 2018). Temporary internal border controls were reinstalled by Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France, crystallising a loss of trust in external border controls (Ceccorulli, 2019).

While seeming to confirm the need for reform, there were fundamental disagreements between EU Member States about what those reforms should entail. The ‘crisis’ exposed basic divisions between MS about the scope, purpose and operation of common rules on the protection of asylum-seekers and refugees, particularly the so-called Dublin regulation which provided that the first country of entry within the EU would be the country where an asylum application would be made (Guiraudon, 2018; Hutter & Kriesi, 2019). This Dublin system effectively collapsed after 2015 because most asylum seekers arrived in Greece and Italy while other Member States were reluctant to take on responsibility by showing solidarity to the Greek and Italian governments or to the asylum seekers and refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict.

Much of the literature on EU migration governance—either implicitly or explicitly—emphasises the failure of EU asylum policies. This can mean failure to achieving the specified objectives of policy, such as effective border controls or an effective common system to ensure the sharing of responsibility for asylum seekers. The failure approach “focuses on the inability of states to achieve their stated migration policy objectives” (Boswell & Geddes, 2010: p. 39). The policy failure thesis in migration studies goes beyond the difficulties of securing implementation to also suggest wider deficiencies within the policy process. Researchers suggest that decision-makers may fail to understand the complexities of the issues that they deal with; fail to absorb the relevant research evidence; or subject themselves to “hidden agendas” (Castles, 2004). If failure is taken to mean the inability to achieve the stated objectives of policy, then failure’ is actually a fairly standard feature in many policy fields (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1982).

In contrast, a “securitisation” approach emerged as migration became progressively—from the 1990s and reinforced by the 2001 terrorist attacks—perceived and approached as a security issue. Symbolising this was the commonly used phrase “fortress Europe”. Securitarian rhetoric can mobilise support for exceptional measures to curb migration and justify restrictive policies, given the perceived threats. Since 2015, a securitarian perspective has been reasserted and made evident through the prevailing political priority to prevent ‘irregular migration’ through tougher border controls and the narratives—particularly from some Member States about migration that misleadingly portray recent migration by boat across the Mediterranean as an uncontrollable invasion (Kazharski, 2018; de Haas, 2007).

A key trend in recent work on migration governance has been insights into the complexity of policymaking of EU migration governance (Bonjour et al., 2018; Trauner & Servant, 2016). This enables work to go beyond the idea of multi-level governance to explore in closer detail the complexities of policy and decision-making. This approach can enable better understanding of the multiplicity of actors involved in migration governance and the mechanisms of coordination and implementation, of formal and informal networks. EU migration governance can be understood as a complex network with intense interactions between the different Member States and between supranational institutions and various kinds of non-state actors. Researchers have also shown how local actors and sub-national authorities such as cities have become more important (Scholten & van Ostaijen, 2018). This has been further impelled by the effects of the 2015 crisis that led to heightened interest in the organisation, management and effects of reception and integration at sub-national levels. This builds upon existing work on the role of cities, notably concerning integration (Caponio, 2019).

Non-state actors also broadened their action and role during emergencies, or new actors stepped in, either international organisations or local and national civil society actors: both regarding the reception of asylum seekers, the responses to the humanitarian emergency, the grassroots movements of solidarity towards migrants, and the role of humanitarian organisations in rescues at sea (Jeandesboz & Pallister-Wilkins, 2016). Actors have implemented different understandings of crisis and have justified their own interests in how to do or not do certain things in the area of migration, asylum, and border controls. While all can then seek to influence migration governance, both locally, nationally and at the EU level, it is clearly the case that some actors—particularly state and EU actors—are more powerful than others.

In terms of modes of governance, the crisis has revealed an increased informalisation of modes of governance (Oelgemöller, 2011; Cassarino, 2007). This means resorting to extra-treaty and extra-EU law instruments, to non-legal instruments outside of the EU framework, as well as to informal arrangements that occur outside of the EU. One example of this is the so-called EU-Turkey statement of 2016 that was an attempt to co-opt the Turkish government into exerting stronger controls on movement from its coast to Greek islands in return for up to €6 billion of financial assistance (Alpes et al., 2017).

To return to the earlier discussion, migration governance in Europe has been driven since the 1990s by concern about the potential for large-scale migration flows. Whether accurate or not, this understanding has informed the development of an approach that has sought stronger border controls—efforts to stop those flows defined as unwanted by state policies such as asylum-seekers and irregular migrants—plus efforts to co-opt surrounding states and regions into EU controls. Migration governance in Europe thus involves a conceptual representation of what’s going on ‘out there’ (fear of large scale flows, whether accurate or not) and then attempts to manage migration based on this understanding.

There is another point that can be made here too. It could be that the study of migration governance is Eurocentric. This means that it could reflect the interests and ideas of EU Member States and their attempts to impose these on their neighbours to the east and south. Also, governance could be Eurocentric because, as a set of ideas and practices, it reflects European assumptions about the role of the state, about state-society relations, and about the relationship between public and private actors. At the least, we can see that the meaning and effects of migration governance can be very different in other parts of the world.

2.2 European and EU Impacts in Africa

Much existing work on migration relations between Africa and Europe has focused on the potential for migration, particularly from Africa to Europe (Mercandalli et al., 2017; de Haas, 2007; Flahaux & de Haas, 2016). In popular and media representations, this has also been represented as potentially uncontrollable migration, or, as de Haas (2007) put it, a “myth of invasion”. European and EU perspectives have been powerfully shaped by the idea that there is scope for large-scale migration from African countries towards the EU, which has also led to a focus on containment and, for those that do move, return (Landau, 2019; Dragsbaek et al., 2019; Collett & Ahad, 2017; Trauner & Deimel, 2013). In the Horn of Africa, the EU and some of its Member States have become critical players in migration governance with significant political effects in the region, including being used to the advantage of authoritarian governments (Koch et al., 2018).

Extending the analysis to migration governance in Africa sees two points emerge about the meaning and practice of governance. One is the role played by power in global migration governance. Since at least the early 2000s, the EU has actively sought to wield its power by exporting its migration policy preferences and practices to African countries. This has focused in particular on the issue of returning migrants from African countries defined as irregular to their countries of origin. Migration governance could then be seen as something that is imposed on African countries, or, at the very least, contains elements that match closely with the preferences of non-African countries.

Linked to this is a second point which is that an ‘external’ perspective can neglect the realities of migration in Africa and lead to policy responses that do not reflect on-the-ground realities. One reason for this is the powerful legacy of colonialism that is seen in many ways, including through the definition and location of borders. Borders were often colonial impositions that could defy, for example, long-established practices of interaction that were then separated by these imposed borders. Migration management can have powerful effects on traditional cross-border movements including by pastoralists and informal cross-border trade. This illustrates divergences in the conceptualisation of migration governance between African and European countries (Hammond, 2019). With a strong underlying EU impetus, there has been a focus on border restrictions with border towns and crossings increasingly being controlled and secured. This limits and even criminalises the traditional informal crossings that existed long before colonial borders were imposed. The implications of such divergent conceptualisations are far-reaching and can impact the livelihoods of millions of traditional communities in border areas (Ong’ayo, 2018). It also neglects the important role that cross-border movement plays in sustaining peoples’ livelihoods (Naish, 2017; Catley et al., 2013). Informal cross-border movements alleviate the danger of famine by enhancing access by communities in deficit areas to food items from surplus areas. The introduction of migration management—meaning a controlling, restrictive oversight of cross-border movement—has become the norm. The EU has sought controls that can stifle the smooth flow of trade while increased requirements and empowerment of security officials at border posts means increased vulnerability of informal cross-border traders to harassment and bribes. Limitations on cross-border movement lowers the commercial benefits that communities can reap from collaborations and facilitates illicit trade and movement. Controls can undermine food security and conflict early warning systems, as well as weakening trust in border areas that can also be conflict-prone. Cross-border trade and mobility can also alleviate hunger by enhancing access to food items from surplus areas by communities in deficit areas. The introduction of controls can undermine efforts to build resilience and food security in borderlands in the Horn of Africa. This can be understood as an effect of migration governance that, as we discussed earlier, depends on some underlying conceptualisation of the issue or challenge and then attempts to manage or steer the issue, as defined. In this case, the EU has sought to impose tougher border controls in African countries and to return irregular migrants (Geddes & Maru, 2020).

2.3 South American Alternatives?

South America has since the 2000s been seen as offering a distinctively progressive and liberal counterpoint to prevailing global trends in migration governance. Elected in the early 2000s, left-wing governments across the region committed to a new approach to migration proclaimed a right to migrate and urged the non-criminalisation of migration (Acosta Arcarazo & Freier, 2015; Cantor et al., 2015; Acosta Arcarazo, 2018). This challenges the idea that migration governance must follow the kind of approach developed in Europe with a strong focus on border controls targeted at migrants from Africa and the Middle East. A “liberal tide” of progressive migration laws and policies in South America was a conscious attempt to position the region as separate and distinct from both the United States as the continental hegemon and from regional approaches to migration in the EU that were labelled as harsh and repressive (Acosta Arcarazo & Geddes, 2014). At the regional level, the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR) relaunched itself in the early 2000s, including with the MERCOSUR Residence Agreement (MRA) agreed in 2004 and in force since 2009, which has been seen as a regional manifestation of the “liberal tide”. Analysing the distinctiveness of these developments in South America can help to dispel the myth “that worthy innovations are bound to happen in the West and only echo in the rest—or that normative advancement in migration issues drips naturally from North to South” (Pedroza, 2017, p. 141).

3 Conclusion

This chapter has made three points about migration governance. First, as an “empty signifier”, what matters most about migration governance is the meaning given to it by the ideas and practices associated with regulating and managing international migration. Second, governance cannot be understood as simply an ex post response to migration. Instead, migration governance, through the categories and classifications that are developed, plays a very powerful role in shaping the issues and challenges that are faced. Third, migration governance is an organisational process that focuses on two questions that all organisations must necessarily address: “what’s going on ‘out there’?” and, on the basis of an understanding of what’s going on out there, “what should we do next?”. This means that migration governance is powerfully driven by understandings of the causes and effects of migration. These may be more-or-less accurate or more-or-less partial but are always formed in the shadow of considerable uncertainty and shaped not only by facts and evidence but also by values and beliefs. Once established, however, ideas about the challenges and issues to be faced can have considerable effects that can be understood as governance effects. These governance effects were then illustrated by exploring the development of European and EU responses to migration and to the underlying understanding of the challenges that are faced that has led to a focus on borders and security. These have then spilled over to shape migration governance in Africa in ways that might not correspond with on-the-ground realities in African countries. It was also shown that alternatives are possible, as was seen in South America.