Corruption occurs in rich and poor countries alike — and is therefore a global concern. Yet evidence shows that it affects poor people disproportionately and helps turn fragile states into failed states. Ahead of International Anti-Corruption Day, marked every 9 December, I want to highlight the link between corruption and migration, which is all too often overlooked.
On this day of anti-corruption, migration may not be the first topic that comes to mind. Yet with a humanitarian refugee crisis unfolding and the topical nature of migration more generally, it is important to understand how these two things are related. On the one hand, there is higher emigration from countries with a higher level of corruption. On the other, we know from plenty of research that corruption and development are negatively correlated, so from a development perspective this linkage matters.
As explained in an earlier article, there are at least 10 ways that migration and corruption are linked: 1) Corruption Facilitates Illegal Migration; 2) Corruption Enables Protection of Refugees; 3) Corruption Impedes the Development Benefits of Migration; 4) Corruption Stimulates Migration Desires; 5) Corruption Promotes the Transnational Ties of Elites; 6) Corruption Discourages Return Migration; 7) Social Remittances Reduce Corruption; 8) Migration Upends Corrupt Social Structures; 9) Migration Sustains Corruption; and 10) Corruption Undermines Assistance to Migrants.
Here I want to tackle the first two points, given the context of increased forced migration — currently at a historic high with almost 60 million refugees. We have not seen similar numbers since the Second World War. In this context, it is important to understand how corruption can facilitate irregular migration and enable the protection of refugees.
Migration and corruption are linked in terms of rampant corruption being a reason to migrate in the first place, and in terms of migrating irregularly by using fake documents (either entirely fake or legal documentation not for the intended recipient, or not meant to be given in a specific context). Corruption can also assist irregular migration via bribes to border officials to allow illegal entry into a territory.
For some people from specific backgrounds it is often difficult to migrate. Although migration controls have not become tougher overall, it is true that for certain categories of migrants, migration has become much more difficult . This is clearly true for those seeking asylum in the West and has become increasingly true for lower skilled migrants, especially those coming from developing countries. With these barriers, it is often extremely difficult or almost impossible for these migrants to move with legal permission. To migrate they often resort to paying bribes to get visas and documents, either real or fake. They often employ a smuggler or multiple smugglers to help them with their journey, who in turn may pay bribes to smuggle people across borders.
The facilitation of irregular migration via corruption feeds directly into how corruption can enable the protection of refugees. It is increasingly difficult for those fleeing violence and persecution, without proper documentation, to travel to safe countries, especially in the European Union (EU) and North America. With the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq (these being the largest sending flows at the moment), the difficulty in acquiring proper documentation to travel to the EU and North America has spurred a massive demand-driven smuggling industry. It is often through the corruption of border agents along the travel route, and in some cases obtaining false documentation, that these forced migrants are able to access these territories and claim asylum. Because of compromised asylum and immigration systems, especially in the EU, refugees are often only able to access asylum systems by means of some level of corruption. And they are legally entitled to these systems.
So why do we force refugees – who are already forced migrants – to resort to these measures? It is because of long waiting times in deplorable refugee camps, often with little or no hope of resettlement or return, that individuals and families feel forced to move on. It is because of current policies in the West (especially the EU), that refugees must resort to corrupt and dangerous practices. The EU has basically pushed migrants and refugees into the hands of the smugglers. If the EU had a better managed and open system of refugee resettlement we would not be seeing such a large use of smugglers and corrupt practices to achieve basic humanitarian ends.