Looking beyond ‘the refugee crisis’, can migrants be the new agents of democracy?

Egyptian refugees fleeing Libya with the help of the US Air Force. US Department of Defence

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Over the last few decades, the focus on migration has widened beyond a narrow preoccupation with integration – a positive development. However, while issues of migration and development, migration and securitisation, migration and climate change, and migration and gender are all relevant, something is conspicuously absent from the debate – the relationship between migration and the spread of democracy.

Consider the influence the current refugee crisis has had on the European Union’s assessment of Turkey and its questionable record on human rights. Despite the Turkish government’s increasing crackdowns on press freedom, European Commission president Jean Claude-Juncker stressed that Europe should not “harp on” about Turkey’s human rights record. As the EU is now reliant on Turkey in its efforts to reduce the flow of people to Europe, criticisms of Turkey have become much more muted.

This case of realpolitik recalls one of the darker moments in recent EU history. In 2010, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi used the growing number of refugees and migrants in his country as weapons of mass migration as he threatened the vision of a “black Europe”. In response, the EU supplied him with billions of dollars and border patrol technology, despite widespread reports of abuse in the Libyan camps.

Clearly, migration and democracy promotion can have a negative correlation. The relationship between liberalism and racism has historically been “a hell of a love affair”.

An analysis of legal records from 22 countries between 1790 and 2010 suggests democracies are often leaders in promoting racist policy while undemocratic countries are among the first to outlaw discrimination. This was certainly the case in the US when 26 state governors declared they would not accept Syrian refugees (or only Christian refugees from Syria) after the Paris terror attacks.

Syrian refugees gather outside a railway station in Budapest in 2015. Mstyslav Chernov

While this paints a bleak picture of the migration-democracy nexus, it is worthwhile to move from a state-centric perspective to one that puts the migrants themselves into focus.

Democracy is more than mere institutions and regular elections; it depends on the diffuse support of the population. With migrant numbers steadily increasing, their attitudes and actions can influence the democratic development of countries affected. This is especially so where there are large and constant flows of people, as between Mexico and the US.

To spread democratic values, we must share them

The Eurocentric assumption is that migrants move from authoritarian countries to established democracies of the West. There they “learn democracy” and then can act as agents of democratisation upon their return.

However, contrary to common discourses in the US and Europe, many of the world’s migration flows are not headed towards Western democracies. The Gulf states, for example, are major destinations. The temporary migrants working there often come from more democratic countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia or India.

Even when migrants are moving to more democratic countries, no automatic processes of democratic diffusion take place. The actual “blessings” of democracy may be out of reach for the majority of migrants, particularly if their status is irregular. Their treatment may be at odds with democratic values and principles.

It follows that, in the destination country, other spaces for exercising democratic participation and individual freedom outside the system of government may be more significant in influencing migrant attitudes.

Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong are able to be part of an international union. Wikipedia Commons

This explains why returning Filipino migrants from Hong Kong show the highest support for democratic principles. That’s unsurprising when the comparison is to those returning to the Philippines from Saudi Arabia, but it also applies to the comparison with returnees from democracies such as Japan or Taiwan.

The Filipino migrants in Hong Kong are predominantly domestic workers. They have no genuine prospect of ever gaining the right to abode, but they have access to legal recourse and enjoy freedoms such as freedom of speech and the right to organise and form unions.

There is an obvious policy lesson here: if destination countries want to support migrants as agents of development, they have to treat them according to democratic values and provide them with opportunities for participation. Surely it isn’t too far-fetched to claim that if migrants are to promote democratic principles and practices back home, it is beneficial for them to experience these first-hand.

The challenges of diaspora politics

Migrants can influence the democratisation process in their country of origin without necessarily returning. While communicating with friends and family back home they report their personal experiences with democratic practices like unionisation.

More directly, they may seek to directly influence their homelands by engaging in what has come to be known as “diaspora politics”. This can be economic, social or political in nature, though every engagement can ultimately have political implications.

For example, the Mexican Tres por Uno (Three for One) program has been widely praised. For every peso sent home by migrants as remittances, the federal, state and municipal governments add one peso each.

Though this seems like a good incentive at first sight, it has some problematic implications. When private money determines the direction of public spending, an intensification of the inequalities between communities with higher and lower numbers of migrants abroad could result.

The political implications are more obvious in the case of absentee voting. Migrant communities – those from the Dominican Republic, for instance – have fought for their right to vote overseas. While these campaigns succeeded, the actual voter turnout remained quite low.

One dilemma is whether migrants should be allowed to influence policies through their votes without having to bear the consequences. The Philippines tried to resolve this issue by making a planned return in the foreseeable future a requirement for absentee voting, but this faces practical problems.

Other countries like Italy go even further and reserve a certain number of seats in their parliaments for citizens residing abroad. Again, this regulation might clash with the “all affected” principle, since the election outcome might not directly affect these voters.

To complicate things further, people with dual citizenship might be able to vote in two countries and thus weaken the “one (wo)man, one vote” principle. This might also happen on the supranational level: a well-known German journalist of Italian origin voted in both countries during the last European Parliament election and was fined as a result.

It goes both ways

Mobility thus challenges democratic principles that rely on the concept of nation-states as “containers” with an assumed congruence of territorial, social and political space.

Is it time for a new conception of rights without citizenship? Metropolico.org/flickr

Perhaps, then, the answer lies in decoupling citizenship and democratic rights. Instead of treating citizenship status as a membership card to an exclusive club, what if some membership benefits could be granted without formal citizenship after a prolonged stay?

Benefits could include the right to vote (at least on the municipal level), labour rights and the right to form and join migrants’ rights organisations and trade unions. These unions could be transnational in scope, encompassing countries of origin and destination.

If migrants are exposed to democratic principles and freedoms even without the VIP card of citizenship, they could have the real potential to become global “agents of democratisation”.