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Bridging the GapsLinking Research to Public Debates and Policy Making on Migration and Integration$

Martin Ruhs, Kristof Tamas, and Joakim Palme

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198834557

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198834557.001.0001

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Understanding the Role of Evidence in EU Policy Development

Understanding the Role of Evidence in EU Policy Development

A Case Study of the ‘Migration Crisis’

(p.169) 11 Understanding the Role of Evidence in EU Policy Development
Bridging the Gaps

Elizabeth Collett

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the formal and informal modes of research–policy interaction at EU level which have developed over the past decade, with particular attention to those processes that have emerged since the ‘crisis’ of 2015–2016, and assesses the relative merits of each. Which processes are ‘pro-forma’ and which are those that genuinely inform policy-makers and influence their approach? How do the various constituencies—EU officials, national civil servants, politicians, academics, and civil society—interact, and through what means is evidence acknowledged and incorporated into decision-making? This chapter investigates how deficiencies in interaction may have led to particular policy choices, and what lessons might now be learned for the next generation of European policy-makers, and the researchers that seek to inform those choices.

Keywords:   EU, migration, research–policy interaction, policy-maker, politician, academic, civil society


One of the most frequently uttered phrases in Brussels in late 2015 was ‘Why didn’t we see this coming?’ While heads of state focused on the dangerous dynamics of maritime migration across the central Mediterranean from Libya, a sharp increase in the number of those boarding boats on the Turkish coast for a short journey to the cluster of Aegean islands nearby took them by surprise. And not only were policy-makers taken by surprise: the Greek government, European Union (EU) agencies, and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), among others, all found themselves caught inadequately prepared for an emergency response in a remote location with limited resources and significant, immediate needs.

In reality, most of those working in the field of immigration and asylum policy, including senior policy-makers from a range of EU member states, were aware that the combination of continued Syrian conflict, poor conditions in neighbouring countries, and increased smuggling activities in Turkey would likely lead to an increase in arrivals in the short to medium term. They did not base this on specific research but, rather, a combination of experience, instinct, and anecdotal evidence, supplemented by reporting from key international agencies and NGOs. Policy-makers were also aware that existing EU policies, if tested, were likely to crumble in the face of significant pressure (Collett 2015). But despite this foreboding, and despite strong evidence from academic, civil society, and unofficial data sources that a significant shift in (p.170) arrival flows was likely to occur in 2015, it proved difficult to bring these together to effectively catalyse a timely policy response.

As researchers and policy-makers alike begin to autopsy the crisis, this chapter unpacks the role that evidence and data play in EU policy development, and the ways in which policy-makers are now making use of information, including their ability to make projections regarding future migration flow. This chapter looks at the formal and informal modes of research–policy interaction at EU level that have developed since the late 2000s, and assesses the relative merits of each. Which processes are ‘pro-forma’ and which genuinely inform policy-makers and influence their approach? How do the various constituencies—EU officials, national civil servants, politicians, academics, and civil society—interact, and through what means is evidence acknowledged and incorporated into decision-making? This chapter looks particularly at the events of the period 2015–2018—with a focus on the ‘refugee crisis’—to assess how the utilization of data and research is changing, and what lessons might now be learned for the next generation of European policy-makers, and researchers.

The analysis in this chapter is based on thirteen years of work managing migration programming in several Brussels-based think tanks—including the European Policy Centre (2005–2010) and the Migration Policy Institute Europe (2010–2018)—and interacting with both researchers and policy-makers.

Disconnected Policy-making in Brussels

The interaction between publics, policy, and evidence in the Brussels environment suffers from a number of disconnects peculiar to the European Union project. This is particularly the case regarding migration. Until recently, the EU institutions have remained largely insulated from the impacts of decisions made in the area of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), at least in terms of public debate and scrutiny. The technical complexity inherent in the development of key instruments—from the Dublin Regulation to Eurodac—means that few media outlets reported on policy developments on migration and asylum prior to 2015. Indeed, Brussels-based journalists have highlighted the difficulties in ‘selling’ national editors JHA stories with no human content that have been based on dry, technical press releases.1 This goes some way to explaining why EU migration policy only came to the forefront in the spring of 2015, following a series of harrowing incidents in the Mediterranean. Although the situation in the southern ‘front-line’ EU member states had been periodically reported in the media since the mid-2000s, it was the news coverage of the large-scale tragedies from 2013 onwards which became the eventual catalyst for political and policy responses.

(p.171) The complexity of the policy portfolio has also insulated many policy-makers from top-down political scrutiny (in the absence of notable misadventure). Until recently, a relatively small number of EU and national officials, alongside specialized non-governmental actors—including academics, have developed expertise in the substance, mechanics, and process of EU-level policy on migration and asylum. As a result, this group has had relatively disproportionate influence over the direction and development of a large area of policy: many innovations can be traced back to a small group, generating support for a new policy idea within a limited and closed network of experts. For example, a ‘like-minded’ group of predominantly north-west European governments that meet prior to meetings of the Strategic Committee on Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum (SCIFA) (which are held in the European Council) to discuss common positions and potential new initiatives. Similar dynamics exist within the EU institutions, either within a single Directorate-General (typically, the Directorate-General for Home Affairs HOME), or across EU institutions at the political level. Few outside of government have up-to-date insight regarding those who are making the key-decisions, and at what moment: the circle of influence is thus hard to penetrate.

Since 2015, the number of those involved in migration policy development has increased significantly and the issue is now subject to more intense scrutiny.2 Yet, this is not necessarily supported by a concomitant broadening of expertise across the EU institutions and its member states, or broadened circles of consultation. Indeed, there is often an inverse correlation between the level and urgency of political decision-making and the breadth of expert consultation undertaken, sometimes out of necessity—and, sometimes, panic.

The inclusion of new actors in immigration policy-making has revealed additional mismatches in expertise. First, the vast majority of those developing (and commenting upon) policy on migration and asylum in Brussels have historically been legal experts, charged with drafting standard-setting legislation on a range of policy areas from border management to the reception of asylum seekers.3 Today, a broader range of portfolios is integrally involved in migration policy, including the European External Action Service (European Commission 2016a). Yet, as with any institution that is ‘learning’ about a new issue, the desire to draw linear conclusions and find simple solutions can be tempting (Gentiloni and Avramopoulos 2016). For example, external experts have continually had to highlight that policy-makers cannot simply address the ‘root causes’ of migration by increasing development investments across the board, and that the drivers of migration from less developed countries may be more complex than mere income inequality (Fratzke and Salant 2018). Meanwhile, on the Interior side, policy-makers have sometimes struggled to adapt to the complexities of foreign policy diplomacy and to incorporate the (p.172) complex interests of partner countries with starkly different politics, socio-economics, and outlook.

In addition, the Directorate-General HOME itself has had to become operational on the ground in EU member states for the first time, coordinating maritime operations, managing an ‘emergency’ relocation scheme (Council of the EU 2015a) and developing ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy (Collett and Le Coz 2018). This, again, requires different types of expertise about what will, or will not, be successful, and the learning curve has been steep. Indeed, the European Commission has needed to rely heavily on the front-line knowledge amassed within its own agencies—notably Frontex, Europol, and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), international and non-governmental organizations—such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and International Rescue Committee (IRC), and EU Member States offering crisis response expertise.

This shift in substance of EU policy-making during the ‘crisis’ period has also thrown into relief some of the core goals that had previously evaded strong examination. At national level, the core philosophy of ‘good’ immigration policy-making is (or should be) the maintenance of a robust system capable of managing the entry and residence of foreign nationals according to defined criteria. At EU level, this goal has often been subsumed within a more philosophical desire to bring the EU member states ever closer together through the development of ‘common’ policies. Research and evidence (and sometimes even basic common sense) can on occasion be set aside in the pursuit of ‘the European project’.

Finally, while the EU is responsible for drafting and promulgating legislation, it is the EU member states that are responsible for translating and implementing those rules into very different national systems. National governments may or may not have the capacity and resources to discharge this responsibility effectively; also, the consequences of an EU-wide policy may have uneven effects, sometimes strongly negative, in particular geographies, sub-national regions, or among particular migrant groups. It has become ever more important for the EU institutions to collect evidence on national implementation and resource allocation (ECRE/UNHCR 2018). The systemic weaknesses within the Greek asylum system demonstrate that peer review of member state practice has proved inadequate; however, there are few independent evaluations with concrete recommendations that can help close the gap (and lag) between policy on paper and policy in practice.

Research and Evidence at EU Level: A Brief Typology

EU-level utilization of research and evidence has been haphazard and uneven, with a strong emphasis on process rather than evidence. This is not to say that (p.173) there is a paucity of EU-funded research but, rather, that its incorporation within the policy-making process is largely due to factors beyond the tangible relevance that an individual piece of research might have for improving policy. Authorship, purpose, and proximity to policy-makers all play a role in whether it will be ‘heard’ (cf. the discussion in Chapter 14 in this volume).

There are a number of different categories of research and evidence that policy-makers find valuable. First, there is basic information and data on migration flows, stocks, and the key characteristics of migrant groups; these help policy-makers understand the challenges at hand (such as gaps in employment rates between native and foreign-born groups).4 Second, there is a vast range of research that investigates the efficacy of particular policy choices, either before or after it has been negotiated. These can take many forms, including impact assessments, evaluations, and reports on implementation. Finally, and more amorphously, there is the broader body of more complex research that investigates the impacts of migration on societies, economies, and individuals themselves. While policy-makers may have a general research agenda and questions they would like answered, it is impossible for them to know what will be most valuable until research has been completed and communicated.

Unlike most résumés of EU research (Singleton 2009; King and Lulle 2016), the following typology does not follow a thematic approach; rather, it looks at where and how research connects with the policy-making environment.

Commissioned and In-house Research

Both the European Commission and European Parliament have significant budgets for commissioning research, whether as part of a formal policy process, such as the pre-proposal impact assessments or evaluations of implemented policy, or more general investigations into issues prioritized within the Commission’s annual work programme. Both institutions offer multi-year framework contracts to consortia of research organizations (most commonly led by for-profit consultancy firms), each of whom can then bid for tenders for specific studies. The expertise required for such a potentially broad range of topics is hard to maintain within a single consortium, and lead times are frequently short. Lead partners in Home Affairs framework contracts are often dependent on finding high-quality partners and sub-contracting external experts. The most relevant experts—frequently, former practitioners and academics—can be hard to bring in at short notice. In addition, although framework contracts come with potentially large budgets,5 the tendering process is competitive (albeit limited) and bids have to ensure cost effectiveness.

Commissioned research of this type can be very influential, particularly if it forms part of the formal policy cycle, or is timed to coincide with relevant (p.174) internal discussions. Typically, the ‘preferred option’ outlined in an impact assessment becomes the template upon which legislation is drafted (although impact assessments usually contain multiple options). However, this type of research has its own limitations. Impact assessments rarely, if ever, recommend the status quo (inaction), or suggest that an initiative be discontinued. While a broader academic community may argue that an EU proposal is unwarranted or wrong-headed, EU processes tend to have neither a brake, nor a reverse gear. This pre-determined narrowing of the policy options means that studies tend to begin with a justificatory framing that may exclude particular evidence in order to allow for expected recommendations (see also Chapter 2 in this volume).

Politics can also affect whether evidence translates into policy action. For example, despite an evaluation of the implementation of the Family Reunification Directive in 2013, which highlighted a number of deficiencies in its functioning (European Commission 2008), a recast of the legislation was shelved amid fears that re-opening the legislation would lead to further dilution, rather than a strengthening, of standards. Conversely, some initiatives have continued to be pushed despite deep scepticism about their value. The now adopted proposals for an EU-wide Entry–Exit system endured three separate impact assessments (in 2006, 2013, and 2016), while several European Parliament studies (Jeandesboz et al. 2013) and a European Data Protection Supervisor assessment (European Data Protection Supervisor 2013) highlighted issues of cost, privacy, and proportionality (issues echoed by numerous EU member states). Rather than abandon the endeavour, proposals were re-worked and re-tabled, and were eventually adopted in late 2017, due in part to the weight of these critiques. This demonstrates the value of having commissioned research emanate from multiple institutions. European Parliament studies are often more critical (and more creative) than those produced for the European Commission.

Alongside research associated with policy processes, the European Commission maintains agreements with key international organizations, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), and the International Labour Organization (ILO), which allows them to commission research without a tendering process. These organizations tend to have stronger access to the institutions when offering evidence; also, they have played an increasing role in providing data and analysis in recent years.

EU agencies responsible for migration have developed research, mostly in-house. EASO offers month-to-month data on asylum applications and outcomes, and is developing a repository of country of origin information. EASO has also initiated a bespoke outsourced research programme focused on (p.175) the drivers of migration, although the budget for this research currently allows for little more than small grants for theoretical review. Frontex invests in a series of risk analyses—for example, the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community Joint Report (Frontex 2014)—which outlines the trends, nationalities, means, and conditions of those taking the main migratory routes to the European Union, and includes analysis of regional instability and security risks in the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community (AFIC) region. These risk analyses are primarily concerned with mixed flows to Europe. While they are tuned into changing routes for smuggling and trafficking in a particular region, and ruminate as to the cause, they do not look deeply at the drivers of mass movement emanating from broader socio-economic or political instability. Meanwhile, the Fundamental Rights Agency presents periodic data on the situation for migrants themselves, with a particular focus on those affected by ‘large migration movements’ (Fundamental Rights Agency 2018).6 Finally, the European Court of Auditors has undertaken studies on the implementation of hotspots in Greece and Italy, and the efficacy of spending on migration within European Neighbourhood policy (European Court of Auditors 2016, 2017).

Commissioned research is supplemented by the use of expert groups, public consultations, and formal and informal public hearings. Non-governmental actors frequently argue that public consultations perform little more than a legitimizing function in the development of legislation (cf. Chapter 2 in this book). Online consultations rely on the activism of outside organizations in responding to questionnaires and submitting evidence. The European Migration Forum—an annual two-day meeting gathering policy-makers, NGOs, and experts to discuss various elements of policy—is one of a number of physical meetings hosted by the European institutions (European Economic and Social Committee 2018). However, while useful for networking, it is unclear how much influence these discussions have on policy. At the other end of the scale, involvement in thematic expert groups is by invitation only, and restricted to those deemed by the European Commission to be knowledgeable on the topics at hand. For example, the Expert Group on Economic Migration includes experts from the OECD, Migration Policy Institute Europe (MPI Europe), the IOM and leading academic institutions such as Oxford University. Discussions are led by the European Commission, but can influence their thinking very directly (European Commission 2015). As such, they offer exclusive access to a select few, with relatively little investment on either side.

Mechanisms for Knowledge-gathering

Since the turn of the millennium, the European Commission has supported the development of a number of academic research networks and multi-year (p.176) research projects designed to inform national and European policy-makers. These include open-ended academic networks such as International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion in Europe (IMISCOE—a pan-European network of migration research centres, launched in 2004) (IMISCOE n.d.) and long-term investments such as CARIM (a consortium of researchers focused on analysing migration trends first to the South, later to the East, launched in 2004) (CARIM-East n.d., see Chapter 12 in this book), as well as multi-year, multi-disciplinary research projects such as MAFE (assessing migration drivers between Africa and Europe) (Institut National d’Études Demographiques 2014) and CLANDESTINO (assessing the size of the undocumented population in Europe) (ELIAMEP n.d.). Beyond this, there are hundreds of smaller research projects covering all aspects of migration and asylum, undertaken by groups of research organizations supported through funding programmes disbursed directly at EU level (King and Lulle 2016).

EU support has been a strong driver in the development of comparative research on trends in migration, asylum, and integration, and on policy impacts, largely through consecutive seven-year research framework programmes (which follow the seven-year EU budget cycle: 2014–2020).7 They have fostered stronger cross-national and cross-disciplinary research ties between researchers across Europe, as well as with researchers residing in the European neighbourhood. EU support has contributed to a substantial increase in comparative research (albeit with a strong western European focus), subsequently disseminated in national and local policy debates. However, in my view, the resultant canon of research has had an underwhelming impact on policy. There are a number of reasons for this.

Many academics question whether policy impact should be a research priority (even when focused on key public policy questions). Reports are often long and written in technical and/or opaque language, impenetrable for time-limited policy-makers looking for quick illumination of a policy problem, and frequently lack usable policy recommendations. In addition, there is often a gap of up to five years between the initial call for research proposals and the first research outputs from successful proposals. This is too long a cycle for policy-makers confronted with fast-paced change.

But there is also little capacity within the EU institutions themselves to accumulate knowledge over time, or to build on existing work. While most projects funded by the European Union typically involve a dissemination phase, a final report, and conference, these are last-minute affairs and it is often the case that most researchers have already moved on to the next project. Until recently, there was no central repository for EU-funded research on migration,8 and the internet is littered with lapsed project websites. Few officials are able to draw on research stemming back more than a couple of years.

(p.177) In an effort to bring more consistent evidence to the policy-making process, the European Commission created the European Migration Network (EMN) in 2008. Coordinated by an external organization,9 the EMN brings together nationally appointed government (and sub-contracted) researchers to produce information on topics set through an annual work programme, and as needs arise. The EMN produces national and synthesis reports on specific policy areas and publishes annual national reports outlining reforms, and curates answers to ad hoc queries from EU member states as to how other governments address particular policy issues. Over time, the body of work published by the EMN has become more comparative and is valuable in informing other member states about the policies of their peers. However, while the EMN collates information on practice, it does not generally offer policy recommendations, or draw upon empirical analysis to ascertain the effects of particular policy choices.

Communicating Independent Research

While the EU is a driver of research in many countries—and an increasingly critical source of funding—it is by no means the sole catalyst for research relevant to EU policy-making. There is a glut of research, from legal analysis through to fieldwork with migrant groups, that can inform policy-makers’ understanding of migration. Given the abundance of research, policy-makers are reliant on trusted interlocutors to filter significant research results and communicate them effectively and in a timely manner. Several Directorates-General in the European Commission have attempted to take on this role and have organized academic conferences on migration; however, these tend to cram together multiple presentations on diverse topics, leaving the few policy-makers in attendance dizzy with a vast array of evidence, which may or may not have relevance to their work. The European Parliament political groupings host frequent hearings to showcase research, but these are often poorly attended.

In this context, think tanks and other policy-focused research institutes have emerged as key interlocutors, particularly those based in Brussels. With a primary focus on policy, and with networks across the broader research community, these organizations can connect relevant, high-quality research to burning policy questions. To be successful, such interlocutors have to be credible, independent, and without a strong political agenda; they must be able to draw on thick networks of policy-makers and other stakeholders from civil society, media, and the private sector; and be capable of extracting policy-relevant conclusions from the evidence presented. This is not a simple task, (p.178) and requires time and effort to keep abreast of new research and emerging policy issues.

For academics with a strong reputation and an established catalogue of work, there is often no need for an interlocutor. But this can also lead to a bias in the voices that are heard in Brussels: experts with a media presence can find themselves invited to present to policy-makers who have become familiar with their work through the press and, increasingly, social media, Meanwhile, emerging, young, and minority researchers with nascent networks can struggle. This brings home the fact that not only can research, media, and policy influence be mutually reinforcing, but it can also side-line those with less capacity for the active dissemination of their work.10 Sadly, media and policy influence is not always a strong indicator of quality, knowledge, and expertise; in some cases, it may merely indicate a loud voice.

A Crisis Realization

As the crisis unfolded in 2015, policy-makers quickly realized the inadequacy of the evidence-gathering mechanisms at their disposal. Real-time data from national and international sources were frequently inconsistent, and were not packaged or analysed in a way that could flag key shifts in movement.11

Information was not effectively communicated between countries concerning arrivals and onward movement. This is not an insurmountable task, or one which necessarily requires deep investment. For example, the Swedish Migration Agency developed models to predict future flows to the country, incorporating factors—for example, regional instability—to build a series of scenarios that were periodically adjusted to account for new events and changing factors along the migration journey.12 However, few other countries had similar capacity. At the EU level, not only were there no mechanisms in place to manage a pan-European early warning network, but to put them in place would be to explicitly accept the existence of onward movement within the EU. Countries such as Greece and Italy had no incentive to monitor either arrivals or onward movement. Thus, during the summer of 2015, NGOs and volunteers were often in command of the best information about arrivals on the Greek islands and along the Western Balkan route. Subsequently, UNHCR and others began to collate flow information.13

For the EU institutions, the triggering of the Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) system in October 2015 became a critical catalyst for improving information flow between officials, at both national and EU level (Council of the EU 2015b). One of the enduring benefits of the activation of the IPCR has been the development of Integrated Situational Awareness and Analysis (p.179) (ISAA) reports, collating data from affected EU member states and providing updates on key changes and responses; this report is distributed weekly to officials. Described by officials as ‘the saviour of 2015’, the ISAA reports ensured everyone had access to the same data at the same time, and allowed actors to identify key knowledge gaps and to seek further information (Collett and Le Coz 2018). While this seems basic, it did not exist in a usable consolidated format prior to the crisis.

Separately, while proliferating instability within the European neighbourhood has increased the risk of additional mass movements of displaced people, whether primary or secondary movements, interior policy-makers in charge of migration portfolios have few tools to predict—and thus prepare for—the effects of external events on inflow. The earliest warning occurred when people had already reached European borders, when it was too late to put in place appropriate and timely responses. While immigration policy-makers instinctively understood that dynamics were likely to change in 2015, they had little data that would help them predict scale, composition, and route.

Early warning systems exist across the EU institutions. For example, the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (INTCEN) is designed to provide the European External Action Service (EEAS) and EU member states with early warning analysis and response. Effects on migrants and refugees are included in the analysis, which is mostly limited to the region in question, and dissemination to interior actors is limited. The development of the EU Conflict Early Warning System (EWS) in 2014 was, in part, to redress criticisms that the EU’s approach to early warning had been ad hoc and scattered. Within the Directorate-General ECHO, analysts from the Emergency Response Coordination Centre publish a ‘daily map’ of situations to watch. This can include a damage assessment after a major natural disaster, or forecasts of dangerous weather systems affecting Europe (European Commission Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection n.d.).

At agency level, EASO has now been tasked with supporting the development of an early warning, preparedness, and crisis management mechanism.14 As such, the agency produces regular analyses of trend, push–pull factors, and risk scenarios based on information from EU member states and other agencies, including UNHCR, IOM, and Frontex. In 2016, Europol established the European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) to help member states target and dismantle the organized crime networks involved in human smuggling and trafficking. The EMSC also produces Migrant Smuggling Monitoring Reports—delivering 174 in its first year of operation (Europol 2017). The existing infrastructure is geared towards sharing information that could indicate the evolution of a migration crisis but it has limited predictive (p.180) capacity. For example, neither Frontex nor EASO engage in scenario building; where this capacity exists in the EEAS, foresight capacity is narrow due to weak links to broader geopolitical conflict and instability.

Increasing the Use of Research and Evidence Post-crisis: A Mixed Bag

In an effort to address what quickly became a political concern about the availability of evidence on flows, since 2015 the European Union has initiated a number of new mechanisms to gather and improve the use of evidence for policy-making across the European Union.

Between institutions, it is clear that the crisis has created a habit of information exchange on a regular basis, rather than ad hoc. Two weaknesses persist. First, the value of information exchange relies on accurate reporting from EU member states. It became clear in the autumn of 2016 that reported numbers in Greek mainland reception centres were far higher than the numbers witnessed on the ground; concerned by the conditions of continued onward movement through the Western Balkans, it was UNHCR and non-state actors that raised the alarm, rather than the Greek government (UNHCR 2015). Second, issues flagged through the IPCR and other coordinating groups translate into improved policy outcomes. The continued documentation of poor conditions on the Greek islands and along the borders of south-east Europe, for example, reflect a lingering gap between communicating a problem and finding ways to address it effectively when there is political resistance to doing so.

There has also been a concerted effort to gather ‘upstream’ data on flows. The European Commission has joined various EU member states in funding the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix to begin monitoring a number of countries seen to be key origin and transit countries along the central Mediterranean route to the EU.15 This investment marks a significant upgrade in interest in terms of research: prior to 2016, the major investment from the European Commission had been the development of ‘migration profiles’ of key sending and transit countries, lengthy reports outlining stocks, flows, and socio-economic data, which tended not to be used by policy-makers (Global Forum on Migration and Development n.d.). However, there have been questions over the quality of some of the data produced and uncertainty over who to believe when data conflict with that produced by national agencies.

Interpretation remains challenging. While there is now perhaps even a surfeit of information available to officials, there is little systematic analysis of that data. It is left to policy-makers to select the data they deem most (p.181) pertinent and to draw their own policy and operational conclusions, potentially erroneously.16

Beyond this, the European Commission has developed a renewed, almost repentant, appreciation of broader migration research and has developed a new range of initiatives (some of which may turn out to be duplicative). This is driven by a desire by numerous Directorates-General within the Commission to ensure their own continued relevance on a topic with high salience as much as it is about improving policy on the basis of evidence. Central among these is the creation in 2016 of a Knowledge Centre of Migration and Demography (KCMD). The Centre is tasked with collating what it perceives to be fragmented knowledge on migration, rather than generating new information, and it has launched a dynamic data hub that presents stock and flow data culled from Eurostat, the OECD, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), and others (Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography n.d.). Based in Italy, it is not yet clear how close its links with policy-makers will be, or whether the primary audience for its data will be in policy or academic circles. Certainly, much of the information published is already circulating in a different form at meetings such as the IPCR, although not sourced via the KCMD.17 Separately, the Directorate-General Research has created a Migration Research Platform that brings together all the various research projects supported under the preceding research frameworks, as well as the various EU-led sources of information, including (somewhat circularly) the KCMD.

More meaningfully, the amount of funding earmarked for independent migration research under the Horizon 2020 research programme has been increased significantly.18 This includes the development of an externally managed migration research platform designed to make evidence more comparable across countries (CROSS-MIGRATION) and a ‘stakeholders’ platform that will bring together researchers, NGOs, and local authorities on social issues related to migration (RESOMA) (European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation 2016). At the same time, under the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa—launched to improve cooperation with sending and transit countries across the continent—a Research and Evidence Facility has been created under the aegis of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to look at, inter alia, the drivers of migration (SOAS University of London n.d.).

It is still unclear how these reinvigorated efforts will function alongside the existing mechanisms—from the EMN through to the consultancies tasked with developing impact assessments—and play a concrete role in developing policy, and the EU institutions may be mistaking a flurry of action for progress. These efforts can also be critiqued on the basis of ‘too little, too late’; the original Horizon 2020 programme contained little focus on migration, and (p.182) first results from the new calls for proposals will take several years to emerge. Although the Directorate-General Research has hosted several conferences designed to reflect on the use of evidence in policy-making,19 there has been little broader reflection within the EU institutions as to how research, once collected, is used to design and reform policy, despite increasing demands from leaders for ‘data’.

Conclusion: Challenges to Incorporating Evidence in EU Policy-making Processes

Overall, as one might expect, there is a strong correlation between how far the EU institutions are actively invested in external expertise and how far that expertise can then influence its own policy work. The exception to this is work commissioned by the Directorate-General Research, which is, too often, viewed as sitting outside policy circles. Proximity to policy-makers (how far experts are embedded in a policy-making network at EU or national level), reputation (the canon of expertise that researchers bring to the table) and familiarity (whether the research framing fits within the pre-existing views of policy-makers) are all factors affecting influence. This last criterion is particularly important: there has been a surfeit of critical analysis of EU policy during the crisis period and yet very little of it has affected the overall policy direction;20 instead, it has often led to a withdrawal of openness on the part of policy-makers to interact.

To be effective, researchers and experts need to provide information that is not readily available to policy-makers. This includes not only primary on-the-ground research, but also ensuring that the voices of those affected by migration (notably, migrants themselves) are heard, as noted by Singleton (2015). Policy-makers are ready to hear from civil society and academic actors who can offer a first-hand account of policy effects, or raise issues that otherwise do not reach Brussels. This creates a paradox: access to EU policy-makers is hugely advanced by regular presence in the policy-making environment—whether Brussels or a national capital—and by the development of networks that are constantly in flux.21 Thus, researchers who are predominantly undertaking fieldwork tend to have limited access to the policy-making environment. This is an issue replicated in civil society, where local NGOs are reliant on platform NGOs in Brussels effectively translating and communicating their concerns. As the scope of EU interest in migration broadens to non-EU countries and to the implementation of EU policy at local level, the gap between knowledge and access is likely to broaden. This means that the role of effective interlocutors—beyond occasional conferences and presentations—who can (p.183) distil information and draw relevant policy conclusions has become ever more important.

Reputation and trust are key. Expertise must be seen as independent, or clearly marked otherwise. This has become increasingly problematic in academic circles where researchers’ ideologies are frequently set in opposition to those of policy-makers. The use of charged terms such as ‘Fortress Europe’ and ‘externalization agenda’ has given policy-makers the impression that research conclusions may not be objective—which, in turn, has affected levels of trust between the policy and academic worlds. There is a need for an open conversation within academia about core goals of research, about the desirability and function of policy influence and, if deemed a valid objective, about the creation of constructive environments to communicate necessary critique to policy-makers. The relationship is under strain, but there is an opportunity to repair it.

When a policy area is politically sensitive and contested, it is not only hard for policy-makers to review and absorb critique, but also to take on board contradictory evidence. This is also related to the level of direct policy responsibility that the EU institutions have over a topic. Since the late 2000s, it has proved far easier for the European Commission to commission and reflect upon public research related to immigrant integration outcomes, as it merely has a loose coordinating role. Conversely, policy-makers are far less likely to commission public research on border management or security issues, preferring to commission private consultancies; for example, McKinsey was commissioned to review asylum procedures in Greece in late 2016, in order to develop means of accelerating the implementation of the EU–Turkey statement. Proximity to decision-making also affects how far research is taken on board: the European Parliament—furthest from the hot-seat—commissions more critical research than the Commission which, in turn, commissions more research than the Council, which relies primarily on information communicated by EU and international agencies through briefings and memos (and, now, ISAA reports). But policy-makers must become more open to new information and be willing to adapt policy based on what it tells them.

The European institutions have clearly identified a need for greater levels of forward-looking evidence on migration, and the willingness to invest in it—specifically, the impact that demographic change, conflict, and instability might have on future flows to Europe, and means through which migrants may use particular regular and irregular pathways. One of the most frequently uttered preoccupations, post-crisis, is the number of migrants who may seek passage to Europe over the next couple of decades.22 Not only is this an impossible question to answer, given the large number of variables inherent in determining such a figure, but to put forward a static prediction also risks fossilizing a politically sensitive debate around a single piece of data. Thus, researchers and (p.184) experts will need to find ways to help shape the most important future research questions, rather than merely react to those developed in political circles. They will also need to be clear about questions that cannot be effectively answered. This requires not only an understanding of future policy issues, but also a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge.

As the migration policy domain is unlikely to reduce in political salience and scrutiny in the near future, experts are in a contradictory position: on the one hand, researchers will find that support for large-scale data and evidence collection is higher than it has ever been at EU level, including financial support; on the other hand, it may be harder than ever to influence a policy-making domain that has become path dependent and constrained by national politics. To affect policy design, research will have to be communicated in a manner that is smartly framed, iterative and capable of acknowledging political realities while not conforming to them. In a context where expertise is increasingly framed as advocacy, providing objective evidence and policy relevant, constructive solutions for policy-makers will be both challenging and essential.


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(1.) Interviews undertaken in 2008 with Brussels-based journalists, unpublished MPI memo, Transatlantic Council on Migration.

(2.) The staff of the Directorate-General HOME has grown significantly since 2015; this has involved the establishment of a new unit on migration management support, producing information reports for distribution within the European Commission and elsewhere.

(3.) While the Global Approach to Migration (and later Mobility)—the EU’s effort to develop a foreign policy agenda—has existed since 2005, it was considered a marginal and marginally successful policy with little buy-in from those outside the JHA arena.

(4.) Eurostat gathers much of this information from EU Member States, including the Labour Force Survey, the European Social Survey and various national population surveys.

(5.) The European Commission has estimated commissioned work on irregular migration between 2017 and 2021 to be worth up to €6 million, while €3 million have been earmarked for research on legal migration and integration. For original tender specifications, see https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/financing/tenders/2017/20170310_tender_specifications_en.pdf (Accessed 7 May 2018).

(6.) This reporting commenced on a weekly basis in September 2015 and is now presented on a monthly basis.

(7.) The framework programme in 2018 is Horizon 2020, a fund of nearly €80 billion, managed by the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.

(8.) The Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography is attempting to rectify this.

(p.185) (9.) Currently, the EMN is managed by ICF, a for-profit consultancy.

(10.) This is particularly problematic when academic institutions view policy engagement as an extra-curricular activity.

(11.) This section draws upon research conducted for Collett and Le Coz (2018).

(12.) Indeed, the October 2012 prediction for asylum applications in 2013 was accurate to within 259 applications. For more detail on the process, see UNHCR (2013).

(13.) See, for example, UNHCR’s Daily Estimated Arrivals per CountryFlows through Western Balkans Route, 24 April 2016.

(14.) As mandated through Article 33 of the recast Dublin Regulation (European Union 2013).

(15.) Originally conceived as a tool to help monitor displacement in conflict and disaster regions, Directorate-General ECHO has funded the monitoring of transit flows through Libya (co-funded by the UK government) since January 2016 (IOM 2018a), Niger (co-funded by the German government) since February 2016 (IOM 2018b), and Mali (co-funded by the UK and US governments) since June 2016 (IOM 2018c). The IOM not only monitors inflows and outflows; and demographic data, including nationality, age and purpose of travel; and tracks changes in route; it also produces short, frequent updates of the data.

(16.) Indeed, the European Commission’s Second Report on the Migration Partnership Framework implied that a drop in border crossings in Niger from 70,000 in May 2016 to 1,500 in November of the same year was due to efforts pursued under the proposed migration partnership with the country (launched in June 2016), ignoring other possible factors such as seasonal fluctuation. This data was, in any case, later revised (European Commission 2016b).

(17.) Interviews with officials in the European Commission conducted during April 2018 suggested that knowledge of the KCMD, and hence the use of its products, was very low.

(18.) The EU announced in 2017 that they would allocate over €200 million for migration-related research in 2018–2020 (European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation 2017).

(19.) See, for example, the Directorate-General Research Workshop on Migration Governance: Europe and Africa, hosted in Brussels on 10 July 2017.

(20.) See, for example, extensive research on NGO search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean. Despite several research projects—such as MEDMIG—disputing the ‘pull factor’ role played by such activities, Italian and EU policies have continued in the direction of curtailing those activities.

(21.) This is reflected in literature reviewing the use of evidence (Oliver et al. 2014).

(22.) A question that the Joint Research Centre has briefly attempted to answer (Joint Research Centre 2018).