Anna Knoll


Historically, seasonal and circular migration has allowed families to have enough food in many developing countries. It is an adaptation strategy. But what exactly is the impact of this migration on food systems in the south? How are European development and migration policies affecting these food systems? Anna Knoll, Migration Expert at the European Center for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), explains.

Can you explain food & nutrition security (FNS) and its link with migration?

FNS is basically the concept that people, households can access safely food and nutrition and satisfy their dietary needs. Food insecurity is basically that they cannot do that for various reasons.

The connection between FNS and migration is that if people are food insecure one of the coping strategies they may use is mobility. For instance, one household member moves in an attempt to diversify income and sends remittances or food items back.

That is the classical connection but there is also more than that. The additional revenue generated by this migration can be invested. For example, farming tools can be bought or the revenue can be invested in a small business that creates jobs. Migration is then at the base of value added production in the economy, especially in the food and agriculture sectors.

Another not so positive link is also food insecurities that can arise if on the move. In some cases, for example when migrating from the countryside to the city, migrants may not find work and thus find themselves in a precarious situation. Sometimes they have to be supported by their family, while the original strategy was to improve their livelihoods.

Do all households use this strategy of migration?

Not really. There are people who have every reason to see migration as a strategy to improve their situation or to cope and who may actually want to do that but who are not able to because they lack the resources, the networks and capacities to do that. These are the ones that are in even more vulnerable situations, which they cannot escape from.

This is what we call the involuntary immobile. In the policy world I feel we need to be careful not to forget that group. Especially when we put policies in place that make it more difficult or unsafe for people to move.

What implications does this have for development cooperation?

Development policy recently focuses a lot on addressing the root causes of migration and targets specific communities on outward migration. In some cases these might be the most vulnerable ones but that is not necessarily the case.

So the question to ask is, do we want to target those that are mobile or those that are most vulnerable?

Are safe and legal pathways important for food security?

People move if they lack access to food. It can be successful if they can actually access income or diversify income through that migration journey but that is not always the case. If they cannot find relatively cheap, safe and legal ways to do that they end up with a precarious situation that puts the household or the individual in an even worse situation than before.

We must remember that migration is essential for food systems in many areas where there are food shortages. In these regions, seasonal migration and circular migration have been a survival strategy for centuries. For example, I worked on the border between Uganda and South Sudan. Many South Sudanese refugees have settled there. Due to the conflict in their country, their agricultural activities have also been disrupted. In Uganda, they are safe and have access to food and basic care. Yet one or two members of the household come and go across the border to continue to care for their livestock or crops in South Sudan. In some cases, one of the family members works in the city and sends money. Mobility is therefore at the heart of the household strategy to ensure that everyone has enough to eat. If we close the borders or make migration more difficult it will also disrupt the economic system and thus cause more food insecurity.

There is this fear in Europe that all people from the South want to move here. What do you think about that?

Well, for now this is certainly not the case. We find that mobility within the African continent is always greater than mobility from Africa to other continents, even if you include migration to the Middle East.
It is very difficult to predict the future, although it is likely that the different causes of migration will increase. The population will increase but also the pressure on the environment resulting from climate change - which in turn can lead to conflict. But that depends heavily on the policy that will be put in place to deal with these changes. However, it is likely that the pressure of climate change on resources will lead to more regional migration than international migration. But as I said, it's hard to predict. The great instability and conflicts in the region, as we have seen with the situation in Syria, can suddenly trigger a large number of people moving at the same time.

How can we change the negative discourse on migration?

On the one hand, you have international agreements such as the Global Compact for Migration and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that bring a positive narrative on migration. I think that some member states of the European Union play an important role. On the other hand, you also have countries like Hungary leaving the negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration saying that migration is something bad.
I think the message must be that migration is a reality for many people, that it is part of the development and transformation of countries and societies. And I am thinking mainly of developing countries where cross-border movements are the basis of their economy, food security and people's livelihoods. It is rather cynical to say that it is negative.
To change this narrative, we have to take a look out of our European bubble. We are more focused on refugees because it was the challenge of the last years in Europe. But that's just a small part of what mobility looks like in the world. I think the challenge is to continue to nuance and keep the message that migration is a reality that can have many benefits.

What is the role of the Sustainable Development Goals for food security?

For the first time, there is an international framework that recognizes the essential role of migration as an engine of development. In addition, the SDGs are cross-cutting, so they link different policy areas. It's a solid framework. But at the same time, it is paradoxical that Europe, when negotiating the SDGs, has started to focus on the root causes of migration without linking the SDGs in its policies or seeking greater policy coherence.

So I think we need to make the SDGs the driving force of everything we do.


This interview has been conducted by Caritas International Belgium:


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