How the German Parliament Talks About Causes of Displacement

These narratives are used by members of the German Bundestag.

In the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015, development policy acquired a key role: to reduce the number of refugees arriving in Germany as swiftly as possible by tackling the root causes for their displacement. Keen to meet these expectations, the then Development Minister, Gerd Müller (CSU), set up a series of schemes, including a “Marshall Plan for/with Africa” as well as an initiative to “Combat the Causes of Displacement”.

In the German Parliament (Bundestag), too, politicians voiced their expectations of development policy with regard to forced displacement and migration. Debates in the Bundestag are often used to justify stances and decisions to the public. In my analysis I researched the assumptions and narratives drawn on by the various Bundestag groupings in debates on development policy and migration in the 18th and 19th parliamentary terms (2013-2021). To what extent was this linking of development policy with displacement and migration based on empirical evidence? What narratives did Bundestag politicians use to elucidate this connection?

The results showed that politicians’ assumptions with regard to migration and refugees are for the most part distinctly out of step with the scientific discourse on these issues. It should be obvious that a political discourse based on empirically untenable assumptions and narratives cannot produce progressive, sustainable and human rights-based development and migration policy. This makes it all the more important that Bundestag groupings take a more nuanced approach to migration processes in the future, rather than simply viewing them from an angle of reducing migration at all costs. Politicians should recognize more strongly that especially regional freedom of movement, is essential for the sustainable development of countries in the Global South. Migration must be seen as an opportunity.


What migration research tells us about root causes of displacement

Migration research conducted over the last few decades has generated significant empirical insights, only a few of which have found their way into the political discourse on migration policy. This concerns, among other things, reasons for migration, the link between economic development and emigration, South-South migration, and the effects of the securitisation of migration policy.


The reasons for migration are complex and ‘mixed’

The reasons why people migrate are many and varied, and are often based on a complex interplay of a range of factors such as economic crises, human rights abuses and natural disasters. Consequently, a clear distinction between voluntary and forced migration often does not correspond to reality. This overlap between socio-economic migration motives other motives of migration, such as fleeing an armed conflict, is termed mixed migration. In this sense, e.g. the migration decision of many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa is not exclusively based on an expected higher income, but also on human rights violations and fragile statehood in the country of origin.


Connection between economic development and emigration

When thinking about economic development and emigration, two aspects should be considered.

Firstly, contrary to common assumptions, economically poor countries have very low emigration rates. The emigration rate for sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is lower than that of regions with a higher Human Development Index (HDI), such as Central Asia and Europe. The HDI not only takes into account per capita income, but also life expectancy and years of education.

Secondly, and again contrary to common assumptions, as soon as a low-income country develops economically, its emigration rate increases until the country achieves a certain economic status. Researchers stress that this connection should not be understood as an inevitable automatism due to regional differences. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there is a high probability that socio-economic development in low-income countries, e.g. in sub-Saharan Africa, will be accompanied by increasing emigration rates in the near future.


South-South migration higher than South-North migration

Empirical research has furthermore observed that more people migrate between the countries of the Global South (South-South migration) than between the Global South and the Global North (South-North migration). Moreover, data on international refugee movements show that 83% of the world’s refugees find protection in developing countries. This clearly contradicts the common misconception often present in political discourse that Western industrialized nations bear the brunt of the global refugee population.


Securitization of European migration policy

Migration research has also witnessed an increasing securitization of European migration policy. One example of this is the establishment of the European Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). The EUTF finances the  EU’s migration partnerships set up in 2016 with Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal. The emphasis here is very much on the carrot and stick principle: partner countries that are willing to cooperate are, for example, rewarded with financial support if they readmit people without a right to stay in the EU. If they fail to cooperate, sanctions such as the withholding of development funds can be implemented. Likewise, the EUTF partly funds the Better Migration Management programme in order to mitigate irregular migration. The partner countries signed up to this programme include inter alia Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. These kind of cooperation are sharply criticised because Sudan, for example, employs border guards who have been proven to commit human rights violations.


Migration: good or bad?

There is a scientific debate between representatives of an optimistic and a pessimistic view on migration processes. Optimistic views emphasise, among other things, on the importance of remittances: at the global level, these are rising steadily and now exceed public development funds by a factor of three. Meanwhile, pessimistic views point to the negative consequences of migration processes: the brain drain in the health sector, which is particularly apparent in the shortage of specialists in rural regions.

In between these two points of view, we find the assumption that migration can have positive effects under certain conditions. Considering the vulnerable situation of those seeking protection, forced displacement and mixed migration should be mitigated in line with a human rights-oriented development policy of conflict prevention. At the same time, this perspective calls for an improved arrangement of regular migration routes and enhanced rights for migrants.


Four narratives in the migration policy discourse

Politicians use structured, meaningful narratives to convince target groups of their political positions and legitimise their proposals. Four broad narratives can be distinguished in migration policy discourse:

  1. The narrative on need for protection refers to political actors often making a clear distinction between refugees in need of protection and migrants, whereby the latter are not considered eligible for protection.
  2. The narrative on prospects to remain encompasses political narratives that call for the establishment of prospects to remain in the countries of the Global South. The implication of this narrative is that populations in the Global South should remain where they are; in scientific discourse this is referred to as sedentary bias.
  3. The narrative on overburdening claims that migration movements would mostly be directed towards Europe and Germany. In this narrative, migrants are not portrayed as a threat at the individual level; the narrative simply claims that there are too many of them for European host states to cope with.
  4. The narrative on threat is used by political actors to create an association between refugees/migrants and criminality at the individual level. 


Dominant narratives in Bundestag speeches between 2013-2021

CDU/CSU [Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union]

In the Bundestag plenary sessions in the 18th and 19th parliamentary terms, CDU politicians made a clear distinction between refugees in need of protection, who were fleeing from human rights abuses, and those who had emigrated “voluntarily” due to weak educational and labour market structures. This sharp distinction fits into the first narrative, the need for protection. CDU/CSU politicians are sure that the creation of job prospects in migrants’ home countries would lead to a reduction of these “voluntary” migrations. In According to this perspective, if German development policy failed to establish these prospects, many refugees would set off for Europe (overburdeningnarrative).


SPD [Social Democratic Party]

SPD Bundestag members made frequent use of the narrative of prospects to remain, often expressing the assumption that generally people want to live in their place of origin and only migrate due to extreme circumstances. They argue that the German government had a responsibility to create good conditions in migrants’ home countries. Such statements imply a desire for people in the Global South to remain where they are and refer to the sedentary bias described above.


Bündnis 90/Die Grünen [Alliance 90/The Greens]

The four narratives identified above can rarely be found in speeches by the Green party. Green Party politicians frequently emphasise that climate change is an even bigger cause of displacement than armed conflict, but they do not claim that those affected would head towards Europe and over-burden receiving states. The Alliance 90/The Greens accuses the German government of being partly responsible for the emergence of causes of displacement through failed foreign, economic and agricultural policies.   



The LINKE opposition group was particularly clear when describing the causes for displacement: like the Greens, they see the actions of Germany and the EU as a major cause of displacement. The Left Party also uses the North-South divide as an explanation for migration movements. This argumentation is in the tradition of historical-structural theories of migration, which explain migration flows through economic dependencies between the Global North and the Global South. According to these theories, migration serves the wealthy receiving countries to maintain low wages and to increase economic growth.


FDP [Free Democratic Party]

The FDP was also in opposition between 2013 and 2021. In the plenary debates during that time, its politicians stressed that the best strategy for reducing migration from poorer countries was to establish reliable private sector conditions. To this end, general free trade and risk relief for investors are crucial from their point of view. In the material examined, the group hardly addresses the positive economic consequences of regular migration processes, such as the immigration of skilled workers. Within the analysed speeches, they are also primarily concerned with mitigating rather than shaping migration movements.


AfD [Alternative for Germany]

AfD Bundestag speeches are dominated by a combination of the overload and threat narratives. According to the AfD, the migration movements since 2015 are a “migration of peoples” of the modern age and would cause the crime rate to rise. AfD language was particularly racist and xenophobic in the debate on the UN Global Compact for Migration.


Many assumptions, little science

The results of the qualitative content analysis* of the plenary session minutes from the 18th and 19th parliamentary terms of the German Bundestag clearly show that the assumptions made by the speakers with regard to migration and refugee-related issues are to a large extent out of step with the academic discourse.


Complexity of causes of displacement not taken into account

None of the analysed plenary debates portrayed the decision to migrate as a complex issue influenced by many different factors. Based on these debates, one can argue that politicians tend to understand the connection between causes of displacement and migration decisions in a monocausal way, which is in clear contrast to the findings of migration research. By monocausal, I mean that causes are described in terms of single factors such as war, poverty or climate change, and that the complex interconnections between them are rarely mentioned. This model assumes that the decision to flee is based on push or pull factors: people are either repelled from (“pushed”) or attracted to (“pulled”) a specific place for specific reasons. Migration researchers criticise this approach as too simplistic, since it fails to identify either the individual factors or the ways in which they interact. Nevertheless, the plenary debates illustrate the dominance of this kind of thinking in German political discourse.


Poverty does not necessarily cause displacement

Poverty is assumed to be a key cause of forced displacement across all the political groupings. This overlooks the fact that low-income countries have particularly low emigration rates: while many citizens may want to emigrate, they lack the necessary resources to do so. Income is not the only factor: many people are also unable to flee from poverty because of weak networks or an inadequate level of education.


More economic development does not necessarily lead to less emigration

Despite this, the governing parties repeatedly stress that improving economic conditions would curb migration rates: Establishing job prospects would lead to  a reduction in migration movements. In summary, economic development in African countries could counteract migration movements. In their speeches, many politicians did not take into account the scientific observation that increasing economic development in low-income countries is very likely to be accompanied by increasing emigration rates.


Overlap of displacement and migration is hardly considered 

The interplay and overlap of migration motives and causes of displacement (mixed migration) was not explicitly addressed in the speeches. Specific aspects, such as the fact that people often flee to a neighbouring country to escape war and then leave that country, too, due to poor living conditions, were rarely mentioned. The debates were dominated by the need for protection narrative, which implies a clear distinction between refugees and migrants.


Unawareness of the magnitude of South-South migration

Likewise, politicians do not take into account that more people migrate between the countries of the Global South than between the Global South and the Global North. Instead, much use was made of the overload narrative that claims a large proportion of people in the Global South are just waiting for an opportunity to leave for the North. In this sense, such movements can only be prevented if development policy establishes sufficient “prospects of staying”.


Implications for future policies

How can contrasts between scientific and political discourse be explained? It is quite possible that instead of empirical correctness, politicians rely on well-known and easily communicated narratives in order not to anger voters and thus endanger their own re-election. Another possible reason is the lack of time to get familiarise themselves with the complexity of the causes of displacement.

The dominant narrative of the prospects to remain makes it clear that especially a long-term settlement and thus non-mobility of people in the Global South is a desirable state from the perspective of many politicians. Without a doubt, the pre-emptive of displacement through a human rights-oriented development policy is a sensible political objective. However, the policy should not aim to exclude people from access to mobility and migration. And certainly not to enter into cooperative ventures with countries with dubious human rights records in order to prevent migration.

Provided that migration is properly and fairly managed and the rights of migrants are protected, it creates opportunities for all involved: the individuals themselves, the host societies and the countries of origin. Researchers stress that especially regional freedom of movement, has a positive effect on economic development in countries in the Global South. Policies aimed at reducing migration jeopardise existing integration processes, as examples in West and North Africa have shown.  Those involved in formulating development policy should take this on board and, for example, encourage regional agreements on freedom of movement and remittances, thus shifting the focus back onto the development aspects of mobility.


*Data basis and methodology

The data basis of this analysis consists of the minutes of 18 plenary sessions held during the 18th and 19th parliamentary terms, specifically selected from the Bundestag Minutes Archive. These include debates on the development budget, debates on migration and refugee-related motions in the field of development policy, and debates on the UN Global Compact for Migration. The methodology applied Udo Kuckartz’s type-building qualitative analysis, using MAXQDA text analysis software. This methodological approach uses categorisation to enable data to be structured by content.  

Translated by Paula Kirby, Voxeurop

About the author

Sebastian Klein holds a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences from the Humboldt University in Berlin, and is now a development and climate policy researcher in the Bundestag. His Master’s thesis analysed plenary session minutes to examine the argumentation strategies used by politicians in the Bundestag.

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