Political leadership and migration governance: An underexplored link

Tihomir Sabchev[1]

25 October 2019 (Reading time: 11 min) 


We have a refugee crisis, a humanitarian crisis and in some cases even a security crisis. But above all, it seems we have a leadership crisis.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General Amnesty International

Munich Security Conference, February 2016


Despite its evident role in migration governance, political leadership has so far largely remained off the radar of migration scholars. In this blog, I highlight the need to address this shortcoming and start paying closer attention to the extent and ways in which political leadership shapes immigration and integration policy-making. I present a number of concepts that have been successfully developed or adopted by political leadership scholars, arguing that these concepts can and should be incorporated into migration (policy) research.

The last few years of increased refugee arrivals into Europe unequivocally demonstrated that political leadership is an important factor that can drastically influence the way reception and integration of migrants are governed. Political leadership matters at the international, the national and at the local level and it seems that it contributes to more welcoming and inclusive immigration policies on some occasions and more restrictive and exclusionary ones on others. The decision of Angela Merkel in early September 2015 to accept the thousands of refugees stranded in Hungary, for instance, had a profound effect on the developments in the following months and even years – not only in Germany but also all over the EU. On the other, the hardline stance on migration of the former Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini had far-reaching consequences for the country’s immigration and integration policies, striping many immigrants from access to services and leading to a repeated stalemate with humanitarian NGOs stranded for days off Lampedusa’s port. At the local level, the late mayor of Gdansk Pawel Adamowicz was the motor behind the development and the adoption of a progressive Immigrant Integration Model, which brought to the city a prestigious human rights award for innovation in politics. Even more strikingly, this was achieved in a country where the local level of government had no mandate in migration and integration matters and where the central government had clearly adopted a very restrictive stance towards forced migrants.

At the same time, the role of (local) political leadership in migration governance has been so far largely neglected. Migration policy research, for instance, has been primarily focused on a number of key factors like political ideology, devolution of competencies, civil society and immigrants’ participation in the policy-making process, etc. As a result, the role of political leadership in the development and enactment of immigration and integration policies remains enigmatic. What exactly does political leadership in migration governance constitute and how does it manifest itself? To what extent and in what ways it manages to shape policy-making and policy outcomes at the local, national and international levels? How can local political leadership contribute to achieving migration policy objectives different than the ones set by a higher level of government?

In my view, political leadership in general and local political leadership in particular should be given a prominent place in the constellation of causal factors that directly or indirectly influence immigration and integration policy-making. Furthermore, migration scholars would greatly benefit from breaking down the current silos between political leadership and migration studies. Bridging the two fields will enrich the conceptual and analytical toolkit of migration researchers and potentially open new possibilities for explaining, among others, the differences between integration policies/approaches across very similar local contexts. In the remaining of this blog, I undertake an initial step in this direction and discuss a number of concepts that have been used in either established or more recent research on political leadership, suggesting different ways in which these concepts can be utilized in the field of migration studies.


  •  (Local) political leadership and safeguarding migrants’ rights

Political leadership has been defined in many different ways. Ultimately, its essence lies in the process of “injecting ideas and ambitions into the public arena”, providing hopes to people and mobilizing them to work towards a common goal. The very nature of political leadership, therefore, makes it highly relevant to the governance of a politicized field like migration.

Generally speaking, one can distinguish between two broader approaches to studying political leadership – one focusing on the interaction between the leader and the surrounding context, and another highlighting the qualities and motivations of the leader him/herself. On the one hand, the scholars adopting the former approach view leadership as the outcome of the process of interaction between a political leader and his/her environment. They argue that while the context (institutions, societal attitudes) undoubtedly influences leaders’ decisions, leaders also have an important space for maneuver – they can overcome the constraints posed by the context and realize their own policy objectives using either formal or informal (soft) power. On the other hand, leadership scholars using the latter approach tend to rely on insights from psychology and behavioral studies. Their research highlights the causal relationships between political leaders’ personality/characteristics/style and the decisions they make.

How can we incorporate this into the context of migration studies? In 2015 and 2016 many refugee reception centers were opened in cities across different EU countries. These centers were administered primarily by central government agencies, while local authorities had no legal competencies to influence their operation. In addition, their opening was often faced with hostility by the local population. In these circumstances, many mayors took an explicit stance for or against the opening of a center within the territory of their municipality. In some municipalities in Greece, for instance, mayors created working groups and initiated ad-hoc actions providing services to refugees. On many occasions, these interventions were at the boundaries or even clearly outside the formal competencies of local governments. However, they contributed to safeguarding the human rights of migrants who were often hosted in reception centers with conditions below the internationally set standards. On the contrary, other mayors led local mobilizations against the opening of reception centers, which in some cases turned out successful. Why did local political leaders take the risk to intervene in a highly politicized issue in which they did not have competencies and to what extent did their explicit engagement contribute to the local outcomes? How did local political leadership manage to overcome formal constraints? Did mayors use personal charisma, soft power, legal pathways, or maybe relied on alliances with like-minded influential actors to accomplish their objectives? How did their interventions influence the local approach to reception/integration and can a reactive or proactive local political leadership (a widely used dichotomy in leadership studies) make a difference for the realization of migrants’ human rights? Answering all these questions is of direct relevance not only to migration scholars, but also to local level politicians and practitioners.  


  • Interactive political leadership and integration policy-making

Interactive political leadership is a concept describing the positioning of leaders in the center of collaborative arenas of governance, usually emerging at the local level. Collaborative forms of governance aim at involving citizens and civil society in the policy-making process. The expectation is that this can bring fresh ideas to the table and lead to bottom-up policy innovation. Such collaborative arrangements have mushroomed in the last years in many Western European countries. Municipalities in the Nordic countries seem to be the forerunners and greatest innovators in this respect, while Dutch municipalities are also currently seeking ways to develop similar initiatives. Some of the major reasons for mayors to introduce such interactive arrangements are to strengthen their local political leadership by gaining extra legitimacy, improve the design of local policies or externalize the cost of policy failures.

The concept of interactive political leadership can be easily linked to many aspects of the contemporary polycentric world of migration governance. One example is the Migrant Integration Councils in Greek municipalities (similar arrangements exist in a number of EU countries), which allow immigrants and their associations to be represented in municipal councils and participate in local-level policy-making. The effectiveness of these arrangements varies greatly from one locality to another. What is the role of local political leadership in introducing them, empowering them and institutionalizing them? Can interactive political leadership be the driving force behind successful examples of inclusion of locally residing immigrants in the design of integration policies? In the cases where immigrants do not vote in local elections, what is the motivation of local politicians to promote such collaborative arrangements in the policy-making process? Finally, does interactive political leadership in migration governance improve integration policy outcomes?


  • Multi-level political leadership and local approaches to immigration and integration

Migration studies have already benefited significantly from the adoption of the concept of multi-level governance (MLG), even though, as I have argued elsewhere, this has been probably accompanied by some concept stretching. While the relevance of MLG to immigration and integration policy-making is evident, the role of political leaders in building MLG arrangements remains vague. Particularly useful in this respect can be the concept of multi-level political leadership developed by Eva Sørensen (2020, forthcoming). Multi-level political leadership describes the ability of political leaders to negotiate with and mobilize actors within and beyond a given polity for the realization of certain policy objectives. While the abovementioned concept of interactive political leadership stresses the role of the leader on the horizontal level of policy-making within the locality, the multi-level one looks at how leaders extend their power on both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions beyond the boundaries of the locality.

How is multi-level political leadership relevant to migration research? As Sørensen argues, local political leaders have significantly less resources to pursue their policy goals than leaders at the national level. For this reason, mayors are more likely to seek collaboration with transnational partners, which can provide resources for strengthening both their political leadership and the legitimacy of their local policy priorities. An example of such collaboration is the recently established Mayors Migration Council. While some might view this initiative as one more instance of the rise of cities in migration governance, analyzing it through the lenses of multi-level political leadership can reveal a very different reality. Another good example is provided by the widely cited case of Barcelona, where the leadership of Ada Colau seems to have significantly contributed to the development of a very progressive local approach to reception and integration of immigrants. The municipality of Barcelona has been extremely active in a number of migration-related transnational city networks (e.g. Solidarity Cities, Intercultural Cities, etc.), while it has also developed a strong collaboration with local civil society organizations that participate in the development and implementation of integration policies. To what extent can one relate the extraordinary connectedness of Barcelona’s local government to the multi-level political leadership of Ada Colau and her explicit engagement with migration/integration issues? Why did she visit the small Italian village of Riace, which has become a symbol of solidarity to refugees and whose ex-mayor had been included in the list of the 50 most influential global leaders? Again, applying the concept of multi-level political leadership can assist in providing novel explanations for Barcelona’s active engagement and policy entrepreneurship in the field of migration governance.


  • Political leadership in crisis management and the governance of migration

The rich literature on the role of political leadership in crisis management can be very useful to migration scholars, regardless if they view the increased refugee arrivals in the last years as a real or as an imagined crisis.

Those who adopt the former standpoint can greatly benefit from the framework that Boin et. al. have developed for studying political leadership in crisis management. The authors have identified five strategic leadership tasks: sense-making (detect an emerging crisis and understand its significance), decision-making and coordination (making critical calls and orchestrating a coherent response), meaning-making (developing a narrative to inspire and convince the public), accounting (explaining to the public what was done to prevent/manage the crisis) and learning (determine the causes, assess the response and undertake a remedial actions). Viewing 2015’s long summer of migration in a number of EU countries through the analytical lenses of this framework can potentially help us understand better the way in which state and city leaders’ reactions to the refugee arrivals influenced the subsequent developments. For instance, did some of the European leaders anticipate the coming crisis earlier than others, did they take timely decisions in designing a more coherent response both at the national and the local level, did they influence the meaning-making by explicitly adopting a certain discourse, did they learn from this experience, etc. The local government of Athens, for instance, was the only one in Greece that after the “refugee crisis” adopted a guideline for a response mechanism in case of new emergency situations due to a large number of arrivals of forced migrants. To what extent can this be attributed to a strong local political leadership that viewed the crisis as an opportunity to learn and reform?  

On the other hand, one can indeed argue that the refugee crisis was more of a narrative or a label rather than an objective situation. In any case, this does not make the role of political leadership less relevant. Did some national/local-level political leaders actively engage in producing and reproducing the crisis narrative as a useful leadership strategy in the pursuit of their own political objectives? Recent studies on endogenously generated crises can provide valuable insights to migration scholars to examine this possibility. Indeed, political leadership research has demonstrated that leaders can play a major role in the strategic (re)production of fear in order to justify the adoption of certain policies. Did we witness an intentional attempt by some state leaders to increase the already high levels of uncertainty and contingency, which would give them the opportunity to realize certain personal political/policy objectives? With regards to the local level, did mayors also use the crisis narrative as a discursive ally to steer local reactions in a direction serving their own policy objectives?


In conclusion, the idea that political leadership matters in migration governance has already been present at the backstage of migration research for a while. It has often appeared in coffee-break discussions at migration conferences and workshops, but it has still not entered the formal academic debate. This blog should be viewed as an attempt to open such a debate. I have tried to highlight the importance and potential benefits of bridging political leadership and migration (policy) research, by outlining several concepts that the former field has to offer to the latter. The next step is to bring political leadership at the front stage of migration studies and answer two important questions. Firstly, is (local) political leadership the protagonist in migration governance or it plays only a secondary/supporting role? Secondly, what exactly makes political leadership important – is it the way it pulls the strings of the rest of the actors on the migration governance scene, or is it rather its personal character and motivation?


[1] The ideas presented in this blog stem from my recent participation in an intense three-day workshop on local political leadership organized by the University of Oslo and delivered by leading scholars in this field like Paul t’Hart, Eva Sørensen and Jacob Torfing, among others.