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Liberal immigration policies in autocratising countries? Systematic research awarded with Veni grant

The world is autocratising. In 2022, a record number of states across all continents, including Europe, was shifting towards autocracy. But against theoretical expectations and common sense, autocratising leaders – known for their nationalist agendas and human rights violations – do not always restrict immigration. In autocratising Morocco, Uganda, Brazil and Turkey, immigration policies have been liberalised. Political Scientist Katharina Natter will investigate this puzzling phenomenon, for which she received a Veni grant from the NWO.

From liberal democracy towards autocratic regimes

Autocratisation is a ‘process of regime change towards autocracy that makes politics increasingly exclusive and monopolistic, and political power increasingly repressive and arbitrary’ (Cassani and Tomini 2020). Autocratisation can affect both democracies and autocracies, as it encompasses dynamics of democratic backsliding – the shift from liberal to electoral democracy –, democratic breakdown as well as autocratic regression, whereby autocracies become even more autocratic.

Worldwide, autocratising leaders thrive on nationalist sentiments, territorial sovereignty claims and anti-immigrant rhetoric. As increasing economic inequality and protracted political conflicts across the world point to a future of both major migration and autocratisation, it is important to know how these two global trends interact.

Therefore, Natter is very grateful for the chance to work on this project with the help of a Veni grant: ‘It is important to me both personally and professionally. I am convinced that we need to better understand and theorise how immigration and the politics around it reflect broader political change and state transformation.’

Against expectations

The common assumption is that autocratisation goes hand in hand with immigration restrictions and migrant rights violations. Trump’s America and Orbán’s Hungary exemplify this. However, the bigger picture is more complex: even when faced with increasing immigration, autocratising Morocco and Uganda have liberalised their immigration policies; and Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Erdoğan have liberalised immigration for some groups, while restricting it for others.

Natter’s Veni project investigates this surprising phenomenon: Why do some autocratising regimes liberalise their immigration policies? To answer this question, Natter will mobilise a multi-method approach: she will use qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) to identify the conditions for liberalizing reforms in all 31 countries experiencing autocratisation since the mid-1990s. To identify mechanisms, she will use process-tracing to examine specific reforms in autocratising Brazil and Turkey.

Natter: ‘Empirically, my project seeks to innovate scholarship by adopting a dynamic approach, focusing on political regime transformation – namely autocratisation – instead of political regime type as is common in the literature on immigration politics. By bridging debates in comparative politics and migration studies, my goal is to theorise how the survival logics of autocratising regimes can result in immigration liberalisation. Societally, I hope that project outcomes will identify strategies for more effective, transnational lobbying for migrant rights and indicate pathways to escape the potentially vicious cycle of increasing autocratisation and immigration restrictions that might lie ahead of us.’

Political scientist Katharina Natter

Veni grant from NWO

Natter was one of the 188 promising researchers who were awarded Veni funding from The Dutch Research Council (NWO). Veni is an individual science grant, part of the NWO Talent Programme, aimed at researchers who have recently obtained their PhDs. The grants are awarded every year to research within the full breadth of science. The scientist receive funding up to €280,000 for developing their research.

Natter comments that ‘while the Veni is part of NWO’s “individual talent programme”, this obscures the fundamentally collective nature of academic research, and the fact that many people were involved in developing this project proposal. I am deeply grateful for the continuous support and advice – both scientific and personal – I received by many of my colleagues at the Institute of Political Science and within the academic networks I am part of, and hope I will be able to return this support.’

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