Architectures on the Move: Maria Koinova on the Polycentric Governance of Transit Migration

Existing scholarship on polycentric governance so far focuses little on migration politics per se, according to Maria Koinova, an Associate Fellow of the Centre, who explores the possible value of this perspective on migration in a new article. Dealing with recent developments in the Balkans and the MENA region, she features a relational approach to polycentric governance of transit migration that facilitates insight into the polycentric social relations among diverse actors.

Open Source SymbolKoinova, Maria (2022). Polycentric governance of transit migration: A relational perspective from the Balkans and the Middle East, Review of International Studies X: 1–23.

Koinova's article, recently published in the Review of International Studies, contributes to the Centre's research in more than one way. While expanding the topic of polycentricity research, it further populates the animated path of migration research at the Centre in the ‘global governance of migration’ policy field. Understanding migration and finding convincing models for these complex circumstances is a constant challenge for related research. Koinova wants to use the polycentric lens to make crucial aspects more visible: social relations among actors, relations between formal and informal sectors and also the 'gap between intentions for multilateral governance and implementation practices [ … ] especially visible in the field of transit migration' (1). A polycentric perspective 'shifts focus away from legal and policy frameworks to interactions' (4). This focus on relational activities ('interaction') is also helpful if we want to understand the role of spatial proximities between countries (sending, receiving) and regional configurations. A configuration, Koinova seems to say, is always more than a set of rules. This is a about 'a specific set of relationships between political and social actors involved in governing migration' (5). The idea that shared rules safeguard the cohesion of a polycentric configuration implies that those rules are grounded in power relations and complemented by informal deliberative actions over time. Koinova builds on Jan Aart Scholte's approach towards polycentric governance[1] and IR relational theories (6). Transit migration governance is characterized by power structures that embody both formal and informal rules. This does not 'necessarily lead to rule-based institutions or initiatives, as governance scholarship often thinks' (7). In a social scientific, almost 'situationist' manner, the author wants to avoid fixed systems or causal explanations:

In this article capturing patterns of durably established social relationships rather than tracing causality, I do not treat mechanisms such as cooperation, coercion, conditionality, containment or contestation in causal ways, but as regularities occurring in specific circumstances. (7)

Koinova places these four mechanisms and building blocks of a relational architecture – cooperation, conditionality, containment, and co-optation – in a heuristic model (figure 1, p. 9) with the transit state centre-stage, surrounded by international organisations, NGOs and other private and non-state actors, destination states, and sending states.

The article presents a dense and detailed depiction of transit migration in the Balkans – a selection bypassing Hungary for better or worse – and in the MENA region, focusing there on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as transit states. Koinova makes interesting observations. One is the different effect of EU policy on those regions. EU conditionality played a unifying role in shaping the Western Balkans implementation of migration governance. Stabilization and Association Agreements were signed across the board. In the MENA region by contrast, targeted destination states are not only European. Relatively remote geospatially, European destination states play a less pronounced role in this regional architecture than sending states.

But what made things work on the ground was engagement and business motivation by private actors. NGOs provided humanitarian aid along the Balkan route:

There was an understanding that although refugees and other transit migrants may not permanently stay in the Balkans, their human rights should be respected while they are there. In North Macedonia, Muslim and international NGOs were the first to engage, attracting hundreds of volunteers, many of whom contested the violent treatment of refugees by the state. (13)

There is also research about smuggling networks (already in existence before 2014-16) which were tacitly tolerated, creating an interplay between formal and informal interactions in what has been termed a 'co-relationship'.[2]

Because there is no legal status for migrants and refugees in the MENA region, ‘transit migration’ has there manifested as legal treatment of irregular migration. So the overall framing is different from the outset. The geographical situation, as already mentioned, is different. Overall conditions like fragile statehood created conditions for informality to thrive but also gave way to more 'bilateralised' transit migration governance arrangements with the EU ('Lebanon Compact';  'Jordan Compact').  The leeway for international agencies–the UNHCR especially–and non-state actors is therefore different. Regarding the latter, this is true for humanitarian aid, but also for smuggling networks, which are 'informally tolerated'. 

As in the Balkans, it is counterintuitive and also illegal institutionally to include smugglers within the architecture of transit migration governance. Yet it exists informally in the MENA region as well, not least because it does not threaten the transit states’ political order and informally benefits them. (21)

Arguably the most complex, challenging, and multi-ethnic situation developed in Turkey, a country that also changed some procedures to regulate transit migration during the shifts towards a more autocratic governance model, at least since 2016. Turkey in the point of view of Koinova's article occupies a position in-between. The country is close to the MENA region, if not part of it, and it is - again and again, an EU candidate country. Koinova not surprisingly is referring here to the detailed work of her 'fellow’ Associate Fellow Zeynep Sahin Mencutek on migration and refugee governance.

Koinova's new publication opens a perspective for a better understanding of the contribution of informality and polycentric social relations among diverse actors in building and sustaining regional governance architectures. Institutional governance is supplemented, she suggests, and less challenged, by informal procedures. The ability of those actors to adapt in special ways, seems to be crucial:

Aside from governments and international organisations, the relevant actors adapt to a region’s mixture of formal and informal relationships, shaped by political regimes and capacities of the states in which they are embedded.  (22)

This may include another advantage that plays a role in polycentric constellations: the ability to  flexibly and creatively respond to change over time: migration governance architectures on the move.


Martin Wolf


[1] Frank Gadinger and Jan Aart Scholte, Polycentrism: How Governing Works Today (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[2] Koinova refers to: Nina Perkowski and Vicki Squire, ‘The anti-policy of European antismuggling as a site of contestation in the Mediterranean migration “crisis”’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45:12 (2019), pp. 2167–84.