By Brunson McKinley, Former Director General, International Organization for Migration (1998-2008)
The year 2015 witnessed a sharp increase in the number of migrants seeking to enter the territory of the European Union from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Many of them were asylum seekers, principally Syrians departing their places of refuge in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Others, from Africa, South Asia or the Balkans had primarily an economic motivation. Smuggling rings reacted quickly to the new demand, opening new routes from Turkey through Greece, the overburdened point of first entry into the EU, then through non-EU countries to a second EU entry in Hungary, Croatia or Rumania. Traditional routes via North Africa to Spain, Malta and Italy also operated largely unhindered.
The initial EU response was confused and passive. In the absence of administrative tools to deal with the increased flows, the EU countries began quarrelling among themselves, while the migrants and the smugglers made the running. The EU is facing the consequences of its failure to put in place a coherent, comprehensive migration strategy at the time of the establishment of the Schengen free-circulation zone.
There are remedies that can be brought to bear in the immediate crisis, but Europe needs to respond much more fundamentally to the 2015 wake-up call with sweeping changes to manage continuing migration flows, which are likely to remain a constant feature of the European geopolitical landscape.
Why the increase in 2015 ?
Europe has long been a favoured destination of migrants and refugees seeking livelihood, peace and security for themselves and their families. The absence of well-coordinated EU migration policy over the years has nourished the hopes of would-be immigrants and brought into being a thriving smuggling trade. Those willing to run the risks of the dangerous sea passage and possessing the price of a ticket (three to ten thousand euros depending on the circumstances) could count on finding a place somewhere in the EU. Spain, Malta, Italy and Greece – the front EU line states – have received hundreds of thousands of irregular arrivals and have typically facilitated early passage to northern European countries. This flow has been going on for years.
To explain the crisis of 2015, the following factors need to be weighed.
• The eruption of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria seems to have convinced many of the four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria that they would probably never return home and hence needed to move on from their places of refuge to a new life elsewhere.
• At the same time, international assistance budgets for Syrian refugees in the countries of first asylum were cut, resulting in increased hardship for camp dwellers.
• Smugglers opened the new Balkan Route from Greece through the Balkans to Hungary and then Croatia or Romania, with Germany and Sweden the favoured destinations.
• Economic migrants in large numbers joined the stream from as far away as Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa or as near as Serbia and Kosovo.
• World media reacted strongly to scenes of death and suffering.
• Under pressure from public opinion, certain EU leaders effectively encouraged migrants to believe that all were welcome, irrespective of origin or motivation.
The result has been, so far this year alone, some 650,000 new arrivals. Initial enthusiasm in EU countries began quickly to yield to the realization that Europe is not ready with policies, institutions, facilities or funds to cope effectively with the overwhelming new flows.
How much damage ?
While the European Union is big enough and rich enough to absorb even millions of new arrivals, serious aftereffects of the 2015 crisis are likely to remain.
• The crisis has exposed the inability of the European Union political structure – Council and Commission -- to deal with migration matters quickly and effectively. The arguments over unenforceable quotas reveal fundamental failures of analysis and planning.
• EU solidarity has suffered. The Visegrad countries and Denmark hold Germany responsible for making a bad situation worse. The United Kingdom, with a referendum on continued membership in the offing, will have new reasons at a minimum not to deepen involvement with the EU. Other political battles are looming.
• The Schengen free-circulation zone, an important element in the EU list of accomplishments, has been seriously weakened, with political as well as economic consequences to follow.
• Anti-immigrant, anti-foreign and anti-Muslim populism has been given a substantial boost.
• The crisis has cast a harsh light on the EU’s failure to work with Mediterranean countries of the South and East regarding migration flows. Turkey and Libya are the most important cases in point, but the entire non-EU southern coast of the Mediterranean has been neglected.
• The necessary distinction between economic migrants and refugees has been largely lost in the public and political reaction. International assistance to refugees may suffer because of this confusion.
• Because the majority of new arrivals are Muslims, the simmering debate on European identity will undoubtedly flair up.
• States worry about extremist elements mixed in the flows.
What can be done ?
The arrival of winter will begin to reduce the flow of migrants. The EU needs to use this respite to begin working seriously on all of the following.
• Do whatever is possible to end the war in Syria, for the war is a strong push factor in the increased flows.
• Continue urgent diplomatic discussions with Turkey (and initiate the same with the two governments in Libya and with Tunisia) regarding anti-smuggling measures.
• Restore adequate international funding for refugees in Syria’s neighbours and encourage the Gulf Cooperation Council to do more in this regard.
• Provide urgent assistance to Greece to cope with the crisis.
• Reinforce FRONTEX and the maritime borders of the front-line EU states.
• As a replacement or supplement to centres on EU territory, consider locating “hot spots” in Mediterranean countries outside the EU, where screening for both refugee admission and migration for work could take place.
- For those nations of the EU that wish to accept refugees, the “hot spots” would allow the identification of individuals and families truly in need of European resettlement.
- For those nations that believe they need non-EU workers and professionals in their economies, the “hot spots” would allow credentials and security checks and an orderly recruitment process.
• Organize a better, more predictable mechanism for returning unqualified migrants to their home countries.
• Work with countries of origin to prevent departure by those who will not succeed in Europe, either as asylum seekers or as foreign workers.
• Most importantly, undertake at long last the construction of a comprehensive, coordinated EU migration policy in which economic, humanitarian, security and political factors are fully integrated.
- The previous point implies the creation of new EU institutions to manage migration, with consequent transfer of sovereignty from individual EU states, a development that many states will resist.
• Real solutions will require raising migration to a major foreign policy consideration and not just a matter for law enforcement agencies.
Whatever solutions are implemented, the humanitarian impulse must not be blunted, as it represents the true spirit of Europe.