Since the early spring of 2016, the number of people migrating across the Mediterranean has stabilised, to about 200,000 people. This is largely due to the closure of the Western Balkan route and the EU- Turkey Statement of March 2016, which sought to end irregular migration from Turkey to the European Union.
Underlying both actions is the new-found willingness of key European governments ‒ Austria, Germany and Sweden, among others ‒ to ensure orderly procedures and ‘reasonable’ levels of openness. The resulting policy ‘recalibration’ has gradually changed both the terms under which asylum-seekers are received, and the expectations of them; it has led to an increasing determination (albeit still mostly rhetorical) to remove both failed asylum applicants and outright economic migrants. The message to would-be migrants and each country’s general public is that illegal migration will no longer be tolerated.
Of course, people are still trying to reach Europe, both by land and by sea. Land routes include travelling to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, while the sea routes mean continuous small-craft traffic toward Spanish shores, large numbers of crossings through the Central Mediterranean, and a small (but incessant) number of journeys across the Aegean.
It is clear that while the chaos of 2015 and 2016 has abated, neither the conditions that fuelled it nor the demands for entry into Europe have changed. Considering reports about large numbers of potential migrants gathered across much of North Africa waiting for an opportunity to get to Europe, the pressure for crossing by any means will continue to grow geometrically, and if circumstances align, exponentially.
“The message to would-be migrants and each country’s general public is that illegal migration will no longer be tolerated”
Unending European crises spill over and fuel others: Greece’s economic and social woes; Brexit; terrorism; the rise of left- and right-wing populist politics; the never-ending story about the performance of the European institutions; the various challenges to Brussels by several central and eastern European member states. But the unresolved migration crisis continues to influence all of them.
At the heart of that crisis is a simple fact: Europe faces a fundamental governance test that is undermining the legitimacy of both national and European institutions and, more directly, the integrity of management structures of those member states most directly affected by spontaneous migration.
It is unproductive to enumerate and critique the mistakes made by ‘frontline’ states (the southern European countries through which virtually all migrants enter Europe) and the prosperous central and northern European states that the overwhelming majority of migrants want to reach. And it is even more unproductive to criticise the Brussels institutions because they are playing a supporting role at most on this issue; the initiative has always rested with key member states and the Western Balkan states that are aspiring to become EU members (and which are therefore very compliant).
It is more productive to focus on and understand the behaviour of the protagonists on this story: the migrants themselves. Would-be migrants have learned to ignore the rhetoric of political leaders ‒ whether about values and rights or the importance of the rule of law ‒ in favour of the experiences of those who have reached their destination in Europe and have managed to stay there.
To be sure, the activist and humanitarian ‘industry’ does its best to portray all migration as a humanitarian and protection issue ‒ as it should – and many citizens subscribe to that perspective. But responsible governments know that when crises get out of control, their principal duty is to make policy for and govern on behalf of all their people; to observe legal obligations strictly but narrowly; and to allow values to define only what is purely unacceptable behaviour.
This is not only a European issue. Democratic governments everywhere struggle with squaring the circle of rights and legal obligations with the responsibility to protect borders, to remove those who don’t meet protection standards, and to invest deeply and smartly in the integration of successful applicants. But there are a number of measures that can make what appears like a classic Hobson’s choice in migration management easier.
“The true challenge for Europe in the decades ahead will be mass migration from Africa”
First and foremost, offer refugees adequate humanitarian assistance and real opportunities to resume their lives in first-asylum countries. Educate their children so as to prevent the creation of a ‘lost generation’, and support job creation. Both efforts require the cooperation of the host government and the commitment of very large investments. And all such services must flow both to refugees and the communities that host them, or they risk creating tensions that can undermine the entire effort.
Second, the manner in which people seek protection in desirable destinations must be redirected. Refugees requiring resettlement (because of special needs and/or as a means to relieve pressures on first asylum countries) must be vetted and selected before they reach a destination country. States that resettle refugees must create large numbers of new resettlement places while also working hard to expand the number of wealthy and middle-income countries participating in resettlement programmes, thereby sharing the burden more equitably.
Last, states that receive large spontaneous flows must believe in borders and watch them assiduously. They must institute and execute internal controls responsibly and remove quickly (both voluntarily and not) those without robust legal grounds for protection.
Pursuing the integrated set of policies outlined above will only produce the desired result if each European government embraces them and if there is thoughtful coordination at the European level.
Everyone needs to understand that while the immediate test of leadership is dealing with the causes and consequences of the 2015-16 migration crisis, the true challenge for Europe in the decades ahead will be mass migration from Africa. Much larger public and private resources must be invested in creating opportunities for Africans to stay and build lives in their own countries. Otherwise Europe will find itself taking more extreme steps to protect itself, with less success. Leadership, imagination and patience will be the key ingredients.
Will Europe be up to that task?
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