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The EU and the Migration Crisis: A New Way Ahead

June 10th , 2015

By Lauren Stauffer – Junior Fellow

In the last several months, reports of sinking migrant boats have frequently dominated headlines throughout the world. These events reflect a drastic increase to the already high estimate of 51.2 million people globally who are living as refugees or as internally displaced people.  Most notably, these migrant flows have increased in the Mediterranean Sea.  As reflected in the United Nations’ (UN) remarks on 30 April that referred to the Mediterranean migration crisis as “a tragedy of epic proportions”, the time period between January and April witnessed eighteen times as many refugee deaths as compared to the same period last year.  In total, more than 1,750 people have died thus far in 2015 from their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea and enter Europe.  On the frontline of this crisis are European Union (EU) countries Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and Malta who are appealing to the EU to create a new migration plan that helps alleviate their burden of accepting these migrants and refugees.

Many of these individuals are being pushed to migrate due to conflicts that have broken out in African and in Middle Eastern countries, such as Libya and Syria, which have threatened the migrants’ security and increased the demand for the smuggling trade.  Due to intensified fighting in Syria, Greece experienced a 142% increase in the arrival of migrants during the first four months of 2014 and, according to the International Organisation for Migration, 170,000 migrants from Libya arrived in Italy last year, of whom 3,394 were smuggled children from Eritrea.  Eritrea, an African country with a dictator who is frequently likened to that of North Korea, is often forgotten in regards to its recent role as a large contributor to the Mediterranean migrant crisis as hundreds of thousands of adults and, often, unaccompanied children flee the brutal and oppressive government.  Ultimately, these Eritreans join others who also rely on the promises from human traffickers of a voyage through Libya and into Europe.  Libya, with its state lawlessness and continuing chaos, has become a safe haven for smugglers who wish to remain undetected as they proceed with massive operations along the coastline.  Therefore, in order to properly understand the crisis, one must analyze the “push factors” of migration as well as the individual groups that are being affected and the details that enable such a complex and treacherous journey.

Fundamentally, Europe (as well as many other regions confronting large flows of migration) must continue to open its borders to migrants, but it should do so through a plan that involves the participation of all EU states and that details how the migrants will be integrated into European society.  However, first Europe must overcome many of its anti-immigration sentiments.  Many Europeans believe that without strict immigration controls, the continent will be overwhelmed with foreigners who will deplete their welfare system and destroy the economy.  These deep-seated fears are only increased with alarming statistics, such as the evidence that Germany had more than 200,000 migrants seeking asylum in 2014.  Additionally, refugees, especially those from Middle Eastern and African countries, often are unable to return to their home country due to a lack of funds or safe passage.  European fears of a long-term security threat also include the belief that incoming migrants may be influenced by anti-Western terrorist groups, such as ISIL, and act on their behalf.  However, despite these factors that contribute to anti-immigration fears, it is important to remember that many of these refugees did not plan to immigrate to Europe, but were forced to move due to violent and unsafe circumstances.

It is also important to recognize the benefits of immigrants entering the EU.  According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), migrants have accounted for 70% of the increase in Europe’s workforce over the past ten years and have filled crucial job openings in both the fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy.  For example, in 2014, new immigrants to Europe represented 22% of all entries into growing sectors, such as healthcare and STEM occupations.  Migrants also contribute greatly to labor-market flexibility, boost the working-age population (which is extremely important in countering the consequences of the “baby boomers” leaving the workforce), and contribute more to the state in social contributions and taxes than they receive in benefits.  These benefits could thus help revive the current European economy that has been burdened with large debts, poor investments, and a demographic decline.  The OECD also observes that “contrary to widespread public belief, low-educated immigrants have a better fiscal position…than their native born peers” and that where they have a less favorable fiscal position, “this is not driven by a greater dependence on social benefits but rather by the fact that they often have lower wages and thus contribute less”.  Thus, due to the fact that the arrival of migrants could serve more as a societal benefit than detriment, the European Union should consider how to best assist the migrants in their search for safety and how to best integrate them into the economy.

To deal with issues concerning migration, Europe’s borderless “Schengen Area” became incorporated into the European Union in 1999.  Known as “the largest passport free-zone in the world”, this area consists of twenty-two members of the EU as well as four other European countries.  Only two EU members, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, have opted out of the Schengen Agreement and are thus not obliged to follow its regulations.  There are two very important stipulations regarding the Schengen area: one mandates that internal border controls can be erected under situations when migration flows have drastically altered, such as during the Arab Spring. The other is the 2014 Dublin III Regulation.  The Dublin system stipulates that all member states will be held responsible for examining applications for international protection and thus be held individually responsible for each asylum claim.  This regulation has been greatly criticized due to unfairly holding border states, like Greece and Italy, responsible for migrants who do not intend on making these countries their final destination.  Since the enactment of the Dublin III Regulation, it has been reported that these border states have softened their border and fingerprinting procedures so as not to be forced to process as many asylum claims.  Thus, the flawed Schengen Agreement is failing to support border countries that need the most assistance when faced with massive influxes of migrants and refugees, such as the crisis currently occurring in the Mediterranean.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship, stated in a recent speech, “I have come to talk to you about a reality that is becoming ever starker: Europe needs to manage migration better…We cannot turn a blind eye.  And we cannot carry on as if it were business as usual”.  As reflected in Mr. Avramopoulos’ speech, the European Commission is currently undertaking debate as how to best transform their migration policies.  However, there is not a consensus regarding which new policies to adopt.  Some representatives argue for stricter border control while others, like the Italian government, seek immediate action even if it requires the national government to partake in its own redistribution of migrants.  Those advocating a stronger immigration policy, such as Poland and Hungary, are being influenced by Australia’s tough approach to asylum, whereby the Australian government legally excised the Australian mainland from the Australian migration zone in 2013, thus prohibiting the processing of anyone without a visa who arrives by boat and removing the incentive for asylum seekers to travel to the mainland instead of other territories.  Known as “Operation Sovereign Borders”, this policy transfers those without a visa to detention facilities in Papua New Guinea, Nauru, or Cambodia.  The Australian government claims that this operation “has been established to ensure a whole-of-government effort to combat people smuggling and protect Australia’s borders” and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested to Europe that “the only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats…that is why it is so urgent that the countries of Europe adopt very strong policies”.  And yet, it is not clear as to whether these policies are successful.

Under the claim of needing to keep its operations secret, the Australian government has refused to release specific information regarding boats and migrant deaths.  In 2014, the government reported that zero boats had arrived, as compared to 300 the previous year.  As of April 2014, Canberra reported that 2,122 transfers to regional offshore processing centres have occurred since Operation Sovereign Borders began, which includes the 1,648 individuals who are currently being held.  This policy of offshore detention is most likely financially unsustainable: The Guardian newspaper calculated that the cost of each offshore detention, at A$440,000 ($343,000) per person, is almost double that of onshore detention. It is believed that the Australian government may have spent A$10 billion ($7.72 billion) since mid-2007 on this program.  Additionally, Australia’s report that cited the arrival of zero boats in 2014 does not mean that the number of asylum seekers in the Pacific has decreased or that Australia has thwarted smuggling.  Instead, the number of individuals fleeing the Southeast Asian region has increased and it is likely that these new migration flows will reach Australia in the near future.  Therefore, in the long run, the strict immigration policies of Operation Sovereign Borders are unsustainable and unfulfilling of their goals to reduce smuggling and deter widespread migration.

One consequence of Operation Sovereign Borders is the immense pressure it puts on regional countries, such as the Philippines, which has recently become the first country in Southeast Asia to open their borders to migrants due to the recent influx of those seeking asylum.  Unlike the Philippines, nearby countries Indonesia and Malaysia have followed Australia’s lead by refusing to admit refugees.  These actions, fueled by anti-immigration sentiments, are detrimental to the region, especially as migrant flows from Burma and Bangladesh have greatly increased – as exemplified by the 3,000 stranded individuals who were recently rescued off of the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.  Volker Türk, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, has emphasized that “the first priority is to save lives.  Instead of competing to avoid responsibility, it is key for States to share the responsibility”. The UNHCR and the Filipino government has repeatedly reminded its neighbors of their responsibility to upholding the United Nations’ Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.  Not only are many European countries also signatories to the UN’s refugee convention, but also they are all party to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union that respects the rules of the Geneva Convention by mandating in Article 18 the “right to asylum”.  Therefore, Australia’s strict immigration policies are defying its 1973 contracted agreement to the UN’s refugee convention (as well as other binding international agreements) and setting a precedent for other countries to follow its detrimental policy.

Europe must not follow Australia’s lead.  Instead of ignoring their legal responsibility, EU Member States must work together to safely and productively incorporate migrants into their societies while also actively engaging in the effort to stop smuggling.  In order to create a more unified migration policy, the EU adopted the European Agenda on Migration on 13 May 2015.  According to Commissioner Auramopoulos, the agenda addresses “the immediate need to save lives and assist frontline countries” by providing a “strengthened presence at sea of Frontex-coordinated vessels, €60 million in emergency assistance and an action plan to crack down on smugglers”.  Also, the agenda proposes a controversial resettlement scheme that will distribute 20,000 displaced persons from outside the EU to Member States over the next two years.  The number of individuals allocated to each EU country would be based on a quota system that considers GDP, population size, national unemployment, and previous numbers of refugees and asylum seekers.  Although Germany, Italy, and Belgium have vocalized their approval, France and Britain have strongly opposed the quota measure.  However, an EU-wide migration plan is crucial to alleviating the crisis in the Mediterranean.  Not only will the agenda use quotas to lessen the burden of migrants on final destination countries – notably Germany, who would only be required to admit 18% of redistributed asylum seekers as opposed to the 35% admitted last year – but also the agenda directly addresses the issue of smugglers by increasing the investigation and prosecution of their networks.  The European Commission aims to improve its assistance to frontline countries in the registration of migrants and actively engage with “key third countries”, such as those in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, by further developing the Regional Development and Protection Programmes and by strengthening EU Delegations to those countries.  Thus, the European Agenda on Migration is an important step towards collectively improving the EU’s migration policy while also offensively targeting smugglers and supporting engagement with countries of migrant origin.

According to the European Commission, “this is an opportunity for the EU to strike the right balance in its migration policy and send a clear message to its citizens that migration can be better managed collectively by all EU actors”.  The EU must remember this message of camaraderie and mutual responsibility as it moves forward to implementing the Agenda on Migration.  As exemplified by Australia, strict migration policies that close borders are neither sustainable nor beneficial to the region.  Despite the claims of critics who foster anti-immigration sentiments, it is important to remember that migrants can be beneficial to the economy by improving the working age, providing needed employment, and expanding a nation’s public purse through taxes.  However, as stated by the European Commission’s Vice-President Federica Mogherini, one must understand that, despite improvements in migration policy, “a real, long-term response will come only from fixing the root causes [of migration]; from poverty to instability caused by wars, to the crises in Libya and Syria”.  National security and individual safety will only occur by addressing these root causes, but implementing the European Agenda on Migration is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for the European Union.

About Lauren Stauffer

Lauren Stauffer is a Junior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. Previously, Lauren has worked at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center where she helped research and organize the international Women and Girls’ Rising Conference held this past September. Lauren’s research interests include human rights, humanitarian intervention, international security, and post-conflict reconciliation.