Tackling Europe's immigration crisis

Tackling Europe's immigration crisis

They had no names, just numbers. And a simple casket each, for the Europe which they never lived to see was at least magnanimous enough to accord them a proper funeral.

But even that was a dignity reserved for the very few, since the majority of the estimated 1,000 boat people who drowned recently in a desperate effort to reach Europe's shores will remain known only to God and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

NGOs, human rights activists and most of the world's media roundly condemned Europe for its alleged culpability in what is now regularly referred to as the "Mediterranean tragedy".

A continent which wants to be a "force for good", a European Union which claims to stand for principles and values, appears to have failed in upholding the most basic of all human values: compassion towards the poor and vulnerable whose only "sin" is to wish to improve their lives by migrating.

But amid the mountains of criticism and abuse heaped upon Europe, there was not even one suggestion of a workable alternative policy which could both prevent the further accidental death of migrants and keep immigration within controllable proportions.

And for a simple reason: this is a crisis which genuinely has no obvious solutions, an emergency which is only containable with partial answers.

Some critics may feel good about taking the high moral ground, but for European governments, the real task is to pick between a set of awful alternatives, in the hope of choosing the least bad one.

No practical respite

Migratory pressures from Africa and the Middle East are not new: Europe has experienced them for the past three decades, and usually responded by dealing with the symptoms, rather than its underlining causes.

A draconian visa regime made it virtually impossible for Africans to travel legally to Europe, and secret deals between European and African governments ensured that illegal immigration was kept in check.

The classic deal was concluded between then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2009, under which Libya undertook to stop African migrants from using its shores to navigate one of the Mediterranean's shortest routes to Europe.

The deal allowed Mr Berlusconi to forget about migrants and return to his real vocation of organising parties for his ladies; it also allowed Gaddafi to become vaguely respectable, by claiming to be a vital ally of Europe.

Africans ended up being treated not as refugees but as refuse, although few observers complained about the morality of such arrangements at that time.

Current migratory pressures have risen because a belt of African countries, including Mali, Niger and Eritrea, are plagued by internal instability and poverty, but also because of the chaos in Libya, which allows unscrupulous human traffickers to operate at will.

Many now argue that this is the moment for Europe to reverse course and to deal with the fundamental causes of migration, which are poverty and bad governance.

Theoretically, they are right, but their recipe offers no practical respite from the current crisis.

Europe is already taking its development responsibilities in Africa seriously: France is providing the bulk of the foreign forces helping Africans in places like Mali to restore order; Britain and the Scandinavian nations are some of the few countries around the world which meet the UN guidelines on development aid funding, with the bulk of it going to Africa.

But the task is vast and the job of reducing poverty in Africa to levels which will no longer boost migration is measured not in years, but in decades.

And, meanwhile, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2050. "Help people stay at home by providing them with jobs" makes for a nice conclusion to a newspaper editorial but is not a relevant alternative for policymakers.

There is, therefore, no escape from trying to control the flows of migrants to Europe; the only question is how this is best achieved, for all the options currently being discussed by European Union governments will produce negative, and often perverse, outcomes.

Take the proposal to concentrate all efforts on rescuing people at sea: that was the purpose of the Italian-led operation Mare Nostrum, and of the newly-announced measures by EU leaders.

But although the efforts are very likely to prevent further mass drownings, their chief impact will be to boost human traffickers, whose job will be merely to push people out to sea on any vessel, in the sure knowledge that they'd be picked up.

Another proposal under consideration is to order Europe's intelligence agencies to identify the human trafficking networks, and to use European militaries to destroy the boats they use.

Again, it sounds good until one notices that the human traffickers involved are not some Mafia-style organisation with a "godfather" at the top, but a loose network of tribal fixers and small-time crooks who are very adaptable and not easily penetrated by European spying agencies.

And destroying ships, even if this was deemed legal by a UN Security Council resolution, may increase the numbers of would-be migrants drowning: specialists argue that the current humanitarian crisis is precisely because traffickers are pushing migrants into smaller vessels since they are running out of larger ships.

Lack of understanding

Many now argue for the creation of a common European asylum and migration system, one which will ensure that all those who get to the continent's shores or are picked up at sea are quickly processed, real refugees are resettled across Europe while those deemed to be mere "economic migrants" are returned to their homes.

But the obstacles to such a scheme are insurmountable.

The plan will require a new constitutional treaty in Europe on the most explosive issue of all: that of immigration.

A new treaty which removes the right of individual nations to regulate their frontiers is likely to be rejected not only in Britain, but also in France, Scandinavia and in most of the new member states from Eastern Europe, which are beginning to take the brunt of this African migration flow.

Only day-dreamers who don't understand Europe could make the suggestion that the EU should take over immigration duties from member states.

However, even assuming this was possible, what would be the outcome?

A coordinated global response was instrumental in stopping the flow of "boat people" from Vietnam in the late 1970s.

But that happened because Vietnam had a functioning government which was ultimately persuaded to take back some of its people and to stem the exodus, and because the burden of resettlement was shared not by just one continent, but by the world.

No such advantages exist this time, however. Even if African or Arab migrants are refused permanent settlement in Europe, it's impossible to return them to their home countries, not only because that would endanger their lives but also because many of the migrants destroy their identity documents in order to make their identification almost impossible.

If the EU took over the processing of migrants, all that would happen is that Europe would end up operating a version of the Guantanamo detention camp, where people are stuck in a legal void for years.

And the more migrants are accepted in Europe, the bigger the pull for others to come.

Do more to police shores

None of this means that Europe cannot do more in the current crisis. Immigration and intelligence officers should be dispatched to African nations to assess the situation on the ground and identify flows.

A more aggressive information policy, telling would-be immigrants about the dangers they face, will also help marginally.

And European nations should devote more cash to policing their shores: the Italian-led Mare Nostrum operation last year was deemed too expensive although it cost about €100 million (S$145 million) per annum, less than one in one thousand euros of the EU budget and less than one in 10,000 euros of Italy's GDP.

The Europeans can afford to spend more than just these risible sums on the integrity of their frontiers.

For ultimately, there may be no escape from Europe following the Australian model, of having migrants processed outside its jurisdiction while enforcing a strict rule that, regardless of how they are rescued, sea-borne migrants will not be allowed to settle.

Europe should have the courage to remind its critics that it remains one of the world's most open places for immigration: more than one million people legally settled in the EU last year alone.

But the continent cannot be held to ransom by human smugglers. Nor can it ignore the wishes of European citizens who demand that their borders should be better protected.


This article was first published on April 27, 2015.
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