Europe must face up to migrant crisis

When European Union leaders don't know what to do, they call for a summit. That's precisely what will happen on Wednesday, when European heads of government will be gathering for another emergency conference in an attempt to deal with Europe's ongoing immigration crisis.

Chances are good that the summit will end with an agreement to share the burden of the existing refugees between EU member-states. But although that will be a triumph for European unity, it will do nothing to address the broader migratory pressure on the continent. The scenes of mayhem as thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa ram their way on a daily basis across Europe's frontiers will, therefore, continue until EU governments adopt a radically different approach to the way they deal with potential migrants.

And although that's always easier said than done, the fact remains that some of the policies which could reduce migration pressures to more manageable proportions are readily available, and don't require vast resources. The challenge for European governments is to have vision, courage and determination to go for what is feasible, rather than what may be desirable.

What Europe is and isn't responsible for

It's easy to blame the West in general, and Europe in particular, for the absence of economic development and political stability in Africa and the Middle East, both of which are fuelling the current migratory pressures. But that's an argument resorted to by intellectually lazy people, and one which does not stand up to proper examination.

Europe's colonial adventures in Africa and Asia clearly left deep and painful scars. Yet it's also true that both Africa and the Middle East have now been independent for more than six decades, and that instead of progressing, some countries in Africa and the Middle East experience lower standards of living and governance today than they did during colonial times. Most of this had nothing to do with the West, but with the failure of existing governments in the region.

Nor can the Europeans be accused of being stingy in their help to neighbours. The EU is, without exception, the biggest trade partner to every single one of the Middle Eastern and North African states. The EU is the biggest single aid and development finance donor in Africa. And Europe has embraced previous generations of migrants from the region; to suggest that the continent has been oblivious to the pain of its neighbours and therefore "gets what it deserves" with the current migration wave is sheer nonsense.

What European politicians can rightfully be accused of is that they have refused to put in place contingency plans for a crisis which everyone knew was coming. For over a decade, government planners in every EU capital have warned their political masters that Europe cannot continue enjoying its status as the world's wealthiest continent while it is surrounded by political and economic decay from all sides, without experiencing some major migration shocks.

Immigration, all EU leaders were repeatedly told, should not be treated as a temporary phenomenon, but as a persistent and constant pressure factor, one which needs to be managed, yet cannot be prevented.

However, for reasons of pure political expediency, every single European leader pretended not to notice; the political fiction was maintained that Europe could both restrict immigration and avoid erecting walls and barbed wires around its outer borders.

These myths have now been shattered, and much of the confusion which now reigns in Europe is due to the fact that governments are scrambling to put in place within weeks policies which should have been implemented years ago.

Still, there is much that can be usefully done.

What needs to be done


First, it's obvious that the existing internal European arrangements which shift all the burden of registering, feeding and dealing with existing refugees to the front- line states of Hungary, Greece or Italy simply cannot work. The policy was initially adopted in order to prevent asylum seekers from "shopping around" for preferred countries of destination, but also in order to encourage front-line states to police their borders effectively.

But given the number of asylum seekers involved, the outcome is now, perversely, exactly the opposite: states such as Hungary are both unable and unwilling to register the hundreds of thousands who arrive, and have every incentive to push them forward to other countries. And meanwhile, governments in Germany, Austria or France criticise Hungary for erecting border fences, but also demand that Hungary stops migration flows.

Ultimately, there is no escape from scrapping the old policy, and establishing instead both a more powerful European-wide border police force and joint naval patrols as well as, eventually, refugee camps operated by the EU, perhaps outside the European continent.

Countries such as Britain, which recoils at any suggestion of giving the EU such extra powers, may have to accept that this is the only way that some of the unpleasant, less photogenic aspects, but nevertheless essential elements of border controls in Europe, can be implemented.


The EU will also have to take a harder look at its asylum policy. The current asylum framework was put in place after the end of World War II, when most of the refugees where within Europe, when the solidarity and sympathy of the local nations for those seeking asylum were very high, when everyone understood the persecution people were fleeing from, and when European economies were growing.

It may be politically correct but ultimately irrelevant to compare the 200,000 Hungarian asylum seekers who fled when their country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1956, with the over a million people from the Middle East and Africa who have arrived in Europe this year; neither the circumstances of these two events, nor the mood of the host nations, nor the cultural and ethnic affinities between the newly arrived and their hosts, are similar to provide meaningful comparison.

So, the fact that Europe welcomed asylum seekers in the past or that the concept of asylum was constantly expanded over the past half century is not, in itself, justification for keeping it unchanged. For, the reality is that it is now being used as a mechanism for primary migration, with breadwinners or single men going in search of a better life.

According to the EU's own figures, not more than a quarter of those currently breaching EU borders are from Syria, with the rest fleeing poverty or simply seeking a better standard of living. And the majority are not fleeing wars, although most of the NGOs now supporting their cause carefully gloss over this inconvenient fact.

European governments will have to move to the operation of a list of "safe countries", whose citizens will be almost automatically denied asylum. Legal procedures for asylum seekers should be expedited; it is definitely far less costly to appoint a few hundred extra judges and establish a score of extra courts than to feed hundreds of thousands for the approximately one year it currently takes to sort out applications.

And those refused asylum should be swiftly deported; currently, only 34 per cent of those who have their applications rejected actually leave Europe.

But above everything else, all EU countries should stick to one asylum regime. Germany may have earned praise in the current crisis, but the German behaviour, first opening the borders to all newcomers, then closing the borders and then denying that the border was either open or closed, did nothing to promote a coherent European policy; far from being a solution, the German behaviour became part of the problem.

None of this means that Europe should lose its generosity and conscience. For a tougher asylum regime could be combined with a kinder one to those allowed to stay: those granted asylum should be swiftly integrated and given permanent residence, rather than the temporary visas they currently get.

Yet the biggest danger facing Europe now is not just that of mass migration, but the fact that European governments are increasingly being exposed as being simply impotent, incapable of defending their own national frontiers. And once this image is imprinted in the minds of ordinary European voters, the road will be open to all sorts of racist and populist alternative movements.

In short, a good immigration policy is not only one which opens borders to others, but one which is also supported and regarded as legitimate by local electorates, a tiny fact that Germany and other European governments still ignore.

So, if Europe wants to be kind to future migrants, it now needs to be tough to those who arrive today. And that is still within the continent's grasp, despite the policy errors of the past few weeks.

This article was first published on September 21, 2015.
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