Migrants are on the move: but can we say the same about the EU’s migration policy?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

For centuries, Europe was a continent that people sought to leave. Millions of Italians, Poles, Irish and Germans emigrated to the United States; Scots left for Canada and Australia; other Italians went to farm the fertile soils of Argentina; Frenchmen and women crossed the Mediterranean to Algeria; and Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese and Brits departed to seek their fortunes in the vast colonies that European countries had conquered across the globe. Europe stood for political repression, poverty and ossified class structures. The New World or the colonies, by contrast, represented opportunity, social mobility and the chance to make a new beginning. So little wonder that Europe lost an estimated 20% of its population to migration between 1850 and 1950.

In more recent times, this paradigm has been reversed. Every year, European countries are seeing more people enter – or trying to enter – than leaving. For instance, last week, the United Kingdom’s Home Office reported that half a million people left the UK in 2021, whereas just over one million had arrived. Ukrainian war refugees, the uptick in foreign students or Hong Kongers taking advantage of their access to British passports only partly explain this increase in net immigration, but not completely. Europe is now seen as the place of opportunity, while many parts of the world sink into the economic stagnation, corruption and political repression that once characterised large swathes of Europe. Nonetheless, 400,000 Russian men fleeing Putin’s conscription drive or Albanians constituting the largest national group trying to migrate to the UK at the present time demonstrate that the roots of mass migration are not located only in Africa, Asia or Latin America but on the periphery of Europe as well.

Migration into Europe slowed to a trickle as the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closing of borders and the paralysis of the travel industry, with the main exception being Afghans who had to be evacuated from Kabul in chaotic circumstances after the withdrawal of NATO forces in August 2021. Yet, as the global economy emerges from the pandemic and borders reopen, migration has resumed, leading to a rise in illegal migration – the type that Europe finds most difficult to deal with.

Over 2,000 migrants have drowned this year trying to cross from Africa into Europe

Tensions between the European Union, Russia and Belarus in the wake of Lukashenko’s electoral fraud and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, followed by EU-imposed sanctions, have also led to the abuse of illegal migrants as weapons of intimidation and political pressure. Russia has pushed them over its border with Finland and Belarus over its border with Poland in brazen attempts to destabilise their European neighbours. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to the migration of six million Ukrainians, and Russia’s deliberate targeting of Ukraine’s energy and water infrastructure can only be interpreted as a move by Moscow to induce millions more cold and hungry Ukrainians to up sticks and move to the EU. Putin is clearly hoping that refugee fatigue in Poland, Romania or Germany will give this new wave of migrants a much cooler reception than the first wave back in March and April. Some Polish politicians are already calling for newly arriving Ukrainians to pay a financial contribution towards their housing, food and healthcare costs.

Many Europeans still associate migration with the crisis of 2015 when over a million illegal migrants poured into Europe from across the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Many migrants were legitimately fleeing never-ending wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, but others – from Pakistan to Vietnam – were economic migrants whose claims for political asylum would be much more tenuous. Germany ended up taking in the vast majority of the migrants but the strains on the state welfare system and political cohesion were obvious. Populists across the continent seized on the anxieties of porous borders and loss of national identity to advance their positions. In the UK, the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, campaigned on the ‘threat’ of hordes of Turkish migrants pouring into the UK in the wake of Turkey joining the EU. Somehow, he managed to convince large numbers in the 2016 Brexit referendum vote that this was a realistic, near-term prospect.

Nothing of the dimensions of the 2015 crisis has been experienced since, but this year, illegal migration into the EU has started to rise significantly. Around 135,000 migrants so far have reached the EU via the Western Balkans; another 90,000 have entered Italy across the Mediterranean via the islands of Sicily and Lampedusa; and the UK has witnessed a record-breaking 40,000 illegal migrants cross the Channel in small dinghies. Predictably, this increase in illegal migration, which the EU border force Frontex estimates is a 160% increase over the year before, has reopened old wounds and fissures among EU member states when it comes to how to respond. In early November, there was a spat between Italy and France. The new far-right government in Rome, true to its election campaign promise to radically curb illegal migration, refused to allow the vessel Ocean Viking to dock at an Italian port to disembark the 234 migrants that it had rescued from precarious conditions in the Mediterranean. Over 2,000 migrants have drowned this year trying to cross from Africa into Europe. After several days marooned at sea, France eventually allowed the Ocean Viking vessel to dock in Toulon “à titre exceptionnel”.

More migrants and less EU unity are not a good recipe for an effective EU migration policy

This incident reignited previous acrimonious disputes between Paris and Rome over the responsibility for handling migrants. Paris had long accused the Italian government of encouraging migrants to move to France instead of dealing with their duty to process asylum claims and refugee status in Italy, as stipulated by the Dublin Agreement on Migration. On numerous occasions, France re-established border controls and suspended Schengen arrangements along the France-Italy frontier. In recent times, France and Italy had striven to repair their relations. During the French EU Presidency, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin concluded a temporary mechanism with 12 of the 27 EU member states on illegal migration. It provided for the distribution of migrants according to agreed national ceilings. France and Germany agreed to resettle 3,500 migrants from Italy. Yet, as always, the implementation of agreements on migration lags far behind the ambitions. So far, only 100 migrants have been resettled under the temporary mechanism. Following the Ocean Viking affair, Darmanin has suspended the mechanism and other agreements on migrant handling with Italy.

More migrants and less EU unity are not a good recipe for an effective EU migration policy. Recognising this, the European Commission has been pushing over the last two years to revise its proposed Migration Pact in the hope of finally persuading all 27 member states to sign up. To make its approach more comprehensive, the Commission is suggesting more focus on reducing migration at the source by working with countries of origin and transit countries to discourage migrants from leaving home in the first place. This would include more EU funding for local resettlement or to help migrants stuck in camps in Libya, Sudan or Morocco to return home safely. Helping to stimulate more employment opportunities in countries feeding migration is part of the strategy too, although it clearly would take several years to be effective and its success would be tied to the EU’s willingness to open its markets to agricultural products, textiles and finished goods. Yet, as 80% of migrants in Africa remain in the continent, the EU has a clear interest in preventing millions more from leaving for Europe.

The more drawn out these decisions become, the more important it is to devise short-term measures to plug the gaps in the interim. EU ministers met two weeks ago to discuss these steps and how EU member states can better control illegal migration through joint action than by pointing fingers at each other. Before the arrival of spring and its calmer waters for migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, it would be helpful if those EU ministers could agree on a Migration Pact with the following elements.

There is not an agreed set of rules […] as to how NGO vessels should operate and which information should be shared

First, a common regime for dealing with migrants in the Mediterranean is needed. The EU maritime operation Sophia, which took over from a previous Italian naval presence, has been replaced by the EU Naval Force (NAVFOR) supporting the navies of the riparian EU member states. There is a need now to make this a permanent system of naval deployments extending beyond the solely central Mediterranean, and linking up with the NATO task force supporting Frontex in the Aegean. Sea monitoring needs to be completed by air detection through the deployment of maritime patrol aircraft, observation drones and satellite tracking. NATO’s recently established capability of Global Hawk observation drones at the Signonella air base in Sicily can certainly be put to good use here with NATO and the EU sharing the operating costs. Wherever possible, the naval patrols of the North African littoral states, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, need to be integrated into this sea monitoring network and its data and intelligence sharing system, SHADE. The maritime presence needs clear and common rules of engagement, for instance, in providing rescue at sea and humanitarian support to migrant boats at risk of sinking. The key requirement is for EU vessels to gain access to the North African states’ territorial waters to interdict the migrant smugglers and confiscate their boats. The objective has to be to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean in the first place by disrupting the infrastructure and communications of the smuggling rings. Concerted action to block the financial transactions of these gangs and seize their assets will require a truly comprehensive approach involving customs and treasury departments as well.

This connects to the second priority, which is to train and co-finance the coast guards of the North African states. The EU has started to do this with the Libyan coast guard as an extension of its Sophia operation. This exercise has not been free of criticism, given reports of heavy-handed methods and even human rights violations by the newly formed Libyan coast guard. But this is not a reason to give up but rather double down on the effort with more onsite monitoring by Frontex and more EU pressure on the authorities in Tripoli to discipline its coast guard force. The Libyan training and capacity-building programme needs to be extended along the North African littoral, and the EU needs to encourage the North African coast guard forces to share intelligence and conduct joint interdiction operations. The same applies to border forces along the poorly guarded frontiers of North Africa.

A third priority is for the EU to foster a dialogue between its Mediterranean member states and NGOs that have chartered vessels to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. These NGOs are often headquartered in Germany and northern Europe, where public opinion often salutes their acts of humanitarian charity. But these same NGOs are highly unpopular with EU Mediterranean states such as Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, which accuse them of encouraging migrants to put to sea in unseaworthy dinghies in the belief that they will be quickly picked up by the NGO rescue vessels and delivered safely to an EU port. Even before Giorgia Meloni came to power in Rome last October, Italian governments were refusing the often overloaded NGO vessels entry to ports in Sicily or Lampedusa. The problem here is that there is not an agreed set of rules between the EU and Frontex on the one hand, and the NGOs on the other as to how NGO vessels should operate and which information should be shared. Rights to operate in the Mediterranean must go hand in hand with duties and obligations. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) based in London has offered to mediate based on its established code of conduct for merchant shipping. The EU should take up the offer and set up a permanent coordination mechanism with the NGOs, perhaps under IMO chairmanship.

The refusal to allow migrants to work before their status is settled means that they are forced to vegetate in squalid, damp hotels for years, costing the government millions every month, even when many have skills that would prove useful in the local economy

Next is coming up with a more durable form of the French-inspired temporary mechanism concerning the distribution of migrants across the EU. This will be the hardest part, as many eastern EU member states have steadfastly resisted migrant quotas or opening their frontiers to migrants from outside Europe at all. The result is a lopsided situation where the overwhelming majority of migrants end up in a limited number of EU recipient countries, notably in the Mediterranean region, Germany or Sweden. Others become trapped in Bosnia and Herzegovina because they are unable to move on to northern Europe via Croatia and Hungary. But if EU joint actions are to be effective, the concept of solidarity has to be a two-way process where states are not allowed to pick and choose between different forms of solidarity. So, just like EU COVID-19 recovery funds under the NextGenerationEU programme are linked to respect for the rule of law and human rights in Hungary or Poland, the EU institutions, with the full backing of the European Parliament, will need to link EU funding and project finance to a member state’s willingness to accept a fair share of migrants for asylum and resettlement processing. Migrants would not be allowed to switch countries before their status has been settled.

Such a scheme would enable the EU to reform the Dublin Agreement so that migrants’ claims for asylum or refugee status would be processed in the countries to which they are assigned. This would help take some burdens off of Italy and Greece, and reduce the enormous backlog in processing asylum claims that drag on for years. In the meantime, migrants should be encouraged to work so that tax receipts help to offset the considerable sums that governments spend every month to provide them with food, medical care and shelter. In the UK, the refusal to allow migrants to work before their status is settled means that they are forced to vegetate in squalid, damp hotels for years, costing the government millions every month, even when many have skills that would prove useful in the local economy. The EU could seek to standardise the legal application process for asylum across the Union and provide technical support to member states experiencing major backlogs.

Naturally, it will be easier to convince the eastern European states to accept more migrants if those that do not pass the asylum and refugee procedures are returned to their homelands or departure points within a reasonable timeframe. This principle is broadly accepted within the EU but has proved difficult to implement. Migrants can tie up legal appeal procedures for several years and it is difficult, if not impossible for EU member states to send migrants back to war zones or to countries where their human rights would be in jeopardy. The UK cut a deal with Rwanda to accept migrants rejected by the asylum process; although the government trumpeted this deal with great fanfare and chartered the aircraft to fly the first batch of migrants to Kigali, the UK courts soon ordered a halt to these forced transfers. To date, not one single migrant has been taken to Rwanda. A similar situation has arisen between the EU and Turkey, where Brussels has committed to pay Ankara €6bn a year to help Turkey integrate its 4mn migrants and stop them from heading to Greece across the Aegean Sea or Turkish Thrace. Turkey has committed to take back rejected migrants under this agreement, but the number repatriated this way is a tiny fraction of those who have reached EU territory. If every migrant entering the EU eventually manages to stay, whether their claims for settlement are justified or not, there is little sense in the EU trying to develop a common repatriation policy. This is certainly not to suggest that the EU should adopt the equivalent of the UK’s controversial Rwanda scheme, but it does need to carry out a collective reflection on how it can work with transit countries like Turkey or Morocco and countries of migrants’ origin to return migrants wherever possible. In the past, the EU has proposed to set up migrant processing centres in North Africa to dissuade migrants from attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. Yet this idea never took off as migrants invariably decided that they have a better chance of resettling in the EU if they reach EU territory by whatever route first.

An EU migration policy clearly cannot work if member states choose only migrants with whom they feel an ethnic or religious affinity

Finally, to gain broad acceptance, an EU Migration Pact has to rule out attempts to forcibly push migrants into the EU. Turkey has tried to do this along its borders with Greece, Russia along its border with Finland, and, most violently, Belarus along its border with Poland. Unsurprisingly, these EU states have reacted by building fences along their borders, increasing surveillance and reinforcing border guards. This weaponisation of migrants for hybrid warfare is a form of aggression, and the EU has every right to defend its borders to deter aggressors from manipulating migrants in this way in the future. The EU has co-financed some of these fences and increased the personnel and budget of Frontex in order to secure its most exposed borders. The same applies to protecting Spain’s border with Morocco in its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves on the North African coast, where migrants have tried several times to scale the border barrier.

In conclusion, the EU needs migrants to maintain its working-age population as its demographics move towards a greater proportion of pensioners relative to workers. Other countries such as the US, Canada and Australia have long demonstrated the economic benefits and skills that migrants bring. But migration has to be controlled and represent a balance of interests and responsibilities across 27 EU member states that react to migrants in different ways. It is notable in this regard how welcoming countries like Poland, Slovakia and even Hungary have been towards Ukrainian refugees since Putin’s invasion in contrast to their attitudes towards Muslim migrants. But as admirable as this welcome to the Ukrainians has been, an EU migration policy clearly cannot work if member states choose only migrants with whom they feel an ethnic or religious affinity. This said, a common buy-in to a migration system – which all member states are ready to implement – is what the EU needs, and especially as current disagreements and finger-pointing only help the anti-EU and far-right populist forces that rely on identity politics and opposition to migrants. The spat between France and Italy over the Ocean Viking shows the potential of migration to rapidly escalate tensions within the EU. So, it is high time for EU interior ministers to engage in a revised and workable Migration Pact before the next wave of migrants reaches our shores.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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