Europe’s Race to the Bottom on Refugees
European defense and foreign ministers agreed on Monday to an ambitious naval operation – involving contributions from 12 countries and over 1,000 troops – to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking in the Mediterranean. But military action alone will not end the migration crisis – a crisis that, this year alone, has led to the deaths of more than 1,800 people trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa.
The expansion of Europe’s naval presence in the Mediterranean this spring has had benefits. It led to a massive 95% decline in the death rate of those attempting to make the journey to Europe from Africa, with only a few dozen asylum seekers having died in the last two months.
The latest initiative arises from the EU’s subsequent attempts to design a military effort that could “disrupt the business model” of smugglers. And, ostensibly, it was successful even before it began, with arrivals to Italy from Libya declining significantly. But, in fact, the smugglers have simply shifted their routes, and are now increasingly making their way toward Greece from Turkey and Egypt, or entering the European Union via the land route in the Balkans. The smugglers are one step ahead of the posse.
Beyond its practical shortcomings, the EU’s military-based approach to the migration crisis is flawed, because it may appear to criminalize migrants and asylum seekers – desperate people who are fleeing violence and persecution at home – in the public mind. The majority of those who reach Europe and file asylum claims are judged by EU member states as having a legitimate claim to international protection.
The problem is that, so far, military initiatives are all that EU member countries have managed to agree on. Even the European Commission’s modest proposal to share responsibility for processing asylum applications and resettling refugees – rather than leaving Greece and Italy solely responsible for processing all of the asylum seekers who reach their shores – has faced inexplicably strong resistance.
Protesting against the proposal – which would redistribute just 40,000 of the anticipated 200,000 arrivals to other EU countries – some countries went so far as to close their borders to migrants entirely. Hungary announced that it would build a fence on its border with Serbia to keep migrants out.
In retaliation for the lack of support, politicians in the front-line countries floated the idea of issuing Schengen visas to all arriving migrants, leaving them free to travel anywhere in the EU. Some even proposed taking rescued asylum seekers directly to other European ports.
With this race to the bottom, EU countries appear to have abandoned solidarity, thereby jeopardizing one of the crowning achievements of European integration: free movement within the Schengen zone. Moroever, this response reflects a lack of awareness of the benefits that adherence to the principle of burden-sharing affords all EU countries. Short-term domestic political imperatives are trumping common sense.
Clearly, European countries need a new approach – one that reflects the EU’s underlying values, while serving its interests. Beyond improving the distribution of responsibility for asylum seekers across European countries, such an approach should entail the creation of safe legal channels for those fleeing conflict and extreme poverty.
To this end, Europe could expand family-reunification options and temporary work visas, while developing labor-matching schemes for refugees. Private sponsorship of refugees, with individuals and non-governmental organizations taking responsibility for resettlement, also has far-reaching potential, which the EU has made no effort to tap.
The final key feature of a comprehensive strategy to address the migration crisis is the establishment of deeper ties with the African countries from which many asylum seekers hail. With an EU-African Union summit set to be held in Malta later this year, Europe’s leaders have an important opportunity to reframe their relationship with Africa.
Instead of focusing on policing borders and returning migrants to their home countries, EU and African leaders could develop strategies for protecting the lives and human rights of asylum seekers and migrants, including during anti-smuggling efforts. The EU could offer increased funding to support refugees in North African countries, which, in return, should develop robust protection policies of their own. And regional mobility agreements – both within Africa and between Europe and Africa – could be advanced.
Of course, the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean is not just a European and African problem; the United Nations and the broader international community also have an important role to play. Last week, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that the number of refugees worldwide surged by more than 20% last year, to 19.5 million, with the total number of people displaced by conflict reaching a post-World War II high of nearly 60 million. Each day last year, more than 40,000 people, on average, were forced to flee their homes – up from about 20,000 in 2012 and 10,000 in 2010.
Despite this increase in the scale and rate of displacement, the international system’s capacity to cope with refugees has barely improved at all. Today, only 26 countries participate in the UNHCR’s resettlement program, whereby refugees are moved from the first safe country they reach to other countries willing to provide permanent residency. This is the most effective mechanism the world has for protecting refugees, yet just 103,000 people were able to use it last year.
The EU, other advanced countries like those in the Gulf, and the UN must do much more to protect those fleeing conflict and despair. Every day they wait places more lives at risk.