The Big Tide

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The mass influx of migrants into Europe has become the top of the EU political and public agenda. Europe is struggling to develop a coherent migration policy that addresses both internal and external issues enlightened by the crisis.

The EU migration crisis is, in fact, threefold in dimension.

Firstly, it questioned the very idea of a borderless Europe and undermined the long-term commitment of member states to the Dublin regulations and the Schengen agreement. Southern countries have become the frontier outpost of the considerable migration inflow, and they ended up in having a lack of technical capacity to receive and process applicants. As a consequence, they de facto suspended the Dublin regulations by letting migrants go into the west and north of Europe without any formal registration.

In response to the huge tide of migrants moving deeper into the European continent, some member states called for reinstatement of temporary border controls to counter perceived security threats.

So, the current EU immigration and asylum system showed flaws under the pressure of the huge and unprecedented crisis, such as a disproportionate burden on EU entry-point states against the backdrop of others’ aversion to sharing the responsibility; the necessity of bringing refugees’ reception conditions in compliance with EU standards; and the increase of IT systems and technologies’ use, as well as better coordination for information sharing on processing migrants and possible threats. Good questions to be asked here are how all of these new illegal arrivals can be differentiated – meaning separating economic migrants from those really fleeing from war and death threats – and how much time it might take.

Secondly, the migration crisis has put at peril EU solidarity, which has always been an essential and cherished value for the union. Relocation measures approved in September 2015 opened a new stage of political debate in which flexible solidarity stands versus mandatory relocation mechanism. The EU-27 summit in Bratislava and the EU Commission’s latest progress report on the EU’s relocation and resettlement schemes last September send a message that ‘relocation has to succeed’ rather than ‘it is succeeding’.

Lastly, the crisis made it clear that it is high time to look at its core and get to the root of the problem.

It is true that the EU’s migration policy is slowly putting more emphasis on how to invest into migrants’ donor countries, to cooperate with major transit countries to improve their border control capacity, and, finally, how to bring economic development and social stability into regions at risk. The EU naval operations targeting human-smugglers and their trafficking networks in the south-central Mediterranean or a new European Border and Coast Guard are also all signs of a broader EU approach to manage its external borders. Together with the EU-Turkey statement signed in March 2016, the EU has recently announced more financial instruments to support people in Middle Eastern and African countries. It is the new Partnership Framework on Migration deploying almost €8 billion from 2016 to 2020 to a number of priority countries of migration origin and transit. They include Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ethiopia, but also Jordan and Lebanon. There are the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis.

However, in the context of rising popularity of right–wing political parties, vague results of upcoming general elections in Germany and France in 2017, and the securitization of migration problem, it might be reasonable to ask whether the EU should pay more attention to the internal rather than external sides of the migration problem – at least over the next two years.

Hard issues

The level of irregular migration or illegal EU border crossings have increased dramatically over the past three years. The numbers – not just a bold statement made by EU Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos that this is the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War – speak clearly for themselves.

As mentioned in the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix report, 1.046 million people arrived in Europe in 2015, by land and sea. Eurostat findings make this statistic look even more acute, though slightly differs in figures. The number of first-time asylum applicants in the EU-28 more than doubled, from 563,000 in 2014 to almost 1.26 million in 2015. The major contribution to the hike has been made by applicants from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, by Albanians, Kosovans, and Pakistanis. In fact, the number of asylum applications in the EU-28 in 2015 was almost two times higher than that of EU-15 in 1992. Among eight major migration routes, according to EU Frontex, the Turkey-to-Greece, Bulgaria, and Cyprus remain the most popular for the first EU entry. The vast majority of the migrants land on Greek islands, such as Lesbos, Chios, and Samos. Over the three quarters of 2016, 173,000 migrants used this route to trespass on the EU illegally, with a majority of the people coming from Syria (81,390), Afghanistan (42,053), and Iraq (26,739).

This influx to Greece across the Aegean Sea steadily outstrips the Central Mediterranean route, the second most popular one, which is used mainly by migrants seeking jobs in France, who first land on Lampedusa and Malta’s islands. In 2015, Eritreans, Nigerians, and Somalis accounted for the biggest share of the migrants making their dangerous journey via this route.

The most sought-after countries for asylum in 2015 were Germany and Sweden (for Syrians), Hungary and Sweden (for Afghans), and Germany, Finland, and Sweden (for Iraqis). The lead of Germany looks quite reasonable due to its favorable migration policy and relatively healthy economy. Beyond negative internal political and arguable economic effects, the migration also causes social ones. Integration of the migrants – in particular, those coming from the former European colonies – has always been an issue for Europe. The current public discourse is based on concerns either in the security domain or public services sector, implying exercised pressures on the accepting countries’ health care, social care, and education systems.

Addressing these issues may require a wider public dialogue, which would involve as many domestic actors as possible, such as businesses, trade unions, and NGOs. The other and inevitable part of the public discourse is about the role and responsibility of the police in maintaining security and public order, as well as fighting crime, no matter who commits its. At some point, the EU member states would require installation of a new integrated return management mechanism. The strengthening of the EU Return Directive adopted in 2008 and signing of more Readmission Agreements with third transit countries might also facilitate finding а more comprehensive approach to receiving migrants.

This new approach will definitely need a balance between European values, ideas of humanism, programs of migrants’ adaptation and integration, and the necessity to minimize any potential security threats to accepting societies. Managing migration inflow to the EU is actually a question of finding a new model for future EU development, and, in this case, all aspects matter, from individual EU state policies on adaptation and integration to the solution of the EU solidarity challenge. History proved to the EU a long time ago that migration is always a natural phenomenon having both its pros and cons and depending on many reasons, from economic development to regional stability and security. Therefore, the solution will never be only about the decisions of a single though influential European actor, but rather about collective efforts to mitigate potential crises and to contribute to a better allocation of public goods in the world.

The article was prepared in cooperation with the Gorchakov Fund.

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