from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

World on the Move: Understanding Europe’s Migration Crisis

Migrants gesture as they stand in the main Eastern Railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 1, 2015.

September 3, 2015

Migrants gesture as they stand in the main Eastern Railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 1, 2015.
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Coauthored with Theresa Lou, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The migration crisis of 2015 makes for somber reading. Seven hundred migrants drowned crossing the Mediterranean from war-torn Libya. Last week, Austrian authorities made the grisly discovery of seventy-one corpses in a truck. Most recently, the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, sparking international outcry.

People have been on the move since the dawn of time, of course, but never in such numbers. By the end of 2014, 59.5 million individuals had been uprooted due to conflict or persecution—the highest level since World War II. Despite knowing the risks, every day thousands continue to board rickety boats, or pay smugglers for the promise of safety and better lives ahead.

Ground zero for the current crisis is the European Union (EU), where approximately 1.7 million desperate people have attempted to enter between 2011 and 2014. The Syrian civil war has displaced more than four million refugees to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, where camps burst at the seams. As chances of returning to Syria dim—and prospects in host countries remain bleak—even more refugees are now heading for Europe.

However, EU leaders are flailing in response, whipsawed between the humanitarian and self-interested instincts of their electorates. Hungary’s refusal to allow migrants to board trains for other EU countries and the building of a fence along its borders with Serbia are only the latest examples.

The EU’s crisis is compounded by poverty in the western Balkans, where high unemployment and entrenched political corruption have led many to conclude that life will simply not get better. More than forty percent of all asylum applications in Germany during the first six months of 2015 came from Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia.

Why is Europe Struggling?

The pressures of uncontrolled migration are hardly restricted to Europe—as the U.S. presidential campaign has underscored. But the EU’s predicament is particularly acute. The sudden influx of migrants has appeared to catch European governments by surprise, and has exposed fissures among the members of the Union. There at least four reasons why Europe is struggling.

  • Europeans often don’t know who is crossing their borders: Are they refugees or economic migrants? Many of the people showing up are asylum seekers who claim the status of refugees—defined under a 1951 UN convention as someone who has fled his or her country because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” But until such claims can be definitively evaluated—which can take months—these people are stuck in limbo, suspected of being economic migrants who have chosen to move for better job prospects. Making such judgments is tough, but the decisions matter: refugees are entitled to international protection in an asylum country, whereas economic migrants can be turned away. But what about those who fall in the gray zone? Are people who flee from a country plagued by persecution, discrimination, and also a crumbling economy asylum seekers or migrants? What about those who fled their countries for refugee reasons but continue on in search of better job prospects? Answers to such questions often boil down to a judgement call with grave implications for the person in question.

  • EU members can’t get on the same page: Complicating matters, EU member states are quarrelling amongst themselves about how to respond. In principle, the EU’s Dublin Regulation stipulates that entry-point states are responsible for housing migrants and examining their asylum applications. But this EU law has placed a heavy strain on Mediterranean nations like Italy and particularly Greece, whose protracted financial crisis has left it ill-equipped to handle a sudden influx of refugees. In what it thought was a constructive move, Germany has suspended the Dublin Regulation and will allow Syrian refugees to apply for asylum even if they first arrived in another country. Berlin has since called for the EU to redistribute asylum seekers amongst member states. The idea of a quota system gained support from European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker and, recently, European Council President Donald Tusk. But other EU members, including the United Kingdom and Hungary, vehemently insist that immigration policies be decided by individual governments. On Thursday, Hungarian President Viktor Orban blamed Chancellor Angela Merkel for essentially “inviting” migrants to Europe, labeling the crisis a “German Problem.” Such finger-pointing bodes ill for a unified EU front.

  • Politicians are feeling the heat from right-wing blowback: The rise of right-wing political parties in numerous EU countries (Denmark, Sweden, and France, for example) has fueled popular anti-immigrant sentiments. Violence against refugees and migrants has spiked in Germany, where asylum seekers increased by 132 percent over the same period in 2014. The pressures of populist nationalism have made it more difficult for politicians at the inter-European level to agree on a unified response.

  • Regulatory incoherence: In 2013, the European Parliament endorsed a Common European Asylum System, which establishes procedures to ensure uniform treatment for all asylum applications. Unfortunately, EU countries have failed to implement and enforce these provisions with any consistency. Complicating matters, there is no agreed list of countries the EU considers to be in conflict, making it hard to determine whether a person is an asylum seeker or a migrant. Nor are there any collective EU centers for asylum seekers to get processed and fed. Each EU nation has its own ways of doing things, exacerbating the sense of regulatory chaos. Europe’s migrant crisis is only the latest and most acute manifestation of a broader international problem: failure to develop and implement common standards and procedures for handling migrant flows, especially in the wake of political and economic turmoil. This is partly inherent in the complexity and sensitivity of migration, compared to other global flows. Hoping to benefit from globalization, governments in recent decades have lowered barriers dramatically for most factors of production, including capital, goods, services, and ideas—and they have negotiated multiple rules to govern the world economy. But the international regulation of migration has lagged, globally and regionally, because the cross-border movement of people is inherently sensitive politically—touching on issues of sovereignty, security, employment, and (not least) national identity. The result is a regulatory vacuum.

All of these dilemmas are complex, and none is easily resolved. But the EU can and must do better.  European leaders will meet on September 14 in Brussels to combat the growing migrant crisis. At a minimum, they need to reach agreement on the following points

  • Reaffirm humanitarian values: While the European Union needs to control its borders, it must do so in a manner that respects the humanity of migrants, even those attempting to enter illegally. Some national responses—including Hungary’s use of a train station as essentially a holding pen, as well as its decision to build a border fence with Serbia—are inconsistent with European moral values. The EU cannot afford to become a fortress, even as it remains a magnet for migrants.

  • Hammer out realistic agreement on burden-sharing: Given controversy over the proposed quota system, EU leaders need to negotiate a workable compromise that more equitably apportions responsibility for screening, processing, sustaining, and (in principle) granting asylum to refugees. Such an accord would be a powerful and needed symbol of European solidarity.

  • Jointly designate countries of safe origin: It is imperative that the EU finalize a list of safe countries of origin, so that those who do not qualify for asylum (namely, the economic migrants), can be repatriated in an orderly and humane manner. Member countries should also commit to fully implement efficient screening processes that reduce blockages and allow asylum seekers and refugees to get accommodations they require.

Finally, Europe’s current predicament carries a larger lesson. The nations of the world need a more robust multilateral mechanism to develop and promote common global standards for the processing and treatment of migrants and refugees. The building blocks of such a system already exists, including in the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the IOM is mainly an assistance body rather than a forum for negotiation, and UNHCR is stretched thin by multiple humanitarian crises. However, rather than seeking to create an entirely new international organization, UN member states should look to strengthen these existing ones so that they can do more to assist countries and regions coping with unexpected spikes in refugees and migrants.  Ban Ki-moon’s upcoming emergency summit on migration (planned for September 30) is a welcome step in this direction.

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