Opinion | Migration Beyond Crisis Mode

Over the past seven years, from Ukraine to Greece, Europe has been in perpetual crisis mode. Now, it is a migration crisis. But to respond effectively, Europe must move beyond crisis mode to understand both what it is facing and what it wants to achieve.

It is indisputable that migration deserves the EU’s focus. Not only are migrant flows into Europe shattering records. Migrants’ primary entry points are changing as well. Meanwhile, the already-hazy lines between asylumseekers, refugees, displaced persons and purely economic migrants are becoming increasingly di­fficult to distinguish at all.

The dangerous conditions of the migrants’ journey constitute a serious humanitarian crisis. Since the beginning of this year, roughly 2,500 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, to say nothing of gruesome scenes like the recent discovery of 71 decomposing bodies in an abandoned truck in Austria. To make matters worse, there has been a steady stream of migration-related violence across Europe, from an arson attack on a planned refugee shelter in Germany to police brutality against migrants in Macedonia and Hungary.

In response, the EU has tripled the budget of Operation Triton, designed to strengthen border security; launched an EU-wide naval operation against human smugglers and tra­ckers in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med); and allocated additional funds to overwhelmed frontline countries. And Germany, despite a predicted 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, has suspended the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which would have led to the deportation of thousands of refugees.

But these measures are far from adequate. They are examples of crisis-mode policy making that allows EU leaders to avoid acknowledging the long-term nature of the migrant challenge.

After all, the factors driving hundreds of thousands of people to risk everything to get to Europe are nowhere near being resolved. Iraq and Syria remain mired in violence and chaos; Eritrea is in the grip of a repressive regime; and Libya has become a collapsed state. Add to that weak or non-existent governance in much of Africa, and it is difficult to imagine how the tide of migrants will be slowed.

The chance of a better life is irresistible to the people trapped in these areas. No matter how strong the EU’s external borders are – though, of course, better monitoring and patrolling measures are needed – the flow of migrants will continue to overwhelm their capacity, endangering the openness that is so fundamental to European unification.

If Europe is to adapt to the migrant challenge, and design realistic and productive solutions that heed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for “collective courage,” it must target the root causes and enablers of the current migration wave. Specifically, the EU must support governance reform, economic development, and the establishment of basic human security in the countries that migrants are fleeing.

At the same time, efforts are needed to strengthen deterrence near and en route to Europe’s borders, through partnerships with major source and transit countries. Legal channels of migration should be opened for those who either deserve protection under international law or possess skills that could benefit European societies. For migrants who reach EU territory, are not entitled to international legal protection, and lack such vital skills, repatriation regimes must be established. All of this will require an update of the legal categorizations of migrants, as well as burden-sharing within the EU, which is glaringly absent at the moment.

The EU cannot simply wait out the current migration crisis by implementing piecemeal and panicked measures in the hope that the problem will eventually resolve itself. What is needed is careful consideration of how best to balance humanitarian imperatives with security concerns, domestic social welfare with international legal obligations, and member countries’ duties to one another with their responsibilities to their own citizens. Only then can leaders design the kind of thoughtful, comprehensive and forward-looking strategy that the migrant crisis – and, indeed, the EU’s own survival – demands.


(Text courtesy of Project Syndicate)

Ana Palacio
Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State, a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the United States.

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