From welcoming refugees to protecting borders, the question of how to best deal with migration is vexing Europe

The dramatic pictures that splashed across tablets and TV screens will linger long in the memories of Europeans: Hundreds, even thousands, of migrants some families with small children, huddled in the overcrowded Budapest Keleti pu railway station in dire conditions: There was little food; garbage and filth was everywhere, as people slept on the cold floor.

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, refused to offer them asylum, and police sealed off the terminal to prevent them from traveling on to other European countries, citing European Union (EU) law. When the situation became intolerable, the refugees and migrants set off on foot along the motorway to the Austrian border.

In a momentous decision to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the then Social Democratic Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann decided to open the borders to the refugees, many of whom had fled war and persecution, allowing them to cross freely into their territories.

© Wikimedia Commons

In the ensuing months, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants crossed the borders of Hungary, Austria, and Germany, setting in motion a challenge to European ideals that has had enduring consequences.

The crisis also flooded the south of Europe in waves, as thousands of migrants arrived daily in the ports and on the beaches of Italy and Greece. Thousands of others lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean.

That was in 2015.

Today, three years later, the railway stations are empty of refugees, and arrivals to the coasts of southern Eu-rope have dropped dramatically. This seems to be due to a combination of factors, such as stricter migration policies in several EU countries, but also the closure of the so-called Balkan route, and the agreement on the EU-Turkey deal.

Nevertheless, the tensions surrounding the refugees and migrants have not gone away. On the contrary, the politics of migration continues to divide Eu-rope, becoming a major issue in national election campaigns across the continent.

Its omnipresence is reflected in the current Austrian presidency of the European Council – the third, after 1998 and 2006 – which has for its slogan “A Europe that protects.”

First Protect

When Chancellor Sebastian Kurz presented Austria’s priorities to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on July 3, he explained the choice of words as follows: “[T]he protection of the European population must be our uppermost priority, and we need a paradigm shift in migration policy,” he said. “Stronger focus must be placed on the protection of our external borders, as a basis for a Europe without internal borders.”

© Dragan Tatic

Paul Schmidt, of the Austrian Society for European Politics, says that “in Austria, domestic politics determine to a great extent the country’s positions on the European level.” Since the migration issue dominates the national debate, it has now also become the prevailing theme on the European level.

EU member states have been divided from the beginning on how to respond to the massive influx of asylum seekers in 2015. A controversial plan compelling EU states to accept quotas of refugees collapsed under the fierce opposition of Hungary, Poland and Czechia. Many feared that the divisions over the issue would eventually lead to the break-up of the EU.

It, therefore, came as a relief when on June 29 this year, after marathon talks in Brussels, EU leaders found a way around the problem by agreeing that there should be “a shared effort,” but “only on a voluntary basis.

The breakthrough was particularly im-portant for Merkel. She had come under intense pressure from her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who threatened to close Germany’s borders to asylum seekers who had registered in another EU country – in fact the correct procedure under current EU rules. This created fears of a possible domino effect. Seehofer backed down, at least for now.

“It’s become increasingly clear that Germany’s latest effort to sharpen its policies on migration is more about symbolism than substance,” says Matthew Karnitschnig, chief European correspondent for the multi-media journalism platform Politico, who is based in Berlin. “The coalition’s agreement to turn back refugees on the Austrian border who have applied for asylum in another EU country would apply to just five people per day, so these are not large numbers.”

It is a migration debate driven by politics. Bavaria is holding elections on October 14 and Seehofer, who is also the leader of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, is seeking to regain political capital.

The View from the South

Yet, the realities on the ground in affected countries are often very different from the discourse. In the Western Balkans, there is now talk of a new route, with migrants and refugees hoping to reach EU member Croatia by traveling from Greece across Albania and its northern neighbors Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Since the beginning of this year, we have recorded a significant increase in arrivals in these countries,” says Neven Crvenković of the UNHCR Regional Representation for South Eastern Europe. “Still, the numbers are far below the figures of 2015 and 2016, when around 1 million people transited through the Western Balkans to the EU.” In the first six months of 2018, UNHCR recorded some 2,900 arrivals in Albania, close to 2,000 arrivals in neighboring Montenegro, and 7,600 arrivals in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The humanitarian situation is critical, Crvenković says, especially in the northwestern towns of Velika Kladusa and Bihac, close to the Croatian border. Local police and border guards keep activity under tight control and return many of those who try to cross, sometimes also with disproportionate force. At the time of writing, around 4,000 migrants are stranded there, staying in makeshift shelters or sleeping in ruins and in the fields, without access to running water or toilets. In other parts of the country, the situation is largely under control.

n Italy, the situation is different again. UNHCR recorded a drop in sea arrivals, with 18,340 people arriving in the first seven months of 2018, compared to 95,213 arrivals in 2017. “While we see fewer arrivals, we also notice a worrying trend of relatively more people dying at sea,” says Federico Fossi, a senior public information associate at UNHCR. So far this year, some 1,500 people have already died while trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Also, since the anti-immigration Lega(League) and the populist Movimento 5 Stelle(Five Star Movement) formed a government in Italy at the end of May, the country’s migration policy has changed drastically. Boats carrying migrants are now being denied disembarking rights in Italian ports. The Aquarius, for example, a boat that rescued 630 people at sea, was denied entry by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and was stranded in the Mediterranean for several days, with children and pregnant women on board, before finally being diverted to the Spanish port of Valencia.

“It is extremely worrying to see that people, who have suffered in the desert and in detention centers in Libya, long before being rescued at sea, are not allowed to disembark,” Fossi says. What is needed, he says, are “predictable procedures instead of a case-by-case policy.”

Given the Italian government’s refusal to let boats land, as well as frequent reports of torture in Libyan detention centers, more and more migrants and refugees are looking or alternative routes. One of them seems to be developing According to UNHCR around 19,500 mi-grants have arrived in Spain so far this year, almost as many as arrived there in all of 2017. “There are currently lots of difficulties, particularly for people reaching the southern Spanish coast by sea, as there is no proper infrastructure to attend to them. Some are placed in police stations, others at sports halls, others end up in public squares as there are no available locations to host them,” explains María Jesús Vega, of UNHCR Spain. Still, it’s not an emergency situation, she adds. “We are still far from the figures that Italy or Greece have seen in the last three years.”

Making Migration Work

Given the current situation on the ground and the Austrian focus on security, the challenge will be agreeing on the next steps.

On national level, one of the most pressing issues will be the development of effective integration policies – important to maintain economic stability and social cohesion. Central to this is to “facilitate labor market access for asylum seekers with high prospects of being allowed to stay,” one of the key recommendations of a 2016 report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Klaus Schwertner, secretary general of Caritas Vienna, makes a similar point: “Language and education, as well as the possibility to work or complete an apprenticeship, are decisive factors for sustainable integration.”

“On the European level, the Austrian EU presidency now has to exert pressure so that the European Council decisions on migration adopted on June 28 are actually implement-ed,” Schmidt says. The upcoming EU informal summit on September 20 in Salzburg will offer the perfect opportunity.

© Arno Melicharek

“In theory, there should be a common European interest: to reduce irregular migration and deaths at sea, to protect the right to asylum, to process asylum applications quickly, to return those not in need of protection and to preserve the border-free Schengen zone,” says Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative, who master-minded the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016.

However, Knaus is not optimistic; currently “the EU is too divided to be an effective collective actor.” Actions by coalitions of concerned member states are “more promising,” he says, and could “help member states who come up with constructive proposals to go ahead.”

Christoph Pinter, head of UNHCR in Austria, takes a similar line. “What works best is when a group of states each agree to accept a certain number of refugees via resettlement programs” – something UNHCR has been doing for many years, bringing the most vulnerable people directly from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to the EU.

The main problem is that there are not enough resettlement places available. “All EU states together have offered UNHCR to take in 50,000 refugees via resettlement through the end of 2019,” Pinter says. The trend is good, he says, but if more states would accept refugees “the smugglers would eventually lose the basis of their business model.”

Instead, the overwhelming trend is to protect borders.

“It is my goal that we reach a political agreement on the strengthening of Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency), on an extension of the mandate and make a big step towards a better control of external borders,” Kurz told the Austrian daily Der Standard in June. Concretely, there are plans for EU member states to provide Frontex with 10,000 additional border guards to help control the migration flows.”

“While I, of course, welcome any increase in personnel and equipment, Frontex will also need the necessary time in order to implement this reinforcement as expected,” says Berndt Körner, deputy executive director of the border agency. According to Körner, one of the main challenges will be to recruit and thoroughly train the border guards, to prepare them for what is a very complex and demanding assignment.

“Border control is only one piece of a bigger puzzle,” Körner added. “We have to accept that certain phenomena such as wars, natural disasters and climate change will always lead to migration flows that cannot be stopped by strengthening border control alone. What we need instead are more comprehensive and integrated solutions.”

Finding those solutions and developing the right policies among the 28 EU member states is not an easy task, which is as much about political unity as it is about migration. This will be the ultimate litmus test for the EU, with far-reaching consequences for the continent’s future.

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Born in Salzburg in 1976, Stephanie Liechtenstein studied History of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. After a career at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and jobs in think tanks and journalism, she now works as a freelance journalist in Vienna. Her fields of expertise are multilateral institutions and negotiations, foreign policy, Euro Atlantic security, military security issues and European integration.