Missing the Boat: Europe’s Failed Migration Policy

By Jeff Crisp
Maltese police tend to a migrant child at Valletta's Marsamxett harbor. Reuters Photo/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Just a few years ago, the countries of the European Union (EU) thought they were finally getting control over the flow of refugees and asylum seekers across their borders. Having peaked at 670,000 in 1992, the number of asylum applications submitted in the EU fell rapidly in successive years, slumping to just 200,000 in 2006.

But that trend did not last. Today, the European migration scenario has changed dramatically, taking EU governments by surprise. Agreeing on a coordinated, effective, and humane response is imperative, but so far the leaders of Europe have failed to do so.

In 2005, the EU established FRONTEX, a body responsible for coordinating the border control activities of member states. One of the first FRONTEX operations was designed to shut down maritime migration from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands.

That initiative was a success, at least from the EU’s point of view. In 2006, more than 31,000 irregular migrants reached the Canary Islands. By 2009, that figure had fallen to just over 2,000. Subsequently, FRONTEX was expanded to cover other major migration routes in the Mediterranean and the Balkans.

Action was also being taken at the bilateral level to limit the arrival of asylum seekers and irregular migrants. In 2008, for example, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi struck a deal that enabled Italy to turn back boats departing from Libya without considering the asylum claims of the passengers. The year after this accord was signed, the number of people arriving in Italy by boat fell by 75 percent.

Those reductions, however, were soon reversed. The rot started in Greece, which in 2010 witnessed a sudden surge in the number of people arriving by irregular means, primarily from the Middle East and Afghanistan. In January 2011, FRONTEX reported that 38,000 undocumented travelers had crossed the country’s eastern border in the previous six months.

Coinciding with the Greek financial crisis, this influx threw the country’s weak asylum system into complete disarray and sparked a humanitarian crisis. Large numbers of people – including pregnant women and families – were held in cramped detention centers and police stations, while others had to sleep on the streets. The United Nations observed at the time that the situation was one that “should not exist in the European Union.”

In the following two years, the EU’s asylum and migration system has unraveled even further and the number of boats arriving from North Africa has surged. Many who are attempting to cross are Eritreans, escaping military conscription and human rights abuses in their homeland. In previous years, many of them would have traveled overland to Israel. But at the beginning of 2013, the Israeli government completed a $400 million border fence with Egypt, obliging those Eritreans to head for Europe.

Violence caused by Arab Spring has also prompted tens of thousands of people to seek refuge in Europe. Tunisians, Libyans, and Syrians have all made the journey, and there are reports that Egyptians may join them in the near future, exhausted as they are by violence and political turmoil at home.

The Arab uprisings have also undermined migration controls in many parts of North Africa. The lawlessness now engulfing Libya, for example, has allowed it to become a hotbed of human smuggling.

So what can the EU and its member states do to address this crisis? The temptation will be to clamp down on the arrival of refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants through more restrictions on travel, stronger border controls, greater surveillance, and new repatriation agreements with transit countries. 

But this would be a mistaken approach in many respects. It would violate the right of individuals to seek and enjoy asylum in another state. It would put more pressure on border countries like Italy and Bulgaria that are ill-equipped to deal with the influx. And it would send a very negative message to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, which have accepted more than two million Syrian refugees with minimal help from Europe.

There are no quick and easy answers to Europe’s asylum and migration dilemma, but some constructive steps could be taken.

First, the region should keep its borders open, ensuring that people from refugee-producing countries can reach EU territory and access fair and thorough asylum procedures. Asylum seekers who arrive without the necessary identity and travel documents should not be penalized.

Second, Europe should generously support those countries which are bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, thereby making it possible for refugees to remain there in safety and dignity.

Third, the EU should provide ways for asylum seekers to enter safely and legally, and also permit them to remain for as long as they need protection. This could include humanitarian admission and refugee resettlement programs, simplified visa and family reunion procedures, and labor migration opportunities.

Fourth, concerted action is required to shut down unscrupulous human smugglers and warn prospective asylum seekers against relying on them. Even if this eliminates one of the few means by which vulnerable people can enter Europe, it will prevent many desperate individuals from losing their money and their lives.

Finally, the countries of Europe, which generally enjoy high levels of democracy, human rights, stability, and prosperity, must use every asset their disposal to ensure that people in other countries can benefit from the same conditions. Leaving your own country should always be a choice and never a necessity.