The European Migrant Crisis: Background

Although refugees from northern Africa and the Middle East have sought refuge in European countries for decades, the years between 2014 and 2019 saw a massive wave of refugee claims in EU countries. Spurred by the destruction wrought by the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts, a massive wave of people seeking safety and security began to enter the continent in 2014. Littoral southern states like Italy and Greece were rapidly overwhelmed by the number of people making asylum claims, and right-wing populist parties surged across Europe in the face of public fear and animosity towards migrants.

Besides laying bare the deficiencies of the European Union’s system of refugee quotas, the crisis more broadly exposed deep political fault lines throughout the continent as voters and their representatives continue to grapple with the question of who is a refugee, and how they should be dispersed and integrated. While it is a statistical truth that the vast majority of asylum seekers and migrants are non-violent and simply seeking a brighter, more secure future, isolated cases and rumors involving supposed heinous crimes perpetrated by asylum seekers helped to fuel a backlash against accepting migrants.

The crisis-and this fertile atmosphere for acrimony-changed political conditions across Europe. Right-wing and/or anti-liberal politicians in countries like Hungary and Poland (both members of the immigrant-skeptic Visegrád Group) made much hay over refusing to accept new immigrants, the overwhelming majority of whom were equally happy to continue on to France or the UK. Liberal politicians felt (and continue to feel) compelled to take tougher stances against supposed “economic” migrants to head off challenges from the right.

Non-governmental organizations have continued to work to assure the safety of migrants making dangerous Mediterranean crossings via boat, even as European governments have sought in some cases to bar them from-supposedly-encouraging more migration. To these political and structural concerns, add security; the difficulty of tracking millions of migrants from majority-Muslim countries has created new concerns in Brussels, as EU members wrestle with radicalization in teeming ghettos and banlieues whose residents often spend years waiting to be allowed to engage in productive work.

Thus, to understand the last five years-and, one assumes, the next twenty-of the pan-European political conversation, one must engage wholly with the legacy of this migrant crisis. As European leaders have learned to their chagrin, there is no ‘magic bullet’ solution to what is really a series of overlapping crises and issues. Efforts to rationalize EU migrant dispersion are ongoing, as are negotiations with neighboring governments (like those of Turkey or Libya), and initiatives to help rebuild shattered countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Migrant numbers have dropped precipitously in the last few years relative to those before, but any lasting solution must involve a diffuse, multi-polar approach in which residents of EU countries-newly arrived or otherwise-can credibly feel heard and invested.

Further Reading

Asylum statistics courtesy of Eurostat

Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts via the BBC

The Myth of Europe’s Migrant Crisis via Reason

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