As the culmination of this semester’s research efforts, this white paper post seeks to serve as an authoritative guide on the European migration crisis, while addressing some of the key issues and policymakers’ efforts so far to address the same. Understanding the politico-cultural responses to the crisis, among the various peoples of the European Union and their elected officials & policymakers, furnishes a better understanding of the kind of migratory waves that are likely to become more common with the increasing disparity in global incomes & demographic pressures caused by heightened levels of climate change.
The European migration crisis has its roots in a variety of causes, ranging from the uneasy relationship between Europeans and postwar guest workers, to chronic instability in the Near and Middle East. As we learned in the background post, the crisis occurred chiefly between 2014 and 2019. Fueled by a variety of push & pull factors-instability on the Mediterranean periphery, relatively attractive European welfare systems, and chronic structural issues in the European Union, to name a few-this wave of migration culminated in a material & political crisis that the continent will continue to grapple with for years. Some key figures:
- As late as 2019, over 200,000 people under the age of 18 applied for asylum in EU countries
- In the same year, EU member states granted asylum protections to 300,000 people
- Over the duration of the crisis years (2014-2019), over 16,000 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean (Eurostat)
Europeans-and the world-were thus witness to scenes of mass chaos from the southern states, alongside an increasingly vociferous debate over the morality and legality of helping or not helping these migrants. Debates over the official position of NGO’s assisting migrants in Italian waters, in particularly, have focused on whether organizations pulling drowning migrants out of the water have actually encouraged higher rates of migration-and thus of deaths.
Countries in central Europe and the Balkans made an early point of establishing strong border controls, in contravention of the rules creating the visa-free Schengen travel area. Wealthier northwestern countries have been torn between preaching tolerance and attempting to avert political backlash domestically, especially on the populist right. In the United Kingdom in particular, a populist ‘uprising’ against migration and migrants was an important element of the narrowly victorious campaign to depart the European Union.
Although the massive crush of people moving to the north and west would likely have overwhelmed any set of countries, some of the European Union’s unique shortcomings were exposed during the crisis. Of particular controversy to this day is the Dublin Regulation, a piece of EU law codifying the requirement for asylum applicants and migrants to seek shelter in the first EU country they enter. Given the littoral placement of Greece, Italy, and a few other unfortunate southern European countries this meant that a massive share of the burden fell on them.
While the economic difficulties that have plagued southern Europe since the Great Recession mean even a smaller increase in refugee numbers would likely have proved difficult to handle, in the face of the numbers reached during the peak years Mediterranean European countries were utterly unable & unwilling to even attempt holding all refugees in place per the Dublin Regulation. Instead, many were allowed-or allegedly encouraged-to move north, allowance that few needed. The end result was a massive wave of refugees-particularly in the richer EU member states to the north and west-to whom these states did not have to extend protection. Thus, the enduring controversy surrounding refugee quotas, EU enforcement mechanisms, etc.
The challenges posed to policymakers by this brouhaha include the impetus the crisis gave to nationalist politicians. From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Andrzej Duda in Poland, right-wing and anti-immigrant individuals & groups enjoyed a moment in the political sun at the height of the crisis, and still hold sway in many EU countries. Even in scenarios where the political onslaught was mostly staved off-as in the UK-more mainstream parties felt compelled to offer serious concessions to the anti-migrant lobby. While the apogee of the success of parties like the UK’s UKIP has almost certainly passed, the lingering energies they helped to unleash remain a potent force for disruption to many of the cozy political institutions across the continent.
Perhaps the longer-lasting damage will be most felt within the institutions of the European Union, the crisis management capabilities of which were found fairly lacking during the bad, early years of the crisis. Beyond the damage done to popular trust in European institutions among citizens of countries that were particularly affected, the crisis exposed serious trust issues among the various factions and national leaders on the continent.
The so-called Visegrád Group of countries, or V4-Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary, & Poland-emerged amid the crisis as a semi-coherent bloc, sharing as they did governments with a healthy sense of Euro-skepticism and hostility towards migrants. Hungary and Poland in particular have enjoyed close ties in recent years, and have even collaborated on attempts to establish parallel, and more pliable, human rights institutions (Al Jazeera, 2020). The criticisms of similarly populist politicians across the continent were an easy sell to a wary public, especially given the way in which this multi-faceted crisis necessitated a similarly diffuse set of responses.
The European Union’s responses to the migrant crisis included a few key planks. One of the most crucial-and most controversial-was the system of refugee quotas. Dating to before the crisis, this quota system proved inadequate at first when confronted with the sheer number of refugees. Due to the Dublin Regulation, the quotas were the only method by which more-affected countries like Italy & Greece could relieve some of the burden of caring for so many, and once they were exhausted no recourse was left.
Efforts to raise quotas beyond the voluntary increase taken on by some leaders-notably German chancellor Angela Merkel-foundered in the face of severe opposition from politicians in the V4 countries and beyond. This brouhaha led not just to an entrenchment of anti-migrant and anti-EU sentiment in parts of the continent, but also exposed the EU’s general inability to compel members to take actions not clearly spelled out in accession treaties and the like. While this impotence was not necessarily a new revelation to informed observers, the naked helplessness of the EU political class was more than enough to permanently puncture its reputation across the continent-and world.
Beyond internal action to share the load, European policymakers also belatedly began to address the security issues on the continent’s periphery that helped spur the crisis. Key to the response was engaging with the situation in Libya-engulfed in conflict and a civil war since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi-and fighting the people smugglers who sent thousands over the years across the Mediterranean in flimsy dinghies. These efforts have included working to restore law & order on the Libyan coast and more generally to stabilize the country, although the disputed legitimacy of the two competing claimants to the Libyan government have made this more difficult.
Another key facet of the European response to the crisis was engaging with Turkey-bordering war torn Syria-and working to stop migrants from ever reaching the rest of Europe. While this strategy has often been condemned by those worried about Ankara’s commitment to human rights (or lack thereof) and the political trade off has been difficult to sell to the European public, the deals forged between the EU and Turkey helped to stem the tide of Syrians moving north and west. In future, the greater danger for policymakers may be posed by Turkey’s newfound ability to threaten a new migrant crisis as leverage in trade negotiations.
Finally Syria itself: the situation there remains grim, as dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to wage a punitive war of attrition against a wide range of rebel groups. The conditions that produced thousands & thousands of Syrian refugees have not abated, although parts of the country-having been firmly put under control by government forces-have become marginally safer in terms of day-to-day life. While the eventual resolution of the civil war is likely-the government looks unbeatable in the long run at this point-it is still unclear whether the initial postwar era will see further ethnic or sectarian violence the likes of which has created myriad refugee crises in recent years. The threat posed by fundamentalist Islamic groups like ISIL also lingers, despite a multinational campaign against them.
As is obvious to anyone reading the daily news, conditions in the countries near Europe remain risky and chaotic. A combination of the above diplomatic & administrativeapproaches and the passage of time brought an official end to the crisis in 2019, but the structural and public relations damage remains visible. Recent rows over the EU budget have highlighted continuing issues with forcing recalcitrant governments like those of Hungary and Poland to cooperate to any degree. Tensions between Turkey and Greece (aided by France) raise the specter of the government in Ankara reneging on all deals relating to housing refugees. The conflict in Syria still has yet to end, and the ongoing pandemic is likely to lead to further geopolitical instability like that which pushed millions to flee their homes.
As outlined elsewhere on this blog, I believe the only concrete path forward is a combination of a more rewarding set of subsidies for taking in migrants, and stiffer penalties for anyone refusing to abide by EU rules beyond the point of reasonable dissension. While the fears of bureaucrats in Brussels regarding the Union splintering now seem passe, the long-term implications for the Union if bad actors cannot be reigned in are fairly concerning. Union members have already splintered at various times over heated debates, but this more recent trend seems to have longer lasting implications.
Beyond the actual nuts and bolts of the EU processes under discussion, the bloc’s policymakers have serious perception problems that were laid bare by the migrant crisis. The crisis deepened divides among EU leaders; between the ‘tightfisted’ north and the ‘greedy’ south, between the ‘intolerant’ east and the ‘cultural marxist’ west. But perhaps the greater danger is the way in which the crisis laid bare those divisions for the average EU citizen. Breathless reporting from the front lines in the Adriatic, heightened coverage of crimes committed by young male migrants, screaming matches in the European Parliament; attempting to promote European unity becomes vastly more difficult when Europe screams its division behind you.
Moving forward, European policymakers will have to continue carefully balancing the various issues that, combined, engendered the migrant crisis. Continued action will be required at home and abroad, in the European Parliament and at the local & district levels as leaders work to restore public confidence in the Union’s function-ideally without adopting inhumane policies towards migrants as a sop to populist opinion. Ultimately the migrant crisis presents more questions than answers, and more problems than solutions. Only a similarly diffuse, multi-faceted, and long-term set of responses will serve to mitigate future upheaval.
Asylum statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_statistics
Council of Europe. (2016, December 06). Country responsible for asylum application (Dublin). Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/asylum/examination-of-applicants_en
Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts. (2016, March 4). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911
Tharoor, I. (2020, September 30). Analysis | Turkey and Russia preside over a new age of mercenary wars. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/09/30/armenians-azerbaijan-turkey-russia-clashes/
Zigismund, M. (2020, September 15). The Myth of Europe’s Migrant Crisis. Retrieved from https://reason.com/2020/09/15/the-myth-of-europes-migrant-crisis/