Europe does battle again with the demons of migration

No end in sight. Migrants wait to board a bus during the evacuation of a makeshift camp in La Villette Park in Paris, August 28.

No end in sight. Migrants wait to board a bus during the evacuation of a makeshift camp in La Villette Park in Paris, August 28. (AFP)

Direct investment in countries that produce the most migrants is a strategically smart idea.

A new migration plan soon goes before EU ministers. It’s already been agreed to in principle by Finland, France, Germany, Italy and Malta, all of which said they would automatically accept an equitable share of migrants rescued at sea.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer pledged that Germany would take in 25% of those saved. The hope and expectation are that other countries share responsibility.

That, however, may be unrealistic, considering that the European Union is facing resistance to unified and collaborative action on a more anodyne issue by far — climate policy.

Piotr Naimski, Poland’s chief strategic energy adviser, recently said Poland would not meet the EU goal of cutting net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and that other European countries should share responsibility instead. Poland is the biggest of four EU countries that refused in June to sign up to the bloc’s goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

Migration is a more emotive issue than carbon neutrality and the European Union is seeking to strike a difficult balance on migrants. How to allow access to people genuinely fleeing persecution and violence in other parts of the world without creating a counter-current that encourages economic migrants to use any means possible to get to the European Union on the pretext of seeking refuge?

There are two obvious steps, both badly needed and long overdue.

First, the Dublin regulation must be fixed expeditiously. This rule requires migrants to apply for asylum in the first EU country they physically enter and nowhere else. This generally means countries on the geographical front line of the migrant flow — Greece, Italy, Spain — are left to deal with the issue as best they can, always and forever.

Geography, as has been said, is destiny. What this means, the way things are set up, is that the front-line countries feel permanently beleaguered and permanently aggrieved, with all the attendant consequences for domestic political opportunism and grandstanding. We’ve already seen the results of this in Italy, with the rise of Matteo Salvini’s League party.

The situation is not quite the same in Spain but there is no saying it won’t, or can’t, change. After all, Spain is about 7 nautical miles from Africa at the nearest point and, consequently, a magnet for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Think of Greece, with mounting unrest around the overflowing refugee camps on its Aegean islands. At least 45,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Greece this year, mostly by sea. That’s more than half of the 77,000 refugees and other migrants who crossed into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa region in 2019.

Rejigging the Dublin regulation must be a priority. It would restore a sense of equilibrium and fair play among EU members with respect to migration. It would also lower the political temperature around the issue.

The second meaningful fix for migrants to Europe is about process. More resources need to be allocated to the speedy processing of asylum applications and for failed claimants to be deported as quickly as possible. That can only happen if Europe takes a holistic approach towards relationships to the home countries of the failed claimants.

Claus Sorensen, former director-general of the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department, suggested that this is possible if the European Union mobilises “all its foreign-policy instruments, including development assistance and investment funds and initiatives in security, trade, energy, agriculture, fisheries, climate action, air transport and health.”

Unfortunately, many of the countries that haemorrhage people are afflicted with corruption and governance issues but there’s no other way than to engage. That’s not strictly a quid pro quo, more a way of signalling benign intent and recognition that collaboration gets better results than cudgels.

Direct investment in countries that produce the most migrants is a strategically smart idea. So is the creation of a system that allows for easier legal short-term migration to Europe through scholarships and streamlined visas.

Sudanese-British billionaire Mo Ibrahim recently made this point during a debate on global inequality at a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Goalkeepers event in New York. The migration issue needs less hysteria and more European strategic planning, he said.

“People need to understand in this global world we all depend upon each other. In Europe, there is hysteria about migration. The best way to deal with migration is not by having this armada of military boats in the Mediterranean but creating jobs in Africa,” Ibrahim said.

If Europe’s renewed battle with the demons of migration is to succeed, it must identify the demons — it’s not the migrants themselves but the iniquitous systems that force them to leave home and deal with them on foreign shores.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly