You are here

Rethinking fortress Europe

Feb 10,2015 - Last updated at Feb 10,2015

There is something rotten about the European Union’s debate on migration.

The continent’s political leaders, paralysed by the rise of anti-immigrant populism, are turning their backs on desperately vulnerable people fleeing war, human rights abuses and economic collapse.

Nowhere is the human cost of European policies more visible than in the Mediterranean Sea.

The waters between Europe and Africa are the world’s deadliest migration route. Roughly 300,000 people are estimated to have made the crossing in 2014 — more than twice as many as in 2013. Some 3,000 died from drowning, hunger, exposure or asphyxiation. 

Most migrants set out from Libya, which has emerged as the centre of a multimillion-dollar human trafficking industry. 

Until recently, most migrants setting out for Italy made the crossing on small vessels. But in a new twist, Italian authorities at the beginning of this year rescued hundreds of migrants, including pregnant women and dozens of children, aboard an ageing steel-hulled freighter.

The crew had jumped ship.

Given its close proximity to a deadly conflict in Syria and countries marked by extreme poverty, human rights abuses, and weak or collapsed states and economies, the EU is inevitably a magnet for migrants and asylum seekers.

That is why it needs a migration policy that reflects the values on which it was founded.

Unfortunately, respect for human life has taken a backseat to baser political calculations.

Consider Europe’s approach to search and rescue operations.

Last November, Italy suspended its Mare Nostrum rescue operation (which it launched in 2013, after more than 300 migrants drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa), because other EU member states refused to share the costs — some 9 million euros ($10.6 million) a month.

In its place, the EU border agency, Frontex, has begun conducting a limited coastal mission called Operation Triton.

Why the reluctance to share the cost of humanitarian rescue operations?

Senior ministers in the United Kingdom and other northern European countries, relying on little more than armchair behavioural economics, argued that Mare Nostrum encouraged more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing.

In other words, allowing children to drown is a legitimate deterrent.

Back in the real world, the desperation and aspiration driving people to flee outweigh the risks posed by the crossing — meaning that the closure of Mare Nostrum will do nothing to reduce the number of people attempting the journey to Europe. 

But Europe’s debate on migration is so toxic that the forces actually causing people to move are seldom discussed.

According to Frontex, roughly a quarter of the migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 were Syrian families escaping the civil war there.

Young Eritreans — fleeing a country that imposes indefinite military conscription on dissidents — made up another quarter. Many others came from poor, violence prone countries: Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Mali and Nigeria.

Faced with a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, the EU has responded by trying to build a fortress. It has invested heavily in a fenced border between Turkey and Greece.

Amnesty International has documented the widespread practice of pushing back migrants and refugees attempting to cross into Greece and Bulgaria — a practice that contravenes international law.

But the fortress has merely rechannelled, rather than stemmed, the flow of people, forcing migrants and refugees to attempt dangerous sea crossings — even as search and rescue operations are being scaled back.

The only beneficiaries are the human traffickers that charge Syrian refugees some 6,000 euros for space in a dangerous boat or freighter.

The EU’s efforts to develop a coherent approach to the crisis have bordered on farce.

What drives people to Europe is a complex set of forces, ranging from conflict and political persecution to poverty and economic pressures.

Europe’s institutional response is to view all migration as a border-management issue. The EU Commission’s various departments — notably, those that focus on development — are barely consulted.

Meanwhile, the patchwork of national asylum and migration policies makes a cohesive framework impossible to devise. This challenge was reflected in the EU foreign ministers’ recent declaration on migration, which was so vague that it defied practical interpretation.

Correcting these policy failures is made more difficult by the rise of populist political forces.

The National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and far-right anti-immigration parties in Sweden, Denmark and Italy are picking up votes and shutting down informed public debate on a tough policy question that has no easy answers.

Europe desperately needs to have a mature, fact-based conversation about migration. Strict border controls can never be more than one part of the solution to the EU’s migration challenge.

The crises in Syria, Iraq and parts of sub-Saharan Africa are likely to lead to yet more dislocation. Higher fences, more vigilant surveillance and increased policing will not be enough to address the increase in migration that is almost certain to result.

Instead, acting on the EU’s founding values, member states should co-finance a search and rescue operation along the lines of Mare Nostrum; strengthen their efforts to protect the rights of refugees; and share the burden of granting asylum. Germany,

France, the United Kingdom and Sweden took in 70 per cent of those granted refugee status in the EU last year. Others — notably Spain — need to do more.

Wider responses are also needed.

For example, more coherent and generous approaches to the provision of temporary work visas would benefit both migrants and Europeans.

And EU member states could use their aid budgets to provide greater support for the Syrian refugees living in dire circumstances in neighbouring countries. The lesson of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean is clear: fortress Europe is not working. The EU must map out a new approach. When it does, its own values will be the best guide.

The writer is executive director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a leading UK think tank on international development and humanitarian issues. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

67 users have voted.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.