21 April 2015

EU leaders to hold emergency migration summit later this week

Migration policy has tragically jumped to the top of EU leaders’ agenda after over a thousand people lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean and reach European shores during the past week. EU leaders will hold an emergency summit on Thursday. They will have no shortage of questions to answer.

What are the issues at stake?

Unsurprisingly, migration policy is a hugely sensitive (and divisive) topic at the EU level. There are at least three different angles to it:

Search-and-rescue operations Last November, the EU’s border agency Frontex launched a joint operation called Triton – whose primary focus is border management. Triton has replaced Mare Nostrum, a fully-fledged search-and-rescue operation whose burden was borne entirely by the Italian Navy. Compared to Mare Nostrum, Triton has no search-and-rescue mandate. It also has a much smaller budget (€2.9 million a month compared to over €9 million) and a reduced operational scope – as it only patrols waters within 30 miles from Italian coasts.

The week before Mare Nostrum ended, the UK Government announced that it would not fund future EU-wide search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, arguing that such missions act as an unintended ‘pull factor’ for migrants. This point had previously also been made by Cecilia Malmström, when she was still EU Home Affairs Commissioner. However, the fact that thousands are still leaving from Northern African coasts despite Mare Nostrum no longer being in place appears to have proven this argument wrong. The point is that, unless politicians are actually prepared to let the boats sink, these migrants’ lives become Europe’s responsibility.

Schengen and Dublin – The existence of the passport-free Schengen travel area means that non-EU migrants who manage to illegally enter one EU country can potentially move across the bloc without further border checks. In other words, all EU member states have an interest in the EU’s southern (Italy) and south-eastern (Greece) borders being controlled properly. As regards asylum seekers more specifically, the EU’s Dublin Regulation allows member states to send them back to the country of entry. The Dublin system is creaking, though. In 2013, for instance, the European Court of Justice told Germany not to transfer an Iranian refugee back to Greece – suggesting that he would have faced “a real risk of being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment” due to detention conditions there.

Burden-sharing Compulsory burden-sharing of asylum seekers at the EU level is a long-standing European Commission ambition, but remains a non-starter due to the lack of political appetite among some EU countries. At the moment, the distribution is actually quite uneven. The graph below shows the number of asylum applicants per thousand inhabitants in selected EU countries.

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What short-term measures can be taken?

Priority clearly needs to be given to tackling the humanitarian emergency. This is likely to require more funding, assets and manpower, as well as a wider operational scope for the EU’s Triton mission as a first step at this stage. Southern EU countries should then be assisted in processing asylum applications – and potentially in repatriating those who turn out to be illegal economic migrants. A ‘no ifs, no buts’ crackdown on migrant smugglers also needs to happen as quickly as possible. Encouragingly, the European Commission has addressed these and other issues in its ten-point plan that will be discussed by EU leaders on Thursday.

What are the longer term solutions?

Looking at the longer term, what are the options available to both reduce the number of boats leaving and deal more effectively with non-EU migrants’ arrivals? Here are a few ideas – none of them would be easy to put in practice:

Firstly, improve accessibility to the legal migration and asylum application process from outside the EU. The EU could look at establishing off-shore reception and return centres, much as Australia has done. To some extent, the effectiveness of such a scheme would depend on EU member states’ willingness to accept migrants and asylum seekers, or face the prospect of permanently funding large off-shore migration centres. Burden-sharing at the EU level will likely remain a no-go for some time. Indeed, groups of EU member states that wish to do so could launch voluntary burden-sharing schemes for the relocation of refugees. Money could also be shifted from the EU’s structural funds – which have largely failed to generate growth in the Southern European economies – towards a new funding stream explicitly targeted at helping EU border countries cope with illegal migration. Open Europe floated this idea already in 2012.

Secondly, make EU aid under the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) conditional on Northern African countries doing more to curb illegal migration to the EU. These countries could help in a number of ways: do a better job of controlling their own borders, seize and destroy smugglers’ vessels, take part in search-and-rescue missions, and so forth. The problem with this approach – as the EU found prior to the ‘Arab Spring’ – is that, while this can be an effective means of limiting illegal immigration, it often involves dealing with unsavoury regimes. In 2008-2009, Italy established cooperation with Libya, which seemed to have an effect on reducing the number of migrants travelling by boat but meant being reprimanded by the United Nations for failing to safeguard the rights of migrants.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, create a zone of stability around Europe’s borders. Now, this is clearly a lot easier said than done. But an important aspect must be to increase trade between the EU and its neighbours – a point Open Europe made in its ENP paper back in 2011. Although clearly not a short-term measure, boosting free trade is the most effective way to boost prosperity, particularly in those countries that neighbour the EU on its southern border. This would in turn reduce the incentive for people to risk their lives to reach Europe.

Former UK International Development Andrew Mitchell has put it quite neatly in a letter to The Times today,

In the longer term, Europe will have to assist more in the development of the countries of North Africa. Southern Europe will have to choose between taking their goods and services or continuing to take their people.

Andrew Mitchell MP – Letter to The Times, 21 April 2015

The truth is there’s no easy answer, but doing nothing is not an option. The proposals above are by no means an exhaustive list, but they illustrate that the EU and its member nations need to look at longer-term solutions that encompass development, trade and foreign policy.