Europe’s response to the migration issue

From Europe’s populists, there is no recognition of the sheer desperation that drives people to make dangerous choices.
Sunday 03/06/2018
Syrian refugees move towards a police truck to be transferred to a reception centre near the village of Nea Vyssa in Greece, on May 2. (Reuters)
Syrian refugees move towards a police truck to be transferred to a reception centre near the village of Nea Vyssa in Greece, on May 2. (Reuters)

Whether it is French President Emmanuel Macron receiving a Malian illegal migrant at the Elysee Palace to honour him for rescuing a toddler from near death or Hungary pondering new constitutional restrictions on migrants and asylum seekers, every week in Europe brings migration-related front-page news.

In central Europe, in particular, migration is a catalyst for the rise of populism. Governments in Hungary, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have adopted a high-decibel approach to the issue of outsiders.

Austria’s conservative chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, for instance, recently called on Frontex, the European border protection agency, to operate from within North Africa. By the Austrian leader’s reasoning, Frontex agents should no longer just patrol the borders of the Schengen area of 26 European states with a common visa policy. Instead, Frontex must operate in countries outside the European Union as well to “stop illegal migrants on the external borders, tend to them and then ideally send them immediately back to their home country or transit country.”

At best, this is an unworkable plan. The Maghreb countries are doing their best to curb the unceasing flow of illegal migrants. They are unlikely to relinquish sovereignty over border control to European patrols.

The same issues were raised by human rights groups about Italy’s 9-month-old naval mission, which is supposed to assist the Libyan Coast Guard in the “fight against illegal immigration and human smuggling.”

The arbitrary and unsafe detention of migrants after interception by European border patrols is not an acceptable option.

Despite resistance from the rest of the European Union and from Austria’s opposition parties, Austria’s conservative government has declared its intention to slash benefits to refugees. It plans to do this by introducing German language proficiency as a condition to receive assistance from the state.

The Austrian stance on migration will have a ripple effect in Europe. In July, Austria takes over the rotating presidency of the European Council. It will be in a good place to influence the European Union’s agenda. It’s entirely likely that Vienna will seek to bolster the policies espoused by its ideological brothers in government across central Europe.

Meanwhile, the tragedy of lives lost and the demonisation of a whole people continues. The United Nations said 636 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. That figure represents a painful reality -- the pitiful hopes nursed by far too many for a better life. That figure includes the 383 who drowned en route from North Africa to Italy and the 217 who died as they headed from the shores of the Maghreb to Spain.

Yet, from Europe’s populists, there is no recognition of the sheer desperation that drives people to make dangerous choices.

Even so, it’s worth noting one positive trend in this tragic story: The migration flow is ebbing. Arrivals via the Mediterranean are less than half of last year. To be sure, thousands still make the perilous journey. In fact, approximately 26,000 made the dangerous crossing to Europe in the first 136 days of 2018. However, the numbers are definitely falling.

Of course, they are not likely to zero out any time soon. The Middle East and Africa offer limited job prospects and few opportunities to their overwhelmingly youthful populations. The Libyan crisis, with its myriad complexities, will continue. The May 29 Paris meeting brought together four key Libyan leaders and produced an ambitious plan for national elections in December that will not be easy to implement but a sustainable formula for ending strife and restoring government authority will have to be eventually found there.

Europe’s politicians should explore long-term solutions that address the root of the problem, not just expedient responses. Some of the real solutions have to do with helping establish the conditions for peace, stability and economic opportunity in Africa and the Arab world.

Part of the solution could be to expand legal channels for temporary migration to Europe. That would work to mutual benefit. As the leading French socialist MP Valerie Rabault points out, France needs 300,000 migrants a year and a total of 10 million by 2040. The new arrivals are “indispensable to regenerate the population,” she says.

Organised migration could be in the common interest of both shores of the Mediterranean.

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