Every summer, the number of illegal migrants arriving on European shores increases. This year has seen the largest rise ever, with the usual numbers swollen by people unsettled by poverty and conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Securing Europe’s vast land and sea borders—a task greater than that faced by the United States along its border with Mexico—is proving exceptionally challenging for the European Union (EU). This state of affairs is sharpening disputes between Europe’s mainstream politicians and right-wing figures, who campaigned in last May’s EU elections on an anti-immigrant platform, scoring remarkable victories especially in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Illegal migrants are inherently difficult to count, but according to Frontex, the EU border agency, 2014 is shaping up to be one of the biggest years in decades for illegal arrivals to Europe. From January to August, about 107,000 undocumented migrants crossed the Mediterranean into Italy, suggesting that the total illegal arrivals for 2014 could eclipse the 141,000 who arrived at Europe’s borders in the first year of the Arab Spring. In Greece, migrant arrivals by sea reached 25,000 in the first six months of 2014; this is more than double the number for the same period of 2013—and this number only covers those migrants who were picked up by the Greek police.
Apart from the central Mediterranean route, illegal migration over land has also increased. Greece has tried putting in place a fence along its border with Turkey, an important land crossing point for migrants coming from Asia and Africa. This has increased illegal arrivals in Bulgaria to the point that Sofia has asked the EU for help with the roughly 4,000 asylum-seekers who have overwhelmed its existing facilities. Hungary detected a sharp increase in illegal crossings at its border with Serbia as visa restrictions were relaxed in the Balkans, and rumors that Germany was favoring Chechen asylum applications caused a spike in the numbers of Chechens seeking to enter the EU illegally.
Several reasons seem to account for the jump in illegal arrivals. First, Mare Nostrum, the Italian government’s $12 million a month maritime search-and-rescue operation was launched in October 2013, after 350 plus illegal migrants drowned off the island of Lampedusa. The prospect of being rescued by the Italians seems to have made the treacherous sea crossing all the more appealing to prospective migrants. Second, the main route to Europe through Libya was closed, and migrants remained in sub-Saharan countries for a couple of years, waiting for the first opportunity to move into Europe. Third, illegal immigration, which has generally been big business for organized crime, has become even more lucrative since the onset of the Arab Spring. Traffickers use small boats to reduce the chances of being picked up by patrol boats’ radars; migrants are often dropped off on stretches of inaccessible coastline, or left to drift ashore. In the case of illegal land crossings, small trucks are used to penetrate the most porous parts of eastern or southern Europe’s borders. Penalties for this are low or non-existent all around Europe, and traffickers are rarely caught anyway. Smuggling people across Europe has become easier and more profitable than anything other criminal activity, including drugs.
While it remains to be seen whether the 2014 illegal immigration numbers imply that arrivals will continue at these record rates, the current situation is putting a significant strain on the countries that sit on the immigration front lines—particularly Italy.
Seventy percent of all EU asylum applications are filed in Italy, whereas Germany, Sweden, France and Britain together account for the remaining 30 percent of requests. Italy’s repeated calls for more EU involvement in dealing with the Mediterranean influx of illegal immigrants have been fruitless so far, even considering the external border surveillance system known as EUROSUR (due to become operational in December 2014, but believed to lack “muscle,” such as provisions for more sea patrols in dangerous waters).
Angelino Alfano, the Italian Interior Minister, warned the rest of the EU: “We want to clearly say to the EU that they either patrol the Mediterranean border with us or we will send all those who ask for asylum in Italy where they really want to go: that is, the rest of Europe, because they don’t want to stay in Italy.” Alfano was referring to the Dublin Regulation, which states that migrants must remain in the country in which they arrive until their status as refugees is decided. This regulation has been under attack from the EU Mediterranean states for its lack of financial and political solidarity from northern, richer EU members. Nevertheless, it has remained unchanged since its inception in 2013, and it is unlikely to change anytime soon.
This is unfortunate, because Alfano has a point. It is well known that the appeal of Europe for illegal migrants rests primarily on the EU’s rich countries, and that the majority of migrants themselves see countries like Italy or Greece simply as waystations, not final destinations.
Many illegals go to France. In 2013, France received 66,000 requests for asylum, of which authorities granted fewer than 12,000. The public’s “fear of invasion” has increased, fueled by the fact that France has some of the worst estimates of how many undocumented migrants actually live within its borders. Those who are refused asylum often stay on illegally, or try to make their way further north. The port city of Calais is the favored destination for people hoping to get to the UK. Britain’s generous welfare system is a magnet for illegal migrants, but the UK does not belong to Schengen, so it has no obligation to offer asylum and generally sends them back to France. In the first six months of 2014, some 7,500 undocumented migrants were arrested in Calais, more than double the 3,000 detained in the same period in 2013.
Many others head to Sweden, which is, among EU countries, particularly welcoming to illegals or asylum-seekers. In 2013, Sweden became the first EU country to grant permanent residence to all its Syrian refugees, in addition to granting asylum to 12.5 percent of the EU’s 435,000 asylum seekers. Sweden’s generosity was widely lauded; critics, however, argued that the burden of dealing with higher volumes of migrants is translating into waiting times of up to a year for asylum-application interviews in Swedish embassies. It is also leading many to adopt the mistaken perception that Sweden grants asylum to anyone, which could make an already difficult situation even worse.
EU citizens benefit enormously from their ability to move freely between countries. However, if the burden of illegal migration isn’t shared more evenly across Europe, Schengen itself could unravel, to the detriment of all. To date, there is no mechanism to enable an automatic sharing of refugees within the 28 EU members, and calls for a review of these policies are regularly shot down by countries that are less affected by the problem. The burden of catching and dealing with illegal migrants should not lie with certain countries simply because they happen to be en route to a “preferred” country within the EU.
There are several ideas currently under discussion about how to share the burden: distributing migrants among states in proportion to population; forcing member states that have few asylum-seekers take more of them; creating more mobility partnerships, such as those that already exist with Morocco (2013), Armenia (2011), Georgia (2009), Moldova (2008), and Cape Verde (2008). Mobility partnerships provide a non-legally binding framework for migrants to enter the EU to do specific jobs, generally low skilled ones, for a few months at a time, after which time they are sent home.
Similar migration management programs have been tried before in Europe, and they did bring the hoped-for benefits. Germany’s Gastarbeiter scheme began in 1955, drawing workers from southern Europe, North Africa, and Turkey. France and the Netherlands did something similar for workers from North Africa. Yet, These earlier programs didn’t seem well suited to the limited flexibility of Europe’s labor markets, employers’ interest in keeping temporary workers in place to avoid having to train new ones, and workers’ willingness either to keep their jobs or to move on to better ones rather than returning to their country of origin. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the temporary workers who arrived in northern Europe from Turkey and North Africa in the 1960s and 1970s never left.
In spite of a “mixed” record, the most recent mobility partnerships are showing promising results so far. The migrants who arrived in the EU have gone back to their countries of origin as agreed. Negotiations aimed at similar agreements with Azerbaijan have begun, and discussions are underway with Tunisia and Jordan.
There’s one problem with these programs, however: They might not be the kind of solution many Europeans are in the mood for.
The immigration debate played a large part in elections for the European Parliament last May, bolstering the political fortunes of conservative parties in several countries, including Britain, Denmark, France, and Hungary. In France, the right-wing National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, promised to cut the annual number of immigrants to 10,000 down from 200,000, arguing that uncontrolled immigration was a source of tensions in a country that doesn’t seem to be able to effectively assimilate new citizens. Concerns about illegal immigration have prompted some politicians, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, to call for the overhauling the EU’s current visa-free zone. In spite of these mounting pressures to tighten immigration policies, Europe’s leaders remain wary of even having an open discussion that could lead to the undermining of the free movement of citizens, which is one of the EU’s founding principles.
In Britain, Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, claimed that migration from the EU’s most impoverished countries was spiraling out of control and warned of a likely “immigrant invasion” after labor restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians in nine EU countries, including Britain, France, and Germany, were lifted. Inevitably, the recent surge of illegal arrivals created the perception, fueled by the media and the far-right, that the UK was facing a migrant invasion, and that immigration therefore needed to be a key issue in the UK’s general election in 2015. In Denmark, voters are asking for a reconsideration of former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s 2011 proposal to re-fortify the country’s borders with Germany and Sweden. (This should come as no surprise, as Denmark is the European country most hostile to mass immigration.)
In spite of Farage’s and LePen’s views and the strong sentiments of voters in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium, the EU might not be able to afford to be too choosy about who is and isn’t allowed inside its borders. Demographic and economic realities point to the need for more, not less, migration. Without migrants, the EU’s aging population would already be declining, and its economies, which increasingly demand either highly skilled workers or people willing to take on low skilled jobs, would be suffering even more than they already are. (Young Europeans seem to lack either the skills or motivation to fill these spots.) As long as such asymmetries persist, EU migration policymakers will continue face an almost impossible task as the numbers of legal and illegal migrants rise.