Immigration/Social Policy

Migrants: Europe’s Defining Crisis this Century

September 15 2015 - by Dr. Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly,  Director of the European Union Centre of Excellence & Jean Monnet Center of Excellence, University of Victoria

This current migration crisis represents the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War; it is forcing Europeans to face their past and future issues; and the decisions they make will either give way to xenophobic ills or rejuvenate the 21st century Europe. 

In recent years, all of the member states of the European Union, whether from the east or the west, the south or the northern parts of Europe, have become reasonably attractive to economic - legal or illegal - migrants. For instance, Germany has become a land of opportunity in the Middle and Far East. But since 2014, the flows of economic immigrants and migrants have turned into flows of refugees as asylum seekers attempt to enter Europe continually. These flows have increased tenfold over the last 12 months: between July 2014 and July 2015 the number of registered entries into the EU increased from 6000 to 50,000 Since the beginning of this year, about 350,000 people have crossed the European Union's southern and peripheral member states' borders. By the end of the year, the European Union is expecting that its member states will have welcomed about 1 million refugees; of these 800,000 will enter into Germany and 100,000 into Sweden.

In North America, we have been linking this humanitarian crisis to the Syrian conflict; and many experts think this is a European crisis only. This is only partly true. First of all, rather than having a single cause, the crisis is linked to a number of geopolitical events: the Syrian civil war, four waterless years in the Middle East and Africa's eastern states south of the Sahara, a geopolitical instability that has emerged after the 2003-2011 Iraqi war, are all contributing factors.  Compounding this, is the blatant inertia on the part of the international community in the face of the four-year Syrian crisis that has led to 3 millions refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.  Indeed, the international response shows that this is far from a European issue only: For instance, in 2011 and 2012, European leaders asked the United Nations for an international intervention in Syria, but their position was opposed in the UN security council by Russia (which has a sea/base in Tartus, Syria) and China. In addition, Iran allegedly supported Syria's Assad regime financially with at least $9 billion in aid.  Finally, the current situation is also a North American problem, if only because of the political inertia of Europe's allies, but also because of the instability that this produces which will have inevitable spillover effects into global economic and geopolitical relations.

As a result, one cannot analyse the immigration situation as we did even a few weeks ago. Until July 2015, most experts and analysts still focused on the African states and the reasons cited were basically major differences in wealth and employment situations in Africa and Europe, between poverty in Africa and south Saharan Africa, and much wealthier Europe where those differences are a factor of ten. In this more simplified depiction, migrants were primarily understood as being illegal economic immigrants. What is at stake now is not just one but a number of humanitarian crisis in a geopolitical context that goes beyond the wars in Syria and Libya and include states in the Horn of Africa and in the middle east that are also faced with internal wars; Afghanistan is also one of them, Iraq, Sudan (Darfur) and South Sudan, Eritrea, also come to mind. And, farther away there are also issues in Niger and Nigeria, Mauritania, and Mali, which are also countries of origin for those immigrants.

Are the European states and the European Union doing a good job welcoming those asylum seekers? What is generally presented is that Hungary and Greece are on the front lines and overwhelmed, while some member states (Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, the United Kingdom) are dead against welcoming immigrants.

On the one hand, there is the practicality of dealing with such a quick and massive influx of people: health and humanitarian, and security issues. Up front, Hungary struggled to implement the EU requirement to register new immigrants and migrants (the Dublin agreement); these regulations, while about increasing security and enabling proper treatment of health and social issues, may be in conflict with humanitarian requirements. The Hungarian authorities held people back by stopping trains. But the sudden larger numbers, and ongoing daily flows eventually overcame border staff. Thus,  the military was brought in, and the government made a decision to build a 170 kilometer-long fence and to make it a criminal act to cross it, and now to bring-in the army.

On the other hand, European member states are well aware of the moral imperative to look after people in crisis. So indeed, there is a huge crisis, and Europeans have had a discussion over the last few months and continue to discuss this humanitarian crisis as it enfolds. For instance, the Dublin agreement that holds registering states responsible for incoming immigrants (finger printing/asylum application) is not fair to richer western and northern states that are farther away from Union boundaries. And indeed, discussions are very difficult between states that traditionally have welcomed refugees (Sweden and Germany), and ones that would prefer to close their borders: they are difficult because issues of both fairness and capacity are at stake.

The principle of solidarity is a foundation of the European project, and even countries that do not want to open their borders are committed to solidarity. Hence the very recent policy shifts in Austria or Poland that said ‘no’ until last weekend, and have now opened their doors to thousands. But, from the beginning,  some of the members states have been much more welcoming than others: Sweden and Germany have already welcomed thousands of asylum seekers: Sweden received 20,000 and Germany 120,000, and thousands more are received daily - and those countries have developed specific infrastructures to welcome refugees. Germany has implemented a quota system whereby each region and cities are responsible for refugees in proportion of their population and wealth: It has social workers, teachers, medical staffs that have received specific training. For instance, social workers speak Arabic and teachers have German as a second language training. At the same time, other countries have accepted much smaller numbers; for instance France accepted 24,000 and the United Kingdom has welcomed less than 10,000, and, are understood to have much less capacity to welcome much larger numbers.

In short, actions are being implemented. At the end of August, European Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, made it very clear that the member states should start implementing a pan-European policy of quotas to address the current crisis. This plan opens the door to a reform of the Dublin agreements, yet some leaders of some of the peripheral members of the EU (Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech republic) have criticized it publicly. In general, though, behind the brouhaha there is much agreement. It is notable that Angela Merkel (German’s prime minister) and Jean Claude Juncker are from the same European political family - they are right-wing Christian Democrats - and their ideas are firmly supported by such leftists as France President’s Francois Holland.  In brief, it is a fact that the EU member states and the Commission, the central administration of the European Union, have been discussing and implementing solutions to the crisis over the last few months. 

Assessing the magnitude of the flows at stakes, however, remains the number one issue. Beyond politics, the reality is that if one brings the flows of incoming migrants to a per capita ratio, then the idea that 1 million is a huge number is not correct. Canada’s immigration policy, for instance, admits about 200,000 new economic immigrants yearly, which is an increase in population of 0.6%. Europe with a population of about 714 millions could therefore make the same controlled effort and bring in 4.3 million new residents in 2015! The real issue is that today’s best estimates point to a potential flow of ten and even up to 20 million migrants over the next few years.  So when Europeans discuss a quota system for the current distribution of responsibilities for about 190,000 refugees, they are all thinking that the next step is about much larger numbers!

Another issue is that of cost. However, this argument is weakened when we see that  what Germany, or the United Kingdom or France are doing today for migrants (that is, providing language lessons, health and housing) amounts to about C$500 per months per migrant – which is a small amount when compared to the overall size of their social and subsidised housing programs. Added to this is that the context in Europe is that of high unemployment figures juxtaposed against a struggle to find workers. Indeed, the broad European context is that Europe is faced with an overall aging and shrinking population that is affecting its economic health; a big picture assessment would suggest that migrants will benefit the region economically as argued by European Commission President Juncker.

Nevertheless, the politics of the situation remains complex and sometimes as ugly as discussion were during the second world war – and much of the discussions may seem to give credence to far right and xenophobic reactions and to many examples of countries where the far right movements are very much against an increase in immigrants in their countries. But here again it seems a majority of Europeans realize that this is not about illegal economic immigrants but about war refugees and asylum seekers. Europeans make a difference between what is an economic legal and illegal immigrants, and refugees or asylum seekers, hence the many demonstration of welcome across the European Union, in particular France, Germany, Greece but also Hungary. There are lots of Europeans that are very concerned with what should be done, for example soccer clubs across Europe have both given free thousands of tickets and raised millions of Euros from their fans to help welcoming the refugees. Most of those people think immigrants are not taking over Europe – they are welcome!

In other words, at this time Europeans are faced with the ills of the past and their future. They may overcome the xenophobic strain and allow the crisis to be part of the renewal of Europe; or let the far right and nationalist movements get traction on the crisis. The migrant crisis therefore may be a trigger towards a renewed and strengthened Europe as social and economic powerhouse and a world humanitarian leader, or signal a devolving into its xenophobic past. In other words, this is a historically important moment, which Angela Merkel and Jean Claude Juncker may have foreseen.