Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': is Europe out of ideas on migration?

12 May 2020, 12.01am
European and Turkish leaders met in March 2020 to discuss migration-related issues.
Dario Pignatelli/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Is securitisation the only policy idea on the board, or are there examples of more progressive thinking in certain parts of Europe?

To be honest, no. And that’s a missed opportunity. If you think about the meaning of the word ‘crisis’ in Greek, it could have been a turning point. It was a chance to make significant changes in the way we approach migration. But that didn’t happen. Instead what happened was the introduction of measures, policies, and actions to quickly regain control of the situation.

To an extent that is understandable. What happened in 2015 was quite extreme in terms of numbers. Suddenly more than a million people came to Europe through irregular means, so you can see why people felt that extreme measures were needed to get the situation under control. But once it was under control, and it is under control right now, it should be completely manageable for a rich continent like Europe to deal with the low number of new arrivals while introducing smart and more rational migration policies. Yet it still all seems very piecemeal, very ad hoc. The fact that people still live under terrible conditions in camps on the Greek islands shows that we haven't made progress on implementing a more progressive approach for migration.

To be a bit more positive, I do think that this will have to change in the near future. The populations of many European countries are aging rapidly and there will be shortages in certain sectors of the labour market. The demand for migrant labour will be unavoidable and policies will need to address that. So at some point countries will need to invest in legal migration channels. Some are doing it already, even in eastern Europe where we see a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric. The number of work permits issued by countries like Hungary is breaking records at the moment. They’re primarily going to people from Ukraine and Belarus, but also to people from counties further away like Vietnam. It seems that, as long as they’re not from the Middle East, labour migrants can come to these countries – because they’re needed. So we can imagine that, as this pressure increases, we’ll end up in a situation of global competition for labour migrants. Europe will have to compete against emerging economies like China, Brazil or Russia to attract labour to their shores. That will create a push for more progressive policies.

It’s also always important to remember that irregular migration is actually a relatively small phenomenon when compared with the total scale of global human mobility. Many people assume that the number of irregular and regular migrants in the world is roughly the same, but that’s very far from the truth. The number of irregular migrants is, and has always been, small.

Is the European Union running out of solutions?

I don't think Europe is running out of ideas. I think Europe is running out of the will to seriously look at those ideas. We are in a phase where the governments are avoiding engaging with real solutions that are in line with Europe’s values and international obligations. Instead, they are seeking short term solutions and part of that comes from the fact that, too often, solutions to migration issues have been left to individual states with no real ‘European solutions’ being taken forward. It also comes from the wrong premise of what the problem is that states are trying to solve.

This is, in part, related to Europe going from crisis to crisis: from the financial crisis to the so-called ‘migration crisis’ and now the crisis relating to Covid-19 and the economic crisis that’s likely to follow. These various crises have, I think, eroded the confidence in the underlying premise of the European Union, which is of solidarity and seeking shared solutions. This is coupled with populist governments (whether overtly so or otherwise) being in power in various European countries. Europe isn’t in a strong place at the moment and Brexit furthers that fear. We are seeing regressive measures being taken, not only as regards migration, but also more generally in various European countries with Hungary being a prime example.  

However, the ideas, none of which are rocket science, are there. They have been there. They include equitable long-term development assistance, equitable responsibility sharing in Europe, active engagement with diaspora communities, empowering migrant communities to contribute to European economies etc. But these measures need the political will, funding and resourcing to be taken forward. This is where I think Europe is stuck at the moment.  

Beyond states, ideas and solutions will also come from within the European Union member states. We have seen individuals and communities providing solutions (for example through contributing to legal pathways to protection), and NGOs and other civil society organisations also proposing ideas for how to move things forward. Europe must reach out to its citizens through NGOs and other communities, as well as to its cities, large and small.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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