This week, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that 2,000 migrants have died so far this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, surpassing 2014’s 1,607 deaths during the same period.2015 is on its way to being the deadliest year for migration on record.
The Central Mediterranean migration route, originating in Libya and channeling individuals across the Mediterranean and into Europe, has officially claimed the most lives.This was also the week when the UK/France Calais crisis peaked.It is clear these events are connected, and that the world is closely watching the European Union and its response to this global migration crisis. It is difficult to see a clear difference between how individual European countries are reacting, and how the EU is reacting as a unified entity.
There is clearly a problem at Calais; the squalid main camp – which houses around 3,000 migrants – has seen tragic human misery for the migrants making multiple attempts to reach the UK.There has also been economic loss and disruption for the UK citizens.
Despite the relatively small numbers in Calais compared to the 175,000 migrants who have entered the EU so far this year, the daily TV images have produced visceral, negative reactions with even the UK Prime Minister David Cameron de-humanizng them by using the term ‘swarms’in a recent speech.
Removing support altogether from UK asylum seekers will make them destitute because UK law (the UK does not opt in to EU migration law) does not allow asylum applicants to work.The idea the UK is a ‘soft touch’ is not supported by the fact that most citizens of non-EU countries have no recourse to receive public funds initially, and asylum seekers are not eligible for UK benefits while their cases are pending.
In fact, support levels for UK asylum seekers are lower than those in all other Western European countries. Many of the 3,000 at Calais want to come to the UK not because of the ‘benefits’, but because this residual number knows of other people or communities they can join within the UK, and because they believe they can obtain work legally or illegally.
They perceive that the UK offers some form of freedom, even to those without ID cards or citizenship. Common language and post-colonial links also act as a draw for many.They miss the crucial point that many asylum seekers are detained, removed, and deported every year – so the positive perception remains.The understanding within the UK, fed through our tabloids, “that they all want to come to the UK” remains strong.
The truth is ,more migrants head for Germany or Sweden for similar reasons. Many remain in the countries they first entered – Italy, Spain, Greece, and new situations in Hungary.
No easy solutions
All of this explains why national deterrent policies to stop asylum seekers making perilous journeys at the national level are not the “easiest” solution.There are no “silver bullets” in this situation – but the EU provides at least one possible set of solutions to meet the national pressures of member states.The solutions offered by the European Commission and the European Parliament have been fought against and diluted by EU member states, but they are worth serious consideration.Firstly, the European Commission understands that there is, indeed, a global migration crisis – it is not the biggest the EU has faced, but it is the most challenging.
In 1992, we faced an emerging refugee crisis from all over the world and from our very doorstep; there were 672,000 asylum applications to the EU, which then included 15 countries.
Today, there are 626,000 applications to our 28 member states.The EU is in post-crash austerity with populist political movements in many of the EU’s member states which hardly registered in 1992.Immigration is now near the top of every member state’s political agenda in every political cycle. Crucially, the way in which migrants are making their journeys are more brutal and are frequently organized by people smugglers.
Modern media technologies have allowed these journeys to be communicated in a more direct way, and are almost always framed as deeply negative in our 24-hour news cycles.Importantly, the EU’s neighboring countries are taking on a great burden in this crisis – Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are taking refugees in the millions and not squabbling over tens of thousands.
Union of values
The EU must do what it was brought in existence to do – show solidarity between members, and show the rest of the world that the EU is a union of values – that it is capable of managing a migration policy with fair rules, compassion, and the rule of law.
Here, the Commission has proposed immediate search and rescue proposals to compensate for the removal of the EU Mare Nostrum – an emergency relocation mechanism and a resettlement program based on the size and ability of each country to take a modest number of refugees.
There are also proposed policies to immediately address the issue of people smuggling and to develop partnerships with the origin countries and “launch points” of mass migration.There is a widespread belief that key parts of EU migration law and intergovernmental agreements are not working or have been ignored for national advantage.
Work to be done
For example, the Dublin Regulation states that an asylum seeker should be the responsibility of the first country they arrive into. Work needs to be done to improve the implementation and reform of such policies.Asking member states to actually make EU cooperation a reality is the really tough part.
As chair of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee, I have the responsibility to hear first-hand what ministers say at council meetings when they are asked to commit to each part of this plan. Credit to those who do. Progress is being made on search and rescue and more recently on emergency relocation, but it is slow.
For those who don’t commit to cooperation, the common denominator is always the same and it is not a lack of resources – the numbers of migrants the EU has been talking about in terms of resettlement were in the tens of thousands for the whole of the EU – manageable when responsibility is shared.
The main problem preventing EU state cooperation is the national political pressure generated inside of each country.Many sitting governments are concerned by effects of austerity and constantly look over their shoulders at far right populist parties or are, in some cases, actually in coalition with them – past or present.
To break out of this cycle, leadership is critical.Those governments, such as Hungary’s, which literally want to build walls against migrants, will learn in time that EU cooperation, along with national policies, guarantees long term successful and comprehensive approaches – approaches which involve both settlement and return.Without managing migration fairly and sending these signals beyond the EU, the sense of crisis is one which is likely to continue for some time.