Europe’s migration crisis is not over. It is spreading.
An estimated 1.3 million asylum seekers arrived Europe in 2015. The migrants have caused discord in destination countries and divisions within the EU. The European Commission guessed that 1.3 million migrants will arrive in 2016. The flat-line scenario is a low-ball estimate since the number of asylum seekers doubled from 2013 to 2014 and doubled again from 2014 to 2015.
In 2015 the European migration debate centred on two things: the distribution of asylum seekers and border controls. The European Union focused almost exclusively on the former. Brussels tried to force increased willingness to accept asylum immigrants, especially among the 17 member out of 28 member states that have restrictive asylum policies. 160,000 asylum seekers were thus dispensed in the face of intense opposition. But the numbers of migrants did not subside, they rose sharply. This smothered the all-in-it-together-spirit. As autumn turned to winter Europe wallowed in acrimony.
Focus shifted towards tightening border security, again to limited effect. Unlike in previous years the flow of migrants has continued unabated through the winter months. Where will it end? The politically correct answer is, “in a European solution.” But the EU response to the migration crisis has resembled a drunk attempting to open a box of canned food with a spoon: an almost touching conviction that that lacking conviction is the only obstacle on the path to success. Summits and speeches have failed to bring the situation under control.
The mood in Brussels has soured. Recent summits have been marred by recriminations and hostility among the leaders. All now have to face voters concerned about their leaders seeming inability to do anything to prevent the Arab world from empting its population surplus into Europe. Eager for a quick fix, the EU has given itself to diplomatic alchemy where they pay Turkey to stop the migrants departing from its shores. The cunning plan hinges on the Turks willingly deny themselves the free money the EU is likely to rain down on them if they fail to do so.
The only way to feel good about EU decision making is to set it beside the nation states of Europe. Who can forget the weepy press conference when Sweden reintroduced border controls; or when a The Daily Mail published cartoons equating refugees with rats; or German authorities’ advice to women on how to avoid being violated by the “Willkommenskultur”? Neither xenophobia, nor idealism or incessantly playing the Nazi-card has brought the situation under control.
Germany finds itself in a particular fix, having received over a million asylum applications in 2015 and with an increasingly panicked public opinion fretting over who will protect them against the outfall from this sociological experiment. Chancellor Angela Merkel unilaterally suspended the Dublin treaty, which would have made it possible to return migrants to their first port of arrival to be processed. Most eastern-European countries have rejected Germany’s proposed redistribution mechanism, preferring instead to build border fences. Merkel seems caught in the headlights. Even The Economist, which she reads religiously, has abandoned her. After having praised her open windows and doors policies as politically, morally, and economically astute, the liberal stalwart now has concluded that the opposite is the case.
Few in Brussels believe that the mechanisms coming on-stream will be enough to bring migrant numbers down. Neither the EU’s new “border force” or threats to quarantine Greece will likely do more than create a fleeting impression of decisiveness. Even EU leaders now recognize that the EUs Schengen system of border-free travel is growing unsustainable. Several states have introduced “temporary” border controls. The new border fences zigzagging Europe indicate that Schengen has entered the same permanent state of emergency as Europe’s common currency, where few actually observe the rules.
European countries are now competing to make themselves less attractive asylum destinations. Danish lawmakers voted Tuesday in favour of controversial legislation empowering authorities to seize cash and valuables from asylum seekers to help cover their expenses. Eager not to have the most liberal policies the German parliament now considers proposals to delay most family reunification for 2 years and swipe Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia off the list.
Yet less generous treatment of asylum seekers has so far proved surprisingly ineffective. This is, in part, because everyone knows that many of those who are rejected in reality will be allowed to stay in Europe. The increasing proportion of asylum seekers come from peaceful countries tell the same story: to many life as an undocumented migrant in Europe is better than staying at home Baseless asylum seekers make up 60 percent of the total, according to EU Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans.
Most of these come from countries that do not respect human rights. This makes them difficult to repatriate. European courts bar states from sending anyone back to states where they run a danger of false imprisonment, torture et cetera. A tmodus operandi has emerged where rejected asylum seekers are allowed go underground. Many will enter Europe’s five to eight million strong community of illegal immigrants, concentrated in places like Belgian Molenbeek: A subclass of marginalized non-citizens with a potential for radicalization. The “Banlieue-ization” of Europe, once a horror scenario, now seems a hopeful vision.
The sheer weight of asylum seekers put Europe’s welfare states under strain, or more precisely, they put further pressure on already under-financed welfare schemes. This means that the area of conflict in 2016 will be expanded from distribution and borders and towards international laws and welfare rights. This brings supranational institutions and universal welfare systems to the fore. Many states now look to limit migrants’ access to welfare benefits. The widely-held assumption that Europe will prove significantly better at integrating more under-educated Arab immigrants with fewer resources per head, is looking faulty.
One way to break out of this spiral, the President of Finland Sauli Niinistö pointed out in his speech to parliament this week, is to terminate the European asylum practice in its current form. Europe currently receives around 80 per cent of all asylum applications in the world. Asylum was never meant to be a migration mechanism. The challenge is that European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has handed down judgments that is seen to perpetuate the current asylum regime. European states are obliged to comply with these judgments, but resentment is growing. President of the Belgian Constitutional Court, Marc Bossuyt has criticized ECHR in strong words:
“The European Court of Human Rights is exceedingly transgressing its competence in asylum matters. The Court takes decisions on behalf of the national authorities, it enforces provisional measures despite not having the competence to do so and demands their immediate execution. It has granted property rights on unemployment benefits and has thus realized something that Karl Marx never could. The Court is being buried under new cases, partially caused by the fact that it has sneakily broadened its own competences.”
Tensions between national governments on the one hand and the Council of Europe and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on the other points towards an intensified struggle between lawyers and politicians over supremacy when it comes to asylum. In sum: European institutions and states have thus far been unable to gain control with their borders, nor have they arrived at an equitable division of labour. The temporary solutions of yesteryear have brought Europe to a point where all options seem ineffective, drastic or unethical – conversely a combination of the three.
Publsihed in The American Interest 05.02-2016