European Nations at Loggerheads over Migrants

July 15, 2015Global Challengesby David Smith

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Europe is facing unprecedented pressure from migrant flow.

The financial woes in Greece are not the sole crisis dividing European states. Tensions over how to deal with thousands of migrants landing in the Mediterranean have spilled over as domestic political pressures threaten ideals of unity. Angela Merkel calls it “the biggest challenge in European affairs” in her time as chancellor.

Europe is facing unprecedented pressures on its Mediterranean borders from the arrival of migrants. Around 2,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, which is more than double the number at this point last year. Meanwhile, around 160,000 migrants have succeeded in reaching Europe by sea.

The mounting sense of crisis has provoked some of the bitterest infighting between member states in the history of the European Union (EU). Mediterranean countries, such as Italy and Greece, say they are inundated with asylum seekers and they cannot cope. They are demanding that other countries take their fair share, but Europe’s Dublin Regulation has established the rule that the state where fingerprinting takes place is responsible for the asylum application. At the end of June, tensions in Europe around the issue exploded in an acrimonious meeting in Brussels.

“The discussions at the June European summit were the most heated of recent years,” said Elizabeth Collett, Director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “Countries seeing a big increase in asylum seekers, such as Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, have accused Italy of not doing their fingerprinting properly and encouraging migrants to move on. But the legitimate argument of Italy is that if they do all that correctly, they are taking on an extraordinary responsibility and the quid pro quo is that other EU nations should help out by taking thousands more asylum seekers.”

At the June summit, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European commission, proposed a mandatory system of quotas for the intake of 60,000 Syrian and Eritrean asylum seekers over two years. But discussions quickly descended into angry name-calling. One of the main sparring matches was between the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite and the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Grybauskaite said she did not intend to contribute to any solution and Renzi accused government chiefs of wasting time and said, “If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it.” Meanwhile, Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany, which takes in far more asylum seekers than any other European country, described the immigration crisis “the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor”.

At the end of the summit, no agreement could be found on mandatory quotas so it was decided that EU nations would help on a “voluntary basis”. Under the scheme, 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece will be distributed between EU nations over a two-year period. They will also take in 20,000 Syrians and Eritreans who have fled their countries but not reached the EU. However, the summit defined the scheme as “temporary and exceptional”. To the irritation of many European nations, the United Kingdom - which has opted out of EU asylum policy - refuses to take part in the refugee-sharing scheme.

Just as the heated debate about the Greek financial crisis has exposed divisions between European nations, the migrant crisis has exacerbated tensions and challenged European ideals of unity. Although European nations are signed up to the EU charter of human rights and must follow basic standards for asylum seekers, the reality is there are 28 different asylum systems. With no unified policy, the domestic political pressures within each member state exert a powerful sway over their European politics.

“We are seeing a xenophobic narrative coming from countries, such as Hungary, where there isn’t a functioning asylum system and the reception centres and detention centres have extremely poor conditions. The Hungarian Government is quietly waving people through to other countries,” said Collett.

“But the reactionary politics of heads of state like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have more to do with political theatre than effective border management. We are seeing domestic political concern playing out in the area of asylum. The Hungarian Government has been leaking voters to the far-right party Jobbik and feels the need to be ‘tough’ on migrants.”

The pressures on Hungary are, admittedly, intense. The nation received more asylum-seekers per capita than any other EU country apart from Sweden in 2014, up to nearly 43,000 from just 2,000 in 2012. This year, more than 50,000 migrants tried to cross into Hungary via Serbia between January 1 and 31 May, which was an 880% increase over the same period in 2014, according to the Frontex border agency. However, the reaction of Prime Minister Prime Minister Orbán has been hardline. He has pledged to build a 110-mile long fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia to stem the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa who enter Europe through the Balkans. 

In the United Kingdom, there are similar domestic political pressures on the ruling Conservative party, which has promised a referendum on European Union before the end of 2017. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, feels he must appease the Tory party’s far-right members who are notoriously shy about cooperating with the EU. The rise of the anti-immigration party UKIP (UK Independence Party), which gained 3.9 million votes in this year’s general election, has only increased Cameron’s desire to be assertive about the UK’s rights in Europe. A recent example of Cameron’s eagerness to set the “right tone” came when hundreds of migrants in Calais tried to smuggle on board lorries heading for Britain at the end of June. The Conservative Party labelled the actions “totally unacceptable” and announced a £2 million upgrade of detection technology, £1 million extra for dog searches and new fencing in Calais.

“We’re seeing the rise of these anti-immigrant right wing parties all over Europe, including in Denmark and Poland and they are influencing the mainstream parties,” said Collett. “There’s a danger that the right-wing political narrative on immigration will lead to border management policies that aren’t necessarily effective but are draconian. This is one of biggest challenges facing Europe.”

But reacting by becoming tougher on migrants can play into the hands of the right-wing parties. “Copying the anti-migrant policies and rhetoric validates their position rather than undermining them and suggests to voters ‘you were right to be worried about it all along’,” she said.

To date the EU has adopted a “fortress Europe” approach, which has much in common with the United States’ strategy for policing its borders with Mexico. Since 1986, the US Government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on fences, aircraft, detention centres and agents. Stocked with equipment like Blackhawk helicopters, much of the southern border has become a “border industrial complex”.  Fed by government money, private defence contractors and construction companies have been busy trying to create an impermeable border. The number of US border agents has risen to about 21,000, a rise from 5,000 two decades ago. The result of the strict policing, however, is that hundreds will die every year attempting to reach the US. There were 445 deaths on the US-Mexico border in the fiscal year of 2013 and a further 307 deaths in 2014.

Europe has similar pressure points along its frontiers. They exist between Spain and Morocco, Greece and Turkey and Hungary and Serbia. Humanitarian disasters in recent years have imposed enormous pressures on Europe to act with one voice. One of the most tragic incidents was when 387 people drowned in October 2013 off the Italian island of Lampedusa. But that was not an isolated case. In February 2015, around 300 migrants drowned in rough seas trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa. In addition, tragedies occur on a smaller scale every week, with around 2,000 deaths in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year.

Another parallel with the US is that the budget for the border agency - in Europe it is known as Frontex - has soared, going from €6 million in 2005 to €114 million for 2015. Again, like the US, the European strategy is to increasingly rely on technology. Last year, for example, the EU launched a new €340-million program to monitor its borders with the aid of drones and satellites.

The most controversial symbol of the inevitable cruelty of the “fortress Europe” strategy is the €30 million bulwark along the border between the Spanish city of Melilla and Morocco, in Northern Africa. It consists of three fences, 12km and 6m high. The organisation Human Rights Watch has criticised both Spanish and Moroccan border guards in Melilla for using “excessive violence” against refugees and there have even been claims that pregnant woman and children have been beaten and abused. Between 2010 and 2012, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treated 10,500 sick or wounded refugees, some of whom were victims of border guards. There have also been criticisms of the sharp razor wire used for the fences.

“The Melilla fence is in a tiny Spanish enclave in Northern Africa so it creates a bottleneck for people wanting to reach the EU who don’t want to take the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean,” said Collett. “It’s one of a few places where there is extraordinary localised pressure on the border, but there have been incidents of people swimming around it and suggestions of shootings.”

Meanwhile, Greece has become the largest arrival point in the EU, putting a huge strain on a country that is wrestling with its worst economic crises in decades. On average, 1,000 refugees arrive on the Greek islands every day, according to the UN Refugee Agency, with more than 80,000 reaching land in 2015. Syrian refugees are now overwhelmingly choosing Greece over Italy, and using an eastern Mediterranean route through Turkey and Greece to get there. More than 60% of the Greece-bound refugees hail from Syria, with others arriving from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia

Konstantinos Triantafyllos, a Greek lawmaker, told the German news magazine Der Spiegel that the EU was entrusting the countries along its fringes, including Spain, Hungary, Italy and Greece, with the impossible task of “sealing borders, on the one hand, and saving human lives on the other”. 

But Collett disagrees with Triantafyllos’ analysis. “The idea that if you seal your borders you can’t do search and rescue doesn’t follow. It’s not an either or dichotomy,” she said. “You can do both but you have to ensure people don’t endanger themselves whilst having an efficient border system. It is delusional to think it is possible to seal borders completely. Even North Korea has not managed to do that despite spending far more per capita on border management.

“There’s a huge amount of ongoing discussion going on in the EU at the moment about the right way to police the borders and also the issue of whether all European nations should take their share of asylum seekers,” she said.