Irregular Migration Threatens Asylum In Europe – OpEd


By Christopher Horwood*

We are becoming accustomed to strange and shocking sights in Europe: dozens of drowned African migrants washed up on tourist beaches, naval and merchant ships bringing thousands of rescued migrants to Italian ports every weekend and small Greek islands receiving an endless flow of Syrians.

The migration and asylum debate is urgent, necessary and very thorny. It is a debate that is increasingly politicised, confused and packed with contradictions that go to the heart of Europe’s liberal self-identity.

While the rush to save and rescue migrants from possible death on the Mediterranean is laudable and was a response to the surging numbers of fatalities that began 18 months ago, it is now likely that the wider presence of rescue ships is encouraging more crossings.

EU members have agreed on a joint naval operation designed to deter smugglers by force, but those same ships, along with all Mediterranean vessels, are compelled by maritime law to help migrants to safe ports in Europe if and when they meet them.

The irony of televised scenes of EU vessels bringing migrants to shore in Italy while policymakers clamour for ways to stop irregular migration cannot be lost on the smugglers, the general public or on the migrants themselves. Once they reach Europe, even if they do not get refugee status, only about 40 percent are returned. In terms of the individual migrant’s risk analysis, the odds are good. Unless the odds change, the flows will continue.

So, liberal Europe has for good, often compassionate and rights-based reasons, tied itself up in knots. It’s these knots that hamper honest debate. Now, more than ever, we need to understand the phenomenon of irregular movement and mixed migration as part of a larger and longer-term picture.

A perfect storm of root causes

Whether by accident or manipulation, commentators, politicians and others who should know better continue to mischaracterise those attempting to cross into Europe. We are often given the impression that all migrants come from desperately poor, war-torn countries, ruled by predatory states or dictators: driven out by thugs only to be exploited by thugs on the punishing journeys that bring them to Europe’s borders.

Variously used labels for the new arrivals include brutally trafficked, exploited, victims of smuggling, criminals, illegals and job hunters.

In simple fact, there are just two groups that make up these migrant flows: asylum-seekers and other migrants, mostly economic. Both are arriving irregularly (or according to governments – illegally) and are therefore subject to return, if they do not qualify as asylum-seekers or refugees.

Current migration levels are the result of a confluence of several mega trends. These include demographic shifts such as ageing population and labour demand in the global North; the impact of climate change, global inequality, poor governance and endemic poverty in developing countries; protracted conflict in some areas; and confused and often contradictory migration and asylum policies in destination countries.

Modern mobility is also empowered and inspired by unprecedented levels of connectivity – particularly through email and social media – and the virtual proximity of a seemingly obtainable better life. Immeasurable though it may be, we cannot underestimate the force of aspirations, dreams and adventurism of many young people stuck in what they regard as politically restrictive, socioeconomic backwaters.

There is evidence suggesting that migration actually increases as countries become more prosperous and educated. As the lions of the African economy flourish in what is dubbed by some as the African Renaissance, expect more migration not less, as increasing numbers of people have the resources to migrate.

Now, add these factors to a rising criminal opportunity in the form of smuggling, lubricated by high levels of impunity and official corruption and collusion. These are the “root causes” in countries of origin and no amount of wishful thinking will result in them being “solved” any time soon.

These trends and others are coming together to make a “perfect storm” – a tipping point. The result is what we currently see, and unless hard decisions are taken it will undoubtedly continue with very messy outcomes.

Asylum under threat

The confluence of many different streams of migrants into one unregulated flow threatens to do great damage to the international refugee regime. Irregular migrants, with asylum-seekers amongst them, are being permitted to move into the rest of Europe by indifferent or overstretched officials in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria or Hungary. As they show up in European cities and towns in greater numbers, public opinion may shift, and soon refugees and asylum-seekers will be as unwelcome as other migrants. Some might argue that with refugee resettlement places barely increasing despite the growing need, this is already happening.

Highly-publicised coverage of Eritreans and Ethiopians in Calais fighting to break into containers and onto ferries to the UK – while refusing to accept asylum in other European countries – casts doubt on the sincerity of their claims, even if the UK has previously been more accepting than others of certain nationalities. Asylum-seekers should not be condemned for having preferences about where they would like to seek refuge, but European law must also be upheld and the current chaos in places like Calais needs to be controlled before it becomes uncontrollable.

A gamble worth trying

Lawlessness is increasingly characterising the migrant “crisis” in Europe, with Afghan and Syrian extortionists and smugglers preying on their own people in the Balkans and Libyan smugglers threatening Frontex officers with guns as they retrieve a vessel they intend to reuse to smuggle more migrants across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, a Newsweek article in June claimed the Mafia was deeply involved in a racket involving the running of reception centres for tens of thousands of migrants in Italy.

Migrants often move in groups – tearing down fences, forcing entry into private and public property, ignoring immigration rules and refusing to cooperate with authorities. In this “wild west” scenario, they are emboldened as they see authorities unwilling or unable to hold them back, and have hope that their rough gamble will eventually pay off.

In the emotive and polarising discourse around migration, some will focus only on the vulnerability and protection needs of migrants, pointing to their desperate actions as evidence of their desperate need. Others focus on the illegality of their activities and their undesirability in Europe. In the face of rising extremist and terror threats, security concerns around large flows of undocumented migrants are also causing concern amongst intelligence agencies and cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, politicians struggle to listen to their constituents while trying (sometimes minimally) to comply with refugee and migration legislation. Countries want to appear compassionate, but amidst these chaotic developments it must be clear that the current alarming trends cannot continue.

Urgent need for new policies

Despite all the EU’s talk of cooperation and unity, many countries are only too happy to pass the migrant problem onto their neighbours. Italy and Greece are not serious about fingerprinting new arrivals (a requirement of the doomed Dublin Regulation) or detaining undocumented migrants. Instead, officials turn a blind eye as thousands leave reception centres and head for borders to the north. Meanwhile, France does little to prevent the migrants in Calais from repeatedly trying to board trucks and ferries bound for the UK.

Some consider the right to migrate as inviolable, but nations also have a sovereign right to control their borders – a right exercised as much by countries in the global South as the North. Migration, along with poverty and conflict, may be one of the meta-narratives that characterise the social history of humankind, but that should not mean it can’t be tamed, controlled or regulated. Ever-increasing flows of irregular migrants into Europe are not inevitable or unstoppable. Where there is political will, a way can be found, even if it requires an overhaul of all conventions, policies and agreements around asylum and labour migration.

While a culture of migration in certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa may have set in, demonising smugglers as the main cause is a red herring. Smugglers are responding to demand more than they are creating it. Equally, allowing migrants and asylum-seekers who run the gauntlet of risk and make it to Europe de facto access cannot be a fair or equitable response in a restrictive environment that bars illegal migration and limits legal entry. What of all those in equal need who cannot make it to Europe’s borders?

There is an urgent need to avoid partisan approaches and yield to clear thinking to develop policies to regulate migrant flows that are sustainable and that respect the rights of both EU citizens and migrants, as well as the liberal rule of law traditions that the European Union is built upon.


IRIN is an independent, non-profit media organization. IRIN delivers unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the frontlines of crises to inspire and mobilise a more effective humanitarian response.

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