The European Union and the Ongoing Migration Crisis: Walking a Tightrope

By Rick Da, Undergraduate at the University of Chicago and Executive Editor of European Horizons


PHOTO: Human Rights Watch


Beginning with the unanticipated arrival of more than one million migrants in southern Europe in 2015, the recent migration crisis has presented the EU with one of its most difficult tests of resilience and conscience. Approximately half are Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, while others hail from elsewhere seeking to escape poverty, disease, terrorism, and unrest. These newcomers arrive after months of confronting smugglers and harsh geographical and political terrain. Defining refugees as those “who, owing to well-founded fears of [persecution], are outside the country of nationality and unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to” return,[1] the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees protects refugees from discrimination and deportation to their home countries, and it mandates participating states to provide basic freedoms and offer a path to naturalization. However, the question of what to do about the recent arrivals has no clear answer, and disagreements over this have deepened fractures within the EU.


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Europe’s responses to migration in the past have varied. Asylum-seekers from the Communist bloc were embraced as propaganda victories against Communism. Meanwhile, between 1945 and 1974, Northern and Western Europe received 5 million laborers from southern Europe and North Africa. Many arrived via state-sponsored guest worker programs and, by filling in labor shortages, were seen as indispensable to prosperity. This ended when economic challenges in the 1970s convinced governments to implement “Fortress Europe” laws attempting to halt worker recruitment and immigration. Nonetheless, both legal and illegal immigration rebounded, leading to the liberalization of these failed policies in the early 2000s.


Instead, while migration policy does “not appear to be a dominant factor explaining the patterns of destination for asylum seekers,”[2] a country’s job supply, both legal and illegal, is a significant determinant. During this time, newly democratized southern European states joined the EEC (the EU’s predecessor) and, along with Italy, enjoyed a period of prosperity founded upon growth in seasonal and irregular industries (such as agriculture, construction, and the black market). Local workers vacated these sectors, and illegal migrants became attractive because they were in a vulnerable position forcing them to accept low wages. Consequently, southern Europe, long a migrant source, became a major destination, and after the 1985 Schengen Agreement removed impediments to travel, these migrants could then move northward with greater ease. Migration to one country can easily impact others.

Hence, EU membership hampers member-states’ ability to control immigration individually. In response, the EU has taken steps to coordinate migration policy among member-states. The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam authorized it to legislate migration and asylum policy and establish minimum standards each signatory’s laws must satisfy.[3] The 1999 Tampere European Council established the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) to achieve the goals set forth in Amsterdam.[4] It is “a legal framework covering all aspects of the process” and, after the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, increasingly became a matter of common policy across member-states.[5]


The EU has attempted to continue this trend of “Europeanization” in response the current migration crisis. It has channeled funding to Greece and Turkey to help them manage the masses of migrants on their soil.[6] It has also limited the flow of migrants streaming into Greece from Turkey, following the March 2016 agreement that permitted Greece to return “irregular migrants” to Turkey in exchange for an equal number of Syrian refugees processed in Turkey. “Hotspots” were established in Greece and Italy to fingerprint migrants and determine whether they are refugees or economic migrants who can be returned, expediting the screening process and facilitating a more orderly journey northwards.

Finally, the EU has adopted in 2015 the European Agenda on Migration to establish “a comprehensive approach to tackl[ing] the refugee crisis.”[7] The EU would bolster its involvement in patrolling the Mediterranean Sea, and 160,000 refugees “in clear need of protection” would be resettled from Italy and Greece across the EU. An additional 22,000 Syrian refugees in countries neighboring Syria would also be resettled in the EU within two years. [8] Western Europe, particularly Germany, has been at the forefront of implementing this policy. Outraged by the horrific image of Alan Kurdi’s body washing ashore, Germany, which constitutionally affirms the right to humanitarian asylum,[9] has moved to support resettlement and stopped enforcing the Dublin process, which mandated refugees to register in the country where they first entered the EU—normally Greece and Italy. By the end of 2016, there were an estimated 1.25 million refugees in Germany.


However, initial disagreements between northern and southern member-states have transformed into the current stalemate between Western and Eastern Europe over the resettlement clauses. While Western Europe embraced the refugees, Hungary, Austria, and Slovenia constructed border barriers along and within EU frontiers. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have vehemently rejected resettlement[10] and argue it should remain a matter of national sovereignty. Such opposition has led to the resettlement of only 937 individuals over three months since the passage of the Agenda, which had pledged to relocate 160,000 refugees within two years and was slated to benefit only 200,000 migrants.


Meanwhile, the influx of migrants can heighten competition for jobs, depress wages, drive inflation, and force states to raise public expenditures and taxes to accommodate them. For example, the migrant crisis can potentially exacerbate the effects of Greece’s previous Eurozone debt crisis. Already, despite recent recovery, Greece’s unemployment rate is 23% (45% among youth),[11] and it cannot afford any more pressure. However, illiberal migration policies further north have trapped migrants in Greece and Italy and made the two nations more vulnerable to such problems in the future.


Opposition to resettlement also stems from concerns for national security. These concerns cannot be taken lightly. Refugees and migrants have indeed perpetuated crime and acts of terror (such as recent machete and bomb attacks, as well as one on a Berlin Christmas Market),[12] and terrorist groups have tried to reach out to or even infiltrate the migrants.[13] Although many attacks (such as the Normandy church attack) were committed by European-born citizens, they add fodder to stereotypes of the “dangerous male migrant,” regardless of the perpetrators’ background. Such perceptions have spread even among liberals,[14] and public attitudes towards resettlement have shifted negatively, especially following Cologne’s New Year’s Eve attacks. Anti-migrant hate crimes have risen.[15] Two-thirds of French citizens had lost faith in former President Hollande’s ability to fight terrorism,[16] and positive attitudes towards migration hovers at only 15% in the EU and 20% in Germany and Sweden, which boast Europe’s most welcoming policies.18 In fact, not a single European Muslim community “takes a majority position (50%+1) that many Muslim [migrants] should be allowed to come and live in their community.”[17]


While the migration’s actual security and economic impacts are more complex than commonly believed, these perceptions have generated growing support for far-right, nationalist parties that challenge the EU’s existence. They claim the EU’s resettlement policies betray their Christian cultural heritage and pave the way for a future “Eurabia.”[18] Although these parties market their platforms in diverse ways, anti-immigration and “hard Euroscepticism” form their common core cornerstones. Formerly fringe movements, these far-right parties, exemplified by France’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik, have seen spectacular gains over the past months, and although it is unlikely they will gain outright control, centrist and right-wing parties across the EU have increasingly appropriated some of their platforms to counter their growing strength, spreading “soft Euroscepticism” into mainstream politics.


Thus, a failure to resolve the migrant crisis will be toxic to the EU’s integrity. Chancellor Merkel has faced growing criticism from her own party, and Germany has toughened restrictions and backtracked on its more ambitious goals.[19] However, the EU cannot hope to completely end migration anytime soon.[20] Although it has sealed the flow of migrants entering from Turkey after negotiations last year, how long this arrangement endures depends on the whims of Turkey’s turbulent domestic and foreign politics.[21] More dangerous and popular routes across the sea from Libya continue to place more lives in danger and intensify financial strain on economically-strapped southern EU states, which must house the new arrivals and patrol the seas. Unlike Turkey, Libya is lawless, so the EU can neither work with a Libyan government to combat trafficking nor deport migrants to Libya. Because migration is mainly influenced by market forces as described previously in this article, it will continue so long as demand for migrant labor continues to exist.


In light of this reality, this article recommends that the EU continue to work towards a coherent and orderly system of processing and assimilating its new arrivals, particularly refugees fleeing violence and persecution. Although highly divisive, admitting refugees can, in fact, strengthen the EU by serving crucial roles in the economies of many member-states, and as the population continues to age, their presence will be ever more critical to furthering growth. In addition, this will allow the EU to fulfill its obligations outlined in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees while scoring propaganda victories over terrorists seeking to vilify the West.


Simultaneously, the EU must set a realistic vision for the future of its migration policy as the influx potentially outpaces the resources available to humanely address the issue. Although deporting migrants is expensive and occasionally ineffective, most EU states simply cannot afford to provide every future newcomer with a European standard of living, and the migration cannot last forever without straining Europe’s resources. Hence, the EU must continue strengthening its external borders, which will require stepping up naval patrols to apprehend smuggler vessels and developing effective strategies against traffickers. It will also require that all asylum-seekers be processed either in Turkey or in the first EU country they enter. By keeping them all in a few locations, the EU can more efficiently process and screen the migrants and control migration deeper into the continent. To mitigate further financial stress on Greece and Italy, the EU will need to subsidize a significant portion of the costs while also providing shelter and supplies for the duration of their stay. In this way, the asylum-seekers will be discouraged from taking jobs and exacerbating Greece and Italy’s economic troubles.


To maximize security, admitted refugees must demonstrate no links or sympathies with any terrorist groups, and all those who fail should be either rejected or arrested and further investigated (with the possibility of clemency). While this may appear draconian, the EU cannot take any chances jeopardizing the safety of its own citizens. In a like manner, asylum-seekers who are found to be economic migrants, rather than refugees, are to be promptly deported as well—besides those with family ties to the EU. Such migrants do not require foreign protection and are not covered under UN refugee laws. Instead, they are illegal migrants competing with citizens for jobs. While there is certainly a market for cheap labor, there is already an influx of refugees who will fill those jobs. Given limited resources, asylum-seekers will be admitted into the EU after satisfying rigorous security and background checks if and only if they are refugees as defined by the UN. This process of screening itself introduces many technical questions, such as how to detect forgery, but those should be left to security experts.


However, because economic migration is determined primarily by market forces, to more effectively dis-incentivize economic migration and reduce the costs of deportation, the EU should reduce demand for cheap illegal labor, either via its own executive powers or by encouraging member states to adopt such policies. This may involve black market crackdowns, increased financial support for small- to medium-sized businesses, or harsher penalties on businesses hiring illegal labor or subjecting workers to substandard conditions. By monitoring the private sector, the EU could then reduce economic migration by drying up the market for cheap migrant labor.


While admitting large numbers of refugees, the EU’s response must pay some respect to national autonomy and demonstrate that it looks after the needs and interests of its constituents. It should refrain from coercion but utilize incentives to entice member-states to accept the quotas. For example, the EU can loosen business and external trade regulations for all participating nations and offer increased aid in infrastructure projects. More importantly, although refugees cannot be deported, participating nations will be free to legislate their own laws regarding their refugees, provided they satisfy minimum guidelines ensuring human rights and other basic freedoms. Although incentives do not guarantee full EU participation, the goal is to offer attractive terms in exchange for accepting their quotas. If a member-state so highly values keeping refugees out, then it will have the option of turning down the arrangement and paying the opportunity cost of missed rewards; either way, national sovereignty is respected.


Finally, in addition to maintaining the interests of its own member-states, the EU should continue its current practice of maintaining regular contact, outreach, and involvement worldwide. Migration crises stem from conflicts and hardship around the world, and if it wants to avoid such a divisive and costly issue in the future, Europe cannot retreat back into its “Fortress.” Instead, the EU should remain actively committed to peace processes, human rights, and relief efforts globally. Although EU-wide cooperation and a respect for national sovereignty remain important, international cooperation will be the most important avenue for averting such crises in the future.


[1] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 1.

[2] Böcker, Anita, and Tetty Havinga. Asylum Migration to the European Union: Patterns of Origin and Destination. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1998. Print.

[3] Treaty of Amsterdam Articles 73i, 73j, and 73k

[4] “Reforming the Common European Asylum System: Frequently Asked Questions.” European Commission Press Release Database. EU, 13 July 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-2436_en.htm>.

[5] Sy, Sarah. “Asylum Policy.” Europa.eu. European Parliament, Jan. 2017. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. <http://www.europarl.europa.eu/atyourservice/en/displayFtu.html?ftuId=FTU_5.12.2.html>.

[6] “Refugee Crisis in Europe.” European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. The European Commission, 20 June 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://ec.europa.eu/echo/refugee-crisis_en>.

[7] “Refugee Crisis in Europe.” European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. The European Commission, 20 June 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://ec.europa.eu/echo/refugee-crisis_en>.

[8] Quinn, Eugene. “The Refugee and Migrant Crisis: Europe’s Challenge.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly 105.419 (2016): 275-85. UChicago Libraries. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[9] German Basic Law, Article 16A

[10] Associated Press. “Central Europe’s Leaders Reject EU’s Relocation of Refugees.” VOA. Voice of America, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[11] Ferreira, Joana. “Greek Unemployment Rate Steady At Nearly 5-Year Low.” Trading Economics. Trading Economics, 9 Mar. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

[12] “Germany Attacks: What Is Going On?” BBC News. BBC, 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

[13] Starr, Barbara. “CIA Director Grave Warning: ISIS Dangerous as Ever.” CNN. Cable News Network, 20 June 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

[14] Shuster, Simon. “Fear and Loathing.” Time Magazine 1 Feb. 2016: 42-45. Print.

[15] “Germany Hate Crime: Nearly 10 Attacks a Day on Migrants in 2016.” BBC News. BBC, 26 Feb. 2017. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

[16] Stewart, Dan. “A Summer of Bloodshed Threatens Europe’s Union.” Time Magazine 8 Aug. 2016: 11-12. Print.

[17] Tausch, Arno. “Muslim Immigration Continues to Divide Europe.” Middle East Review of International Affairs 20.2 (2016): 37-50. Print.

[18] Partij Voor De Vrijheid. “Mr Wilders’s Contribution to the Parliamentary Debate on Islamic Activism.” Groepwilders.com. Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2017. <https://web.archive.org/web/20080614074737/http://www.groepwilders.com/website/details.aspx?ID=44>.

[19] “Sharp Drop in Migrant Arrivals in Germany.” DW.COM. Deutsche Welle, 11 Jan. 2017. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

[20] “Travelling in Hope.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 22 Oct. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

[21] Hacaoğlu, Selcan. “Erdoğan Says Turkey May Review Refugee Deal, Relations With EU.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 24 Mar. 2017. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

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