It is estimated that over a million migrants have entered Europe in 2015. The migrant crisis is a humanitarian disaster, and a hot topic that has been doing the rounds in the media for quite a while now. You can’t pick up a major newspaper without finding a related news article, most probably on the front page. I’d like to shed some light on the issues and share some facts, and I will try to do this with without biasing them with my opinion, until the end.
Let me start off this blog post my making a much-needed distinction that is often overlooked. Migrant is a general term referring to anyone moving from one country to another for a better life. Generally, it is for economic reasons-individuals seeking better employment opportunities, or moving to join a relative in another country, or even wealthy individuals who move to resettle in a different country.
However, when we talk specifically about refugees, we are talking about individuals who are fleeing persecution or war in their home country, and can prove it. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention negotiated after the Second World War, it is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
In order to understand the importance of this difference, it is essential to understand the legal technicalities. Legally, this distinction matters because countries are free to deport migrants who arrive without legal papers, but cannot do the same with refugees. This explains why politicians often prefer to classify all arrivals as migrants, and all why most migrants (mainly the illegal ones) prefer to be classified as refugees.
It is also interesting to note that the top 10 countries of origin for arrivals were Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Serbia and Ukraine. Within this top 10, Albania, Kosovo, Nigeria and Ukraine are already on the EU’s safe countries list. This means that based on the EU’s own measures, 10% of the arrivals can already be, with a fair amount of certainty, classified as non-refugees. Then there are economic migrants from the so-called “non-safe” countries that claim to be refugees. However, since most migrants in this crisis arrive as part of large groups with no documents, it becomes a time-consuming process to separate economic migrants from the refugees on a case by case basis. This makes it harder for governments to speed up the process and grant asylum to those who really deserve it-the refugees.
Even more interesting are the European governments’ responses. Instead of a coordinated EU wide action, each country has taken up its own cause in a piecemeal fashion. These include reintroduction of border checks and/or erection of fences by Austria, Denmark, France (more so due to the events in Paris), Germany, Hungary, Sweden, and others. We are already starting to see schisms in the union, and increasing popularity of nationalist groups. This could turn out costly for the EU in the long run if it results in the dissolution of the much treasured Schengen zone that allows for passport free travel for the 26 signatories to the Schengen Agreement, which came into force in 1995. The European Commission estimates that reintroduction of border checks can cost the European economy € 5bn-€ 18bn annually. Here are some additional interesting data points to ponder:
- Free trade of goods within the EU, currently valued at c. € 2.8tn, would be hurt and this would also drive up prices.
- Close to 1% of people live and work in different countries in the Schengen area. They would also be adversely impacted.
- Tourism, on which many members states depend, would also be heavily impacted. This impact would be between € 10bn- € 20bn.
The European Commission estimates that reintroduction of border checks can cost the European economy € 5bn-€ 18bn annually.
Initially, the only EU wide action was a plan for the redistribution of close to 160,000 refugees which was pushed through despite numerous objections. This turned out to be a non-starter, with less than 300 refugees having being relocated as of the start of 2016. However, there is some hope. The call for pan EU action seems to be gaining traction, by way of negotiations with Turkey for heavier border checks to control migrant inflows in exchange for visa concessions and funding. The EU’s external border guard, Frontex, has also been deployed to strengthen Greece’s borders. There is even talk of introducing stricter EU funded border checks in Macedonia (a non-EU and non-Schengen country) to control the flow of migrants through Greece (a Schengen and EU member country) into the rest of Europe.
It is interesting to note that similar situations are playing over in different parts of the world. For example, we are seeing greater waves of migration from the poorer countries of South & Central America moving towards North America. We are also seeing an increasing number of South East Asian migrants trying to reach Australian shores. The only difference is that most of these people are not fleeing war. They are fleeing poverty and violence, and in some cases persecution. Like the refugees at Europe’s doorstep, they choose to leave behind their homes and lives to embark upon a perilous life risking journey through multiple countries, traversing difficult terrain, or crossing oceans, all in search of safety, freedom and opportunity. The American and Australian responses have been faster (due to the fact that each is a single country) and called for more direct action at their own borders. However, like Europe, they fail to address the root cause of the problem.
Governments around the world are spending money on increasing border security with more manpower, more effective tools and better technology. However, stricter border controls are like a Band-Aid fix, temporary by definition. As the scale of the crisis worsens, and the numbers multiply, border controls will be overwhelmed. It is no longer a matter of if, but a matter of when.
Instead the solution should be a sort of blended action-combining stricter border controls (to deal with illegal economic migrants) with a more direct intervention in the refugees’ country of origin to address the reason for the exodus. Although this might take more of an effort, more time, and turn out to be slightly more expensive in the short run, it will most certainly result in a more sustainable and cost-effective impact in the long run.