Alphen, Netherlands. 4 August. Dante’s warning in the Inferno seems apt for a Europe facing mass irregular migration. Trapped between the ‘let’em all in’ lobby and the ‘Chicken Little society will fall’ lobby most of Europe’s leaders have done what they always do when strategy, policy and politics do not align – little or nothing. There is neither effective national policies in place nor any semblance of effective pan-EU co-ordination. The sad reality is that Europe’s politicians have ducked and weaved around a strategic challenge that has been long in the making. So, what must be done to balance the responsibility to protect migrants and protect host populations from the destabilising impact and indeed dangers posed by mass irregular migration? Here is some food for thought.
Understand the scale of the challenge: According to the UN mass irregular immigration into Europe represents some 3% of global movements. Still, the figures are daunting. According to the BBC over 200,000 irregular migrants crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 with a similar number expected in 2015. They are a diverse bunch of people and range from those seeking escape from persecution and/or war or to those who seek a better life.
Face up to the challenge: An effective policy will require action that will appear at times tough. There are no easy solutions to this crisis and political leaders must be honest about that before policy can be created and strategy enacted. The reasons are manifold. Any attempt to exert the necessary policy control over chaos would involve concentration of peoples, followed by processing and in many cases deportation. For many Europeans there would be echoes with the holocaust and the Nazi persecution of Jews and minorities. Liberal European governments have also been constrained by Universalist human rights legislation that they created in the aftermath of World War Two in what was a very different age.
Be honest about the challenge: Mass irregular immigration has the potential to destabilise European societies but Europe needs migrants. For example, according to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) most irregular migrants seek to reach the UK not to claim mythically-generous welfare benefits but to enter Britain’s notorious black economy. It is naïve in the extreme to believe that uncontrolled mass irregular migration does not carry with it real dangers for European societies, be it via a boost to criminal networks or via the importation of the very extremism that many of the migrants are fleeing. Equally, Europe’s ageing populations need migration for societies and economies to continue to function. Therefore, more legitimate avenues for migration need to be created.
Make necessary changes to policy: One reason that mass irregular migration is taking place is that the EU’s Schengen Area has failed. Free movement across borders within the EU depends on effective control of the EUs external borders. Those controls have effectively collapsed and free movement across inner-European borders is being exploited by criminal gangs almost at will. Therefore, effective controls need to be re-established both within Europe and at the EU’s external borders. Critically, there is no point in the likes of Britain and France lecturing Greece and Italy about the need to do more without offering support to better control inflows of irregular migrants. Fail to do so and the ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policy of encouraging migrants to move to neighbouring countries will continue and sour relations between European states.
Rebuild popular trust in immigration and asylum procedures: Swedish Foreign Minister Wallstrom is right when she says that the entire immigration and asylum system in Europe is in danger of breaking down. Therefore, something new must be tried. A joint system (and I mean ‘joint’ not another European Commission power grab) of control and assessment at Europe’s borders is needed. And yes that will mean the establishment of humane camps in places like Italy and Greece in which officials from all EU member-states quickly assess an individual’s right to remain. Such a system will demand strong action. If an individual fails to gain asylum then he or she must be deported from Europe quickly. If an individual seeks to hide their country of origin then experts in language and dialect must be employed to help identify from where that person hails. And, if countries of origin refuse to accept the return of such irregular migrants European aid must be cut. Critically, each individual must be treated with respect and each case judged on its merits. Referring to people as “swarms” is not helpful.
Take a holistic view of the challenge and have the political courage to act: Any solution will take time, Europe to act together, and a proper understanding of the drivers and mechanisms behind mass irregular migration. Critically, the pipelines of irregular migration will need to be rolled back and that will take sustained collective action. Effective policy will require the establishment of a complex framework that combines effective border controls, policing, immigration and asylum assessment, offensive action against trafficking gangs, and support through aid for those communities most likely to migrate to Europe.
Recognise the price of failure: Like many European citizens I am conflicted over the issue of mass irregular migration. At one and the same time I feel threatened by the scale of such migration, what it could mean for the future well-being and cohesion of my society, and my need to show humanity and compassion. Equally, I have also completely lost faith in my leaders to confront and meet the many challenges posed by mass irregular migration. As a seasoned political analyst and historian I know that neither the hard left nor the hard right offer any solutions to this crisis (or anything else for that matter). However, failure by mainstream political leaders to grip this crisis will only accelerate the dangerous drift towards political extremism and populism that Europe’s seemingly endless economic crisis has spawned. That would indeed be a price that is both too high and too dangerous to pay. Get a grip leaders!