As migration is now viewed as an almost existential crisis for the European Union, it can be easy to forget that the E.U. developed a centralized policy on the matter only in the past two years. Previously it was a matter for member states and it is their mistakes that are now shaping all forms of response.
But the relative newness of migration policymaking at the E.U. level also means there is an opportunity to move on from the misconceptions that drove member states’ actions and improve the tragic outcomes.
Efforts to close irregular channels into the E.U. will work only if they are accompanied by an expansion of regular, legal channels. In practice this means E.U. member states putting a greater number of work visas on the table in discussions with the countries from which people are migrating and through which they are transiting.
The increased flows of refugees into Europe are driven by various events – from the war in Syria to numerous other conflicts stretching as far as Afghanistan – that are not the E.U.’s fault in any direct sense. Without these events, the flows of people into Europe would certainly be different – and, most likely, lower.
Europe’s current policy mix in response to refugee flows imposes immense suffering on those trying to flee poverty, war and discrimination while doing little to make European citizens more secure.
The most important wrong assumption that underpins this failure is the belief that Europe’s borders can and should be closed to economic migrants. It is this conviction that has made it almost impossible for Africans and Asians to migrate legally to most European countries.
This should be remembered when we see chaotic scenes of people being smuggled across land and sea borders. Until the 1990s, when increasingly restrictive visa regimes kicked in, migrants arrived in Europe by plane.
Yet the relationship between legislation that is severely restrictive of legal migration and the rise of people smugglers is often lost on both policymakers and the general public. Right-wing populist calls for closed borders overlook the fact that borders are already closed to migrants from outside the E.U. and have been for many years. Large-scale sea crossings from Libya and North Africa to Italy are a relatively recent phenomenon and a direct consequence of increasingly restrictive Italian legislation, culminating in the prohibition of migrants who did not already have a signed job contract under the 2002 Bossi-Fini law.
The problem with this policy is not just that it imposes suffering on migrants, whose only crime is to look for a job, but that it also fails to deliver on its main goal, namely to cut the sea crossings. In fact, flows from Libya to Europe have increased by more than 25 percent in the first five months of this year as compared to the same period in 2016.
A change of policy is needed. Europe can move to close channels for illegal migration only if it opens limited channels for legal flows. The two need to go hand in hand.
The European Commission is starting to recognize that it is unlikely to strike readmission agreements – mechanisms to deport or repatriate economic migrants and failed asylum seekers – unless it offers work visas in return. A new system can be conceived in which a coalition of European countries offers a package of incentives to countries of origin and transit, including a certain number of work visas in exchange for agreements on forced returns.
This coalition will not enjoy unanimous support across the E.U. Some countries, particularly those in the Visegrad group of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, will resist strongly. Other countries where anti-immigration parties play a prominent role in ruling coalitions will likely resist as well.
But a “coalition of the willing” could still include the countries most affected by migration such as Italy, Germany, Sweden and Austria, and get the support of important member states like France and Spain. The participation of those other member states most interested in strengthening borders should not be ruled out, starting with Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Greece.
This new “compact” would not replace existing E.U.-wide Partnership Frameworks with countries of origin. These have achieved buy-in even from countries that are most reluctant to “concede” powers to the E.U. on migration.
The exchange between legal channels of migration and readmission agreements could be implemented in a less formal way through a memorandum of understanding between a number of E.U. member states and single countries of origin. The European countries would state the number of work visas that they would make available (this is still mostly an exclusive prerogative of national governments), while the countries of origin would agree to a streamlined protocol for readmissions, including identification and provision of travel documents.
This is not a magic wand solution. Migration from Africa is unlikely to go down to zero overnight. Capacity-building, safeguarding the rule of law and economic development need to be part of a broader E.U. strategy. Respect for basic human rights in Libya is key to eliminating one of the most important push factors for migrants. But creating the means for legal migration while building an effective system to return irregular migrants is the big policy shift that Europe needs to make in order to be able to manage flows.
Cynics in Europe will say that this policy would be highly unpopular. But a closer examination of recent election results in several member states suggest that some of those engaged with the issues have confused a noisy and influential minority of anti-immigration voters with the majority of voters who are not xenophobic but want this problem to be managed more effectively.
The current “closed borders” strategy has created a virtuous circle for populist anti-immigration parties: Closed borders bring more illegal immigration, which then feeds a sense of insecurity among natives and hinders the integration of those who arrive. This ultimately boosts the fortunes of those same parties that had promoted “closed borders” to begin with. It is time to break this circle, which is damaging European democracy while making many refugees and migrants suffer. Will a coalition of the willing stand up to promote a more realistic approach?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.