Has Europe won the war on migration?

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 8 Mar 2019

A lull in the number of migrants to Europe might mean the worst is over, but it is too early to declare Europe’s victory in the fight against migration

Migrants boat
File Photo: Overcrowded boat with migrants capsized off the coast of Libya (Reuters)

Despite record numbers of refugees crossing borders, with some 68.5 million people forcibly displaced last year, the UN has disclosed new data showing that only 55,700 of them were able to be resettled in 2018.

In a scathing report released last month, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) unveiled that less than one per cent of the 20 million refugees under its mandate worldwide were ever resettled.

The UNHCR data showed that while some 1.2 million people who were in need of a new place to call home were on its books last year, it only managed to make resettlement requests for 81,310 refugees.

The data, which cover specifically UNHCR-facilitated resettlements, show that the highest numbers of requests originated in the Middle East, mainly Lebanon (9,800), Turkey (9,000) and Jordan (5,100).

The report is good news for Europe, as it seems the refugee influx that has been affecting the continent may be turning around. If this is where the war on migration ends, Europe has clearly won, and the unprecedented migration crisis which hit it in 2015 and 2016 is now over.

However, while there are fewer tragic narratives of migrants dying in the Mediterranean these days than there were three years ago when throngs of refugees jostled on boats to reach Europe, what is not over yet is the global refugee crisis and its humanitarian impacts.

The number of forcibly displaced people in the world has now reached its highest figure for the sixth year in a row. Among the nearly 70 million estimated refugees last year, some 25.4 million had fled their homes to escape violence and persecution, according to the UNHCR.

Most refugees, including women and children, have fled their countries to escape ongoing conflicts, terror, oppression, starvation and economic hardships.

Just how much of an impact the increasing number of the world’s refugees will have on Europe, one of the most-affected areas by the rise, is an interesting story to follow. It has prompted the European Union (EU) to resort to stringent systems to deter unwanted migrants.

While the number of migrants trying to reach Europe is sharply down from the 2015-16 peak, the number of refugees overall, mainly from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, remains high.

Even worse, with tensions in the region possibly on the rise again and continuing economic hardships, tens of thousands of people are still expected to try to reach Europe, mainly from the two regions.

Europe’s success in blocking the influx of refugees and migrants to the continent is due to a combination of political, economic and security factors and a range of measures to deal with the crisis.

The EU has increasingly been using its political and economic muscle to engage other countries in its anti-migration plans and to keep the refugees out. The EU has paid Turkey enormous sums in an attempt to make it crack down on refugees rather than allowing them to cross to Europe.

The EU has pursued aggressive diplomacy to push the African and Arab countries to cooperate in implementing its plans. It used the African Union-European Union Summit in May 2018 and the EU-Arab League Summit last month as platforms to trade economic help and investment for cooperation on refugees.

The final declaration of the European-Arab Summit clearly stated that the two sides agreed on “strengthening the fight against irregular migration and scaling up our joint efforts in preventing and fighting migrant smuggling.”

The EU’s anti-migrant strategies intended to stem the flow of refugees across the EU’s external frontiers have also become increasingly militarised. The EU has spent billions of euros on fences, surveillance systems and patrols on land or at sea.

One deadly strategy has been to create a special security force to guard Europe’s southern borders and stop migrant-smuggling by sea. The force involves over a dozen sea and air contributions from 27 EU countries, including ships, airplanes, drones and submarines.

Since its creation in 2015, Europe’s military operation in the Mediterranean, named Operation Sophia, has saved some 49,000 people from drowning at sea. But that was never its main objective.

Instead, the goal of the operation was to beef up the bloc’s external borders and disrupt people-smuggling networks off the North Africa coast and stem the tide of people crossing the sea to Europe.

The EU has also worked closely with the North African countries to stop large numbers of migrants from taking the Mediterranean journey to enter Europe.

The cooperation of these countries has involved working with the Sub-Saharan African nations on “investigating, apprehending and prosecuting” smugglers and traffickers that take refugees to Europe.

However, the EU’s migration policy, which is aimed at stopping people in Africa and the Middle East before they get anywhere near the Mediterranean, may have only limited success.

Research has suggested that Operation Sophia might not be a lasting solution to stopping desperate migrants from making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and reaching European shores in inflatable boats.

A leaked report from Frontex, the EU’s coastguard, noted that although the operation has made the sea-crossing more dangerous for migrants, desperate refugees continue to pursue the route.

The report found that the EU force can only operate in international waters, not in North African waters or on land where smuggling networks operate. It is also underfunded, understaffed and underequipped.

The report notes that some members of the Libyan coastguard, funded, equipped and trained by the EU, are collaborating with smuggling networks.

The EU has failed to push the idea of establishing detention centres for migrants in the North African countries because this was met with strong rejection by Egypt, Libya and the Arab Maghreb countries.

Most importantly, however, the haphazard anti-migration policy shows that something alarming is happening in Europe’s asylum system, as revealed in the UNHCR report about the sharp fall in the number of resettlement cases.

Resettlement, as defined by the International Refugee Convention, is a “life-saving tool” as it is meant to ensure protection for people who are fleeing violence and persecution and are most at risk.

It is a tangible mechanism for governments and communities across the world “to share responsibility for responding to forced displacement crises.”

The Global Compact on Refugees, an international agreement to forge a stronger, fairer response to large refugee movements adopted last December, underscored that resettlement is a key objective “to help reduce the impact of large refugee situations on host countries.”

But instead of tackling the refugee challenge in line with their international obligations, many European countries are resorting to harsh measures to deal with refugees, including steps to relocate asylum-seekers already in Europe and return people deemed not to qualify for asylum.

By fighting forced immigration and asylum-seeking, Europe is ignoring political and economic imperatives and highlighting its narrow-minded thinking.

It is also betraying its own values of freedom, human rights, democracy and international cooperation, the guiding principles of its foreign policy.

The EU’s drastic measures may have reduced the flow of refugees to Europe, but they have not stopped them from making the deadly crossing across the Mediterranean.

It is highly unlikely that European politicians will find an effective policy to deal with another wave of mass migration, which is likely to hit Europe as political and economic uncertainties continue on its southern borders.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Has Europe won the war on migration?

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