28 June 2018

Could ‘refugee cities’ be the answer to the migrant crisis?


Mass migration has become the most important topic in Western political debate. Across the political spectrum, ideas are changing. Criticism of chaotic migration management is no longer seen as “far right”.

Although most people realise that in an age of fast-moving globalisation it would be foolish to impose overly harsh restrictions on immigration, a cross-ideological consensus seems to have emerged that migration does need to be controlled.

It is on this point that Europe appears to be failing. While the numbers have fallen a lot, around 44.000 irregular migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in 2018. Tragically, more than 1.000 have drowned at sea this year. Since 2014, almost 2 million irregular migrants crossed Europe’s sea border, with an estimated 16,607 having died in trying to do so. EU estimates of the total number of illegal border-crossing amount to 1.8 million in 2015, 511.047 in 2016 and 204.719 in 2017. That’s 2.5 million in total in just three years of intense irregular migration.

The arrival of Italy’s new “populist” government looks like the game changer which may force Europe’s politicians to make tough choices. They face a number of options, some of which look doomed to failure, while others look much more promising.

What won’t work:

Reforming the “Dublin” rules

The Italian government has increased the pressure on France to allow people to cross its border freely, while it has demanded that other EU leaders change the so-called “Dublin regulation” which mandates that the country where an irregular migrant arrives is responsible for processing their asylum request. The latter is a longstanding Italian demand and most analysts agree it’s unlikely to go anywhere.

Even if implemented, it would not ease the pressure on Italy’s sea border. If changing the rules increases migrants’ chance of applying for asylum in Germany, for example, that will surely be more of a draw for people to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to reach the EU.

Relocating people within the passport-free Schengen zone

This is a policy championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the autumn of 2015, despite warnings from France, Germany chose to outvote eastern European opposition and impose “mandatory refugee quotas” at the EU level.

These really have contributed to increased euroscepticism in central and eastern Europe as well as legal challenges, What’s more, the few people who have been relocated to poorer EU member states, such as Portugal, have mostly already left these countries.

If EU countries created centres outside of the EU where people can apply for asylum, they would then need to figure out how to distribute people among themselves, as well as a common asylum procedure.

In any case, this is completely unrelated to the question of how to stop irregular entry into the EU. Many politicians have tried to link the two issues, as they don’t have an answer to the border protection challenge.

Boosting economic development in poor countries (at least in the short to medium term)

Many policymakers have suggested “development aid” as a way of persuading people not to leave their home countries in the first place. Those who understand that development aid actually has a  of promoting economic development have suggested more free trade and less agricultural export subsidies.

However, neither option will prevent people from trying to make it to Europe now. What we see is that it is not the very poorest, but those who have reached a certain income that try to make it to Europe. The very poor can’t afford the fees paid to smugglers. In the long term, of course, sustained economic development in the world’s poorest countries would help reduce migration to Europe.

What may work:

Stopping the boats

Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has pledged to no longer allow boats with asylum seekers to dock in Italian ports. His policies are a bit confused and seem mainly directed at boats run by NGOs. Under Salvini’s watch, asylum seekers were brought to Italy after they were saved by the US Navy who handed them over to the Italian coastguard, while a Danish commercial vessel ship owned by freight company Maersk which had rescued people was also eventually allowed to dock in Italy.

After Spain decided to welcome one NGO boat with asylum seekers, it made clear it wasn’t going to repeat this. A Spanish minister stated his country could not “become the sea rescue organisation for all of Europe.”

This kind of inconsistency suggests that a “stop the boats” policy alone will not be sufficient.

Create migrant reception centres

Australia’s centre-right government led by Tony Abbott did implement a “stop the boats” policy in 2013, but it was preceded by a much more important step – the creation of an area where migrants could be brought, through the “Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea” (and before that with Nauru). This was agreed in 2012 and 2013 by Australia’s Labour government, restoring a policy which had originally started in 2001, only to be suspended in 2007, leading to a big increase in irregular arrivals by boat.

In March 2016, Greece effectively copied what Australia had done. To stem the flow of migrants trying to enter from Turkey. Greece banned asylum seekers from leaving a number of Greek islands. Cooperation with Turkey in the form of the “EU-Turkey deal probably played a part as well, but the key reason why people no longer risked their life by making it from Turkey to the Greek islands was that they knew they would be stuck on a Greek island.

The solution has been an enormous success in terms of avoiding drownings-at-sea. In Australia, the number went from at least 1000 in the 13 years before to near-zero. In Greece, Undocumented migrant deaths in the Aegean Sea plummeted 85 percent in 2017 compared to 2016.

These countries’ experience makes clear that increasing border patrols is not an effective way of deterring migration – the question is whether migrants are able to easily continue their journey beyond their first port of call.

While conditions in these Greek and Australian off-shore centres are unacceptably poor, that does not change the fact they have helped reduce drownings atsea.

At this week’s EU Summit, EU leaders are about to agree to “a new approach to disembarkation of those who are saved in Search and Rescue operations, to “eliminate the incentive to embark on perilous journeys”. This is a very important decision, even if it only concerns an agreement on an idea that needs to be implemented.

Many details are lacking, but one of the requirements for these processing centres for asylum seekers, which the Benelux, Austria and Italy think should be located outside of the EU,  is that they should be “secure”.

Unsurprisingly, the non-EU countries that would be expected to host these centres have not reacted favourably to the proposals. Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Niger have been named as possible locations and the latter three have already openly rejected it.

France and Spain have suggested beefing up the “hot spots” located in Greece and Italy. At the moment these are centres where migrants are fingerprinted and receive documents in return, so they can travel on. Countries like Belgium can then send them back to Italy when they try to illegally sneak into lorries heading to the UK.

According to another source, the Franco-Spanish plan would be to host this reception centre in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. These are on EU territory but on the other side of the Gibraltar straits. Around 160.000 people live there, so this will likely be met with some protest as well.

The Austrian government has gone further and suggested there be “no applications for asylum filed on EU territory”, with only limited exceptions.

One thing is certain: if one wants to remove the incentive to make it to Europe illegally, those who arrive in Europe must not be allowed to travel on before waiting for their asylum request to be processed. But even if processing centres were established – either in an EU enclave in Africa or by paying a non-EU country to host migrants, it would not be a full solution. The obvious remaining question will be: what to do with those that have been denied asylum?

Create a place for failed asylum seekers to live

Vincent Cochetel, the head of UN refugee agency UNHCR EU, has stated that “Many risk migrating [to the EU] because those denied asylum are hardly ever sent back”. Last year, there were an estimated 600,000 people illegally in the EU, down from 2.2 million people in 2017.

A policy paper drafted by Austria’s Interior Ministry suggests sending failed asylum claimants to a facility outside the bloc. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has confirmed that talks have already reached an advanced stage. This plan is also supported by Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who has said he is “optimistic” there will be progress on the proposal this year.

Finding a place to send failed asylum seekers may be an even bigger challenge than finding somewhere for people awaiting their asylum request. Albania has been suggested as a possible location, and although the Albanian government has rejected it, the country’s opposition claims ministers could open centres to help accelerate Albania’s accession to the EU.

But even is such centres were established, the question remains of how failed asylum seekers can get on with their lives. We do not want to recreate something like the Palestinian refugee camps, where people are often not even legally allowed to make a living.

It’s possible that European countries would manage to “stem the flow” by merely creating a centre outside Europe for migrants who stand no chance of gaining asylum. But given that Africa’s population could double or even triple in the next few decades and that European countries have failed in the last few decades to repatriate failed asylum seekers, I wouldn’t be so sure.

At the moment, there are more than 13.000 people on the Greek islands, which serve as such an off-shore center, in limbo. What if there are 100.000? 1 million? How unrealistic becomes such a project then? In Italy, the asylum pressure is currently relatively low, due to a shaky deal between Italy and Libyan tribes, but what if this collapses?

To deal with that question, I have proposed to develop “refugee cities” where everyone – people denied asylum, economic migrants or even Westerners – could live. Bob Pleysier, the head of Belgium’s asylum department, supports this idea and there is now a “refugee cities” campaign in support of the proposal.

How might this work? The great precedent is of course Hong Kong: a city governed by Western officials outside of the West, where many refugees from Communist China not only found shelter but also stable rule of law so to develop their life. If the British could pull this off on their own more than 50 years ago, there is no reason European countries could not do something similar in our more technologically advanced era.

Money shouldn’t be an issue. The cost of the refugee crisis for Germany alone has been estimated to be about 20 billion euro per year. The Belgian State’s police and justice system costs around 3 billion euro per year, to serve 11 million people. Of course there’s infrastructure, but there also is the EU’s 130 billion euro budget.

Private investors should also be interested in enlisting all that human capital sitting in refugee shelters in the Middle East or scratching a living in Europe’s underground economy. Equally, refugees and economic migrants could invest their savings instead of handing over wads of cash to illegal smugglers.

In my view, there are three main conditions where to locate such a safe place for people denied residency in Europe. First, there must be enough space, so to be able to welcome millions. Secondly, nobody should currently already live there, so to safeguard consent from the host state, which could be paid a fair amount of rent. And thirdly, people should be able to develop a life there.

That means providing justice, rule of law, police, external security and support. Multinational companies who are happy to invest in the developing world, should in theory be equally happy to invest a place run by the West. Even if it only achieved half the success of Hong Kong, that would still be a significant achievement.

The EU’s new approach of “disembarkation centres” outside the EU suggests that Europe’s leaders are finally realising that modest solutions are not enough to deal with the challenge of mass migration. Ultimately leaders will need to answer the question what to do with those denied asylum, especially as Africa’s population is about to boom, let’s hope they consider developing something like a refugee city, run by European countries, guaranteeing a high level of rule of law for those seeking protection or simply a better life.

Pieter Cleppe represents independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels and is writing here in a personal capacity.