8 September 2015

5 myths regarding the current refugee and migration crisis


During the current refugee and migration crisis, a number of myths, often propagated to serve all kind of agendas, continue to hinder the search for solutions. Here is an attempt to debunk five of them.

1. “The solution is to force countries to take in refugees and spread them across Europe”

Germany and France want “binding quotas [for refugees] within the EU to share the burden”, according to German Chancellor Merkel. The idea of quotas was proposed by the European Commission as part of its “European agenda on migration”. Only in May, French PM Valls called the idea “a moral and ethical mistake”. A number of member states, primarily from Eastern Europe, but also Spain still reject the idea to make this binding, which is why the EU Commission plans to make the “relocation” of 120,000 refugees across the EU voluntary.

This is a complete sideshow.

First of all, these 120,000 refugees would be coming from Greece, Italy and Hungary, so they are already within the EU, which is safe.

Secondly, this plan is being developed after the failure to reach the target to relocate 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece, following the trusted European Commission practice “When in trouble, double”.

Thirdly, if Poland would have to take in an estimated 9,000 refugees and Spain 15,000, these people can easily travel to where the jobs are: Germany, given that Poland and Spain are members of the passport-free Schengen zone.

Fourthly, if Merkel is really keen on damaging the EU’s brand, boosting support for anti-migration populists while pitting EU member states against each other, all without helping a single refugee, forcing countries to take in refugees who’re already in safety anyway is the way to do it.

The blame game just isn’t healthy. Germany is willing to welcome up to 800,000 people this year, almost quadrupling the amount, but it only welcomed a very average number of refugees – per capita – last year. Switzerland welcomed four times as many refugees per capita last year and the Netherlands welcomed 50% more than Germany. Did any Swiss or Dutch politician lambast Germany last year?

Migration is a sensitive issue everywhere in the world. It’s possible to convince people to allow more migrants in, but it’s a bad idea to impose it. Spreading of refugees has little do with helping refugees.

Last but not least, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker apparently wants fines imposed on member states that opt out of his proposed relocation mechanism. These sanctions would be paid into a special fund that would be used to subsidise the countries that take part in the scheme. More than 1.5 billion euro would also be used “for the regions from where most of the migrants originate”, ignoring how EU funds amounting to 13.3 billion euro have often served to strengthen corrupt cronies in the EU’s Southern neighborhood between 1995 and 2013. We can only wonder if Juncker hasn’t secretly become a paid agent of one of Europe’s populist anti-migration parties, given that these kind of ideas are likely to boost support for them.

2. “The solution is to end Schengen or increase EU border controls”

The passport-free Schengen-zone, which includes 26 countries and is now incorporated into the EU Treaty, is coming under severe fire. Last month, the Saxon branch of Angela Merkel’s party called for a discussion on suspending Schengen. Theo Francken, the Belgian State Secretary for Migration has expressed what many people think, when stating: “When I see that in some places there almost aren’t any controls at the borders [of the EU], then internal controls will be needed.” Also Hungarian PM Orban has called border control “the real issue”.

Would ending Schengen, which already offers a lot of room for border controls, solve much, however?

According to EU border agency Frontex, “most of those who currently reside in the EU illegally, originally entered in possession of valid travel documents and a visa whose validity period they have since overstayed”, while adding that “one of the biggest entry route for migrants into the EU is via international airports”, estimating that as many as 1.2 million irregular migrants may be entering the EU every year in this way. Obviously, the increased number of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean is altering the balance, but this is just to say that even if Europe would manage to stop everyone at its external border, it would only deal with part of the pressure. Again Belgian migration secretary Francken pointed out that “my external borders are [the international airport of] Zaventem and [the port of] Zeebrugge”, who’re both located in Belgium. So abolishing Schengen – or kicking countries that fail to guard their borders out of Schengen – wouldn’t change that much, apart from destroying the great personal and economic benefits of passport-free travel for citizens and companies operating within the Schengen-zone.

It’s estimated that in the last 15 years, more than 23,000 people have lost their lives while attempting to reach Europe, while the flow hasn’t stopped. Also the brand new Hungarian fence on the border with Serbia proves dysfunctional. To be fair, it’s probably possible to try alternative solutions to guard the Mediterranean border. One could try the Australian approach of returning refugees to where the boats embarked or to external centres where their asylum claims can be assessed. Since this policy was implemented, there has been criticism of the external centres but only a limited number of boats have tried to make the journey to Australia and no deaths have been reported, which means the policy deserves to be considered. This would also likely hit human smugglers hard. Furthermore, also posting European liaison officers at airports all over the world to control whether people aren’t trying to travel with false visa may help a bit, but all these controls would still leave the challenge of those overstaying their visas. At the end of the day, external protection or reinstating permanent border controls won’t make up for domestic shortcomings but would impose a high cost while only dealing with a part of the challenge at best.

3. “The solution is to get rid of the Dublin arrangement”

Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni is only one of many, along with Dutch social democrat leader Diederik Samsom, to demand changes to the so-called Dublin Regulation on asylum, which requires people seeking refuge in Europe to do so in the first country where they set foot. He stated: “If we don’t renegotiate the Dublin rules, first of all the fact that one enters Europe and not a specific country, we’ll end up having to renegotiate Schengen and free movement rules, which would be a defeat for Europe’s politicians.”

It’s of course the other way around. If “Dublin” is aborted, “Schengen” is finished. If Italy would be allowed to provide all migrants free passage to France, there is no way that France would want to continue to be a part of the Schengen area, with its minimal border controls.

It’s also bizarre to see politicians calling for an end to an arrangement which is partially suspended – although not completely. Angela Merkel already admitted that “the Dublin approach is not working anymore, because so many refugees are arriving at our external borders, that we can’t leave Italy or Greece alone to deal with this task”. Germany has now suspended Dublin for Syrian refugees, while countries haven’t send back migrants to Greece since 2011 already after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which considered this a violation of human rights. Merkel now doesn’t want to throw Dublin completely out of the window and instead aims to deal with this through spreading refugees, a solution which is also likely to fail, as mentioned before.

4. “The solution is to harmonise EU asylum policy”

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. The only hammer eurocrats have at their disposal is ever more concentration of power at the EU level, so this is what they have in mind as a response to the refugee and migrant crisis. Plans prepared long ago were quickly taken from the shelf when the crisis erupted and are now being pushed forward.

Proposals made  by the European Commission, the leaders of France and Germany, and Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU’s Presidency, include turning the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) into a fully-fledged European Refugee Agency – which would then be given the power to investigate whether the same standards for granting asylum are applied everywhere in the EU. The idea is that this may discourage refugees from making it to Germany, which last year reduced the time for asylum-seekers to access its labour market to three months.

In practice however, centralizing these kind of regulations, which are often issued with a look on unemployment figures, may lead to a mismatch between supply and demand. Spanish and German authorities are in a better position to decide on this than an EU agency based in Malta. The EU Treaty reserves the competence to fix numbers of immigrants from third countries entirely to member states, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Commission trying to undermine this through the back-door by imposing which standards member states employ to fix the numbers.

Also other proposals come down to forcing countries into an EU straightjacket, while it’s not clear what the benefits are. The EU Commission will draw up a common list of “safe countries of origin”, as if EU member states aren’t already able to make these decisions themselves. If the idea behind this is insufficient trust into fellow Schengen-states, it probably makes more sense to force the “untrustworthy” members out of Schengen, rather than to end Schengen or attempting to micromanage decisions on who should be allowed residence.

Merkel and Hollande have furthermore also called to establish so-called “hotspot” “reception centres” in Italy and Greece to identify migrants arriving from outside the EU and separate those entitled to asylum from illegal ‘economic’ migrants. This could be attractive for certain refugees and may take some of the burden off Northern Europe. However, Italy isn’t keen to agree with this, as it would face the prospect of large refugee camps within its territory, and has made this plan dependent on revising the EU’s Dublin-rules. Even if Italy and Greece would agree to this, this may not be the way to dramatically reduce the number of people obtaining residence status, if that’s the purpose. 62% of boat refugees are from Syria, Iraq and Eritra and 75% of people coming from these countries receive a positive decision, regardless of the fact that they may have been in safety in Turkey already before or not. In other words: most “boat people” are refugees or what national authorities consider to be  refugees at the moment.

5. “Welcoming more immigrants is a necessary tool to save Europe’s struggling welfare states”

There is little doubt that migration and opening borders to trade and people benefits the economy. A mere look at any given product or service in today’s globalized economy makes clear that closing borders or raising barriers for people to work together across borders can only stop progress.

Does that mean that allowing a lot of refugees in will bail out Europe’s welfare states? Those are heading to bankruptcy, having to deal with a lot of so-called implicit debt, all kinds of unrealistic promises made to citizens in terms of pension provision, health care and elderly care. Unfortunately, the answer is: only very partially.

A few years ago, the European Commission has estimated that the so-called “sustainability gap” – the future shortage of cash that the average EU member state is facing – would only be around 8% smaller if the EU pursued a policy of keeping the net immigration ratio in the coming decades at the 2008 level of 0.34% of total population. One can surely argue it may help close perhaps 20% or 30% of the gap, but what it shows is that as much as increased migration may be one factor in helping economic growth and tax income, it would be false to claim that this is a panacea to prop up Europe’s welfare model. For that, a combination is needed of working longer, a default on promises made and/or liberalising the economy to boost competitiveness and create economic growth.

So what’s the alternative?

Few would disagree with Irish rock star Bono, who said: “Aid is just a stopgap (…) Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid. We need Africa to become an economic powerhouse.” Also, closer cooperation with non-EU countries and perhaps the Australian approach can be part of the solution, as we have argued with Open Europe.

The question is whether we really should wait for such long term solutions to take effect. In the years to come, many will still be trying to make it to Europe, and should we blame them? Who would like to live in Syria, these days? It’s equally wrong to plainly dismiss concerns of European voters, who have witnessed on the ground that integrating large groups of people with a different cultural background is not without problems.

I have suggested myself to welcome refugees voluntarily in a “free haven” outside of the EU, where officials from richer countries would safeguard law and order to allow an economy to develop. Multinationals may prefer to host expensive production plants in these zones run by officials of countries with a high level of rule of law, rather than in unstable places like Ethiopia or Pakistan. Similar proposals have been made by US business man Jason Buzi, who wants to give refugees their own “Refugee Nation” and Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, the 10th richest man in Africa, who  has offered to buy an island off Italy or Greece in order to rehouse hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other conflicts.

If you want to help refugees, but you can’t or don’t want to help them within Europe, you need to help them outside of Europe. An agreement with third countries would be necessary for this. Unrealistic? The EU is this year launching a pilot project to develop a number of “temporary” reception centers in Niger, while France and Germany support opening similar centres in Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. Given that nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme, the EU may as well send police and justice personnel to these nascent EU refugee camps, similar to what it did in Kosovo.

I don’t want to simply blame politicians for not coming up with more ambitious and effective solutions, given that this isn’t an ordinary crisis which is easy to solve. But precisely because of that, we need solutions which go beyond ordinary management and more of the same. At least Belgian centre-left daily De Morgen supports my proposal, writing that it “is an unexpected, unheard proposal. But awaiting peace and prosperity in the Middle East, this looks like it’s going to be a crisis which can only be dealt with in an unexpected, unheard-of manner.

Pieter Cleppe represents independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels