Who shoulders the migrants, and who the refugees?

Last November, the French Government called Italy “inhuman” and “irresponsible” for not coming to the aid of a ship carrying refugees who had been stuck in Italian waters for three weeks. The Ocean Viking, operated by the European NGO SOS Méditerranée, had picked up migrants near the Libyan coast and then spent several weeks in search of a port that would accept the ship. Eventually, the ship docked in Toulon, France, offloading 230 passengers, which included 57 children.

The Ocean Viking’s case intensified the existing long-term dispute between these two countries over the migration issue. The rift worsened after Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy, was elected prime minister.

As a reciprocal gesture towards Italy for not allowing the Ocean Viking to dock, France decided to suspend the plan to host 3,500 asylum seekers who have already arrived in Italy, and French authorities promised to strengthen controls over the French- Italian border. Italy, on the other hand, responded by saying it had hosted no less than 90,000 migrants in the year 2022 alone, and other EU countries have no legal or moral right to blame it for shunning Ocean Viking’s passengers.

It seems that just around the time the Covid-19 crisis has slowed down, the migration crisis has shot back into news headlines in many parts of the world (EU, UK, US, Latin America). It seems this year is not going to be much different, as we have already observed so far.

We hear the word ‘crisis’ often in the context of migration. But this is not a ‘simple or regular’ one-off issue. According to Arjen Boin, what we are witnessing is a classic creeping problem, where a crisis evolves over time, reveals itself in different ways, and resists comprehensive responses despite periodic public attention. The people can observe the ‘growing and spreading’ outcomes of migration, often daily; they see the effects and, at times, inequalities brought to themselves, their families, and their children.

Migration can be unpleasant for many people because it has such far-reaching social implications. Despite the high level of political attention and debate surrounding the issue, there is often a lack of comprehensive strategies and action plans in place to address it. This suggests that many governments may be more focused on using the issue of migration as a political tool than on developing effective policies and solutions to deal with the practical challenges that migration poses.

The fact is that the flow of refugees consists of two streams – those looking for safe harbour and those looking for economic opportunities – and it is very difficult to distinguish between the two. It does not help that trying to develop strategies to do so can lead to politicians getting branded for or against immigrants.

The issue of migration isn’t an alien concept for Europe itself. Europeans also experience migration crises, and the social dimensions of this issue run deep into the feelings and perceptions of the people.

The current problem in the EU stems from unresolved issues during the previous crisis in 2015, when 1.3 million people (mostly from Syria) came to the region as refugees. Soon, it became clear that the Dublin III system and solidarity would not help stop ‘migration shopping’ or make some EU countries less appealing than others.

The Dublin Agreement says that the first country where an asylum seeker registers is responsible for his or her reception and asylum procedures. However, in 2015, the agreement didn’t work. Thousands of people marched straight through safe EU countries to get to Germany, Sweden, Belgium, and the UK, which are more popular European destinations. Eastern European countries, on the other hand, flat-out refused to take in refugees.

Last year, as Covid-19 began to weaken and countries opened up once more – despite claims to the contrary – the refugee issue began to pick up speed once again. The EU saw a massive increase in the number of asylum applications, jumping from 630,000 in 2020 to 924,000 in 2021. And after February 24, 2022, EU countries added more than four million Ukrainian citizens under the temporary simplified access and protection scheme, and overall numbers could increase this year.

Such massive inflows slow down the decision-making process, expand backlogs (increasing waiting times for asylum hearings and decisions), and have practically paralysed reception facilities in most of the EU countries. There are more and more cases where even minors and women with children are staying on the streets for months, waiting for their first application and then for a decision. The average waiting time is now six months, with some cases going up to two years.

Many of the arriving population are forced to take to the streets in an unorganised manner, causing additional problems. Médecins Sans Frontieres said that more and more asylum seekers are contracting serious infectious diseases because they sleep on the street and can’t get medical help for their physical health. Long waiting periods and uncertainty degrade people’s mental health, causing violent and criminal behaviour. The latter worsens safety and security problems for European cities and citizens and further increases social tensions.

On top of the complications that refugees will face when they arrive, the time that they are meant to depart is not any easier. This is true not just for those being asked to leave the EU after their applications have been refused, but also for the local populations of these areas. A poorly functioning return process (towards outside of the EU) falters due to the lack of co-operation from the migrants’ countries of origin. Such an understandable lack of co-operation and the subsequent inability of the EU to push ‘refused migrants’ back is, in EU decision- makers’ eyes, a ‘pull factor’ inviting further illegal migration, and rightfully so.
Authorities in most EU countries also blame NGOs and lawyers who repeatedly appeal for case rehearsals, further overloading an already saturated system and giving a positive, reassuring, and inviting message to next- generation newcomers, therefore generating more income for traffickers. Business for traffickers is getting better and better, and far from scaling back, they seem to be increasing their activities.

There was a lot of hope for a better-financed and equipped Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency), which would recruit more and aim to have 10,000 people employed by 2027. The agency, which only had a six-million-euro budget in 2005, was granted 750 million euros last year. But the situation is far from ideal. The 129-page investigation report by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) found that Frontex, under former executive director Fabrice Leggeri, was complicit in Greek efforts to force migrants and asylum-seekers crossing the Aegean Sea to return to Turkey; simply speaking, it closed its eyes on the practise of pushbacks. And Greece was not alone.

On February 9, the EU held a summit on migration with a focus on migrant returns and border protection. The inability to find working solutions to the migrant crisis can bury the Schengen Agreement, because discontent and mistrust among EU countries are only growing. The unwillingness of some EU countries to see Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen area is clear evidence of that. Building fences and walls on external borders has become a more and more popular way of acting, so we see the ‘fortress of Europe’ approach materialising. Between 2014 and 2022, the total length of border fences grew from 315 km to 20,478 km. Greece and Bulgaria, for example, expressed their wishes to have fences and walls constructed on their borders with Turkey. Spain has a fence on its border with Morocco. Poland completed its 186-km border wall, and Latvia completed its five-kilometre fence with Belarus.

Even though the EU and Schengen have experienced some big problems, the problem of migration and the lack of controls is not unique to the EU.

The UK found itself in a particularly difficult and awkward situation as one of the main slogans of Brexit was ‘taking back control’ of UK borders, promising British voters that it would result in the halting of illegal migration from the continent. And it seemed that although the UK could make all the decisions needed to make this happen on its own, but it hasn’t done so so far.

The UK hoped that leaving the EU would solve the migration problem, but things didn’t go as assumed. The new facts are that there is a lack of emergency housing, problems with the return system, a high cost to taxpayers, a political crisis, and a big rise in illegal entries through the English Channel.
Asylum seekers can’t get to the UK through the safe and legal routes that were once available through the EU’s Dublin system. However, since Brexit, the number of irregular (and, of course, illegal) arrivals by small boats crossing the English Channel has increased in a way that has never happened before. While sneaking into the country has become more difficult, channel crossings by boat have reached a new high. According to the UK Ministry of Defense, as of November 2022, more than 40,000 people had crossed the English Channel in small boats. On November 12, 2022, alone, 972 people on 22 boats crossed the Channel. The highest daily total on record was seen on August 22, with 1,295 people crossing in 27 boats. The highest number of these people are Albanian nationals, whose objectives are often far from the ‘safe harbour’ origins of established permissive migration controls. This new popular route has greatly contributed to an overall increase in asylum applications in the UK.

But it is not all about illegal migration. The UK has also witnessed a significant increase in legal migration as well. Net migration to the UK reached 504,000 with the arrival of Ukrainians, Hong Kong nationals, and Afghans (invited on humanitarian grounds).

No greener pastures

With this big jump in the number of newcomers, housing, health care, schools, and other public services have been put under a lot of stress. The UK pays seven million pounds a day for illegal immigrants in hotels because there aren’t enough places for them to stay at the airports or in the cities. And the majority of them are kept away from the controls. According to the opposition Labour party, only two per cent of those arriving apply for asylum (read: stay under a controllable process umbrella); others simply disperse in the country and are employed by the grey economy or end up in organised crime groups.

Like what we’ve seen in the EU, the UK has a backlog problem when the process can’t keep up with the number of newcomers and the ‘queue’ keeps getting longer. As of June 2022, there were 127,026 cases waiting for a first decision, or pending further review.

The UK tries to benefit from its ability to make single- handed decisions. In April 2022, the UK Government signed a deal with Rwanda to deport all asylum seekers arriving via the Channel. It was planned that such a deal would discourage new migrants and stop the trafficking.

The logic is that if such a ‘return’ system works, it will have a significant impact on traffickers’ businesses and reduce the attractiveness of the UK as a destination. This deal was severely criticised not only internationally but also by some intra-country opponents of the current government.

Another catch was that the UK is no longer bound to the Dublin Framework, the Eurodac fingerprint database, and other important parts of the European migration and asylum system. So, Brexit also made it harder for the UK and its European partners to come up with and carry out effective plans to stop smuggling. As a result, in addition to being an appealing ‘primary’ destination, the UK now represents a ‘second chance’ for those denied entry into the EU.
Meanwhile, the UK tries to work closer with France on the other side of the Channel. In November 2022, the UK and France made a migrant deal. The UK will pay France 63 million pounds (an increase compared to the previous figure of 55 million pounds) for a significant increase in officers patrolling beaches in northern France on the south side of the Channel. The number of officers patrolling the French coast will increase from 200 to 300.

There will be more surveillance measures, including CCTV, more drones, night vision equipment, and detection dog teams, all deployed to prevent illegal entrance via lorries and small boats. An intriguing twist in this story is that UK and French observers will collaborate in joint control rooms, while state sovereignty does not allow for joint patrolling.

Following the deal with France, which owns a large part of the continental side of the Channel as well as the Channel Tunnel, subsequent joint efforts should be made with Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, from where migrants can reach the British coast in the same way as from the French coast.

The migration crisis is a creeping one, often changing its face along the way. It demands elaborate measures for effective solutions. Such measures, many of which are on many people’s lips, may necessitate serious and profound large-scale consultations across the entire society, as well as, and this is crucial, a strong political will and personal career risk-taking. Whatever a good and/or balanced solution might turn out to be, politicians who support it will almost certainly face harsh criticism from one or both ends of the political spectrum… or from all of them.

Lina Kolesnikova takes a look at the refugee crisis in Europe and how Schengen states are grappling with the in influx of refugees looking for safety and those seeking economic opportunity.