Combating Inaction in Europe’s Migrant ‘Crisis’

The tragedy on August 6, when hundreds of migrants drowned after their boat capsized off the coast of Libya, is eerily familiar. It parallels the story of the 800 deaths in April that brought the migrant crisis to the forefront of the political debate in Europe. While media and public interest has ebbed and flowed since, more than 2,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean, and now migrants are even dying once they are “safe” in Europe. These tragedies have become more common as a growing number of migrants attempt to cross EU borders regardless of the dangers, and exemplify the severity of this transnational problem. How many more deaths in the Mediterranean or the Channel Tunnel will it take for the European Union to take the migrant crisis seriously?

The European Union (EU) should accept more responsibility for the migrants who make it to Europe rather than dehumanizing them by branding them as “swarms” and treating them as a nuisance. Greece and Italy, the countries that bear the brunt of this problem, have been begging for help since 2014 with little response until now. In the past year, leaders in Brussels have bungled attempts to solve the problem at the European level. The European Commission’s modest plans to redistribute 60,000 migrants through a quota system failed despite staunch German and Austrian support. Meanwhile, Hungary announced plans to build a Cold War-style wall on the Serbian border, France tightened its borders to keep out migrants, and the United Kingdom sent fences and bused riot police to Calais to keep migrants out. Under pressure from anti-immigrant populist parties, national leaders would rather pass legislation that is politically safe, but fails to stem the flow of migration or treat humanely the migrants who have made it to Europe.

These superficial and reactive responses do not address the drivers of a deep-rooted issue. Migrants are fleeing their war-torn homes with nothing to lose. As long as war, terrorism, and violence engulf countries in the Middle East and Africa, no rickety boat or tightened border security will stop their pursuit for a better life in Europe. The EU fails to realize this crisis is an opportunity.

Reframing the ‘problem’

The EU and media could first start by labeling the issue differently. Calling it a migrant “crisis” is insulting to countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Pakistan that struggle to accommodate the millions of migrants that are in their countries as a result of instability in the region. In fact, relabeling the issue could turn the migrant question into a long-awaited solution for Europe.

The “crisis” rhetoric suggests that those who scraped enough money together and risked their lives to get to Europe are inherent problems, with a prevailing sentiment among many Europeans that they steal jobs by agreeing to work for cheap and exploit the welfare systems of their countries. However, these migrants can counteract the aging demography of Europe during a time of economic turbulence. In 2014, according to the New York Times, the number of working adults in Europe was a staggeringly low 57.5 percent and nearly one in five Western Europeans was 65 or older. The euro, increasingly strained by countries on the brink of financial failure, could benefit from a young population eager to transition to productive lives. Rather than merely tripling the budget of the European Union’s search-and-rescue mission Frontex, which recent news suggests hasn’t solved anything, the European Union should put resources into properly sheltering and processing migrants so they can work legally.

If France and the United Kingdom are worried about too many “illegals” entering their borders, then they should become flagship proponents and funders of the EU program to integrate incoming migrants to the Mediterranean EU members. Direct financial and logistical support to shelter and process these migrants would alleviate financial strains on Spain, Italy, and Greece. In turn, these countries could focus on coordinating to place migrants in local communities with industry needs based on their education and aptitude. A stronger EU-led presence would enable governments to collaborate with local governments, for both accommodation and integration purposes.

Secondly, the more politically contentious part of a solution is to pass an EU quota system. Other countries may still have apprehensions, but France and the United Kingdom need to shoulder more of the burden. If European leaders are serious about stopping the flow of illegal migrants to the north, then there must be a path for these migrants to legally transfer to countries throughout the EU. If the EU does not have the resources or political will to resolve the humanitarian issue at the “root” of this situation, like so many leaders have hollowly called for, then it should disperse the flow of people overwhelming the Mediterranean. This is especially important because Europe remains unwilling to give teeth to its mission in Libya or make commitments to encourage economic growth and governance in Africa and the Middle East. A mandatory quota system would help ease the humanitarian situation in the south while improving the economic prospects of an aging populace.

Given the rising death toll among migrants and the ineffectiveness of EU funding, European passivity is unacceptable. If migrants believe the only choice to have a better life is to trek towards the United Kingdom, Germany or Sweden, Europe will be forced back to the drawing board for years to come on the issues of immigration and integration.

Alexa Lipke is an intern with the Transatlantic Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Image: A migrant dives into the water from an overloaded wooden boat during a rescue operation 10.5 miles off the coast of Libya August 6. An estimated 600 migrants on the boat were rescued by the international non-governmental organizations Medecins sans Frontieres and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). (Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi)