Moving on from panic mode: was last week a turning point in the migration challenge?

German FM Steinmeier and Economics Minister Gabriel call for solidarity, humanity, fair distribution and support.

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As Europeans go back to their desks this week, reflecting back on their summer with colleagues, there will be few who will not have been touched in some way by the migration crisis. Whether we have only read the papers and been marked by pictures of tightly packed unseaworthy boats and the negative imagery conjured up by politicians struggling to respond , or closer to hand seen something of the chaos, panic and relief swirling through reception centres, towns and islands on the northern side of the Mediterranean, or passed nearby ‘the jungle’ in Calais and seen the desperation of people willing to risk everything to board a train to the UK, these images will be indelibly marked in our minds.

And they should be. This seems to be an ugly new face of Europe today.  As the number of deaths in the Mediterranean has steadily risen, Hungary has constructed a new fence to protect an EU external border, Slovakia has suggested it will only accept Christian refugees,  EU-neighbour Macedonia has deployed the army to prevent migrants passing through, but the wide ranging push factors – from horrific conflicts in Syria, and Libya, decades of political persecution in Eritrea and other source countries, to the lack of economic opportunity or security that drives so many to seek the chance to stand on their own two feet and support themselves within Europe – have not improved. Far from it. Although the solutions to these problems further afield will never be wholly, or even mainly, European, too little political energy has been devoted to the origins on the international stage of the migration pressure which Europe now faces, and too much time has been lost in European leaders’ panic reactions to the growing concern in the domestic population about the local impacts of migration on services and employment opportunity, and negotiations over the elusive goal of burden sharing between European states.

The renewed search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean supported by a number of European governments since May this year have not solved the problem – though they are welcome. Other migration routes have simply seen more traffic – extraordinary journeys have been made overland to come into Europe via other entry points in the south and east. And as we saw in the devastating end to more than fifty lives in the back of a lorry found in Austria last week, traffickers have continued to profit from migrants’ desperation to arrive in Europe at whatever cost, at whatever risk.    

These heart breaking stories show the human suffering that is created when the Dublin convention is implemented collectively to the letter but without the real understanding of the collective responsibility which was supposed to go with it. As EU states pass responsibility from one to the other, it stops nowhere. The German government recognised this in its decision on 21st August to suspend the Dublin requirement to send new arrivals back to the first EU state they passed through, in the case of Syrian asylum seekers. This common sense approach was met with both a flood of thank you letters to Merkel from Syrian individuals, but also a flood of questions around Europe about the implications for Schengen. Austria announced over the weekend that it was restarting border checks on an indefinite basis, and Denmark has also reportedly done so. If European states cannot rely on their Schengen partners to implement the rules in every case, does free movement within the union become impossible?

As German Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Economics Minister Gabriel launched a ten point plan on immigration last week, they argued that there comes a point in a crisis in which you have to accept that pre agreed rules might not be fit for the current situation. Their plan called for such sensible notions as solidarity, humanity, fair distribution and support for the European states most affected by the crisis. Fine words and at this point they are only that. But it is to be hoped that this marks a turning point in the EU response – moving on from panicking about the crisis, and stepping up instead to our role as a compassionate neighbours to those whose lives have been ripped apart by war and crisis. Neighbours indeed who have a history of having benefitted from the compassion of others in not so distant history.

If managed as a European continent, with refugees welcomed into the communities in Europe that can most easily sustain a growth in largely working age – as refugees often are – population, the migration challenge should not be a crisis for Europe. As our flash briefing on the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean showed back in April, European states’ intake of Syrian refugees per thousand of the population pales into insignificance when compared with that of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Nevertheless when throwing around the word ‘crisis’ so freely for the overall picture, we should not allow ourselves to forget that every individual story of a person risking everything to travel to Europe is a personal story marked by crisis of some kind. Why else would they accept such high stakes?

Another heart-warming message was to be found last week in reporting on the welcome that Serbians have shown to Syrian refugees , remembering themselves the need for human kindness for those who are escaping untold horror, trying to rebuild their lives. This is after all a question about the Europe we want to be. As the preamble to Germany’s new ten point plan argues:  “One thing is clear, and that is that the response so far does not meet the standards that Europe must set for itself….We must therefore pursue a European asylum, refugee and migration policy that is founded on the principle of solidarity and our shared values of humanity”. As in so many areas of European policy making, Germany has been reluctant to lead Europe as the immigration challenge has grown. Perhaps as the summer of crisis comes to a close, we can at least hope that now that Germany has set out a plan, at least this plan appears to be a small step in the right direction.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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