Stopping migration is impossible; managing it is smarter

Simple, practical solutions for the migration problem exist. Europe just needs organisation. 

Here we go again. Thirteen thousand migrants and refugees fished out of the sea and dropped in Italy within four days. They board rubber boats by the hundreds in Libya, reassured by smugglers that they will be rescued and transferred. So the travellers take the risk for a hefty payment. At the same time hundreds of people a day are arriving on the Greek islands again.

In the meantime, the political season is starting up again in Europe. This is a crucial season. Elections will be held in various EU countries this year or in 2017. Politicians continually outdo each other in competition for the crudest ‘solutions’ to the migration problem, varying from “close borders; build walls” to “let them drown”.

As long as Donald Trump exists, Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders and Norbert Hofer can almost pass for moderates. Nicolas Sarkozy – who wants to change the constitution to enforce a burkini-ban – looks like a positive wimp by comparison. The migration chaos plays into the hands of hardliners. It makes citizens scared enough to be willing to vote for politicians who want to destroy the prosperity and humanism that Europe has been rightly proud of for decades.

In the midst of the emotional identity hysterics used by these politicians, one could almost forget that there are simple, practical solutions for the migration problem. To get it under control, Europe simply needs organisation. That´s all.

The migration boom shows that people will come to Europe regardless of barriers. The Balkan route was closed down, so now many travel via North Africa or Bulgaria. If you shut down the Libya-route, another one will open up. Europe cannot be sealed off.

There are two categories of arrivals. First: refugees, fleeing war and persecution. Every European country has a legal duty to shelter them or help them find shelter elsewhere – on another continent if necessary. The EU should let refugees apply for asylum in their own region. That way, people can be registered and screened at EU offices on the ground. At the moment, they need to take the illegal, risky journey to Europe to be able to apply for asylum. In the new system, refugees who meet the criteria could come via legal channels; no smugglers needed. Anyone who still came through illegal routes could then be sent back.

The second category is migrants. They come because there is work in Europe. A lot of work: cleaning, harvesting, health work. Work is the main pull factor for migrants, and employers are screaming for cheap labour. But this is not allowed because of the “what if they stay” fallacy. Someone who is in the country illegally will not go back of his own accord once he is in Europe: you don’t try a death trap twice. But if he has a contract to work for four months, and the prospect of being able to work legally next year for another four or five months at a Spanish car factory or a Dutch farm, he can easily go back to his country in the interim. Many will do that.

Migrants who do not have legal means to come to Europe will come illegally. We cannot stop migration. What we can do is legalize part of it and organise it. Create European labour offices in Africa, determine which EU-countries need which type of labour migrants, and let people apply for job openings in their region. If they have bad luck or are not qualified, they can try again next year. This way European authorities decide who comes, not the smugglers.

Experts have been advocating these pragmatic solutions for many years. Many politicians act, however, as if this solution does not exist. They prefer to provoke us with bans on mosques or plans for more walls, misleading voters and dividing societies. Why on earth would you vote for them?

Caroline de Gruyter is an ECFR Council member. This article was originally published in Dutch by the newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

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


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