Articles Defense & Security Europe

Europe’s Refugee and Migration Crisis

Image Credit: European Parliament
Europe's Refugee and Migration Crisis

The war in Ukraine has increased the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, pushing those fleeing previous wars to the back of the queue. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, over seven million Ukrainian migrants have been listed in Europe. The European Union (EU) has opened its borders and provided temporary protection to displaced Ukrainian people, with Poland taking in the most Ukrainian refugees, i.e., 1.4 million. However, the recent influx of refugees and migrants has questioned the reliability of the maritime and migration policies of the EU.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, between July and September, an estimated 119,039 refugees and migrants, including 10,821 children, came via the Balkan and Mediterranean routes in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Due to warfare, political unrest, the pandemic’s socioeconomic repercussions, food scarcity, and the effects of climate change, the number of refugees and migrants keeps growing while straining the ability of host governments to maintain equal access to sufficient essential services. Accommodations and sanitary facilities, health and protection services, educational possibilities, steps to stop and address gender-based violence, and assistance and care for unaccompanied and separated children are areas in which there are gaps.

Italy has taken over Spain as the main landing point for refugees and migrants. From January till October, more than 72,000 migrants from the south shore landed in Italy, mainly on the island of Lampedusa. However, Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, refused to allow more refugees to come into the country, keeping the asylum seekers stranded on boats for days in the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian authorities initially attempted to prevent passengers from coming ashore altogether, ultimately permitting only those deemed “vulnerable cases” by Italy. As the nearest port, Italy is compelled under humanitarian law to allow migrants to land. When Meloni took over as Prime Minister, she promised to engage constructively with the EU. But she promptly provoked a diplomatic spat with France by refusing to accept a shipload of migrants rescued by a French NGO. Meloni remained adamant that her government had not violated international law. Yet, migration and human rights experts claimed that it had.

At some point, the intercontinental migrant movement will surge along the various migratory routes into Europe, substantially undermining its political, social, and economic balance.

Pope Francis called on EU nations to take on a more significant proportion of the responsibility of accepting migrants rather than merely leaving it to the nations where they arrive. The Commission claimed that a substantial number of relocation spots are available to help relieve some of the burdens by relocating to other member states pursuant to its existing “solidarity mechanism.”

To avert a “humanitarian calamity,” the European Commission emphasised the legal obligation to save lives “regardless of the circumstances that lead people to be in a condition of distress.” However, the commitment was already jeopardised due to a conflict between France and Italy. The new right-wing government in Rome would prefer that private rescue ships carrying migrants not be allowed to enter Italian ports. In response, Paris announced that it would no longer accept 3,500 refugees from Italy. It asked other EU nations to halt participation in the EU migrant relocation mechanism and implement similar steps. According to the new right-wing government in Rome, certain NGO ships were breaking international law. Meanwhile, on 18 November 2022, France denied entry into the country to 123 of the 234 Ocean Viking migrants.

Eventually, on 11 December 2022, Italy agreed to let more than 500 migrants through its two southern ports in a seeming turnaround of its much-hyped staunch stance on immigration. The interior ministry maintains that the state’s policy on immigration has not changed. However, given the worsening weather conditions, it was expected that the ships could take advantage of the deteriorating weather and conduct an “unauthorised” landing in Sicily, which is already overcrowded due to the migrants.

Overall, migration stands out as the one crisis that Europe cannot address effectively. It has made Europe vulnerable in the Mediterranean. On the one hand, climate change is putting pressure on many African countries. On the other hand, thousands of helpless individuals, some fleeing conflict and persecution, fear perishing. Accordingly, Italy, Spain, and Greece are the main EU entrance gateways for immigrants. The Ukrainian population’s influx from the eastern flank is mostly to blame for the catastrophic demographic problem the EU is currently experiencing. This is a tragedy for humanity and a failure for Europe.

We can almost certainly predict that this situation will occur again in the coming months and that the Mediterranean Sea will continue to serve as a water graveyard for thousands of individuals who are escaping war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa or who are just looking for a better life.

The EU’s lawmakers’ failure to improve the Dublin Regulation and make its immigration and asylum rules effective is one of the most glaring of the twenty-first century, but the UK’s unsuccessful efforts to cater to the large number of migrant boats crossing the English Channel highlight that it is not just an EU issue. The EU executive is adamant that its most recent draft of a new deal on migration and asylum will offer a sustainable framework to address the Mediterranean Sea migration issue. Without providing any information on how or why, the Commission and European Parliament have also vowed that an agreement will be reached before the upcoming EU elections in spring 2024.

Furthermore, even if the new EU migration regulations were passed tomorrow, they would not address the fundamental issue that only a few national asylums and immigration systems can process applications fast enough. For the time being,  the most effective policy approach has been to negotiate migrant agreements with countries like Turkey and Morocco. As a result, both countries aggressively enforce their European borders. The problem with that approach is that it allows those nations to weaponise migration by opening borders for a day or a few hours, giving them leverage to demand additional concessions from the EU.

At some point, the intercontinental migrant movement will surge along the various migratory routes into Europe, substantially undermining its political, social, and economic balance. Even if the EU does everything necessary to address migratory movements, it will still need to address the underlying causes of emigration, which include conflict, economic collapse, and the looming threat of climate change. The boats are not going away, and Europe’s maritime borders are too large to patrol. Until all European governments acknowledge that migration is a shared issue and that a solution based solely on “Fortress Europe” would be ineffective, the problem will remain unsolvable.

Mashal Zahid

Mashal Zahid is a graduate of International Relations from the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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