Sometimes seeing things, even when one is prepared for them, is helpful in focusing the mind. A few days ago, as I got out of a bus that takes passengers from the Malpensa airport in Milan to the Central Station, I was struck by the number of people, obviously African migrants, camping in the piazza in front of the railroad station. It is not the first time that I have seen migrants en masse in Italy, but never have I seen entire families cooking and eating meals, while sitting on the lawn (or what remains of the lawn), in a large city park.
One just needs to look at the newspaper headings to see that the problem of migrants is growing daily in Europe and that its gravity is greater than before. The number of migrants this year has already exceeded 100,000 (about 15% higher than the last, record, year); the number of the dead has reached at least several thousand although the statistics are murky since no one has a real incentive to compile them. People just die in the desert or at sea and no one cares. Practically every European country thinks about either deporting migrants, making the asylum laws more difficult, or simply shutting the borders: from France that under Sarkozy deported European (sic!) Roma, to Hungary that threatens to shut its southern border to Serbia, and to Bulgaria that, at the EU’s urging, has built a wall against Turkey.
For now, Italian border police, together with the Austrian police, patrols its northern border so as not to allow migrants to cross into Austria. This may not last though. According to the EU’s internal rules, the country in which migrants first arrive is supposed to deal with them, giving them a temporary authorization to stay or grant political asylum. But many migrants wish to go north, to Germany and Scandinavia, where they have relatives and better prospects of finding a job. The Italian PM Matteo Renzi has threatened to simply issue them Schengen visas so that they can go wherever in Europe they wish. Italy wants to get rid of them and is tired of having to deal with the problem (as they see it) alone, with little help from the north. Every country in Europe is willing, at most, to be the transit point for migrants; none is willing to be the point of settlement. Thus everybody tries to pass the hot potato of migrants to its neighbor. The only way to make sure you will not have to accept the hot potato is to build a wall as Bulgaria has done and Hungary plans to. No walls have yet been planned or erected within EU members states but that too cannot be excluded.
And it is a delicious irony of history that the countries that complained the most about the existence of border fences and walls, and vowed to bring them down forever, are now busily constructing them. Perhaps it might seem odd to an impartial observer that rich Europe of more than 1/2 billion people is unable to cope with one hundred thousand migrants and refugees while much poorer Turkey has accepted 1.7 million refugees from Syria and Pakistan and Iran have accepted several hundred thousand from respectively Afghanistan and Iraq. The difference is that the African and Middle Eastern migrants who come to Europe have often no relatives, friends or even the vague possibility of a job. They are left to fend for themselves, living on public or private charity, and small, often illegal, trade. They are culturally, religiously and linguistically more different from the average Italian or Spaniard than are Syrian refugees from the Turks (or more to the point, Syrian Kurds from the Turkish Kurds). Thus the refugees and migrants remain totally unintegrated.
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Now several things are clear. First, the migration wave, even if the Europeans manage to control it this summer (which is far from obvious), reflects more deeply seated and permanent factors that are unlikely to abate any time soon. These factors are political chaos in the Middle East and, more importantly, the extraordinarily huge income gaps between Europe and Africa. With globalization, the knowledge of these gaps as well as the practical means to bridge them by migrating to a rich country are more known and affordable than ever. These trends look even more unmanageable for Europe when one takes a longer-term view and realizes that sub-Saharan African population which is currently only slightly greater than that of all of Europe is expected to be almost six times greater by 2100. Thus, economic migration will, if anything, increase.
Second, European difficulty in absorbing migrants is not only due to cultural or religious differences but also (unlike the US, Canada, Australia) to the lack of history of being a land of immigration. Although some countries have received political refugees in large numbers (examples of France receiving refuges from the Spanish civil war, or more recently many EU countries accepting refugees from Bosnia, come to mind), Europe has generally been an emigrant continent, from the Hebrides and Ireland in the north to Sicily and Greece in the south. Furthermore, lack of economic growth, sluggish domestic employment numbers and high unemployment rates in southern Europe make availability of real, however modest, jobs for migrants low.
Third, European Union has in the past several years committed a number of political blunders that have aggravated the crisis and created instability on its borders. The mistakes include the mindless overthrow of Ghaddafi whose regime was replaced by feuding tribes and Hobbesian chaos leading to the absence of any control over Libyan borders, both in the south and the north. Then, the equally mindless ultimatum to the previous Ukrainian government (namely, German insistence that the condition for the signing of the trade agreement be the release of Yulia Timoshenko from prison and her medical treatment in Germany); this has led to the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, Russian intervention in Ukraine, and the civil war. And finally, the current impasse over Greece which threatens to create chaos not only on the borders of the Union but within itself. The EU thus needs to think long and hard whether it is in the process of transforming itself, through a combination of arrogance and incompetence, from a source of stability to an exporter of political and economic chaos.
Fourth, the situation with migration as it currently is increases the influence the right-wing, often xenophobic, parties. Even when they do not participate in government their ideas and agenda are taken over by the center-right or centrist parties, as has happened in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Gradually, the entire political spectrum gets “infected”: anti-immigrant policies become mainstream.
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Fifth, it is I think obvious that the EU has absolutely no solution to this latest migration crisis. It is simply lost: with no strategy, no policy and no ideas. Not that the problem is easy. But the only approach that might begin to produce something that resembles a solution would be multilateral, not solely amongst EU members (as in the current, strongly contested, idea of allocating migrants among EU member countries), but in including also the emitting countries from Africa. A general system of both emitting and receiving country quotas seems the only way to impose some order and stability. The quota system may not be able to deal with random events like the Syrian civil war, but it should be able to deal with economic migration. With an orderly quota system, a person from Mali who is considering migrating to France may prefer to wait several years and get an official permission to settle there rather than to pay a smuggler now for an uncertain entry into France.
But such a multilateral approach would require (i) a huge amount of coordination and goodwill amongst both European countries themselves and between them and African countries, and (ii) European recognition than in the next 50 to 100 years they have to accept a strong influx of African populations simply because demography and economic gaps are dictating it. Unfortunately, neither of these two conditions is close to being satisfied. So the problem, among permanent political improvisation, will continue to worsen.
This post was first published on Branko Milanovic’ Blog