Migration has become the central political issue facing most European countries in recent years and threatens to rip the European Union apart. On Sunday, 16 European states met in Brussels for an informal summit to tackle the unprecedented pressures from migration and asylum-seekers facing the continent. Like the United States, where President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE is under fire for his strict immigration stance, the EU has been experimenting with sometimes harsh measures such as paying non-EU states to keep migrants away.
Every day brings more news of uproar over migration. Central and eastern European countries boycotted the Brussels meeting that was led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, collectively called the Visegrad group, resent the attempt by wealthier western European countries to force migrant “quotas” on them. Macron called for sanctions against EU states that refuse to accept more migrants.
The difficulties facing hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees in Africa and Asia who seek to reach Europe are immense. Tens of thousands have died in the Mediterranean. Algeria is accused of abandoning 13,000 migrants in the Sahara. In Libya, Nigerians are held as slaves and abused; only some of them finally make the voyage toward Europe. On the Greek island of Lesbos, where many migrants seek to reach the EU state of Greece after traveling by boat from Turkey, there is massive overcrowding and fighting in the understaffed camps for arrivals.
Although the EU has tried to portray its policies as more humane than the Trump administration’s, the reality in Europe is far more complex. After Germany opened its doors to refugees in 2015, a mass refugee-migrant movement of almost 1 million people sought to reach northern Europe via poorer southern European countries. I spent time with many of those crossing the borders in September 2015 and watched as each European country sought to pass the buck to the next, literally pushing or busing undocumented migrants across Greece to Macedonia, Serbia, and then to Hungary or Austria.
States didn’t even bother to check or register the people, several of whom ended up being members of the Islamic State terror group. Then the EU encouraged Turkey to keep migrants, paying billions of dollars to stem the tide. This was largely in response to rising nationalism and populism across Europe. The 2016 Brexit vote was partly a response to EU migration policy and anger over perceptions of open borders. Bavarian German conservatives are seeking to challenge Merkel because of her migration policy. An anti-migrant mood helped bring Italy’s populist government to power.
The European Union, with some recent members that joined in the early 2000s, is struggling with its inability to understand the big picture. The United Nations recently marked World Refugee Day, noting an unprecedented 68.5 million refugees. Millions of people long to make Europe or the United States their main destination; how to counter that is a major policy challenge.
In the United States, immigration problems pre-date President Trump. In 2014, the Obama administration noted a large growth in asylum-seekers from Central America. Adam Isacson of the Washington office on Latin America told CNN at the time, “We don’t want to send people back into harm’s way, but the more they expand access to asylum, the more people will feel they have a case.”
This is the dilemma facing Europe. The more who come, the more will want to come. Tackling that problem is complex. Even though thousands have died crossing the Sahara or drowned on the way to Europe, many still want to make the journey. Despite slavery and abuse, people take the risk. Paying third countries, such as the Libyan Coast Guard or Turkey, to keep migrants away doesn’t solve the overall problem; it just keeps them in camps across the sea.
Pushing migrants from one European state to another, or forcing quotas on countries, doesn’t help either and could lead to the breakup of the EU. Instead, what is needed is for the countries of origin to encourage people to stay home, through investment and education. Adding border walls or moving people from one place to another hasn’t helped. Nor has the idea that countries in the north can accommodate all of the world’s economic migrants and asylum-seekers.
Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the state of the region after ISIS.