Synopsis: As a result of ongoing violence, a mass exodus of migrants fled their home countries, and many sought asylum in Europe. This led the EU to establish various migration policies. This article examines the extent to which the EU’s policy on migrants has evolved over the four-year period, including the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment by some EU citizens and officials.

The 2015-2016 European migration crisis, in which 1.3 million refugees sought refugee or asylum status at European borders prompted a redesign of the European Union’s migration policy. The migrant crisis started with the conjecture of political events in the Middle East and North Africa, and became an uncontrolled flux of migrants that prompted the need for better regulations to increase the availability of the legal channels for emigration deemed safer than unregulated crossings.

Why Europe?

In 2015 and 2016, some parts of Africa and the Middle East experienced bursts of violence that prompted a mass migration of civilians to safe-havens. It’s important to note that Europe is typically not their main destination as most civilians affected by conflicts at home prefer to stay close to their countries of origin. In the Syrian case, only 1 million out of the 13 million displaced civilians chose to migrate to Europe between 2011 and 2018, and most of them ended up in Germany. In 2019, conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya prompted 6.21 million civilians to seek shelter in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, or Ethiopia. Europe, therefore, embodies the desperate solution for those leaving their country in order to seek safety and economic opportunities abroad. Despite this consideration, Europe was chosen by more than a million migrants due to its socio-economic situation and its geographical proximity to the Middle East and North Africa.

Snapshots of Syria and Nigeria

A closer look at the situation in Syria and Nigeria demonstrates the multitude of causes for mass migration. The case of Syria shows that large-scale violence and political instability prompted civilians to fear for their lives while Nigeria’s socio-economic precarity coupled with a weak government prompted civilians to reconsider their future in the country.

The entrance of the United States in the ongoing Syrian civil war (2011-ongoing) escalated the conflict by increasing the offensive capabilities of the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS by providing military training and arms. As a result, civilians faced economic hardships and more than 11 million civilians became displaced, either within the country or abroad. Between 2011 and 2015, 2.1 million Syrians found shelter in UNHCR refugee camps in Turkey while another 1.1 million headed to Lebanon in similar camps.

The case of Nigeria exemplifies how the lack of economic and employment opportunities can lead individuals to seek opportunities elsewhere, including Europe but mostly in the United States. While the rate of population growth steadily outpaces economic growth, Nigerian struggle to find economic opportunities in light of the faltering economy, which is in turn impacted by lagging infrastructure and services resulting in widespread poverty. As a result, many Nigerians chose to attempt the dangerous journey to the EU through Libya, commonly known as the eastern Mediterranean route. By entering the EU in this technically illegal way, migrants cannot access proper visas or asylum status upon entry which prevents them from accessing government support. As a result, many migrants in Europe are facing economic hardship, social insecurity, racism, and unemployment

The 2016 set of migration policies

The first set of policies adopted by the EU in 2016 established guidelines to increase the safety of migrants and asylum seekers while also guiding host countries on how to integrate the flux of asylum seekers through proper legal means. The underlying framework of the 2016 migration policies was based on the concept of externalization, which refers to the shift of responsibility in managing migrant flows. In other words, the EU’s approach to tackling the migration crisis was to ask non-EU countries, mainly Turkey and Libya, to prevent irregular arrivals. The problem with such an approach is that the EU lacked the enforcement mechanisms to ensure the respect of migrants’ rights, which coupled with the lack of financial capital and proper infrastructure, led to hostile detention-like refugee camps

Moreover, the 2016 set of migration policies faced widespread backlash throughout Europe from those claiming that the incorporation of so many refugees into their borders would undermine their national sovereignty. This criticism was given despite the fact that the new migration policies were not legally binding, and despite the UN’s affirmation that such migration policies would not infringe on national legal systems.. Such criticism opened the door to anti-immigration narratives that used distorted facts, such as linking migrants to terrorism and the assumption that the settlement of asylum seekers threatens national culture and traditions. As a result, Europe experienced a wave of anti-immigrant violence fueling inter-racial tensions culminating in events such as the Charlie Hebdo attack and the anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue that left three people dead in Copenhagen in 2015.

Despite the unintended consequences of the policies put in place in 2016, they were successful in some aspects. The 2016 migration policies were successful in implementing a foundational policy framework that reduced the number of irregular arrivals of migrants on EU territory by 90%, through an increased presence of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency on the Western and Eastern Mediterranean sea routes. It also strengthened the role of Frontex, the EU border agency, to fight human trafficking and smuggling at land crossings. 

The 2020 revision of the Pact

On September 23rd, 2020, the EU adopted the largest revision of its migration policy since 2016, following an earlier minor revision in 2018 which failed to produce coordinated and efficient management of migrant fluxes. The 2020 revision, dubbed the Pact, stands out because it frames emigration to Europe as a positive phenomenon, providing the opportunity for EU countries to integrate skilled workers into their economy. As a result, the new policy stresses the importance of proper mechanisms for integration such as cooperation in resettlement assistance programs and setting up partnerships with local government agencies to increase employment opportunities. Moreover, the pact focuses on establishing partnerships with countries of origin to fight migrant smuggling through information-sharing schemes on migrant identities, and to increase funding and support for border management within the EU and abroad. The pact also seeks to share the responsibility of relocating migrants and asylum seekers among EU countries by creating pools of potential workers that may fill in the gaps in specific economic sectors, although members are allowed to opt-out if they prefer.

Although the Pact has some positive aspects, there are major flaws as well. For instance, the emphasis on the involuntary return of asylum seekers to countries of origin and the reassertion of the externalization of borders perpetuates the notion that the EU is against the arrival of migrants – despite its humanitarian rhetoric. Concretely, the Pact grants the EU Return Coordinator, who oversees the deportation of rejected asylum seekers, the right to use incentives such as development aid or visa sanctions to pressure countries of origin to accept the return of their nationals. Such a carrot-and-stick approach to deportation emphasizes the extent of the EU’s willingness to reject asylum seekers: the EU is clearly making its decisions on which migrants are permitted based off of vague criteria, which allows room for political prejudices seen in the hardline anti-immigrant narrative of conservative EU members to come into play.    

An alternative to the Pact: Engaging with the private sector   

As most flaws in the EU migration policy stem from the need for the involvement of EU members to articulate and operate the Pact, the involvement of the private sector to facilitate the integration of migrants through employment sponsorship would benefit most actors involved in the process. This policy was brought forward by policy-makers from the Global Compact on Refugees, a UN body that provides advice on refugee and migration policy and regulation, to promote cooperation rather than protectionism. Coupled with preferential trade agreements as an incentive to take in more migrants, it would foster economic growth for host countries and enhance social cohesion.

Although the Pact represents a paradigm shift by viewing migration as an opportunity to integrate skilled workers into its economy, its humanitarian aims have not been fully realized in practice. The question of whether the EU has a duty to accept, support, and protect, even temporarily, migrant and asylum seekers remains unaddressed, which is a key issue for EU members that oppose mass emigration. Looking forward, engagement with the private sector has the potential to steer the narrative on migration by framing it in a way that appeals to conservative EU members by presenting it as an economic opportunity to increase their labour force.

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