In the contemporary globalized world, questions about the movement of people and tensions around borders are increasingly being raised. In Europe, there are two opposing migration trends. On the one hand, many people are trying to reach the European continent through any necessary means. This time last year, around 50 migrants on average arrived through the Mediterranean to Europe each day. Since the beginning of 2021, 612 migrants have died in the largest cemetery in the world, the Mediterranean sea.
On the other hand, European nations are becoming less and less welcoming of migrants as policies towards international migration continue to harden overall. A growing number of European political parties promote anti-migrant sentiments, in an effort to rally more voters. Through media and provocative speeches, the issue of international migration is often oversimplified to be an uncontrollable wave that risks swaying European cultural identity.
Yet just a few decades ago, international migration in Europe was welcomed and even encouraged. What changed?
Making sense of the “migrant crisis”
Migration has existed since the beginning of time. International migrants, defined as people who do not live in the country where they were born, amount to 3.4% of the world population, or roughly 258 million people. These numbers represent various situations, including immigrating for studies, work, romance, and more.
Yet popular opinion tends to frame the ‘migrant crisis’ in a negative way to specifically demonize poor people from developing countries, who are described as “swarming” to Europe to access better living conditions. However, the mass influx of migrants is constituted of many different individual stories. Mainstream literature differentiates between two types of migration: economic and political. An economic migrant seeks better living conditions. On the other hand, a political migrant, commonly referred to as a refugee, is forced to leave their home because of conflict or mistreatment from their national government.
In reality, however, it is difficult to differentiate between the two. For example, political and economic migrants tend to use the same transit routes. They often share common experiences and reasons for leaving. Once they arrive in Europe, they have to tell their stories and prove that they are refugees in order to be granted asylum and be allowed to stay. Yet the drivers for leaving are intertwined: what can be considered voluntary migration? War in one place can cause shortages in others, encouraging people who are not directly persecuted to leave. In this case, is it voluntary?
Most importantly, the term ‘economic migrant’ has become heavily politicized, and is used by European governments as a way to deny any responsibility towards most people coming in, refugees and other migrants alike. In 2015, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French extreme rightwing party, declared that 99% of migrants arriving in Europe were economically motivated and not political refugees. This was her way of arguing that France has no obligation to receive and protect the majority of migrants entering its territory. However, the rhetoric used by Le Pen and other far-right politicians obscures the fact that whatever the reasons for leaving may be, there is a common feature regarding these migrants: their journey is long and hazardous.
1973 as the turning point regarding anti-migrant sentiments
In Europe, migration picked up after World War II. At the brink of bankruptcy, governments desperately needed labour to reinvigorate their struggling economies. As such, they encouraged and welcomed immigrants. In France, hundreds of thousands of Italians, Spaniards, and Portuguese came to work a range of difficult, unskilled jobs in public works and construction that were seen as unfavorable by the French. Soon, there was also an influx of Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, and later, those from other African nations as well. This wave of migration was accelerated by the decolonization process happening simultaneously. For example, many Algerians fled to France during and after the Algerian war between 1954 and 1962. Throughout Europe, immigration was generally appreciated and welcomed, and such positive views were more represented in political speeches and media.
The turning point was the 1973 oil shock and the economic crisis that ensued. Suddenly, migrants became the black sheep, the scapegoats that prevented local people from getting jobs. Economic downturn meant restricting budgets and the rise of nationalism. Since then, the discourse about migrants within Europe has changed to become derogatory. Deconstructing narratives about the ‘migrant crisis’ and the history behind it shows how current perspectives on migration are political and not objective. They enable governments to avoid responsibility.
The de-responsibilization race of governments
This responsibilization has a clear impact: individuals suffer from it. Dariush Beigui faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years. For what crime? Sailing in the Mediterranean sea and saving people on rubber boats that were at risk of drowning. Beigui recalls: “We had often situations where we were somewhere where no other NGO ship is, and the weather was bad, and there was a rubber boat. And in that moment, it’s clear [that] if we would have not [found] them, they would have been dead two hours later, maximum.”
Three boats tirelessly roam the Mediterranean to save migrants from almost certain death. They should be acclaimed as heroes. Instead, they are accused of collaborating with Libyan traffickers and betraying their countries. This story is sadly but one of many examples of how European governments avoid responsibility and try to circumvent the issue.
Surprisingly, the European governments themselves are the ones partnering with Libyan coastguards and traffickers. About a year ago, the newspaper the Guardian unveiled proof of a European Union aeroplane providing the coordinates of a rubber boat to Libyan coastguards. This was done in an effort to mitigate arrivals on European territory by sending people back to Africa. However, this type of relationship is not new. Before the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, ruler of Libya for 40 years, Europe had reached a financial deal with him to tighten border controls. This deal involved joint sea patrols, detention, and deportation of illegal migrants in an effort to prevent most migrants from reaching European shores.
Similarly, in 2004, the EU and members of the Schengen area created the Frontex agency to “ensure safe and well-functioning external borders providing security.” In other words, the objective is to keep out migrants coming “illegally” to Europe. For example, Frontex is particularly present in the Balkans, to “support border control [and] help tackle illegal immigration.” Many migrants report that they were pushed back by Frontex’s staff in the Balkans.
In 2021, EU states and Schengen members contributed more than 540 million euros to Frontex, a budget increase of 33% from 2020. From 2021 to 2027, Europe has budgeted 9.8 billion euros for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), whereas Frontex is expected to receive 11 billion euros. Thus, the focus of spending is on the prevention of migrants, rather than their welcome. This is a concerning projection of the EU’s future priorities surrounding migration and refugees.
Such budgets and policies are legitimized by simplified media discourses portraying migrants as an uncontrollable wave. Coverage tends to dehumanize migrants, by exaggerating numbers and focusing mainly on instances of illegal entry. This constructed image is far from a much more nuanced reality.
To challenge such hostile ideological views, it can help to ask the following question: why is the migrant crisis considered a “crisis”? Is it because of a never-ending flux of incoming migrants? Or because of the EU’s mismanagement of their arrival and welcoming?
Facing a “crisis of welcome” rather than a “migrant crisis”
Welcoming immigrants is inscribed into the 1951 Geneva Convention and its subsequent 1967 Protocol, which has been ratified by all European nations. The convention outlines state obligations to welcome people who have “well-founded fear[s] of being persecuted.” It is based on the fundamental human right to mobility and takes into account the dignity of each migrant.
Despite the obvious disregard of migrant human rights by many European countries, such as Hungary and France, they have a duty to welcome migrants and offer them the opportunity to live in a dignified way. Beyond legal responsibility, it might also be in the best interest of countries to switch their perspectives on migrants. In fact, well-integrated migrants become assets for the countries they settle in. It can be a ‘win-win’ situation.
Immigrants are hard-working and more than willing to contribute to the society that welcomes them. They enhance economic growth and productivity of their host countries. In Sweden, 70% of recent refugees that are graduates have skills matching job vacancies. Just like a few decades ago, developed countries still have sectors in health, construction, and restoration that are in desperate need of labour. This is notably the case in Germany, where companies invest thousands of euros to train refugees who become their employees. Finally, migrants are more likely to become entrepreneurs, enhancing innovation in their host country.
Furthermore, immigration could be a solution to aging populations. Many European countries face a decline in population, which will bring forth a new set of challenges. Migration can counter this process by providing an active labour force, and by contributing to pension funds for older populations. Immigrants also have higher fertility rates for many different reasons including many wanting to have children earlier and culturally wanting more children.
Ultimately, it is increasingly important to change the common rhetoric of the “migrant crisis.” European nations should take responsibility for ensuring the safety and dignity of migrants, with a focus on settlement rather than prevention. This will enable immigrants to contribute to the country welcoming them, making it a win-win situation for all stakeholders involved.