Migrants and refugees streaming into Europe from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia have presented European leaders and policymakers with their greatest challenge since the debt crisis. The International Organization for Migration calls Europe the most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world, and the Mediterranean the world’s most dangerous border crossing. Yet despite the escalating human toll, the European Union’s collective response to its current migrant influx has been ad hoc and, critics charge, more focused on securing the bloc’s borders than on protecting the rights of migrants and refugees. However, with nationalist parties ascendant in many member states, and concerns about Islamic terrorism looming large across the continent, it remains unclear if the bloc or its member states are capable of implementing lasting asylum and immigration reforms.
Where do these migrants and refugees come from?
Political upheaval in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia is reshaping migration trends in Europe. The number of illegal border-crossing detections in the EU started to surge in 2011, as thousands of Tunisians started to arrive at the Italian island of Lampedusa following the onset of the Arab Spring. Sub-Saharan Africans who had previously migrated to Libya followed in 2011–2012, fleeing unrest in the post-Qaddafi era. The most recent surge in detections along the EU’s maritime borders has been attributed to the growing numbers of Syrian, Afghan, and Eritrean migrants and refugees.
The IOM estimates that more than 464,000 migrants have crossed into Europe by sea for the first nine months of 2015. Syrians fleeing their country’s four-and-a-half-year-old civil war made up the largest group (39 percent). Afghans looking to escape the ongoing war with Taliban rebels (11 percent), and Eritreans fleeing forced labor (7 percent) made up the second and third largest groups of migrants, respectively. Deteriorating security and grinding poverty in Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan have also contributed to the migrant influx.
What’s the difference between a migrant and refugee?
Distinguishing migrants from asylum seekers and refugees is not always a clear-cut process, yet it is a crucial designation because these groups are entitled to different levels of assistance and protection under international law.
An asylum seeker is defined as a person fleeing persecution or conflict, and therefore seeking international protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees; a refugee is an asylum seeker whose claim has been approved. However, the UN considers migrants fleeing war or persecution to be refugees, even before they officially receive asylum. (Syrian and Eritrean nationals, for example, enjoy prima facie refugee status.) An economic migrant, by contrast, is person whose primary motivation for leaving his or her home country is economic gain. The term “migrant” is seen as an umbrella term for all three groups. (Said another way: all refugees are migrants, but not all migrants are refugees.)
How has the European Union responded
As with the sovereign debt crisis, national interests have consistently trumped a common European response to this migrant influx. Some experts say the bloc’s increasingly polarized political climate, in which many nationalist, anti-immigrant parties are ascendant, is partially to blame for the muted humanitarian response from some states. Countries like France and Denmark have also cited security concerns as justification for their reluctance in accepting migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the wake of the Paris and Copenhagen terrorist shootings in early 2015.
“The backdrop to this [migrant crisis] is the difficulty that many European countries have in integrating minorities into the social mainstream. Many of these immigrants are coming from Muslim countries, and the relationship between immigrant Muslim communities and the majority populations is not good,” says former CFR Senior Fellow Charles Kupchan.
“Europe has historically embraced more ethnic than civic approaches to nationhood, unlike the United States, and that is part of the reason immigration is proving so difficult.” —Charles Kupchan
Underscoring this point, leaders of eastern European states like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have all recently expressed a strong preference for non-Muslim migrants. In August 2015, Slovakia announced that it would only accept Christian refugees from Syria. Poland has similarly focused on granting Syrian Christians asylum, and the head of the country’s immigration office admitted to the Financial Times that, “[applicants’] religious background will have [an] impact on their refugee status applications.” And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has explained his anti-migrant policies in explicitly anti-Muslim language. While selecting migrants based on religion is in clear violation of the EU’s non-discrimination laws, these leaders have defended their policies by pointing to their own constituencies’ discomfort with growing Muslim communities.
The recent economic crisis has also spurred a demographic shift across the continent, with citizens of crisis-hit member states migrating to the north and west in record numbers in search of work. And while the issue of intra-EU migration has sparked anxiety over social welfare benefits in recent months, “those who are coming from the Middle East and North Africa tend to provoke more heated political debate because of this issue of communal cleavage and integration,” says Kupchan.
By contrast, Germany and Sweden have unveiled some of the most generous asylum policies in the EU. In September 2015, Berlin pledged 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to support the 800,000 migrants—about quadruple the number from 2014—it was expecting to receive by the end of 2015. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” German officials also signaled that the country was prepared to take “500,000 asylum seekers a year” for several years. Similarly, Sweden’s liberal asylum policies have spurred a dramatic uptick in applications. Measured on a per capita basis, the country granted refuge to the largest share of EU applicants (317.8 per 100,000) in 2014. Stockholm had previously announced that it would offer permanent residency to all Syrian applicants in 2013.
Some experts say Germany and Sweden’s open immigration policies also make economic sense, given Europe’s demographic trajectory (PDF) of declining birth rates and ageing populations. Migrants, they argue, could boost Europe’s economies as workers, taxpayers, and consumers, and help shore up its famed social safety nets. But others caution that EU citizens might come to regard migrants as economic competitors, not contributors. Brookings’ Koser says the demographic argument presents a political paradox for some member states. “You have 50 percent youth unemployment in Spain, and yet Spain needs migrants. That’s just a very hard sell,” he says.