There has been a dramatic change in the political landscape for migrants in Europe over the weekend as a new EU wide summit was reached regarding how the Union would deal with migration issues in the future. They key aspects of the summit include: domestic control centres within the EU, internal measures taken by member states to stop migrants moving within the EU and regional disembarkation platforms and bilateral agreements with North African countries and Turkey. The Summit suggests that ‘controlled centres’ will be established in Europe to assist with the fast determination of refugee status and the facilitation of return of migrants who do not meet the required elements to be considered refugees. However, the BBC noted that the centres are to be ‘closed and secure processing facilities’ which many are already calling migrant prisons. Additionally, the EU Summit promises to tighten the Dublin III agreement which is supposed to prevent migrants “shopping” for favourable states to process their refugee claims. The Summit also introduced ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ in North Africa. The BBC has described the platforms as “the EU trying to balance its tough internal approach with a friendly external one, and offering incentives to North African countries to host facilities where migrants can be assessed for resettlement in Europe”. The Summit was supposed to be a review of the current policies in place; however, the agenda took a dramatic shift as Chancellor Angela Merkel suffers the threat of mutiny from within her own coalition, and Italy closed its ports to NGO migrant rescue ships, promising to keep them closed for the summer and changing the direction of migrant flows towards Spain instead.
The Summit has received a mixed response. Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte told BBC “after this European Summit, Europe is more responsible and offers more solidarity.” However, Merkel noted that “more needs to be done to resolve disagreements” and European Council President Donald Tusk said “it is too early to talk about success”. The medical charity Medicines Sans Frontieres claimed that the deal was inhumane and further noted that “the only thing European states appear to have agreed on is to block people at the doorstep of Europe, regardless of how vulnerable they are, or what horrors they are escaping while demonising nongovernmental search and rescue operations”. Egypt has already stated that it will not be building refugee camps for migrants deported from the EU if asked. Ali Abdel Aal, the Speaker of the House of Representatives explained to Deutsche Welle that Egypt already has about 10 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Sudan and Somalia and that it was already at capacity. The leaders of Albania, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have also said that they will refuse to build reception centres claiming that it puts their countries at risk of becoming gateway states, leaving them unable to stabilize their own fragile political systems post Arab Spring.
Although migration and irregular entry into the EU are large issues that we will have to face in the 21st century, it is important to understand the statistical and political realities that form the backdrop to this emergency summit before heralding the summit as a success. Europe has been facing a influx not of migrants, but populist far right sentiment that has evolved into anti-immigration and anti-European Union governments forming throughout its member states. A Bloomberg analysis shows that in 2017 the support for populist far right parties is higher than it has been at any time over the past 30 years. Political parties and leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in The Netherlands have used anti-immigration sentiment to gain popularity. The flagrant rhetoric, mixed with frenzied media coverage, has resulted in a false sense of emergency and an inflated understanding of the numbers in Europe as a Union of 28 member states. According to the UNHCR, Lebanon, for example, hosts 1.5 million refugees with a population of only 4.4 million people itself and Egypt hosts 10 million refugees. At the very crux of the ‘European Migration crisis’, the UNHCR reported that 1.5 million refugees entered Europe. But since, then this number has reduced 95%. Approximately 56,000 refugees have entered Europe this year. This number is 77% less than in 2017. However, political leaders such as right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has branded the issue as an “invasion”. Similar sentiment has come to the fore with new right wing governments also in Italy and Austria making the issue seem like a union wide disaster.
Based on the facts, it is evident Europe is not sinking in a tide of migrants at this particular time. However, with climate change and its effects starting to take hold, mass influxes of populations seeking protection are likely to become an issue in the future. The EU should be applauded for taking the first steps in negotiating plans for how to weather such events. Hopefully, this new Summit will inspire a Europe wide approach to refugee flows, allowing for a fairer share of the burden. According to the BBC, in 2015 Germany took in 800,000 refugees, while the Czech Republic took in only 12 of the 2000 it had been designated. Furthermore, Hungary and Poland currently face legal action for failing to accept any refugees under the EU mandatory quota. The Summit is certainly a step towards better burden sharing. However, it is disappointing that the discussions have arisen at the mercy of far right anti-immigration demands and boycotts of humanitarian aid. It is for that reason that although the beginnings of addressing a difficult issue, has resulted in a plan that pushes the problems on to less developed and able external countries to carry the burden.
The European Union leaders, particularly those on the far right, seem to have forgotten that the international refugee law framework was established for political refugees fleeing the atrocities of war in Europe. It was the European countries that relied on the good-will and humanity of other states to take their most vulnerable in times of need. Europe at this point does not need to close its borders, peace is possible for refugees in Europe, so long as member states share the load equally.