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Europe’s Migration Crisis: From ‘Wir Schaffen Das’ to Greece Is Our ‘Aspida’

Five years ago, Europe faced a crisis of migration. Today it faces a crisis of migration policy.

Joel Hernàndez

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An elusive pact

Last month, the European Commission announced it would postpone the release of its draft proposal for a new EU Asylum and Migration Pact—initially scheduled for Easter—until after European leaders finish negotiating the bloc’s next long-term budget later this summer. At first glance, this delay might look like a reasonable adjustment of priorities, placing public health and the economic challenges of COVID-19 ahead of a migration crisis diminished over the years. Beneath the surface, however, it reflects not an adjustment of priorities, but rather an admission: five years past the peak of Europe’s migration crisis, fixing its broken common asylum system is no longer a top priority of the EU. 

If, as of mid-2020, Europe no longer faces a crisis of migration, it still faces a crisis of migration policy. Rather than trying to understand the broader dynamics driving asylum seekers to take immense risks to reach Europe, and alter the underlying incentive structures, over the last five years the EU appears to have stalled on a deterrence-only approach to irregular migration. 

This approach, however, is not delivering: the EU has not managed to seal its external borders, and its efforts at deterrence have significantly diminished Europe’s standing as a guarantor of human rights and refugee rights. To push EU leadership, and to push the elusive Asylum and Migration Pact forward, it is important to understand why the pact is stalled, and to understand the cost of this stall. To do so, it is essential to revisit the dynamics of forced migration to Europe over the last five years.

From a crisis of migration…

Europe’s 2015-2016 migration crisis was fueled by multiple, complex, and overlapping reasons. The promise of a better life in Europe, whether real or perceived, drew displaced people from around the world toward Europe by the millions. As smuggling networks proliferated in Turkey and as anarchy reigned amid Libya’s fragmented civil war, novel pathways to Europe opened up that had, in past decades, been closed. In the space of a few short years, mass irregular migration in unsafe, often predatory conditions became a central EU challenge.

Between the spring of 2015 and the spring of 2016, 1 million asylum seekers transited through Greece toward northern Europe; over half a million of them arriving through Lesvos, an island of less than 100.000 inhabitants. A few thousand nautical miles due west, over 450.000 asylum seekers reached Italy between 2015 and 2017—while an unknown didn’t, some perishing in the Mediterranean, others at the hands of smugglers in Libya, and yet others in the Sahara.

At its peak, the crisis threatened to unravel two decades of free movement within the Schengen Zone. Far-right political parties vaulted from the fringes of Europe’s political spectrum to its mainstream in the shadow of the crisis, and the Brexit campaign mobilized adherents with posters of massed asylum seekers alongside ominous slogans

The migration crisis of 2015-2016 profoundly challenged the EU, forcing it to adopt unorthodox and, at times, highly questionable policies to regain control over runaway migration. Yet, by mid-2016, the EU had managed to reduce irregular arrivals from several thousand to several dozen per day; create an infrastructure of asylum seeker reception, identification, and processing; pilot programs to deploy personnel to migratory crisis points; and relocate tens of thousands of asylum seekers from highly strained frontline countries to the rest of Europe. Just as importantly, the EU had bought itself time, with these ad hoc measures, to rethink its approach to irregular migration and to devise and implement comprehensive and sustainable migration policy reforms.

Five years onward, the EU no longer faces a crisis of migration. It still faces, however, a crisis of migration policy. Though arrivals never rose again to the levels of 2015-2016, Greece still received about 30.000 asylum seekers in 2017 and again in 2018, nearly 60.000 in 2019, and over 10.000 thus far in 2020. Italy has received over 40.000 since 2018

Yet Europe is not managing these reduced arrivals any better than it did the crisis of five years ago. If the defining image of yesterday’s crisis was that of chaotic mass arrivals, the defining image of today’s crisis is just as dispiriting. Filth and overcrowding in refugee camps in the Aegean. Horrific abuse in detention centers in Libya. The recurring drama of search-and-rescue ships in the Mediterranean drifting at sea for weeks as they await authorization to disembark asylum seekers rescued at sea. 

Five years ago we entered a crisis because circumstances beyond the EU’s control overwhelmed its migration management systems. Five years on, and despite significantly lower arrival numbers, we remain in crisis because those systems have not evolved. Whether this is the result of the EU’s inability, failure, or refusal to reform its migration management, the results are the same.

… to a crisis of migration policy

To emerge from the 2015-2016 crisis, the EU drew on a mix of resources. It created novel instruments—the EU-Turkey Statement1The EU-Turkey Statement is a deal reached between EU and Turkish authorities in early 2016 to halt further maritime arrivals from Turkey to Greece’s Aegean islands. Through the Statement, Turkey committed to dismantle smuggling networks in Turkey and to closely patrol its coasts for irregular migratory crossings. Turkey also committed to accept returns of inadmissible asylum seekers from the Aegean islands to Turkey. In return, the EU committed to provide Turkey €6 billion in assistance to help it provide for refugees domestically, to loosen visa requirements for Turkish nationals to enter Europe, and to revisit Turkey’s stalled EU accession process.  and the Malta Declaration2The Malta Declaration is a commitment made by the European Council in early 2017, pledging to address the root causes of migration from Africa to Europe by increasing EU development aid to African states, and to interdict migratory transit from Libya to Europe by funding and equipping Libya’s coast guard and providing ongoing training and coordination. The Declaration also pledged the EU’s support to efforts by UNHCR and IOM to provide for asylum seekers returned to Libya and facilitate voluntary returns to countries of origin.—to limit maritime arrivals from Turkey to Greece and from Libya to Italy. It also recast the roles of existing agencies, such as EASO3The European Asylum Support Office is a coordinating agency that supports the asylum services of EU member states to implement the Common European Asylum System. This includes drafting and circulating minimum standards for reception and case management, and monitoring and building the capacity of individual member states’s asylum services. EASO also provides surge capacity to strained states, deploying teams of asylum officers to support local asylum systems. and FRONTEX4FRONTEX is the EU’s joint coast guard and border protection force. In its first decade of existence, FRONTEX acted in a coordinating and capacity-building role, helping different EU member states implement common border control and coast guard procedures. In 2016, FRONTEX became an operational force, able to draw assets and personnel to run autonomous border control operations., whose footprints have grown dramatically in the last five years.

To understand the EU-Turkey Statement and Malta Declaration, it is important to lay out what these instruments are and what they are not. Neither is a formal, legally binding agreement, strictly holding parties to specific commitments (in fact, neither instrument is an official treaty). Equally important, neither is a one-off transaction nor a fixed-length agreement. Rather, they are platforms for coordination between imperfect partners. Their purpose was not to resolve the root causes of irregular migration to Europe, but rather to tamp down crisis conditions and buy the EU time to build systems that might resolve, or at least mitigate, the underlying problem. 

Each deal came at a high cost. The EU-Turkey Statement saw Europe truncate the rights of asylum seekers arriving in Greece’s Aegean islands, creating a parallel asylum system that required claimants to prove their admissibility into Europe before they could present their case for refugee status. The Malta Declaration cemented a partnership between the EU’s august institutions and Libya’s besieged authorities and their allied local warlords. If Turkey could be considered a reasonably safe country to return asylum seekers—a questionable proposition in the best of lights—Libya, in the grip of a fractious civil war, is an extremely dangerous place for already vulnerable asylum seekers. Indeed, over the last three years, asylum seekers apprehended by Libya’s EU-funded coast guard have suffered horrific and well-documented human rights abuses in Libyan detention centers—with hardly a word of criticism from the EU.

To properly assess the EU-Turkey Statement and Malta Declaration, however, we must not only consider its short-term costs, but also how the time bought with these instruments has been used. Had the EU managed to roll out comprehensive migration policy reforms over the last four years, these instruments might have become obsolete, and their costs might have faded out over time. As of mid-2020, however, neither the EU-Turkey Statement nor the Malta Declaration appear close to being replaced by more holistic—let alone more human rights-respecting—migration management instruments. 

Externally, the EU-Turkey Statement was meant to create space for the EU and Turkey to rationalize their migratory relationship. Four years on, however, Turkey remains the world’s largest refugee-hosting country, and displaced communities in Turkey remain as willing as four years ago to risk everything onboard an unseaworthy rubber dinghy to reach Greek soil. 

Internally, the EU-Turkey Statement was supposed to allow the EU to launch its ‘hotspot’ approach: a network of service centers at Europe’s periphery where arriving asylum seekers could be identified and registered, and sheltered while their asylum process was launched. In these four years, however, the EU has not managed to build systems to receive asylum seekers in dignified conditions or process their asylum claims swiftly and effectively. As of December 2019, asylum seekers arriving in Greece waited an average of just over 10 months to receive first-instance asylum decisions, and years longer to obtain proper documentation (such as state-issued identity cards, social security and fiscal identity numbers, and travel documents), most of them living—and some dying—in deplorable conditions in EU hotspots. 

Likewise, the EU has little to show for the three years since it issued the Malta Declaration, and for the funding and equipment it has provided to outfit Libya’s coast guard forces through this time. Though EU officials provide human rights training to their Libyan counterparts, and though UNHCR and IOM provide basic support to returned asylum seekers and monitor conditions in detention centers, systematic abuse against detained asylum seekers is the norm in Libya—as is impunity for perpetrators.

Working with UNHCR, the EU did open refugee resettlement facilities in Niger in 2017, and in Rwanda in 2019, built to take in evacuees from Libya and offer them protection and livelihood opportunities, along with a chance to apply for resettlement to Europe. While these are promising pilots, they are only that. In 2017, the EU pledged 50.000 resettlement places for displaced Africans to resettle in Europe—a token number, given the millions of displaced people in Africa for whom Europe represents hope. Two years later, this program expired after fulfilling only 37.500 resettlement departures. At this scale, the EU’s migration facilities in Niger and Rwanda are far from solving the narrow issue of irregular maritime migration in the Central Mediterranean, and even farther from solving the broader issue of migratory pressure from Africa to Europe. 

The EU has invested five years of effort, funds , and credibility to develop systems to manage migration internally (the hotspot approach) and externally (offshore refugee resettlement). Its achievements for this effort are, at best, a work in progress. It is impossible to answer, in mid-2020, whether in another five years these pilots might grow into robust, fair, and effective systems that might mitigate the cost of the EU-Turkey Statement and Malta Declaration. It is certainly not too soon, however, to demand of European leaders not just a new Migration and Asylum Pact, but comprehensive migration policy reforms, building on the promises of these pilot initiatives, and built to stamp out the abuses inflicted on asylum seekers—beyond Europe and within—over the last five years.

From ‘Wir Shaffen Das’ to ‘Greece is our Aspida’

Five years ago, an overwhelmed EU embraced deterrence as a necessary evil to tamp down a runaway migration crisis, buying time to build functional migration management systems. If we accept this bargain, then functional migration management systems are the price that the EU must pay for that acceptance. The mechanisms built in these years, however, are not delivering. The ‘hotspot’ approach has neither sped up the processing of asylum claims, nor facilitated greater cohesion in asylum seeker reception across the EU. The launch of resettlement centers deep in sub-Saharan Africa have neither reversed the incentive for asylum seekers to try to reach Europe through Libya, nor provided solutions to those stranded in unspeakable conditions in Libya. 

In the absence of functional migration management systems, deterrence has, by sheer inertia, evolved from a necessary evil of the EU’s migration crisis response, to a core element of its migration policy. Europe’s call to action has gone from Chancellor Merkel’s wir schaffen das (German for ‘we will manage this’) to European Commission President von der Leyden’s comments upholding of an aspida (Greek for ‘shield’) at Europe’s external borders. 

EU institutions have ample capacity to manage an effective, just, and predictable asylum system if so directed: FRONTEX in a registration and border management role, EASO in a refugee status determination role, each in support of national authorities. Without a clear vision, however, these institutions and the national authorities they support can only default to the prevailing winds: deterrence. 

Unlike in 2015-2016, Europe today faces not a crisis of migration, but a crisis of migration policy. There is only one way to tackle a crisis of policy: with policymaking. In an age of mass displacement, the EU needs migration policies fit for purpose,  balancing its need for border control with the inevitable reality of human mobility, all the while honoring its commitments to human progress and human rights. Europe has the tools and the talent, in spades, to manage its borders justly. Unless it articulates a clear ethic of respect for human rights to balance the inherently restrictive nature of border enforcement, however, the EU’s asylum and migration policies will never be whole—or functional.

Joel Hernàndez

I am a freelance humanitarian responder and analyst based in Greece, where I focus on the local effects of regional and global trends in migration policy development. I believe that community interventions are more effective when they are informed by broader policy discussions. And likewise, policymakers can create better policy if they are informed by local communities. That is why I work to bridge these two worlds. I was born in France and raised in the United States while always speaking Catalan at home. From an early age I learned to understand Europe and the world from a place of cultural fluidity. Obtaining degrees in history and international relations, over the course of my career I have worked in labor organisation and have provided legal assistance on the U.S.-Mexico border. I then went on to work as a policy analyst in Washington D.C., and now a humanitarian responder in Greece.