Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Europe's refugee crisis: foreseeable and unsolvable

Asylum seekers camped in "The Jungle" at Calais, France, hoping to reach the UK. 
Image from UNHCR free galleries, photo taken by O. Laban-Mattel.

Europe is experiencing a surge in asylum claimants. They come from some of the world’s most troubled spots: East Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and overwhelmingly of late, Syria. Over 250,000 arrived in the first half of 2015; in July alone an estimated 50,000 arrived in Greece. European leaders are scrambling frantically to find ways of dealing with the crisis, but are struggling to find any palatable ones. This is a subject about which I know more than many people, for reasons I will explain in a moment, and in my view the current crisis was both entirely foreseeable and is one for which there is no easy way out.

First, a little background information. From 1999 until 2002 I was the Canadian government’s Immigration Control Officer (ICO) for Central Europe and the Balkans. What that means is that my job was to monitor and gather information on the movements of undocumented migrants into and through that part of the world, report on these to Ottawa, and work with airlines and interior ministries to prevent such individuals from reaching Canada. My area of responsibility included Austria, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and all the former Yugoslav republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo). It was a turbulent region in a turbulent time. The Yugoslav wars were in their final stage, with NATO forces occupying Kosovo at that time, and Macedonia teetering on the brink of civil war. War criminals and mujahidin fighters were looking for places to move on to, now that ceasefires were in place in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. New Balkan states and former Soviet bloc countries were struggling to modernize their economies and political institutions in the hopes of joining the European Union (EU).

Corruption and organized crime blooms wherever you have political instability and conflict, and that was certainly the case in many of the countries to which I traveled. Even then, there were large numbers of undocumented migrants from the Middle East and Africa being smuggled or trafficked* to EU countries through the Balkans, or around the northern shores of the Black Sea through the Ukraine, Hungary, and Slovakia. The numbers were not as large as they are now, but migrant smuggling and trafficking was even then highly organized, systematic, and profitable. Most of the migrants were young men who had left their families behind in the hopes of finding work in Europe, but there were also more despicable things going on, such as the trafficking of women and children for purposes of sexual slavery and exploitation. The same organizations and individuals were often involved in multiple types of smuggling and/or trafficking, and in many countries along the way, if local officials weren’t outright cooperating with the smugglers, they were at the very least turning a blind eye. There were government agencies that were trying to do something about smuggling and trafficking activities, but they tended to lack the financial and technical resources to cope with what they were facing.

*The difference between migrant smuggling and migrant trafficking is straightforward. A migrant who is being smuggled goes voluntarily; a migrant who is being trafficked has essentially been kidnapped. Often, trafficking victims initially think they’re paying for the services of a smuggler and find out too late they’ve been tricked.

Another legacy of the Yugoslav wars and the ethnic cleansing associated with them was the large and visible presence of refugee protection infrastructure, such as UNHCR offices, International Organization for Migration (IOM) staff, and refugee camps. Camps that had been built seven years earlier to accommodate people fleeing violence in the former Yugoslavia had transitioned into accommodating asylum claimants from places like Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I remember quite clearly, for example, a clean and safe camp operated by the Hungarian government in the town of Bicske, not far from the Austrian border. It had been built to accommodate ethnic Hungarians fleeing the Vojvodina region of Yugoslavia, but on the day I first visited it in 1999, its dormitories were filled mainly of young men of Pakistani and Afghan origin. It had a very nice computer lab that had been paid for by the UNHCR, and at each terminal the user was checking his Yahoo or Hotmail e-mail account while simultaneously studying a map of the Austria-Hungary border on MapQuest (Google Earth hadn’t yet been invented). The reason the young men were studying it was because, in 1999, that was the EU’s southeastern-most external border.

Travel into and within the EU is governed by something known as the Schengen Agreement. People can move freely, with minimal restrictions, among countries that have implemented Schengen. It's quite remarkable, when you think about it: countries that less than 50 years earlier had been trying to rip one another apart decided to remove all border controls and allow one another's citizens to come and go as they pleased. Imagine being able to travel from Spain to Denmark without ever having to show your passport to anyone, or stop your car for nothing more than gas; an American citizen living in Buffalo cannot even go view Niagara falls from the Ontario side of the river without a passport and a long wait to clear customs there and back. People who are not citizens of an EU country are required to present a passport (and visa, if necessary) at the first land border crossing, port, or airport of the first Schengen country at which they arrive. Once inside the Schengen area, they, too, enjoy freedom of movement.

Since 1999, additional countries have joined Schengen, expanding the EU’s external boundaries (Figure 1). Today, Schengen countries border Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania*, Serbia, Croatia*, Turkey, Bulgaria*, Macedonia, and Albania. The countries with asterisks will be in the next wave of countries to join the Schengen agreement, and then the EU will also border on Moldova and Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the EU’s frontiers moved eastward and southward, they have drawn increasingly close in a geographical sense to some very troubled regions. For example, the EU now shares a land border with Turkey, which in turn borders Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Those large numbers of undocumented migrants coming to the EU back in the 1990s from more distant parts the world had to cross several more international boundaries to get there. EU officials knew that expanding the Schengen boundaries would have implications for EU asylum policies, and one of the ways they sought to address this was to insist that countries joining Schengen implement procedures for identifying, documenting, and processing asylum claims made by non-EU nationals. Indeed, I sat in on meetings where officials in places like Hungary and Slovakia were wrestling with how to do exactly just this.

Figure 1: Schengen area (source: ec.europa.eu)

The term ‘asylum’ is not one that we use in Canada, and our immigration system is very different from that of most European countries. The vast majority of the 250,000 or so immigrants who come to Canada each year acquire their permanent resident visas through sponsorship by a family member already established in Canada, or as independent skilled workers or business people who are selected because of the skills they have offer. We do offer protection to people who are refugees fleeing violence or persecution in other countries, and if they qualify they are granted permanent residence. Refugee claimants may arrive at our borders or airports and request refugee protection on arrival, or they may be resettled directly from refugee camps or other places overseas. Only about 9% of immigrants to Canada are refugees who would be considered to be asylum claimants in Europe. This is due not only to our immigration system, but also because Canada does not share contiguous borders with any countries that generate large numbers of refugees. It's simply not easy for someone fleeing a conflict like the one presently raging in Syria to get to Canada.

In Europe it's a different story. A Syrian refugee who is physically able to make the journey across Turkey can attempt to enter Schengen-member Greece by land or by floating a short distance on a raft to a nearby Greek island. Others take more roundabout routes to get to Europe, some going as far as north as Norway's border with Russia. Others risk their lives on extremely dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean to Italy from North Africa on unseaworthy boats. The routes they choose have a lot to do with the EUs asylum policy, known as the Common European Asylum System, and governed by something called Dublin Regulation.

Under the Dublin Regulation, a person who seeks asylum becomes the responsibility of one and only one EU member country. Which country is that? It depends on the situation. If an asylum claimant has a relative who is already legally established in an EU member country, the asylum claimant becomes the responsibility of that same country, even if the asylum claimant has arrived via a different EU country. So, for example, if an Algerian who arrives by boat in Italy and makes an asylum claim has a brother in Paris, it is the government of France and not Italy that is responsible for assessing the legitimacy of the asylum claim and for accommodating the claimant if his claim is accepted. This creates a self-reinforcing process, since EU countries that already are home to large populations of foreign nationals will receive larger numbers of asylum claims to process than will others. Germany in particular has a very large immigrant population, including many people with ties to Turkey and the Middle East, and so it is the intended destination of many of the people presently fleeing that region.

If an asylum claimant does not have any relatives living legally in the EU, then responsibility for that claimant falls to the Schengen country where the claimant first arrived. This creates its own dynamic, since Schengen states like Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia are the first ones that many asylum claimants from the Middle East will encounter, but are among the poorest EU nations and are least capable of accommodating new migrants. They have few employment opportunities, can offer very little in the way of social welfare benefits to asylum claimants, and have languages that few asylum claimants can speak. Asylum claimants who arrive in these countries typically don't want to stay there any longer than necessary, and would prefer to move on to countries like France or Germany, where their social, and economic prospects are much greater. And Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia certainly do not mind if they do move on.

This in turn leads to the scenes that we are now seeing on the news, where thousands of asylum seekers are making their way over land from Greece through the Balkans, towards Hungary. Although Greece is part of the Schengen agreement, it is geographically isolated from the other Schengen signatory states. Asylum claimants who make it to Greece have successfully entered Schengen, but to get to one of the wealthier EU nations, the only way to do so is to leave Greece, and try to re-enter the Schengen area somewhere else. But an asylum claimant is only allowed to have one claim at any given time, so if he (or she, though the majority are male) is successful in reaching another Schengen country, he will conceal or destroy his identity documents and submit a new asylum claim with a name that differs from the one used in the previous claim. Unless one is systematically collecting the DNA of asylum claimants, which no one is, it is virtually impossible to determine if a given individual has applied for asylum in another country. Should he fail to make the overland journey from Greece to the main Schengen region successfully, the asylum claimant hopes that at worst he will be returned to Greece and resume his asylum application there, and not have to go back to Turkey or to his country of origin. I used to witness this process regularly back in my days as an ICO, and my European contacts had a slang for it: asylum shopping. Some reports suggest that some asylum claimants will deliberately enter claims in multiple EU countries to hedge their bets in case one claim gets rejected, but there's not much statistical evidence on this. If they do, I can't say I blame them, since different EU countries will interpret or enforce EU asylum rules differently (or selectively). 

You will notice throughout the preceding discussion I have made no mention of Britain, and that is because the UK is not part of the Schengen area. The British and the Irish have chosen to maintain border controls even for people arriving from EU destinations. You see the consequences of this in the TV news images of asylum seekers trying to clamber aboard trucks and trains traveling from France to England through the Channel Tunnel. There are many asylum seekers who have arrived in the EU or are trying to get to the EU whose ultimate destination is Britain, because they have family connections there, or they have heard through social networks that labour market opportunities and/or social welfare benefits there are more appealing than in other EU nations. You also see the results of this in the statistics: Britain receives less than a quarter as many asylum claimants as does Germany.

Which brings us to the present situation. Nearly 2 million people have fled the Syrian conflict to neighboring Turkey. As it became increasingly clear that no end to the conflict was in sight, many have decided to try making their way to Europe. This is no surprise. Some travel on their own, others mobilize what resources they have and pay smuggling or trafficking organizations to assist them. They will continue to stream toward Europe's borders so long as the Syrian the conflict continues to fester. Although it would not have been possible to foresee the Syrian conflict itself from the vantage point of 1999, it was very plain even then that this type of crisis could easily happen with the geographical expansion of Schengen, and given the structural nature of the EU’s asylum policies.
What is most troublesome, is that the only quick way out of this crisis would be to roll back the Schengen agreement and make drastic, anti-humanitarian changes to the EU asylum policy. Neither of these is especially palatable. The freedom of travel within the EU made possible by Schengen has tremendous economic benefits to EU member states, for it allows easy movement of labor, goods, and services within the region, and goes hand in glove with a single currency. Rolling Schengen back to its 1999 boundaries would in essence be relegating countries like Greece, Hungary and Slovakia to second-class status within the EU, and raise questions about the EU project itself.

The types of changes that would need to be made to the EU’s asylum policy would be even more draconian in nature. The attraction of Europe for people living in refugee-like situations in Africa and the Middle East is obvious. If you can make your way to a country like Germany or Sweden, there is little likelihood you will be returned to your home country, you will receive some sort of social benefits and the possibility of work, and you will establish a toehold so that other members of your family might join you some day. Europe’s more extreme right-wing political parties are making political hay by vowing to “crack down” on asylum seekers, but none of them seem to have any practical or legal ideas on how to do so. The most any have come up with is the Hungarian government's vow to build a fence along its border with Serbia, which would be a nice reminder of the good old days of Soviet rule, but would be of little practical value in keeping people out. Further, the EU is ruled by law, and any EU member state that takes overly extreme measures against asylum seekers could find itself on the outside looking in at Schengen, or even the EU itself. It is not worth taking such a risk over something like asylum policy. And anyone who seriously thinks their country would be better off outside the EU than inside it lives in a dream world.

Is there a solution, then, to Europe's migrant crisis? There is, but it is neither quick nor easy. I can word it simply enough: if you don't want refugees, then deal with whatever is causing refugees. If you don't want millions of people to flee Syria, then do something about the civil conflict in Syria. If you don't want impoverished Africans sailing across the Mediterranean on rickety boats, then do something about poverty in Africa. Easy to say, but difficult to accomplish. It requires huge investments and commitment to international development and cooperation, it requires setting up international economic arrangements that benefit local economies in less-developed countries as much as they do multinational corporations, and it requires the world's wealthy countries (not just Europeans, but North Americans and others as well) to do whatever is necessary to bring peace to Syria, to other nations in the Middle East and elsewhere. That's a tall order. So in the meantime, we'd best get used to seeing streams of migrants making their way to Europe.

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