Source: Jim Forest
Since its birth 300,000 years ago in Africa, humanity has been on the move. It’s in our DNA: we run from war, famine, and conflicts, in the hope of finding better living standards and economic opportunities elsewhere. Food, peace, clement weather… the pull and push factors haven’t changed much over the years. But migration is now easier thanks to technological advancements, and between the adverse effects of climate change and human rights violations, the push factors are only getting stronger. Governments are struggling, migrants are dying, and populations are afraid.
This article will first set an accurate description of migratory flows through statistics and maps and then illustrate the impact of the two strongest migration waves this the Second World War: the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, and the Russo-Ukrainian war. We will then assess the political tensions arising from this crisis, and we’ll finish off by quickly diving into the European Union’s policy framework on migration.
An accurate description of migratory flows
In 2017, the total population of EU Member States, the UK, and the EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Norway) was approximately 460 million. About 24.5 million EU-UK-EFTA residents were not citizens of these countries. This represents about 5.3% of the population.
Of these 24.5 million individuals, approximately 4.4 million (18%) are unauthorized immigrants. And of unauthorized immigrants, ¼ have a pending asylum claim.
Sources: European Generation & European labor force survey data
Now let’s look at the number of asylum applications in the European Union, and from which countries they mostly come. The following line chart spans three decades until the Russo-Ukrainian war. The peak hit in 2015 and 2016 is the consequence of the Syrian refugee crisis. The violent government crackdown on public demonstrations sparked more public demonstrations and the conflict rapidly escalated into a civil war that forced millions of Syrians out of their homes. From a pre-war population of 22 million, 500 thousand are now dead, 5.5 million are refugees, and 6 million were internally displaced.
Source: European Generation, data from Eurostat
Of the 630 550 non-EU citizens who applied for asylum in the EU in 2021: 53.6% were citizens of Asian or Middle East countries, 25.2% were citizens of African countries, and 11.6% were citizens of non-EU European countries.
From April 2020 to March 2021, Syrians made up 98,300 of the first-time asylum applications in the EU, and Afghans 83,500. These were the two largest nationalities by far since Iraqis made 26,000 applications, and Pakistanis 21,000. Then, Turks, Bangladeshis, and Venezuelans at approximately 20,000 each.
Here (https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/cache/infographs/asylum/asylum_2021/) you can find for each EU Member State, the nationalities of asylum applicants in absolute numbers ; and for non-EU countries, the countries where migrants have applied for asylum.
Let us now look at the most common routes followed by immigrants seeking refuge in Europe. The routes are classified in the following manner by Frontex (the European Border and Cost Guard Agency): Western African, Western Mediterranean, Central Mediterranean, Western Balkan, Eastern Mediterranean, and Eastern Land Border.
The Western African route connects Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco to the Canary Islands. It is becoming increasingly used since 2018, usually peaks in September, and the main nationality detected is Moroccan.
The Western Mediterranean route stretches from Spain to Morocco and Algeria. Algeria is the main country of departure, and it’s also the main route used by criminals to smuggle drugs into Europe.
The Eastern Land Border route is of a much smaller scale, although a significant rise in irregular migration has been noted because of the Lukashenko regime: there was an intense migratory pressure with continuously attempted border crossings in all three EU Member States neighboring Belarus, prompting them to declare a state of emergency.
Let’s take a closer look at the Syrian refugee crisis (timeline & routes) which we previously mentioned.
As previously mentioned, the Syrian conflict started in 2011, and the migration wave only hit Europe in 2015, so what happened in between? Well, Europe actually began registering increased number of refugee arrivals and asylum applications (second graph) from 2010, because of the confluence of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa - wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, terrorist insurgencies in Nigeria and Pakistan, and human rights abuses in Eritrea - all leading to denser refugee flows.
But as it became clear that these conflicts weren’t getting solved in the near future, many decided to settle permanently elsewhere. Also, in 2014, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt stopped accepting Syrians asylum seekers. This means 1,300,000 asylum applications, the most in a single year since World War II.
Sources: Frontex & Eurostat
They mostly used the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes, and the Western Balkan route to pass through Italy and Greece. The southeastern and central European countries were unprepared for the sudden movement of tens of thousands of refugees through them. They reacted by closing their borders, which eventually led to even more chaos as huge numbers of people became trapped in one country. Most countries refused to take in the arriving refugees, so Germany ultimately accepted most of them after the government decided to temporarily suspend its enforcement of an EU law requiring asylum seekers to remain in the first EU country they set foot in. In mid-2016, Turkey agreed to strengthen border security measures in order to stop people traveling irregularly from Turkey to Greece in exchange for €6 billion to improve the humanitarian situation faced by refugees in the country.
Now let’s compare it to the current Russo-Ukrainian war.
Before the Russian “special operation”, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass had already resulted in over two million refugees since 2014. More than half left for Russia between 2014 and 2016. The other hoped to find peace in Europe, but they’ve been referred to as Europe's forgotten refugees by some media, due to their comparatively low asylum claim success rate and media neglect.
Back to 2022. As of the end of October 2022, the countries which had received the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees were those in Ukraine’s immediate vicinity: Russia (2.7 million), Poland (1.5 million), Germany (1 million), and the Czech Republic (0.4 million). Last September, the United States Department of State estimated that at least 900,000 Ukrainian citizens had been forcibly relocated to Russia.
Ukranians are mostly staying in Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia in the hope of soon returning to Ukraine. However, just as in 2015, an eternalization of the conflict could lead to Ukrainians moving away from Central Europe towards Western Europe, Southern Europe, the Balkans, and Scandinavia.
Ukrainians have been met by a somewhat united Europe: EU countries bordering Ukraine quickly allowed entry to all Ukrainian refugees, and the EU invoked the Temporary Protection Directive (from 2001) which grants Ukrainians the right to stay, work, and study in any European Union member state for an initial period of one year.
More than 4.5 million Ukrainians have returned to Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion, most of the other having registered for the EU’s temporary protection scheme.
Situation as of June 21, 2022
Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
A growing anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe
Across Western Europe, processing systems are starting to struggle under the strain of refugee waves, and according to the Belgian State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Nicole de Moor, that’s because the pressure is spread over fewer countries than in 2015.
To understand why the landscape has changed, we have to turn to politics: laws in some EU countries have become more restricted under pressure from right-wing anti-immigration parties. Asylum seekers are therefore increasingly concentrated in a smaller number of countries in Western Europe, in part because places like Denmark are actively trying to deter them. Copenhagen, traditionally a popular destination for asylum seekers, has a self-declared zero-asylum policy. Last year, only two thousand sought asylum in the country, ten times less than in 2015.
The new Swedish government, which needs parliamentary support from the far-right Sweden Democrats, is also planning to reduce the number of asylum seekers allowed in. When the right-wing-backed Swedish government takes over the rotating Council presidency from the Czechs at the start of next year, it is unlikely to push measures to ensure all countries take their fair share. In Austria, the government is under pressure from anti-immigrant opposition politicians as states struggle to provide accommodation for the surging numbers seeking protection. The French elections too were centered across immigration, with Eric Zemmour taking to a new extreme far-right anti-immigrant sentiment.
Tensions between governments are thus intensifying. After years of railing against Italy’s migration policies and saying Italy is becoming Europe’s “refugee camp”, Giorgia Meloni now has the power to change her country’s immigration policy. In fact, after a month in office, she’s already violated international maritime law. In early November Italy was, according to the international maritime law, supposed to allow the Ocean Viking (a humanitarian vessel chartered by SOS Méditérranée) to disembark at the nearest safe port. But Ocean Viking's appeals to Italy went unheeded. After three weeks of waiting, France allowed the vessel to disembark in the military port of Toulon. The 234 people on board, rescued after their boats sank, were at “very high risk” after spending more than 15 days at sea. Among them, there are 57 children and a few dozens of sick persons. Sophie Beau, the co-founder of SOS Méditerranée, said it was the “longest waiting period we have ever experienced, a serious violation of maritime law."
The French Minister of the Interior, Darmanin, said there was “no doubt, with regard to international law and the law of the sea, that it was the responsibility of Italy to immediately designate a safe port to welcome this ship”. In retribution, France, which was supposed to relocate 3,500 refugees for Italy in 2023, explained that it is now “suspending all relocations […] and calls on all other participants in the EU mechanism, notably Germany, to do the same”.
Competences and objectives of EU Immigration Policy
The legal basis of the EU’s competence on the matter are the articles 79 and 80 of the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).
EU competences (art. 79)
Regular immigration: The EU is competent to lay down the conditions governing entry into and legal residence in a Member State, including for the purposes of family reunification, for third-country nationals. Member States retain the right to determine volumes of admission for people coming from third countries to seek work.
Integration: The EU may provide incentives and support for measures taken by Member States to promote the integration of legally resident third-country nationals; EU law makes no provision for the harmonization of national laws and regulations, however.
Combating irregular immigration: The European Union is required to prevent and reduce irregular immigration, in particular by means of an effective return policy, in a manner consistent with fundamental rights.
Readmission agreements: The European Union is competent to conclude agreements with third countries for the readmission to their country of origin or provenance of third-country nationals who do not fulfil or no longer fulfil the conditions for entry into, or presence or residence in, a Member State.
The principle of solidarity (art. 80)
Under the Lisbon Treaty, immigration policies are to be governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including its financial implications, between the Member States.
The Common European Asylum System (CEAS)
Asylum is granted to people who are fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country and are therefore in need of international protection. Asylum is a fundamental right and granting it is an international obligation, stemming from the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. The CEAS was established as the main EU legal and policy framework for asylum. In 2016, the Commission introduced proposals to reform it, by setting out criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for examining an application for international protection; in principle, the first country of entry. Among other things, the proposals include a mechanism to deal with situations of disproportionate pressure on Member State asylum systems.
In conclusion, the EU’s processing systems are struggling under the strain of refugee waves, and the sometimes outdated legislation just isn’t clear enough, which makes it easier for governments to defy it. Helping refugees fit into their new homes and become contributing members of society will also require improvements in EU legislation in four main aspects: labor-market and economic integration, educational integration, housing and health integration, and sociocultural and language integration. While governments can lead these efforts, they will also need to enlist support and involvement from the private sector, civil society, and international and humanitarian organizations.