Technology & Trade

Amidst migration crisis, can EU manage its borders?

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Summer came to a bloody end with reports that up to 750 migrants heading to Europe perished on the Mediterranean Sea in mid-September. The record-breaking immigration numbers — this year so far, 130,000 illegal immigrants have reached Europe and 2,800 have died trying — illustrate a humanitarian and migration crisis of unprecedented proportions for the European Union (EU). To meet this challenge, the EU must more equitably share the costs of illegal immigration across all states and make it possible for asylum seekers to apply outside the borders of the European continent. These steps would save lives and money, and increase EU security.

Over the past few years illegal immigration into the EU has skyrocketed. According to Frontex — EU’s border agency — between 2012-2013 illegal immigration and asylum requests increased by 48 and 28 percent respectively. Coast Guards in Greece say they expect immigration numbers in 2014 to increase three-fold due to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

The EU is poorly-equipped to manage this deluge. Primary challenges lie with two components to EU immigration policy, the Dublin Regulation and EU asylum processes. The Dublin Regulation mandates that the country of a migrant’s first arrival is solely responsible for his/her asylum and processing. Relying on national security forces to manage border security proves a dubious feat for southern states such as Italy, who saw immigration by sea increase by 288 percent in 2013.

While northern states process the majority of asylum claims, they do not bear the costs of humanitarian missions as southern states do. Italy currently spends €9 million a month to maintain Mare Nostrum, its search-and-rescue mission credited with saving the lives of 70,000 migrants this year. The EU is launching Frontex Plus in October 2014 to replace Mare Nostrum — although EU Commissioner Cecelia Malstrom warned that it will not “have the same means” as Mare Nostrum.

By relying on insufficient state resources for border security the Dublin Regulation creates immigration “hot spots” where overwhelmed authorities, overflowing holding centers, and years-long asylum processing waitlists allow migrants to slip away undetected and unregistered.  As it stands, the Dublin Regulation is ineffective to the point of being advantageous to the illegal immigrant – if they can survive the journey to Europe first, that is. This brings up the second crux to European border policy: asylum seeking.

Many who come to the EU are believed to have legitimate asylum claims, coming from war-torn countries like Syria, Libya, and Iraq. If asylum seekers came to the country by regulated means, immigration would be safer and cheaper overall to the host country. There are no legal means to seek asylum outside of the European territory and many migrants have no means to get a visa.

Without legal means to get to Europe, migrants place their safety — and their money — into the hands of smugglers to the tune of $3 billion annually. Smuggling networks are rife with extortion, torture, and rape. With little incentive to ensure migrant safety, smugglers often over pack ships to the point where migrants asphyxiate in holds or drown when the overloaded ships capsize.

Amnesty International estimates that at least 23,000 immigrants have drowned in the Mediterranean over the last 14 years. Traditionally, EU border control aims to deter migrants by any means possible including barbed wire fences and “tow backs,” where coast guards towed migrant boats out of European waters. The “tow back” practice was declared unconstitutional in a landmark ruling by the European Constitutional Court in 2012. This ruling, along with international outrage about humanitarian disasters on the Mediterranean, has pressured the EU to reorient border security to include humanitarian rescue of and protection for migrants.

Creating safer routes for migrants to seek asylum is more than humanitarian — it’s smart security strategy. For better or for worse, it is the EU who bears the burden of rescuing migrants and who — as the destination market for trafficked people, drugs and arms — suffers the consequences of a thriving billion-dollar smuggling network along its southern border. In this respect, reforms that control the immigration process may meet the EU’s humanitarian and security goals.

The current anti-immigration climate surging through the EU states is hostile to any immigration reform that appears to ease the immigration process. However, the end result of potential reforms — which could include establishing asylum processing centers in North Africa or transporting migrants from “hot spots” to states with greater capacity to process them — could meet all needs by decreasing the overall number of undocumented immigrants, better controlling immigrant flows to decrease overwhelming surges, and simultaneously reducing revenue to organized criminal networks.

Political opposition to immigration reforms may be insurmountable in the current anti-immigration climate in the European Parliament and in EU states. Yet if EU border policy of the last few years has shown anything, it’s that whether or not Europe welcomes them, immigrants will continue to come or die trying. Regulating the process is Europe’s best hope to meet this challenge and maintain its security.

Photo credit: suttonhoo via flickr

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