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Leading EU expert gives his take on migration crisis

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European nations may well be on the threshold of a new migrant crisis that will dwarf even that of 2015–16, writes Martin Banks.

That’s one of several stark messages to emerge from an exhaustive new book on migration  – People Power – why we need more migrants - by the highly respected commentator on EU affairs, Giles Merritt (pictured).

The thorny issue of migration, of course, has rarely been far away from the headlines for years, only being side lined, and then only temporarily, by Brexit and the health pandemic.

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Forlorn images of yet more migrants recently trying to cross the English Channel, with varying degrees of success, have yet again thrust the subject back up the agenda and into the public mindset.

Yes, the fight against migrant exploitation and smuggling and “illegal” immigration continue to exercise the minds of the “great and good.”

Even the EU’s own coast guard agency, Frontex, has been at the centre of disturbing allegations of violations of human rights of migrants at the external borders of the European Union.

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In an effort to inject fresh and some much needed innovative thinking into it all, Merritt has penned a particularly detailed examination of migration in all its guises.

Migrant smuggling, it is generally agreed, has posed a major humanitarian and security challenge for the EU in recent years. For example, it is estimated that migrant smugglers facilitated the journeys of the majority of the more than 1 million people who entered the EU irregularly in 2015 and 2016.

Some argue that by reducing the numbers of “irregular” migrants, the West will ensure an asylum and migration management that is sustainable over time to handle future crises.

Merritt, a former Brussels bureau chief for the Financial Times, speaks of the urgency of reforming European migration laws, not least to prevent irregular migration and tackle human trafficking.

He starts what is a highly impressive work by “exploding” what he calls the “ten most misleading myths” about migration, including the assertion that Europe has no need of migrants

Other commonly held “myths” he seeks to dispel range from the claim that migrants ‘take jobs’ from native Europeans, that they raise the risk of jihadist terrorism and that they ‘sponge’ off Europeans social welfare.

All quite wrong and dangerously so, says Merritt.

Initially, the heart-rending images of people drowned in the Mediterranean or rescued by coastguards and freelance non-governmental organization (NGO) operations suggested a new humanitarian mood in Europe, he notes.

“But,” he goes on to say, “emotional responses of this sort proved to be less reliable and long-lasting than they had at first seemed.”

For the present, the “game-changing” effects of the coronavirus must be added to the debate about migration, he cautions and, like Covid-19, migration is a “global earthquake.”

It means that, “fuelled” by the troubled aftermath of Covid-19, migration will affect many of Europe’s “most fundamental” socio-economic structures, and therefore “will probably upset largely consensual national political systems.”

He writes, “The immigration outlook was bad enough before the coronavirus, and now it is more politically toxic than ever.”

There are, he suggests, four key elements:

1. Despite Covid-19’s lengthening dole queues, longer-term economic forces mean Europe needs more migrants, not fewer.

2. The pressures generated by Covid-19 are driving refugees and economic migrants towards Europe in unprecedented numbers.

3. Economic recovery policies post-coronavirus are making the integration of migrants harder and more politically explosive and

4. Post-coronavirus geopolitics are reshaping Europe’s neighbourhood.

Europeans, he laments, rarely display the same positive attitude to migration as Americans. Although the migrant crisis of 2015–16 briefly sparked public sympathy for refugees “this soon turned into bitter disputes between EU governments over burden sharing.”

He adds, “These have been simmering since then, and now threaten to boil furiously.”

Whatever the state of public opinion, European governments know they must learn to manage greater flows of newcomers, says Merritt, whose impressive CV includes his many years with the renowned Friends of Europe think tank which he founded.

“The rhetoric of politicians, notably but not exclusively populist, will remain hostile, fuelled by the recession and persistent fears of renewed coronavirus outbreaks, but planners and civil servants know they must adjust to the demographic pressures that are shaping the future,” he predicts.

He also highlights the need to make the distinction, which is rarely done, between  refugees and economic migrants.

As for the EU, there’s not only pressure from the European Commission for member countries to accept more refugees, there is also pressure from beyond Brussels bubble for a “rethink” of existing EU policy on immigration and asylum.

Merritt says, “The economics of migration bear little relation to its politics, as was illustrated when Europe’s national leaders met in Salzburg in September 2018 to discuss a much trumpeted deal on immigration.

“Finger-pointing and political grandstanding were the unedifying features of this special summit.”

Angela Merkel, the outgoing Germany chancellor, does not escape criticism with Merritt saying her “breezy response to the influx, wir schaff en das! (we can do it), came back to haunt her. Resettling so many people created serious upheavals and triggered a new political volatility.”

But his home country, the UK, is also not without blame.

“In the UK, before Brexit cast its long shadow, foreign students were bringing in over £12 billion a year in foreign exchange. A sizeable number of them, perhaps as many as 15–20 per cent, had been staying on after graduation to make a life in Britain. But now the stricter visa controls, designed to discourage both EU and non-European migrant labour, are changing that.”

The Commission, he argues, should be working to persuade member governments that they must substantially boost their budget contributions for migration, even if that task is made harder by Brexit and the shortfall in UK financial contributions.

His message?

“Europe must stop pretending immigration is a fleeting phenomenon. It isn’t temporary, and must instead be recognized as a long-term game changer.”

The exceptionally well-connected Merritt is a highly respected and seasoned veteran of  EU affairs and, irrespective of whether you agree with him or not, this is a mightily impressive work and his views most certainly deserve close attention, not least in the corridors of power. 

The book is on sale at Filigranes book store at 39-42 Avenue des Arts in Brussels, from the Filigranes E-shop (+322 504 7839) or from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions. 

European Commission

Mid-Term Evaluation of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey: EU support made a significant contribution to the welfare of Syrians and others fleeing conflict in the region

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Within the framework of the March 2016 EU-Turkey Statement, the European Union, through the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, has mobilized €6 billion in assistance to refugees in Turkey. The independent evaluation finds that the Facility for Refugees in Turkey has made a significant contribution to the welfare of Syrians and others fleeing conflict in the region in areas such as health, education, protection and socio-economic support. However, the report also finds that the EU needs to do more to mitigate social tensions for refugees, including developing a social cohesion strategy. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) announced at the European Council of 24-25 June, the EU Budget would provide €3bn over 2021-2023, demonstrating the EU's continued solidarity with refugees and host communities in Turkey.

President von der Leyen said: “Ten years into the Syrian conflict, our partners in the region still carry the lion's share of the burden. It is our collective challenge to protect the refugees and support their hosts.” Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, said: “This evaluation is a valuable source of information on the EU's Facility for Refugees in Turkey; we will draw inspiration from this to guide the mobilization of the €3bn in additional socio-economic support to refugees from the EU budget so they can make their own living, a key investment for their future and the stability of the region and beyond. I look forward to continuing our good co-operation with Turkey on this joint effort.”

A press release is available online together with the Main Report of the Strategic Mid-Term Evaluation, a factsheet, the Fifth Annual Report and an overview of projects on the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey.

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Immigration

Asylum and migration in the EU: Facts and figures

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on migration flows in the EU. Movement restrictions put in place in light of the coronavirus pandemic have led to a reduction in migration, both legal and illegal, as countries have closed borders, restricted routes for legal migration and scaled back programmes to take in refugees.

However, the flaws in the EU's asylum system exposed by the arrival of more than one million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015 remain. Parliament has been working on proposals to create a fairer, more effective European asylum policy.

Below you will find all the relevant data about migration in Europe, who migrants are, what the EU is doing to get to grips with the situation, and what financial implications there have been.

Definitions: What is a refugee? What is an asylum seeker?

Asylum seekers are people who make a formal request for asylum in another country because they fear their life is at risk in their home country.

Refugees are people with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, politics or membership of a particular social group who have been accepted and recognised as such in their host country. In the EU, the qualification directive sets guidelines for assigning international protection to those who need it.

Currently people from outside the EU must apply for protection in the first EU country they enter. Filing a claim means that they become asylum applicants (or asylum seekers). They receive refugee status or a different form of international protection only once a positive decision has been made by national authorities.

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Find out more about the causes of migration.

Asylum decisions in the EU

In the first 10 months of 2020, there were 390,000 asylum applications in the EU, 33% less than the same period of 2019. In 2018, there were 634,700 applications, significantly lower than the more than one million applications registered in 2015 and 2016.

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Particularly large declines were seen in Germany, France and Italy in the first seven months of 2020. There were fewer first-time applications from Syria (135,000 fewer than the average for 2018 and 2019, down 52%), Iraq (down 55%) and Nigeria (down 58%).

However, numbers were up in Spain and Romania, partly due to an increase in applications from South American countries, including Colombia (up 102% on the average of the previous two years) and Peru (76% higher).

A six-year low in irregular border crossings

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency collects data on illegal crossings of the EU's external borders registered by national authorities.

In 2015 and 2016, more than 2.3 million illegal crossings were detected. The total number of illegal crossings in January-November 2020 dropped to 114,300, the lowest level in the last six years and a decrease of 10% compared to the same period in 2019. Despite a 55% drop, Afghanistan remains one of the main countries of origin of people detected making an irregular border crossing, along with Syria, Tunisia and Algeria.

The Mediterranean crossing remained deadly, with 1,754 people reported dead or missing in 2020 compared to 2,095 people in 2019. Irregular arrivals via the Central Mediterranean Route (to Italy and Malta) increased by 154% in January-November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

There were more than 34,100 such arrivals in 2020, compared to nearly 11,500 in 2019, with the majority of people arriving in Lampedusa. Arrivals in Spain, and in particular the Canary Islands, increased by 46% (35,800) in 2020 compared to 2019.

Many new arrivals originate from countries suffering from an economic downturn rather than conflict. A decline in global remittances is also likely to contribute to this trend. Until the pandemic is contained and economic recovery is underway, poor employment and healthcare prospects will remain an incentive for people to come to the EU.

What Europeans are thinking

Migration has been an EU priority for years. Several measures have been taken to manage migration flows as well as to improve the asylum system.

Even though the Eurobarometer survey from June 2019 shows that migration was the fifth biggest issue that influenced Europeans’ voting decisions for that year’s EU elections, a Parlemeter 2020 survey registered a drop in importance. It is considered as the main area of disagreement between the EU and national governments by nearly half (47%) of respondents.

The EU significantly increased its funding for migration, asylum and integration policies in the wake of the increased inflow of asylum seekers in 2015. € 22.7 billion goes to migration and border management in the EU’s budget for 2021-2027, compared with €10bn for migration and asylum in 2014-2020.

Learn more about how the EU manages migration.

Refugees in the world

Around the world, the number of people fleeing persecution, conflict and violence has reached 80 million. That is equivalent to almost every man, woman and child in Germany being forced from their homes. Children account for about 40% of the world’s refugee population.

The countries hosting the largest number of refugees are Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda and Germany. Only 14% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developed countries.

Check out the infographic for the 2019 Eurostat figures on asylum applications in the EU as well as UNHCR figures on the number of refugees in EU countries.

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EU

#ECJ dismisses Slovakia’s and Hungary’s challenge to Council’s migrant relocation decision

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The European Court of Justice has dismissed the entirety of the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary, and supported by Poland, on the relocation of asylum seekers in need of international protection. The Court ruled that the relocation scheme would help Greece and Italy deal with the migration crisis of 2015, writes Catherine Feore.

Hungary and Slovakia challenged a decision by the Council of the European Union (heads of the EU-28 governments) to agree to the relocation of 120,000 to other EU member states over a two year period. The Czech Republic and Romania also voted against the decision, with Finland abstaining, but chose not to challenge the Council’s outcome.

Recent figures show that fewer than 28,000 of the 160,000 relocation target has been met. The Commission is due to publish its fifteenth ‘Report on Relocation and Resettlement’ today.

Weber went on to tweet that there is now a real chance to heal the open wound in the EU's migration policy by working together. He also tweeted that solidarity is not a one-way street, but that people's concerns must also be addressed.

Ska Keller MEP and Co-president of the European Greens said:

“This ruling is a milestone for European refugee policy. The European Court of Justice has shown that solidarity is at the heart of our common refugee policy in Europe. There can be no more excuses. Any Member State that has refused to help relocate asylum seekers must finally deliver or face consequences.

“Solidarity in the EU cannot be a one-way street. The likes of Viktor Orban cannot continue to demand money for border protection while continuing to block the reception of refugees from Greece and Italy. If Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic continue to refuse to accept refugees, the European Commission must consider ending EU subsidies for the return of rejected asylum seekers. The EU should not be funding a policy that only has the aim of getting rid of people."

 

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