Refugees approach the Greek island of Lesbos. (Credit: Steve Evans/Flickr)
Refugees approach the Greek island of Lesbos. (Credit: Steve Evans, 'Refugees Approach the Greek Island of Lesvos'/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0) (via:

Everyone agrees that the European Union has not handled the ongoing Mediterranean migration crisis well. Missteps and missed opportunities have split Member States and eroded public confidence in the capacity of the Union. It is urgent to take matters in hand while the problem is still manageable, for yes, what we have seen over the past few years is only the first wave of a rising tide.

Demographic trends foreshadow increased demand for workers in Europe and greatly expanded pressure for migration from the south and the east. Failure to design and implement sensible migration policies at the European level – as a matter of priority – could lead to the Member States and the people of Europe giving up on a Union that, despite its many accomplishments, will have shown that it cannot deal with urgent, real-world problems in an effective way.

Uncontrolled mass migration is a security challenge on several levels, but it is also a political, economic, cultural, educational and – increasingly – a foreign relations challenge. To try to get decisions on migration at the European level becomes a nightmare of endless coordination and compromise. No wonder that many Member States have chosen to act unilaterally. Let us be clear, however, that unilateral action by EU Member States, while justifiable in terms of their national interests, runs the serious risk of further weakening European solidarity and chances of progress.

Developing a workable EU migration policy will not be easy, but the effort must be made. The first step is a clear analysis of what the problem is and is not. Only then can European leaders hammer out a policy that takes into account both the advantages and the pitfalls of migration. Finally, institutions that will carry out that policy must be put in place.

The ongoing crisis in migration may turn out to be an opportunity if it forces the leaders of Europe to get ready for a future in which those who can manage migration will prosper while those who cannot will suffer the consequences.

Essential elements of EU policy

The migration debate in Europe has always suffered from confused notions about what motivates migration and how to manage it. Sometimes the confusion is deliberately cultivated for political reasons. Sometimes it derives from failure to understand the international legal context and what it requires. Sometimes it results from individuals allowing their emotions to distort their good judgment.  The essentially economic nature of migration is often hidden from view by humanitarian concerns which have a different and much smaller dimension. So let us be clear about the reality we face.

Even if some form of migration is inevitable and, if properly managed, can result in positive benefits all around, it nevertheless remains fundamental that every country has its own migration profile and its own needs. Some countries, like Canada, welcome multiculturalism. Others, like Japan, are firmly resistant. Some countries need foreign workers for their industries and their agriculture. Others cannot create enough employment for their own citizens. Moreover, perceived interests and capacities evolve over time. Policies to manage migration and enhance its benefits need to be selective and subtle. One size will not fit all.

As stated already, the overwhelming majority of international migrants have always been motivated by a desire for economic betterment for themselves and their families. There is nothing unusual or reprehensible about this motivation. Most people everywhere and at all periods share it.  It is a healthy ambition and an important stimulus for hard work and initiative. It makes possible the legal migration that brings the highly trained to the world’s centres of industrial innovation and technology and doctors and nurses to the hospitals of richer countries. It also accounts for the willingness of citizens of poorer countries to fill humble service jobs in developed economies, jobs scorned by locals.

Economic motives find outlets in legal channels if they exist, and fine-tuning legal entry is one of the major tasks of migration policy makers.  But more and more migration is turning to irregular channels.  Massive flows outside any legal framework, like the Mediterranean boat people, have become big business, with organised networks of migrant smugglers which take advantage of individuals and families who have lost hope for a better life in their own countries. The networks pay off officials and provide jobs for thousands of handlers. The smugglers are not humanitarians. If they cannot collect from the migrants for the dangerous passage to Europe in flimsy boats, they are not above selling them off in slave auctions, as the media have recently reported.

There are other factors at play in irregular migration. Magnet communities in destination countries encourage irregular flows by providing examples of successful irregular entry and sometimes furnishing funds for the trip.  Cell phones keep the migrants in constant touch with families and friends at both ends. Officials in transit countries tend to move the migrants along as quickly as they can, often out of self-interest. Humanitarians get drawn into the smuggling operation out of pity and guilt.  Migrants know that if they make it to an EU country, they will be encouraged and assisted to make an asylum claim and enjoy excellent odds of staying on whatever the outcome of that claim.

The intertwining of economic migration with the question of asylum and refugee protection – already complicated – makes policy more difficult. Suffice it here to say that refugee protection – mostly paid for by rich countries – is inevitably on offer just across the border of any country producing refugees.  When a Syrian flees with his family to Turkey he will have a prima facie case for refugee status. If he decides to pay a smuggler to take him to Germany, he converts himself and his family into a different kind of migrant, people looking for a better life.

This is what irregular mass migration is and what the EU must learn to deal with and to manage. If the demographers are right, pressure to migrate will grow and grow.  If there are no legal systems in place and if there are no defences against irregular flows, Europe will be in a desperate place very soon.

In constructing EU migration policy, three elements are of prime importance.

  • First, policy-makers must agree on a clear-headed analysis of just what the problem is and make sure that voters make educated choices.
  • Next, they must show determination to achieve solutions despite the confusion and criticism that will inevitably surround the decision-making process.
  • Finally, they must understand the need for flexibility to allow for the different interests and attitudes of Member States, all democracies and all sensitive to questions of sovereignty and identity.

A programme of action

So let us look now at the main elements of a clear-headed, determined, and flexible migration policy for Europe.

The first requirement is to strengthen the external border of the Union, the prerequisite to any system of selective, legal entry. Migrants rescued at sea should be returned resolutely to the country of embarkation. Coastguard patrols and cooperation with the services of embarkation countries should be expanded.

The Mediterranean dimension of irregular migration flows to Europe is crucially important. Political and financial resources must be dedicated to an understanding among as many as possible of the Mediterranean littoral states to cooperate in managing migration flows on many levels. Country-by-country there already exist several working agreements and joint operations. It should be a goal of European diplomacy to expand and strengthen existing cooperation. Relatively recently, Italy and one of the Libya governments announced a plan for a joint operations room to coordinate action against smugglers.

Once the word spreads among potential irregular migrants that their chances of reaching Europe are poorer, more and more of them will see that paying large sums to smugglers is a bad deal. The smugglers’ business model will no longer make sense. This is exactly what happened in 2016 when Germany made an emergency agreement with Turkey to turn off the mass flows from Turkey to the Greek islands. Undercutting the smugglers’ business model is the fastest and most cost-effective way of diminishing irregular migration.

Defeating the traffickers is one element of policy that all can agree on. Reducing the potential appeal of the smugglers in comparison to legal entry is the best strategic framework. Criminalisation of smuggling and ancillary services is essential. Successful prosecution of smugglers and corrupt officials will complete the picture.

Breaking and diminishing the irregular flows of migrants toward Europe will uncover another challenge – the fate of the many thousands of migrants already in transition or embarkation countries.  Here the idea of screening centres in those countries comes into play.  Stranded migrants who have a legitimate claim for help and protection for humanitarian reasons – citizens of countries at war, real Convention refugees, unaccompanied children, the infirm – can be identified and offered solutions.  One solution is voluntary humanitarian resettlement in an EU country willing to take them in. France is in the process of screening refugees in Niger and Chad and may establish something similar in Libya.

Once decisions on entry into the territory of the European Union are back in the hands of governments, labour ministries will be able to put in place a long-term strategy of analysing what element of non-EU workers a particular country’s economy may need. Again, the answer to this question will be found in the democratic process at work in each EU country, for each has its own economic, social, and cultural profile. There must be sufficient flexibility in EU migration policy to accommodate the different approaches of different Member States.

Finding the right candidates to fill the needs for non-EU workers will require the close cooperation of the governments of countries of origin.  They will be responsible for the education, training, and testing of potential migrants to the EU and will work in close cooperation with the governments of the EU and receiving countries, whose interest in creating a pool of qualified – and desired – immigrants should extend to financial support of the training facilities in countries of origin.

Training and education for identified needs will resolve many of the problems often met in managing migration. Potential migrants will invest in improving their qualifications rather than lining the pockets of smugglers. On the professional level, credentials can be matched with those in force in the destination country. The needs of the country of origin for trained workers can be factored in, thus diminishing the ‘brain drain’ from which many of them suffer.

The idea of training workers on another continent to meet the skills and language requirements for legal entry into the European Union is by no means fanciful. Such programmes exist already and have a proven track record. Many of the nurses in the British National Health Service were recruited and prepared in Ghana. The Philippine government works closely with countries of destination to make sure certain Philippine overseas workers are well-trained and guaranteed employment.

International cooperation is essential to the success of an EU migration policy. Strengthening the EU’s external border needs the help of embarkation and transit countries. Preparing non-EU workers and professionals for jobs in Europe will only work if such programmes are carefully coordinated between sending and receiving governments. Asylum processing in third countries can be tricky. For all these reasons, migration policy must become a key element in the foreign and development agenda of the EU and its Member States.

In recent months it has become increasingly clear that certain EU governments, the French in particular, have begun to recognise the need to confront the migration challenge ‘upstream’ by means of agreements with countries of origin and transit and specific programmes to channel and manage the flows. We can only hope that France will succeed and will set an example that the EU can follow.

The idea of circular migration needs to be examined carefully in the construction of an EU migration policy. Elements of such a system are already in place, for example in agriculture and tourism.  Particularly if the need for certain skills in certain industries cannot be guaranteed to last over a long period, a fixed-term entry into the EU may best suit both migrants and governments. Here it will be important to make sure pension benefits are transferable in both directions, another challenge for international cooperation.

Is this vision of well-managed migration for the EU an impractical utopia? Certainly, it will never come about in the absence of willingness to take difficult and controversial decisions. It would help if the EU could agree to establish a Special Executive for Migration to work on the portfolio full time. Reporting to the heads of government of Member States, and with their full support, the migration executive would have the authority to design programmes, mobilise political and popular support, and watch over the smooth coordination of implementation.

Let me conclude as I began. Europe cannot continue to quarrel over migration. Good policy and workable solutions are at hand. Failure to act in a concerted fashion now will condemn our children and grandchildren to suffer the consequences of our lack of action.