Migration has become a hallmark of the 21st century. It is a topic that, according to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Director General William Swing, was not discussed much by national governments and supranational institutions even five to ten years ago. Migration has now taken centre stage at the local, national, and global levels. Security and the fight against illegal migration are now one of the priorities of the Austrian EU Council presidency. An issue exemplified by the 2015-2016 migration flows to Europe, it is more than due time to examine approaches to handle migration or ‘human mobility’.
Speaking at the Foreign Policy and United Nations Association of Austria (UNA-AUSTRIA) association, William Swing emphasised international migration as a megatrend of our century. And so is urbanisation, as people move for jobs, shelter, and security. Migration is an old phenomenon, but it did not dominate political discourse until 2015/2016. According to Swing, as a percent of the world’s total population the number of migrants has not changed; it remains around 3%. However, but the population of the world has quadrupled in the last century and there are currently about 1 billion migrants on the move. Another factor to consider is how migration has changed and how these changes affect the world today – the vast number of people on the move, the increase in remittances, and the roots causes of migration, (protracted conflicts, climate change, insufficient economic development as a result of globalisation, etc.) In addition to the systemic logistical issues of managing migration, the 2015-2016 influx into Europe also led to an increase in anti-migrant, anti-refugee sentiment.
The conflicts in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, coupled with political and economic instability in several countries along the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East have led to a large-scale movement of migrants and refugees through North Africa and Turkey, and on to Europe. Over a million people bound for Europe are said to have made the journey across and around the eastern Mediterranean in 2015. One important issue that came to the forefront as a result of these events is that many migrations policies are outdated and insufficient for migration management.
Another important factor to consider when discussing migration is the role of the media. Swing thinks it has been mainly positive, however, public opinion varies country to country, with some criticising the media of self-censorship, others for creating a bad image of the refugees and promoting hostility towards them. In some areas of the world, climate change has an effect on migration, such as drought or when sea levels rise. Governments and civil society have been emphasising the need to deal with people smuggling, and ways to manage movement of people in a humane way. Migration is a complex phenomenon and has become a fundamental feature of our time.
In order to address these issues, the UN has started work on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This is an opportunity to improve the management of migration and would be the first intergovernmental agreement to cover all dimensions of international migration. According to the IOM, “It presents a significant opportunity to improve the governance on migration, to address the challenges associated with today’s migration, and to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development. The process to develop this global compact for migration started in April 2017. The General Assembly will then hold an intergovernmental conference on international migration in December 2018 with a view to adopting the global compact.”
The IOM has recently joined the UN as a affiliate organisation and will now participate in discussions as, according to Swing, little has been done on the political level so far. Migration is not a problem to be solved – it is a reality to be managed. Governments alone are not capable of managing migration. For example, when looking at the events of 2015-2016, there was no EU policy that worked, while it is a key issue for the European Union, discussed by all member states. A recent example of how an EU-wide or a supranational refugee/migration policy is lacking was the case of the rescue ship Aquarius, which was at sea with over 600 people for several days, until Spain agreed to give it a safe harbour after Italy and Malta both refused to let the ship dock.
In March 2018, the Austrian government presented a comprehensive programme for the EU Council Presidency – among the major challenges that Austria plans to address in 2018 will be internal EU security, Brexit, migration, and the EU budget. Its motto, ‘Europe that protects’, in many ways provides the content: security for citizens, increased EU external border control, and the fight against illegal migration are the focus of the Presidency. Migration and immigration have been important issues in Austrian politics, as the country is located on one of the main migration routes from the Middle East to Germany, the former of which had offered to take in many refugees. Migration will remain a challenge for years to come and thus a solution needs to be found to make sure that states together with institutions such as the EU can manage migration flows more efficiently and without creating divisions in the future.
Several events are planned in the EU in order to address issues stemming from migration. One is how to prevent ‘asylum shopping’. These asylum seekers who receive a negative answer from one EU member state go onto another and apply again. Some of those who do receive asylum want to live in a different EU country and apply again using falsified documents. Another topic is how to better protect the EU’s outer borders. It has been suggested to increase the staff of Frontex to 10,000 by 2020, rather than the existing 2,027, and to give them the same mandate as a country’s border police. Italy proposed changing the Dublin Regulation and pre-screen refugees in centres outside the EU.
On 24 June, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, convened an informal meeting on migration and asylum, “…with a group of heads of state or government of member states interested in finding European solutions”. The informal meeting took place prior to the European Council summit the following week. Sixteen heads of state out of the 28 Member States attended; several such as the Visegrad countries refused to attend. However, while the attendees agreed that a solution needs to be found and while various proposals have been put forth, nothing official has resulted. The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, hopes that there will be concrete agreements after the EU Summit in September, at the very latest.