On 16 September 2002, in my then capacity as the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, I addressed the 7th Conference of European ministers responsible for migration affairs, held in Helsinki, Finland, encouraging them “to put the pieces of the migration puzzle in the right place”.


Reading my speech again 15 years later, I have to admit that the issues have not changed much in the intervening years; the pieces of the puzzle are still lying around but have not been put in the right places. The awareness of the problems has been there, the analysis has been there, proposals for solutions have been put on the table, but instead of change for the better, the situation has worsened, even though certain developments were foreseeable.

In 2002 I stated that “headlines in the press, if not the political agenda, are dominated by the ‘migration issue’ in most of our countries”. I referred to data gathered by the Council of Europe and Eurostat, which stated that according to them, net migration to the European Union accounted for about three-quarters of population increase in 2001. Now, as then, a population increase is badly needed in our ‘greying’ societies. On the other hand, there was sound evidence that the sometime depiction of massive immigration as a ‘plague’ was purely a myth – at least until 2015’s mass arrival of Middle Eastern and North African refugees in countries in South East and Central Europe.

But the ‘wave of refugees’, as it was often called in 2015, 13 years after my address to the ministers, has raised three fundamental questions:

  • Was it unpredictable and therefore unavoidable?
  • Has it turned into the previously depicted ‘plague’?
  • And in particular, were the target countries of Central Europe – representing the continent’s richest countries – able to tackle this challenge, and have they “made it”, as the German Chancellor claimed was possible?


My answer is clear. Developments including the ‘wave of refugees’ stemming from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria were predictable as well as avoidable. Afghanistan has been shackled by war since 1978; people suffer from the Taliban, warlords, a corrupt government, and repeatedly, from the ‘collateral damage’ of foreign troop actions. Iraq is not only a victim of ISIS, but is a place of other religious tensions, too. The civil war in Syria has gone into its fifth year and ISIS has brought a terrible new element to the already troubled population. Civilians have fled the country, primarily of course to neighbouring countries. But the international support for neighbouring countries has been very poor, as have living conditions in refugee camps. And the situation in Africa, both north and south of the Sahara, was also well-known. So, nobody can claim that the wave of refugees and irregular migrants has come as a surprise.

However, its depiction as a ‘plague’ is still a myth, because the countries which have received high numbers of refugees have so far risen to the challenge, despite wild and rude attacks on governments by populists from both right and left. Of course, there are still problems, but all incomers have been accommodated and nourished. According to German police statistics, the crime rate among migrants and refugees nearly matches the average of the native German population. And the problems with the return or deportation of illegal migrants without the right to asylum are not new; they have been neglected over many years.

Migration flows to Europe are unlikely to be reversed. Back in 2002, there was a consensus in Helsinki that countries can gain economically and culturally from immigration. Despite opposition, and particularly the refusals of some – mainly Eastern European member states – regarding the distribution of refugees, this consensus, at least among experts, is still there.

In my Helsinki speech, I was able – and obliged – to refer to global and European events like the UN-sponsored conferences against racism in Strasbourg and Durban, of the previous year, where we had emphatically stated that sustainable development and the fight against poverty were human rights issues. I asked the ministers whether they were in a position to deny to migrants the human rights that applied to our fellow citizens.  I answered this question myself: certainly not! On the contrary, both yesterday, and today more than ever, the principles of tolerance and non-discrimination and the provisions of the Geneva Convention should guide action in the field of migration – particularly in the field of forced migration.

The distinctively strong feature of the Council of Europe was then, and is now, to make sure that the human rights and dignity of migrants are respected. Let us try and turn to the person, to the individual who is so frequently forgotten in the ‘migration’ debate. Essential words for migrants are not ‘preservation of the welfare state’, but ‘economic and social distress’, and as is still too often the case, persecution, war, human rights violations, and political, ethnic, and religious conflict. In an unequal world, all the walls, barbed wire, and electronic eyes have only a limited impact, as was seen for a long time at the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais. And now, looking to the Mediterranean, which has become a wet grave for tens of thousands, neither shipwrecks nor the sea itself have been able to prevent hundreds of thousands from arriving in Europe since I made my Helsinki speech. Never has a wall, a fence, or hundreds of kilometres of sea prevented someone from hoping for a better life and from migrating to try to realise their dream.

What steps then are we determined to take in order to make Europe a region of immigration that respects the human rights of every person on its soil? How can we overcome the schizophrenic situation in some of our countries, which are desperately searching for highly skilled professionals abroad whilst simultaneously reinforcing border controls with stronger security measures?

The management of migration, legal and irregular, is a political challenge. 15 years ago, I was convinced that sound and concerted implementation at the national level of the Council of Europe’s Migration Management Strategy of 2000, would not only contribute to the Barcelona Process[1] in the field of migration, but would also prevent future problems on Europe’s eastern and south-eastern borders. I have to admit that I was either too optimistic or had too much confidence in European governments.

The protection of individual human rights is the basis of the Migration Management Strategy. It strongly supports measures to integrate foreign populations, while emphasising that integration is a two-way process. At the heart of the strategy is the conviction that many of the migration problems confronting governments have resulted from a piecemeal approach to specific problems, such as the economy, asylum, illegality, or return. This approach has not worked and is no longer sustainable. Any management strategy should be regarded as a comprehensive whole, to be applied over the long term. Measures have to be applied as a complete package: failure to do so will only replicate the mistakes of the past, where action in one area has served only to create new problems in another. Whether countries are able to develop their own integrated policies and to harmonise them with others are questions that can no longer be avoided. The new managerial approach proposed in the strategy will benefit both sending, transit, and receiving countries and their citizens.

These were all assertions made 15 years ago, and declared not to a street level, not to guests at a pub somewhere in Europe, but to competent people who were responsible for such a strategy, the European ministers responsible for migration – and they had no objections!

They were all aware that international migration has an impact on the quality of international relations. Therefore, it remains now of the utmost importance to return migration to the common political agenda of origin, transit, and destination states. States should deal together with issues such as human rights, bilateral technical co-operation, and irregular migration, as well as obstacles to return. This kind of dialogue would ultimately create efficient co-operation structures. From this perspective, a climate of mutual confidence and understanding would allow parties to negotiate on an equal footing. I personally had a great deal of trust in the co-management approach to dealing with migration. But how far away are we today from a co-management strategy, not to speak of mutual confidence and understanding? This certainly does not exist at the European Union level. The non-implementation of the decisions on refugee distribution among EU member states is clear evidence of the absence of mutual confidence and understanding, and the non-existence of a co-management strategy. Negotiations with countries of origin about the return of illegal migrants without the right to asylum started much too late, when tens of thousands of such people were already staying in several European countries.

In my capacity as Secretary General of the Council of Europe, I declared that in my opinion the time was ripe to create a structure that would facilitate, or – where needed – provoke, dialogue between sending, transit, and receiving countries. It would actively promote co-ordination with ministries and non-governmental organisations from the countries concerned, and establish co-operation in fighting the economic, political, and sociological causes of (irregular) migration. It would conduct analysis on issues of interest to member states when preparing political decisions and would propose innovative policies and laws. This structure would also help implement the strategy at the national level and would subsequently monitor the progress made. Maybe the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD)[2] – not well-known but in existence since 1992, following an initiative from Austria and Switzerland – with its 18 member countries could be used as a germ cell of a new structure.

The elements of a new structure for implementing the strategy already exist but are currently dealt with separately, and I am sure that bringing them together within this new structure would have a synergetic effect and give each element a bright new appearance – like putting all the pieces of the migration puzzle in the right place. Let’s turn to these various elements now.

There is a strong argument for believing that intergovernmental co-operation would be considerably more effective if sustained attention was given to the gathering and exchange of data and statistics on international migratory flows. The international community can ill afford to continue relying on vague estimates and would certainly be repaid for all serious investment in the development of reliable databases. Within this new structure, and in co-operation with Eurostat and other international institutions, the Council of Europe would devise new tools for improving the collection and analysis of migration data.

In 2002, when all efforts should supposedly have been concentrated on facing the threat of massive illegal migration, I asked forcefully for new and improved integration policies for legally residing migrants. It was certainly a moment of déjà-vu to hear the same demands from many politicians thirteen years later in 2015. The response, in 2002, 2015, and just as much in 2017, is definitely yes, today this is needed more than ever. But we are still waiting for words to turn into deeds. I found many of the principles of a comprehensive migration policy in the “Communication from the European Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions, of 17 June 2008 – A Common Immigration Policy for Europe: Principles, Actions and Tools” (COM [2008] 359). But comparing this well-founded policy with every-day politics leads to the same conclusion: we are waiting for words to turn into deeds!

Integration is one of the pillars of a comprehensive migration policy. It adds the central piece to the puzzle. Integration has to be seen as an interactive process based upon mutual willingness to adapt, from both migrants and the receiving society. Throughout this process and in every sphere of life in society, diversity has to be valued as a source of mutual enrichment.  This is the essence of the concept described in the Council of Europe’s landmark report on diversity and cohesion, which offers hints towards elaborating innovative integration policies at the national level (Diversity and cohesion: new challenges for the integration of immigrants and minorities, 2000). Even though the report has been translated into many different languages – thanks to the interest shown by various national authorities – again, implementation since then has been very poor.

Another element of the puzzle is the legal status of migrants, which should be based on the principle of equality of treatment between migrant workers and nationals of the host country. After a few years in the shadows, I was hoping that the discussion about the consequences of free movement of people within the EU could shed new light on the situation, because free movement facilitates European integration, but it is well-known that the majority of problems remain unresolved. Social dumping and abuse of social welfare systems still exist and are high on the political agenda at both the national and the EU level. But sometimes the positions of the European Commission and of national governments differ substantially. For example, in the case of Austrian family benefits, the Commission insists on payment of the full amount for children living outside the country, whilst Austria plans to restrict the full amount to children residing locally. Also, allegedly not the presence, but the circumstances of foreign workers from EU countries in the UK played a significant role in the Brexit referendum, too. Nevertheless, a crucial element of any successful strategy is close and fruitful co-operation within the European Union, for which I was already pleading back in 2002.

Another important part of migration policy in Europe is the fight against trafficking and exploitation of human beings. In Helsinki, I announced a Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings that came into force in 2008 and is the basis of action for various stakeholders, such as the EU, the OSCE, and Interpol.

I emphasised in Helsinki that a strategy for the orderly co-management of migration was the vital element in a coherent migration policy. And now, the pieces of the puzzle for coherent policy are still there. We just need the political will to put everything in the right place, and then to implement it.


[1] The Barcelona Process, an initiative promoting stability and prosperity across the Mediterranean, has resulted in the Union for the Mediterranean, an intergovernmental organisation of countries from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

[2] International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD)

The ICMPD strives for comprehensive, sustainable and future-oriented migration governance. We do so based on solid evidence and in partnership with all relevant stakeholders at national, regional and international levels

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Walter Schwimmer
Walter Schwimmer is an Austrian politician and diplomat. From 1971 to 1999 he was a member of the Austrian Parliament (National Council), serving as a chairperson of several committees (Justice, Health, Housing and Construction) and deputy leader of the Austrian People’s Party. From 1 September 1999 to 1 September 2004, Schwimmer was Secretary General of the Council of Europe. He also chaired the Interparliamentary Union of Friendship of Austria and Israel in the Parliament of Austria (1976-1999) and member of the National Counsel of the Association Asia-Israel (1973-1999), serving as its vice-president (since 1977) and president (1982-1999). Currently Schwimmer acts as a consultant on International Relations and European Affairs, Honorary Secretary General of the Maison de la Mediterranee, Chairman of the International Coordination Committee and Co-Chairman of the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations.