To Stay Open, Europe Needs to Close Its Doors

The United States has something important to teach Europe about the migration crisis. Right now, though, Europe isn’t listening.

Recently, I wrote about the deal that the European Union reached with Turkey to stanch the flow of refugees and, at least in theory, significantly improve their treatment in Turkey. But even as the EU-Turkey deal has drastically diminished the number of asylum-seekers coming through Turkey, and thus the death toll in the Aegean, the numbers dying on the route from Libya to Italy have shot up. From Jan. 1 to June 12, according to the International Organization for Migration, 2,438 migrants died on that route, 650 more than died in the first six months of 2015. Tens of thousands more have been pulled from the sea.

The United States has no lessons to offer on refugees, having accepted only 2,805 Syrians since last fall, but it does have something to offer on the equally vexed problem of illegal migration. And almost all of the people setting sail from Libya are Africans fleeing misery, rather than Syrians or Iraqis fleeing war. That is, they are migrants, not refugees.

One thing Americans know is that the politics of migration can be lethal, no matter what the facts. Over the past several years, stopping illegal immigration became a rallying cry, first for the Tea Party, and then for Donald Trump, even as the actual problem had slowed to a trickle. Illegal crossings from Mexico are now at a 40-year low. Advocates of increased migration came to recognize that they would never get anywhere unless they reassured voters that borders were under control. The administration of President Barack Obama has gone to great — at times grotesque — lengths to offer such reassurance, deporting unprecedented numbers of illegal immigrants and treating women and children fleeing violence in Central America as economic migrants rather than refugees. The 2013 immigration reform bill paired an increase in visas with a massive investment in border security. The fact that the bill was ultimately killed in the House after passing the Senate easily shows how toxic the issue remains: Perhaps no amount of enforcement is enough to reassure an angry and fearful public.

Europeans don’t need to be told about the poisonous effect of migration flows on national politics: Anger over migration may propel Great Britain out of the European Union this week. But the American lesson is that political leaders will not be able to move publics to embrace sensible reform so long as migrants themselves seem to be dictating national policy. Demetrios Papademetriou, former president of the U.S. think tank Migration Policy Institute and a leading scholar on the issue, says, “You must demonstrate to your populace that you are choosing most of the people who are coming to your country to give the public a sense that the government is in control.” This premise may be put to the test in the U.S. presidential election: If Trump can ride fear of the outsider to victory, then immigration advocates will have to admit that no amount of reassurance will be enough.

This was the premise of the EU deal with Turkey, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel hoped would lower public anger enough to help other European leaders adopt more generous policies toward refugees (though not migrants), as Germany has. The deal has hardly mollified the advocate community: Médecins Sans Frontières recently announced that it would no longer accept funds from the EU over disgust with the refugee deal, which a spokesman said was “not aimed at providing for those most in need,” but at “border control.” Sara Tesorieri, a migration advocate with Oxfam International, told me that “Europe needs more migrants, not less,” and that the dangers presented by right-wing parties had been exaggerated.

But this is NGO dreamland: So long as democratic publics don’t want to admit more migrants, leaders won’t be able to do so without risking a devastating right-wing backlash.

It remains to be seen whether European leaders will use the modest political space they’ve won to improve the plight of would-be refugees in Turkey, and to resettle more of them in Europe. But when it comes to those coming through Africa, no such possibility even presents itself. Libya, the jumping-off point for almost all of them, has no functioning government and cannot keep any promises it might make. The only way that Europe can save these migrants from exploitation and death is to use stepped-up deterrence and interdiction to convince them that illegal migration won’t work, though at the same time those who seek refugee status must be given the right to press their claims.

Europe cannot build a wall across the Mediterranean; the barrier will consist chiefly of boats. Last summer, after 700 migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa, the EU mounted Operation Sophia, a naval mission designed to disrupt smuggling networks and rescue migrants at sea. Since then, the operation has saved over 9,000 lives; but it has not been able to break up smuggling networks or affect the flow of migrants from Libya. The EU will have to do a better job of coordinating the effort of member states, increase the fleet, and perhaps gain permission from Libya to operate in Libyan waters. The EU should copy the example of Spain, which runs its own very robust naval operation in the western Mediterranean. The Spanish government has given substantial assistance to police authorities in Morocco, Algeria, and Mauretania, which have helped sharply reduce migration.

Last year, the EU authorized the funding of a €1.8 billion (about $2.04 billion) “Emergency Trust Fund” for Africa. The funds will go toward bolstering enforcement efforts and encouraging job growth and good governance in 23 immigrant-exporting countries, including such desperate cases as South Sudan and Somalia. The goal is to convince those countries that halting immigration is in their interest as well as Europe’s. Will that work? Papademetriou, who negotiated these issues as a Labor Department official in the George H.W. Bush administration, warns that Europe’s modest promises look feeble compared with the vast, long-term effort required to persuade Mexico to enforce border controls. He also observes that emigration from Mexico only subsided after 30 years, when the growth of a middle class and enhanced rule of law significantly improved local economic prospects (and when a U.S. recession made the alternative seem less attractive). Papademetriou suggests that, rather than trying to deal with dozens of African states, many of them vast and feckless, the EU focus its resources on a few more stable nations, such as Morocco and Tunisia.

What Europe can offer migrants — though only a fraction of those who want to come — are legal, temporary pathways to employment. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has argued that migrants fill both high- and low-skill niches and contribute far more to economies than they take. Nevertheless, the only major EU-wide initiative on legal migrant labor, the Blue Card for highly skilled workers, has failed to recruit large numbers of people, is hopelessly fragmented among member countries, and offers almost nothing to the less-educated migrants trying to reach Europe.

In this regard, Europe is far behind the United States. Although a political stalemate has kept the United States from developing a sane immigration policy, it has nevertheless developed innumerable ways to bring in foreign workers required by the domestic labor market, whether in the form of H1B visas for highly skilled workers or the vast program to import seasonal labor at harvest time. European and U.N. bodies are exploring these “alternative pathways” to legal and temporary migration.

It seems cruel to focus on deterrence and interdiction rather than on absorbing migrants desperate for a better life. Yet migrants are not refugees.

States have an obligation under international law to offer asylum to refugees; they accept migrants as a matter of national self-interest. Of course it’s hard to draw a moral distinction between an Ethiopian seeking to escape a life with no prospects and a Syrian fleeing Islamic extremists. But absent such distinctions, Europe could be legally obliged to accept tens of millions of asylum-seekers. Migrants have a right to a refugee hearing, but Europe must commit the resources to establish interview centers in Africa and streamline an agonizingly slow process.

What’s more, while brave stateswomen like Angela Merkel can inspire citizens to rise above their fears, political leaders won’t get far so long as European publics believe, rightly or wrongly, that their sovereignty is at risk. Put more bluntly, the only way to do something that will be in the long-term interest of both Europeans and African migrants is to do something right now that will look harsh, and will doubtless anger many advocates like Médecins Sans Frontières.

Something very large is at stake here: the identity of Europe in a new age of mass mobility. The nativists want to magically return to the all-white, all-Christian culture of the 1950s. Activists on the left seem to take the position that people should be able to move where they wish, and that states should not have the sovereign right to decide who will live and work within their borders. In either case, Europe as we know it today — liberal, tolerant, free-thinking, and multicultural — would cease to exist. Immigration reform in Europe, like immigration reform in the United States, must mean harnessing the energy and ambition of new people while reassuring citizens that the nation is acting in the name of collective self-interest. Angela Merkel hasn’t yet found the key. Neither has Barack Obama. If they fail, the answer may be given by the likes of Donald Trump.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy on June 22, 2016

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Jun 22, 2016
James Traub
Europe, Middle East