Europe must act on migration crisis
European leaders have hailed decisions reached in marathon talks last week as a breakthrough in solving the "migration crisis" which has engulfed the continent. While some progress has been made, many issues remain outstanding, particularly the controversial question of refugee quotas.
As with the sovereign debt crisis in recent years, national interests have consistently trumped a common European response. Europe tends to move slowly when faced with such critical issues because of the various complexities involved. However, this issue has become more urgent, not least because of the rise in extreme far-right populism across the continent, ultimately caused by what has been a collective failure to put in place a common European asylum policy.
The current situation has been brought on by political upheavals in the Middle East, Africa and south Asia which are reshaping migration trends in Europe. The number of illegal border-crossing detections in the EU started to surge in 2011, as thousands of Tunisians began to arrive following the onset of the Arab Spring. Sub-Saharan Africans who had previously migrated to Libya followed in 2011 and 2012, fleeing unrest.
The most recent surge in detections along the EU's maritime borders relates to the growing numbers of Syrian, Afghan and Eritrean migrants and refugees.
Distinguishing migrants from asylum seekers and refugees is not always a clear-cut process, yet it is a crucial designation because these groups are entitled to different levels of assistance and protection under international law. The term "migrant" is seen as an umbrella term for all. Europe has witnessed a mixed migration phenomenon, in which economic migrants and asylum seekers travel together. An inconsistent method of processing asylum applications across Europe has not helped the situation.
The burden of responsibility falls disproportionately on entry-point states with exposed borders. EU member states hardest hit by the economic crisis, such as Greece and Italy, have also served as the main points due to their proximity to the Mediterranean. Shifting migratory patterns over the past year have also exposed countries like Hungary, situated on the EU's eastern border, to a sharp uptick in irregular migration.
EU law, known as the Dublin Regulation, stipulates asylum seekers must remain in the first European country they enter and that country is solely responsible for examining migrants' asylum applications. Reform in this area is an important step to establishing a common European asylum policy.
In practice, however, many of the frontline countries have already stopped enforcing the law and allow migrants to pass through to secondary destinations in the north or west of the EU. Germany and Sweden currently receive and grant the overwhelming majority of asylum applications in the EU. Ireland must be prepared to do more to help resolve the situation.
The secondary movements of migrants have put enormous strain on the EU's visa-free Schengen zone, which eliminated border controls in Europe. As such, it has been acknowledged that the current migration crisis contains the potential to threaten the future of the EU. Such claims have been made before, yet the EU, through agreement and consent, has always managed to negotiate a way forward. Last week there were indications that the new far-right government in Italy is prepared to place at risk such negotiated settlements.
That approach is entirely regrettable. But while the scale of migration has lessened significantly this year, the scale of the issue remains, making it evident that moderates in Europe must move with greater determination but no less resolve on this issue.