With the number of migrants from Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean bound to increase over the next few months, Europeans once again demonstrate the usual divisions and helplessness since the refugee crisis started to hit Europe in 2015. Amid pleads from the United Nations and the European Union to increase the efforts to rescue vessels bound for the Greek and Italian islands and an increasingly hardening stance in Eastern and Southern Europe, especially in the persona of Italy’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, long term solutions are scarce on the ground.
Europe finds itself between a rock and hard place, with the anti-immigration movement correctly pointing out that every boat that is admitted to a European harbor will incentivize more people to attempt the risky journey, while those who support the efforts of NGOs and others to rescue those trapped at sea justifiable see a humanitarian need to do so. Yet the humanitarianism, especially in Italy, seems to have reached its breaking point, with 59% of the population supporting a policy of closing the country’s ports to NGO vessels. In other words, the clock is ticking for potential refugees, since with every new wave of migrants Europe’s anti-migration movements will gain public support, forcing governments to become more and more restrictive if they want to remain in power. The argument has been made that the most recent elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 were a refutation of the far Right, but this is only true since parties like Salvini’s Lega Nord did not win by a margin as wide as polls would have suggested. However, this does not change the fact that they still won with the trend continuing to move in their favor.At the end of the day, however, a solution to the migration problem needs a cohesive approach, and there are a few options, none of which are particularly popular and will therefore be hard to sell to the European electorate. We should not, however, confuse honesty with naiveté or cruelness. There are situations that have no easy solutions, and ignoring them in the hope that they might go away on their own is no longer a workable approach.
These options can be summarized under three major policy prescriptions along which a new immigration policy would have to be designed.
The first option is the actual erection of a “Fortress Europe.” Unless claims of asylum or humanitarian need have been made beforehand and outside of Europe’s borders, there is no getting in. This idea favored by Europe’s right-wing parties would most likely cause severe human suffering in the short run, for it would mean that migrants need to be returned to where they came from regardless of the security conditions on the ground. In the long run, however, it would disincentivize human smuggling and attempts to get into Europe.
The second option would be to continue what basically amounts to an open-border lottery. Those who survive human traffickers, as well as the first parts of a perilous journey and make it on a boat onto the Mediterranean, can hope to be picked up and get permission to enter and stay. But even then these migrants are kept in a position of legal limbo with no work permits, limited access to social services and no efforts of effective integration. And even if a legal decision is being made, the consequences are mixed at best: Only 46% of people being illegally in Europe are being repatriated.
What’s even worse is that very often those who are effectively forced to leave are the ones who reliably showed up to court dates and complied with every rule imposed upon them, while others simply disappear and become part of Europe’s growing population of illegal immigrants. Keeping these people in untenable circumstances is done on purpose, because it allows to maintain the claim that one day these people will be compelled to leave, even though that likelihood is very small. Under these circumstances a policy of swift legalization and integration would be better, although it is doubtful that the European public would be particularly enthusiastic about that.
The third option would be a form of direct intervention in the main countries of origin. To be clear, direct intervention is not the same as the often called-for “Marshall Plan” for the Southern Hemisphere. The Marshall Plan was applied on a war-ravaged Europe, but despite the destruction, European states could draw on a long tradition of bureaucratic government and functioning institutions that made the aid provided by the US so effective. Such structures do not exist in many parts of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa that would need such a Marshall Plan the most. In different forms based on local conditions these interventions could be more or less intrusive, but it is delusional to think that for example Libya or Somalia will be capable of effective self-governance at any point in the near future. One might instinctively recoil at the idea of a neo-imperialist Europe, but it might be preferable to filling the coffers of whoever seems to be the warlord-in-chief without any lasting impact on the overall conditions of the population.
None of these three options would be a particularly popular or easy one, but in light of the growing migration pressures a clear and executable strategy must be established, since otherwise Europe will get the worst possible outcome: A growing, unintegrated migrant population and a native European population that will turn to ever more radical parties. This would not only be unsustainable, but carry the seed of civil war within.