Whatever Happened to the Refugee Crisis?

It is not unusual, given the daily pressure of “breaking news”, for a story to feature in the headlines one day, only to disappear without trace the next. One of the justified complaints about modern journalism is the way news is reported first without context, and then without follow-up.

But for one of the biggest and most emotive news stories of recent years to have left the headlines for so long is extraordinary. What I am talking about is the European refugee crisis. It broke into our consciousness two years ago this summer. Day after day we saw pictures of joy, when boatloads of people were rescued and reached dry land; of anger, when land borders were summarily closed; and of tragedy - exemplified by the drowned toddler, Aylan Kurdi, lying on a Turkish shore.

Then over the past winter and spring, it all went quiet. So complete was the silence that conspiracy theories began to circulate about coordinated state censorship. Amazingly, given the prominence of the theme in the UK’s Europe referendum a year ago and the strength of the National Front in France, migration was not a primary theme in either the UK or the French elections.

Now, though, the migrant issue - or elements of it - is back. This is partly because the numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean to Italy have increased sharply as the summer weather finally arrived, and partly because the European Union recognises that the question remains far from resolved. But the situation has changed; there is now not one single migration crisis, but several.

The first, and most pressing, concerns the Mediterranean crossings. Having shown quite exceptional generosity over the years, Italy is now asking why NGO ships take those they rescue only to Italy - not, for instance, to Malta or Greece - or even back to Libya, if that is closest. The number of fatalities is also rising, as traffickers switch to inflatables for lack of even rickety wooden boats, many of which have been destroyed in EU operation Sophia as and when they are found empty on shore. Amnesty International says that 2,030 people have died so far this year, on course to exceed even last year’s record number.

Italy’s pleas, however, have gone unanswered. Nor has there been any response to a  call from the Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, for would-be migrants to be screened at camps in north Africa. EU money is funding a number of projects designed to stem the flow of people from sub-Saharan Africa - with some success, according to the EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini. But the boats, and the people, keep coming.

A second theme is the sharpening conflict between east and west within Europe. Attempts to enforce a quota system have met open resistance from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, with compliance more in word than deed from the Baltic States. Some of the hostility reflects a belief that migration policy is a national, not a shared, responsibility. They also say, correctly, that most migrants aim to reach the more prosperous - and, as they see it, welcoming - countries of northern Europe, and move on as soon as they can. The quotas have become a new source of discord between “old” Europe and “new”, with Brussels threatening penalties for those who do not comply.

A third theme is security. While the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland say they are worried about importing a security threat that they do not currently face, there are fears that the sheer numbers, coupled with poor screening, have allowed potential terrorists to enter the EU undetected. In fact, the recent attacks in the UK and France have involved mostly “home-grown” attackers, but the fear of infiltration, founded or not, is a potent element in the popular hostility towards refugees, especially from predominantly Muslim countries.

The fourth strand is integration. The German welcome for refugees, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel two years ago, may never have been quite as wholehearted as it appeared. But even in Germany, concern is being voiced about the difficulties and the cost of integrating so many - often poorly educated - new arrivals into an advanced economy.

What is seen as the British model of “multiculturalism”, where newcomers were pretty much left to live their own lives in their own communities, was rejected by Ms Merkel soon after she became Chancellor, and Germany works hard at integration, with language and skills training both well developed. Still, successful integration is a long-term task. And while the flow of people arriving in Europe over land via the Balkans has been reduced, thanks to the deal Ms Merkel brokered with Turkey, it has not been stemmed completely. And one result is that Turkey now has a degree of political and economic leverage that it did not have before.

While Europe’s refugee crisis two years on may look somewhat different now it is broken up into these constituent parts, the original problem remains. The Schengen agreement, which abolished border controls between its signatories, only works if the EU’s external borders are secure. What happened two summers ago was that some of those borders broke down under the weight of numbers and an aversion - in many ways admirable - on the part of guards to use force.

As the scenes at Italy’s ports show, the EU frontier is still to an extent porous. The eastern land and sea routes may have been - partially - secured, but the Mediterranean is a harder proposition, and the traffickers flourish.

In theory, the Geneva Conventions and EU regulations allow EU countries to reject all those who do not meet the quite narrow definition of a refugee. But where war and desperate poverty are concerned, the distinction between refugees and economic migrants is not so easy to draw. Provisions for repatriating those who do not qualify as refugees are also deficient in many ways.

At its height, the refugee crisis demonstrated some cardinal weaknesses of the European Union’s security. It exposed not only the inadequacy of its external borders, but the consequences of not having a uniform system for screening new arrivals or common criteria for determining who may stay. Someone rejected at one border might be accepted at another.

Progress in formulating common standards and building a single EU border force has proved slow. Pooled sovereignty may be a key principle of the EU and pooled security a key aspect of Schengen, but the theory is a lot simpler than the practice.  

It is a consolation, perhaps, that the talking goes on. But Italy is now threatening to impose restrictions on NGO rescue ships arriving at its ports, with the risk that many more deaths could result. And as memories fade of those desperate scenes two years ago, it must be asked whether a new crisis - or the collapse of the arrangement with Turkey - will be needed before the EU 27 (Britain is already counted out) start to act as one. Most likely, the whole question will be kept on hold until after the German election. Only then, probably, will the serious talking about EU border security commence.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.