The arrival of more than a million asylum seekers in Europe in 2015 sparked deep divisions between EU Member States, for it revealed both the weakness of the Schengen system, lacking sufficient tools to keep the external borders of the Union under control, and the unsustainability of the Dublin Regulation, which assigns the responsibility for registering and processing asylum applications to the country of first arrival. As numbers became unmanageable, Greece and Italy failed to prevent migrants from continuing their journey to northern Europe. This imposed an equally unsustainable burden on main destination countries such as Germany, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, which started to resort to individual actions such as reintroducing border controls and raising barriers at their frontiers.
How Has Europe Responded to the Crisis?
The refugee crisis featured high in the agenda of the European Council throughout 2015. EU Heads of State and Government agreed on a number of immediate actions aimed at saving lives at sea, targeting criminal smuggling networks, responding to high volumes of arrivals with the relocation of 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece within the EU, granting protection to asylum seekers through an EU-wide resettlement scheme, and using EU tools such as the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Frontex and Europol to help frontline Member States identify, register and fingerprint incoming migrants in dedicated ‘hotspots.’
On 13 May 2015, the European Commission proposed the European Agenda on Migration, a new strategy laying the foundation for the EU and its Member States to address both the immediate and the long-term challenges of managing migration flows effectively and comprehensively, and setting out the need for a common approach to granting protection to displaced persons in need of protection through resettlement.
Alongside immediate actions to cope with the urgency of the ongoing crisis, the European Agenda on Migration introduced proposals for structural reforms to manage migration in all its aspects in the longer term. These are divided into four pillars: 1. Reducing the incentives for irregular migration; 2. Saving lives and securing external borders; 3. Completing a strong common asylum policy; 4. Developing a new policy on legal migration.
New Operational Plan for Operation Triton
The First Implementation Package of the European Agenda on Migration, presented by the European Commission on 27 May 2015, planned to triple the capacities and assets for the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union’s (Frontex) joint operations Triton and Poseidon in 2015 and 2016, in order to restore the level of intervention provided under the former Italian ‘Mare Nostrum’ search and rescue operation.
The deployment levels in the Central Mediterranean were dramatically increased to support the Italian authorities in controlling its sea borders and in saving lives. The amended operational plan of the Joint Operation Triton expanded its operational area to 138 NM south of Sicily and brought in a number of additional experts, vessels and aircraft, thereby allowing for the deployment of three aeroplanes, six offshore patrol vessels, 12 patrol boats, two helicopters and nine debriefing and six screening teams during the peak summer season. The role of the debriefing officers is particularly important because they collect intelligence about the criminals operating in Libya and other countries of transit, thereby assisting the Italian authorities and Europol in their investigations and efforts to dismantle the smuggling networks. Another important development is the establishment of a regional base in Sicily from which Frontex will coordinate the operation and work closely with liaison officers from Europol, Eurojust and EASO in support of the Italian authorities.
In addition to the initial 114-million-euro budget for 2015, the European Commission provided Frontex with an additional 26.25 million in emergency funds to strengthen Operation Triton in Italy and Poseidon in Greece from June 2015 to the end of the year – bringing the budget for Triton and Poseidon Sea to 38 million and 18 million euros respectively.
With operation Poseidon Sea in the Aegean islands, Frontex deployed 16 vessels and more than 260 officers assisting in the registration of new arrivals, as well as border surveillance officers and debriefing and document experts. To address growing migratory pressures, in October 2015 the agency called for the deployment of 775 border guards, however, Member States eventually provided only 448 officers – participation in regular Frontex Joint Operations being voluntary. In December 2015, Frontex accepted Greece’s request to deploy Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) on the Greek islands in the Aegean to assist the country in dealing with the record number of migrants coming to its shores. When the RABIT mechanism is activated – as it has been only once before in October 2010, also by Greece – Member States are obliged to send border guards and technical equipment for rapid deployment, unless they themselves face an exceptional situation substantially affecting the discharge of national tasks.
On 28 December, Frontex and Greece agreed on the operational plan for Poseidon Rapid Intervention, replacing the joint operation Poseidon Sea with a larger number of officers and technical equipment to support Greece in handling the unprecedented number of migrants arriving on its islands and raising the deployment to some 376 officers and interpreters on the ground.
Out of the 24,000 migrants rescued in the Channel of Sicily since the beginning of 2015, nearly 7,300 persons have been saved by means deployed by Frontex.
A New ‘Hotspot’ Concept
In October 2015, the European Commission announced the establishment of a number of ‘hotspots’ in Italy and Greece where EASO, Frontex and EUROPOL would be working on the ground with task forces of frontline Member States to swiftly identify, register and fingerprint migrant arrivals, expedite refugee screening and coordinate returns. The core idea was to have the three agencies work complementarily, with EASO support teams helping to process asylum cases as quickly as possible; Frontex helping Member States by coordinating the return of irregular migrants; and Europol and Eurojust assisting the host Member State with investigations to dismantle the smuggling and trafficking networks.
Additionally, the Commission mobilised 60 million euros in emergency funding to support the reception of and capacity to provide healthcare to migrants in the Member States under particular pressure.
To date, four hotspots in Italy (Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Taranto, Trapani) and five hotspots in Greek islands (Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos) have been created. Each Italian hotspot has a total reception capacity of 300-500 people, and is endowed with 23-25 Frontex officers in charge of debriefing, screening and fingerprinting; two EASO Member State experts; and two EASO cultural mediators for Arabic and Tigrinya. In Greece, single hotspot capacity ranges between 850 and 1,500 and each team is composed of 70-170 Frontex officers; 10-45 EASO officers, including experts under the EU-Turkey agreement, interpreters, staff; and 1-4 Europol officers.
Within the First Implementation Package, the European Commission recommended the activation of the Emergency system under Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) to better distribute Asylum seekers in Europe.
With the Council Decision 2015/1523 of 14 September 2015 and the Council Decision (EU) 2015/1601 of 22 September 2015, the Justice and Home Affairs Council agreed to establish provisional measures allowing for the relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers in clear need of international protection from Italy and Greece to the territory of other Member States.
In order to support Italy and Greece to better cope with the exceptional pressure on their asylum and migration systems caused by the increased migratory pressure at their external borders, Member States also agreed to increase their operational support in cooperation with Italy and Greece in the area of international protection through relevant activities coordinated by EASO and Frontex. The relocations should take place over two years (September 2015-2017), with the EU budget providing financial support to EU Member States and associated countries participating in the scheme.
Under the emergency relocation scheme, asylum seekers with a high chance of having their applications successfully processed (EU average recognition rate of over 75%) are relocated from Greece and Italy, where they have arrived, to other Member States where they will have their asylum applications processed. If these applications are successful, the applicants will be granted refugee status with the right to reside in the Member State to which they are relocated. The receiving Member State will be responsible for the examination of the application in accordance with established rules and guarantees. The redistribution key is based on criteria such as GDP, size of population, unemployment rate and past numbers of asylum seekers and resettled refugees.
Unfortunately, Member States are not yet meeting the commitments they made under the Council Decisions on relocation. To date, 24 out of the 31 participating countries have committed to making places available under the relocation scheme, with an overall number of only 8,090 places.
The Commission calls on Member States to increase their efforts, in particular with regards to unaccompanied minors, and to fully comply with their commitments and obligations under the Council’s Decisions on relocation. It is crucial that all Member States relocate actively and on a regular basis from both Italy and Greece.
The Commission calls on Member States to increase their efforts, in particular with regards to unaccompanied minors, and to fully comply with their commitments and obligations under the Council’s Decisions on relocation
Despite calls on Member States to commit to their duties and increase their efforts, in particular with regards to unaccompanied minors, only 3,701 people (2,749 from Greece and 952 from Italy) were relocated in 21 countries as of early August 2016, which falls far short of the Commission’s proposed target of relocating 6,000 people per month. Moreover, whereas the pace of relocation transfers from Greece increased (most likely due not only to the heightened capacity of the Greek asylum service to process relocation requests, but also to the lowering number of new arrivals), relocation from Italy decreased and remained at a particularly low level compared to the continuously high number of potential applicants for relocation arriving in Italy. Moreover, some of the participating countries have proposed introducing a ceiling on the number of asylum seekers they are willing to take.
Providing Protection through Resettlement
On 8 June 2015, the Commission adopted a proposal on a European Resettlement Scheme, which was followed by an agreement among the Member States on 20 July 2015 to resettle 22,504 persons in clear need of international protection, in line with the figures put forward by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In July, EU Member States adopted conclusions on resettling through multilateral and national schemes 22,504 displaced persons from outside the EU who are in clear need of international protection. The Justice and Home Affairs Council also agreed to provide dedicated funding for an extra 50 million euros in 2015/2016 to support this scheme.
Following the EU Leaders’ Summit with Turkey on 29 November 2015, the EU-Turkey Action Plan was adopted. The plan introduced a voluntary humanitarian admission scheme to create a system of solidarity and responsibility sharing with Ankara for the protection of persons displaced by the conflict in Syria to Turkey. Member States are invited to participate in the scheme on a voluntary basis taking into account their capacities, and the scheme is to be flexible to take into account the sustainable reduction in the number of people irregularly crossing the border from Turkey into the European Union as a result of Turkey’s actions – i.e., if the irregular flows into Europe through Turkey are successfully reduced, Member States are invited to accept people from Turkey who are in need of international protection have been displaced by the conflict in Syria. Schengen associated states are also invited to participate.
The EU-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016 provided that, as of April 4, for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU.
The European Commission reports that 8,268 persons had been resettled by 11 July 2016 under the resettlement scheme of 20 July 2015 – mainly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. They have been received by 20 resettling countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom).
The number of resettlements from Turkey under the EU-Turkey Statement continued to increase during the reporting period (14 June to 11 July) as Member States assessed the candidates referred to them by Turkey, via the UNHCR. Since 4 April 2016, a total of 802 Syrians have been resettled from Turkey to the EU.
Reducing the Incentives for Irregular Migration
Building on the European Agenda on Migration, in June 2016 the European Commission set out plans for a new results-oriented Migration Partnership Framework to mobilize and focus EU action and resources on addressing the external dimension of migration. The EU will seek tailor-made partnerships with key third countries of origin and transit, using all policies and instruments at the EU’s disposal to achieve concrete results in terms of saving lives at sea, increasing returns, enabling migrants and refugees to stay closer to home and, in the long term, helping third countries’ development in order to address root causes of irregular migration. Member State contributions in these partnerships – diplomatic, technical and financial – will be of fundamental importance in delivering results.
The renewed partnership with third countries will take the form of tailored ‘compacts’ that will be developed according to the situation and needs of each partner country, depending on whether they are a country of origin, country of transit or a country hosting many displaced persons.
The European Council endorsed the new Migration Partnership Framework on 28 June. In the short term, the EU should deliver compacts with Jordan and Lebanon and take steps to agree further ones with Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia. Engagement with Tunisia and Libya is also set to increase.
Addressing the Root Causes of Irregular and Forced Displacement in Third Countries
Based on the priorities set up in the European Agenda for Migration, the European Union decided to step up its work in partnership with third countries to tackle migration upstream.
Regional Development and Protection Programmes will be set up or deepened, starting in North Africa and the Horn of Africa and building on the existing one in the Middle East. For 2015/2016 the European Commission has made 30 million euros available, which should be complemented by additional contributions from Member States.
In Niger – the major country of transit in West Africa – the EU, in cooperation with UNHCR and the IOM, has established a pilot ‘multi-purpose centre’ to encourage voluntary return and to propose alternatives to irregular migration through a combination of provision of information, local protection and resettlement opportunities for those in need. Effectively, the centre is intended to stop migrants before they reach the borders of Europe, as part of an increasing attempt to shift the burden for migration management onto origin and transit states.
Migration has also become a specific component of ongoing Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions already deployed in countries like Niger and Mali. The action led by the HR/VP to address the situation in Libya to encourage the process of setting up a Government of National Unity was also part of an effort to once again bring migration flows under control.
In order to stem irregular migration from Africa by boosting socioeconomic development in the Sahel region and Lake Chad area, the Horn of Africa and North Africa, the European Commission launched an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa made up of 1.8 billion euros from the EU budget and the European Development Fund (EDF), to be complemented by contributions from EU Member States and other donors. Member States’ contributions amount to around 81.3 million euros to date, but the EU expects more contributions to follow.The EU Trust Fund will complement the existing EU and Member States’ development aid to Africa, which amounts to over 20 billion euros every year.
The EU has already provided 3.6 billion euros in humanitarian, stabilization and development assistance inside Syria and to help Syrian refugees in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Has the Refugee Crisis Come to an End in Northern Europe?
With 476,000 requests, Germany was the EU Member State to receive the highest number of new asylum applications in 2015. Far more migrants have actually arrived in the country, as more than a million people were recorded in the national system for counting and distributing people before they make asylum claims. Even as late as last January, 3,500 to 4,000 asylum seekers were arriving in Germany every day.
Yet, the trend changed during the first half of 2016. Figures available for April 2016 showed a daily average of only 183 arrivals to Germany. The number of refugees reaching Bavaria through Austria, ranging between 800 and 1,200 each day in January this year, dropped to a daily average of 80 in the month of May. Hungary, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands report similarly dramatic reductions. Excluding people who have applied for asylum more than once and those in the EU’s relocation and resettlement schemes, Belgium has only received 919 asylum applications in April 2016, compared to 2,330 in the first month of the year and 6,360 in September 2015.
The sudden change in trend is ascribable to two major attempts to curb migrant flows. On the one hand, with the EU-Turkey deal struck in March
The sudden change in trend is ascribable to two major attempts to curb migrant flows. On the one hand, with the EU-Turkey deal struck in March, Ankara agreed to prevent people from crossing the border to Europe and to accept irregular migrants caught in Greece in return for billions in financial aid, the promise of visa-free travel to the EU, revived membership talks and a new resettling scheme for Syrian asylum seekers. On the other hand, a group of Balkan states, coordinated by Austria, have built barbed-wire topped fences at their borders to try to keep migrants and refugees out.
Ankara has not been 100% effective in containing new arrivals since March, but the EU-Turkey deal has nonetheless had a dramatic effect. Combined with the sealing off of the Greek-Macedonian frontier as well as successive border crossing points along the Balkans route, it proved near-to-completely successful in preventing people from going further north.
The closure of European land borders and the Balkans route has not stopped people trying to come
Yet, the closure of European land borders and the Balkans route has not stopped people trying to come. Although fewer asylum seekers have been risking the journey to Greece across the Eastern Mediterranean, the situation in the Central Mediterranean route is getting worse as the number of refugees shows no sign of slowing. Forced to find another way, migrants and refugees often turn to people-smugglers.
Southern Europe Remains Exposed Via the Central Mediterranean Route
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 275,000 people have been travelling to Europe through various transit routes across Africa, Asia or the Middle East between January and early August 2016, with arrivals by sea exceeding 263,600.
The total number of arrivals to Europe in the first six months of the year was 238,933, compared to 142,776 in the same period of 2015. However, migration flows through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Balkan route decreased by 96% from the first quarter of 2016 as compared to the second one, following the decision by the chiefs of police in Austria, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia in February to profile and register migrants at the Macedonian-Greek border, and the EU-Turkey agreement signed on March 18.
While arrivals in Greece have decreased considerably , figures on people who reached Italy by sea in 2016 have already exceeded 100,000 as of early August, in a slight increase from the same period of last year. In the month of April, arrivals in Italy have outdone arrivals in Greece for the first time since June 2015.
At the same time, 2016 is on course to be the deadliest year on record. In the first seven months of the year, more than 3,170 migrants have died by drowning or suffocation in overcrowded smugglers’ boats in journeys across the Mediterranean, out of 4,170 migrant deaths recorded worldwide. According to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, these figures represent a sharp increase from 2015, which did not see the tragic benchmark reached until the month of October. As for migration on land in Europe, 26 deaths have been recorded in the first seven months of 2016 – slightly less than the 31 registered for the same period. However, figures for both 2015 and 2016 are significantly higher than the nine deaths recorded in 2014, indicating that current policies may be increasing the risks migrants and asylum seekers face on their journeys.
Has the European Union Mismanaged the Migration Crisis?
Terrorism, home-grown radicalism and the need of crisis managers to respond to rising xenophobic sentiments in Europe have led over the past two years to an increasing securitization of migration, i.e., understanding migration only as an issue of security for the host country, and considering migrant peoples an implicit danger to that security.
The official European response to the refugee crisis – oftentimes championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – is for Member States to pull together and provide shelter for people, especially Syrians, fleeing war or persecution. But in reality, most countries have failed to fulfil their commitments under the EU relocation and resettlement plans, thereby exposing the dire lack of solidarity between EU Member States. Many governments – particularly in central and eastern Europe – have shown far more interest in preventing illegal migration than in living up to their refugee quotas and responsibility to protect under international law.
The EU deal with Turkey has sharply cut the number of refugees and migrants leaving Turkish shores for Greece. The conclusion that many EU governments have drawn, is that outsourcing the management of migration flows and building fences is a simple solution to controlling who enters their territory. In all likelihood, their evaluation was rushed.
President Erdogan hinted on a number of occasions that Turkey’s migration agreement with the EU may collapse if the EU did not keep its word on visa-free access to the EU for Turkish nationals, which has been delayed due to a dispute over Turkish anti-terrorism legislation, concern about the scale of Ankara’s post-coup crackdown and the potential for the death penalty to be reinstated.
The EU-Turkey deal has de facto pulled EU leaders into an awkward position of dependence on Ankara whereby they are left with only two options – either maintain the Eastern Mediterranean route under control by turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s rapprochement with Vladimir Putin as well as to political persecutions and human rights violations in Turkey (which would compromise the credibility of the EU’s values and founding principles once and for all); or blow the agreement altogether and accept the political consequences of re-opening the Balkans route to another massive influx of asylum seekers and migrants (something that no European government is ready to do).
To be fair, EU responses to the migration and refugee crises went far beyond the EU-Turkey deal. The European Commission has made remarkable efforts in designing concrete, far-reaching actions under the European Migration Agenda. Nonetheless, whether the EU has managed to strike a deal between security and solidarity remains an open question.
The new EC Partnership Framework on Migration proposes to finance migration compacts with third countries in Africa and the Middle East, partly through re-allocated development funds. The reorientation of Europe’s development programming towards curbing migration is alleged to contradict the guiding principles for EU development policy as enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty. It politicizes aid as leverage for migration control, by making development aid conditional on third countries’ performance on migration – narrowly understood in securitized terms as containment, border management and return and readmission. At the same time, it presents states plagued by corruption and with poor governance and human rights records with a powerful bargaining chip to leverage maximum political capital – as has already happened with the EU-Turkey deal. This both risks perpetuating a cycle of abuse and repression that causes people to flee, and fails to effectively tackle the economic logic of human traffickers, since state actors in several African states that the EU seeks to partner with have proven economic stakes in this very trade.
Moreover, closing migration routes may produce the result some EU countries desired, but is not free from negative side effects on other Member States. Even though thousands of migrants were evacuated from the makeshift Idomeni camp on Greece’s northern border, where they had been stranded for months in inhumane conditions since Macedonia closed its borders in March, according to IOM data, 62,975 migrants and refugees remain stranded in Greece (57,034), the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (211), Serbia (1,946), Slovenia (263), Croatia (38), Bulgaria (2,598) and Hungary (885) as of the first week of August 2016.
The situation remains precarious and can hardly be sustainable in the longer run. Just as last summer’s mass migration triggered the sealing off of Greece by its neighbours, so this is happening now with Italy, led once more by Austria but with Switzerland and France also restricting freedoms previously granted by the Schengen agreement. The danger for EU countries of first arrival is that fellow Member States fail to honour pledges to resettle those eligible for asylum, decide to fence off their borders and that arrivals across the Mediterranean continue. As latest developments at the Italian-French border have shown, this scenario is already very real.
The EU, as an institution, can hardly be blamed for the European short-sighted response to the refugee and migrant crisis. The European Council on 7 March 2016 called for an acceleration of the implementation of relocation, in order to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Greece. On 28 June 2016, the European Council reiterated its call for further action to accelerate the implementation of the relocation and resettlement schemes in light of the urgent need to provide support to Greece and Italy. Yet, virtually all Member States are lagging behind in living up to the commitments they undertook at the peak of the crisis
No matter how hard EU institutions try to push coherent collective responses forward – the asymmetrical impact of the refugee crisis on EU Member States gives them no incentive to share the burden of managing migration, and divisions in different groups will stay. The EU countries that have been significantly impacted by the crisis are few, and they have divergent interests depending on the category they fall into (i.e. countries of first arrival, transit countries or destination countries). But, above all, the current level of integration in the area of freedom of movement, migration and asylum policies is clearly insufficient.
Throughout 2016, the European Commission has presented proposals to complete the reform of the Common European Asylum System, introduce a common EU Resettlement Framework to ensure safe pathways to Europe for persons in need of international protection and reform the ‘Blue Card’ scheme to support Member States in the integration of third-country nationals and their economic and social contribution to the EU. Nonetheless, Member States’ lag in fulfilling the obligations they had committed to at Council level demonstrates that implementation will be the real solidarity test. Especially when the time comes for pulling out more resources for migration from the EU budget.
The Brexit negotiations will undoubtedly catalyze the efforts of the EU and its Member States in the coming months, diverting the attention of leaders and policymakers from the emergency of managing migration to EU internal processes. However, EU leaders should be careful with the temptation of reverting to the usual practice of defusing such highly sensitive issues to lengthy, technocratic discussions at times when xenophobic sentiments find increasingly larger space in national debates and instability on the global stage is rampant.
The root causes of migration flows will remain, particularly as conflict in Syria is far from coming to an end. The intensifying rivalry between major global powers is fostering new East/West tensions spilling over into different theatres. Turkey – the EU’s main partner in the management of migration – has been sliding in the last weeks into a spiral of authoritarianism that in all likelihood is a precursor to major de-stabilization. Finally, the countries that have hosted most refugees without making the news – Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon, but also Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – host disproportionately large numbers of young refugees lacking economic prospects, access to education and political representation. A basin of potential targets of radicalization by extremist groups that could trigger a new cycle of conflicts.
Europe has a track record of failing to recognize and anticipate the catastrophic consequences of mismanaging migration flows. In the event of a new humanitarian emergency, European leaders – as ultimate crisis managers – should think twice before approaching it exclusively from the perspective of domestic policy. The one lesson to be learnt from the 2015 crisis (and its responses) is that developments can unfold quickly and suddenly in the eye of the emergency even in countries that are usually not so affected. To be ready to cope with potentially catastrophic scenarios, all EU Member States need to chip in to develop a common, holistic approach to migration, but especially to at last implement EU tools and policies that already exist.
 For Greece, July was the third consecutive month that the arrival number was lower than 2,000 – a strikingly low figure, when compared to the 50,000 arrivals on average in each of the first three months of the year, before the EU struck a deal on migration with Turkey on 18 March.