This year has seen greater focus by policymakers in countries around the world on the balance between two enduring, complex migration management imperatives: maintaining secure and credible borders while separating out unauthorized immigrants from the most vulnerable populations in need of humanitarian protection, particularly those seeking refuge from conflict and persecution. (See Issue No. 4: The Escalating Syrian Refugee Crisis Challenges the International Community's Ability to Respond) This challenge is compounded by the highly dangerous journeys, by land and particularly by sea, taken by a mixed flow of asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants. The dangers were thrown into relief in early October when a boat carrying Eritrean and Somali migrants capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, claiming more than 310 lives.
The challenge is global. But it is in Europe, and within the frame of the European Union, that these issues became all-consuming in late 2013. This is not a new phenomenon: migrants have been crossing into the Southern and Southeastern borders of the European Union for many years; and the EU border agency, Frontex, estimates that more than 31,000 migrants arrived in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean between January and September 2013. The Lampedusa tragedy, however, followed in short order by capsizings and interceptions in the Mediterranean of other vessels carrying migrants, gave new urgency to finding solutions.
The Challenges Ahead
There are multiple, interlocking, challenges.
First, and foremost, there is the need to respond effectively to the dangerous journeys taken by desperate people. The immediate EU response to the Lampedusa shipwreck was to increase Frontex search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean to identify boats in need at the earliest point and reduce the risk that migrants will drown. But, as policymakers and others recognize, this response deals with the immediate challenge rather than the underlying drivers. Smuggling networks, operating fluidly across the African and Middle Eastern region, are prolific and hard to quash. And individual desire to migrate to Europe in search of a better life — manifested by the high personal and financial costs migrants are willing to bear in undertaking such a dangerous and arduous journey — speaks to enduring gaps in poverty, development, and expectation, which show no signs of abating.
For policymakers, the questions become trickier once migrants have arrived on the shores of Europe. Over the past 15 years, EU Member States have established a common space within the continent — the Schengen area — that has seen the dismantling of internal borders and the strengthening of external ones. Simultaneously, these same countries have developed a Common European Asylum System, putting in place standards designed to create greater commonality in procedures and outcomes in national processes for claimants to humanitarian status. In addition, Member States have signed up to the Dublin Regulation, which makes the country of first entry to the European Union the state responsible for processing an asylum seeker's claim.
While countries in Northwest Europe tend to process the highest number of asylum claims — notably Germany, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom — countries to the South have come under increased pressure from mixed flows crossing the Mediterranean and increasingly the land borders to the Southeast of Europe. For some countries, the localized pressure has strained capacity to receive and assess arrivals, not least on Lampedusa and Malta. Further east, Bulgaria has received over 5,000 asylum claims from Syria in 2013; a tiny proportion compared to those arriving daily in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, but enough to send the Bulgarian system into disarray. The flows are fluid, reacting quickly to changes on the ground; for example, officials report declining flows through Greece, as reports of increased border patrols and the country's limited job prospects have filtered back to prospective migrants. For Northern states, the lack of capacity and uneven adjudication outcomes in the South are the key issues; for Southern states, the lack of support from the North is a deep point of contention.
In Search of Policy Solutions
In the aftermath of the Lampedusa disaster, both governmental and nongovernmental voices called for action. The European Union has convened a task force to assess possible solutions, including the possibility of relocating asylum seekers from arrival points to elsewhere in Europe, deepening partnerships with third countries in North Africa, and finding ways to effect a faster return home for those with no legitimate case for protection. However, early indications suggest that the deep political impasse within Europe on this issue remains entrenched, including a reluctance to question the fundamentals of the asylum system itself (not least the Dublin Regulation).
While this has been a central preoccupation for European policymakers, they are not alone. Australia has revived external joint processing of asylum claims in an effort to deter spontaneous arrivals of boats full of migrants. As a result, all asylum seekers are sent to Papua New Guinea or the island of Nauru to have their claims assessed. Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Aden, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed concern about the increasing flow of asylum seekers and migrants, primarily from Ethiopia, crossing the gulf to Yemen, an eerie echo of the Mediterranean. For industrialized and more prosperous countries, this is a challenge that shows no sign of abating. Policymakers in Europe, at least, may need to realize that there are no good answers, but merely a set of least worst solutions, to the common policy conundrum.
BBC News. 2013. Lampedusa toll at 311 as Italy divers finish boat search. October 10, 2013. Available online.
European Commission. 2013. COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL. June 17, 2013. Available online.
Frontex. Undated. Migratory routes map. Available online.
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---. 2013. Frontex Quarterly Risk Analysis, Q2 2013. Available online.
Malta Today. 2013. MEPs say legal entry into the EU is 'preferable' to irregular channels. October 23, 2013. Available online.
Reuters. 2013. EU struggles to find united response to Lampedusa tragedy. October 9, 2013. Available online.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 2013. More than 62,000 people, mostly Ethiopians, risk lives to cross Gulf of Aden this year. November 8, 2013. Available online.
---. 2013. UNHCR launches emergency operation to improve conditions for refugees and asylum seekers in Bulgaria. Briefing Notes, December 6, 2013. Available online.
---. 2012. Putting solidarity to the test: Assessing Europe's response to the asylum crisis in Greece. Available online.
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2013. Syrians face bleak time in Bulgaria's broken asylum system. October 22, 2013. Available online.