The EU Migration Dilemma Is Here To Stay

In June 2018, the dispute about rescue ships, like Aquarius and Lifeline, exposed the flaws of European solidarity and the insufficient response at the EU level to address the migration crisis since 2015, once again. Andreia Soares e Castro argues that the EU has a political problem, not a migration problem that is often touted in the media.


In 2015, more than one million migrants risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean and reach the EU. Fleeing political oppression, war (particularly civil war in Syria) or poverty, numerous have died at sea and many more were rescued by EU ships. Back then, the numbers of migrants were absolutely unprecedented and turned migration into a crisis, revealing the lack of solidarity between EU member states, especially towards those who were “countries of first entry,” like Italy, Greece, and Hungary. Instead of cooperation and burden-sharing, the crisis created a series of actions, like the construction of walls and fences, temporary re-establishment of border controls inside the Schengen Area, and rejection of European Commission’s mandatory migration quotas. The crisis questioned the unity of EU Member States, as did the 2016 UK referendum along with the Eurozone crisis. But the EU was built on crises and as far as today has survived all of them, but not without consequences. As one of the Founding Fathers of the EU, Jean Monnet, put in his Mémoires: “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”

Since 2015, in spite of the numerous special meetings of the European Council and the several measures implemented to address the situation, EU member states have been at loggerheads over migration. Some are at the front line of migration, such as Italy, Greece, or Malta, where thousands of migrants arrive, creating an unsustainable and unjust burden, which they claim must be shared by EU partners. Others, like the “Visegrad Four” (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia), clearly reject the current EU migration regime and continue to refuse to take migrants in, adopting a hardline stance on migration, refusing any suggestion of mandatory refugee resettlement among EU members, proposing instead that migration policy should be based on the principle of the “flexible solidarity” emphasizing that “any distribution mechanism should be voluntary.”

The migration crisis in particular has put into question the EU’s most valuable benefits and principles, fueling a contentious debate about solidarity and responsibility among the Member States. However, in this debate we must distinguish two types of questions: one, is the case of refugees who are in need of international protection and the second is the issue of economic migrants. In line with EU values and the history of Europe there are humanitarian, international law obligations, moral and historical reasons that urge EU member states and the EU to act. Following the devastation of the Second World War, 60 million people were refugees in Europe and the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees was established to grant refuge to those in Europe who were escaping from war and totalitarian oppression. This Convention and several others enshrine the protection of human lives.

Another question is the issue of the economic migrants, who leave their countries for other reasons and do not meet the right of asylum criteria. Here it is understandable that member states have different visions and policies about migration and the number of migrants to accept. But the EU28 have more than 500 million inhabitants. Therefore, the countries can collectively to do more regarding not only relocation and resettlement, but also integration of migrants and refugees. Moreover, Europe is an ageing continent in demographic decline, a problem immigration can help resolve.

The number of people residing in an EU Member State with citizenship of a non-member country on 1 January 2017 was 21.6 million, representing (only) 4.2 percent of the EU-28 population. So, the numbers are not the real issue. The problem is perception and manipulation of fear. In its annual Global Trends Report released on June 19, 2018, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, reveals that some 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in countries in developing regions and that one-third of refugees are hosted in the world’s least developed countries. Hence, the migration problem is not only a European one. As long as there are wars and persecution, there will be people fleeing and seeking protection. As long as there is poverty and hunger, there will be people migrating and searching for hope. Migration is here to stay, especially economic migration, which doesn’t fall under the purview of asylum.

Today, the EU does not have a major problem with migration like it did in 2015 as the arrivals have decreased 95 percent. The row is about power and sovereignty. This is a crisis about real interests and sovereignty, but also about values, political principles and identity. European governments are focused on feeding their electorates with the fear of migrants for clear electoral purposes. All that said, the issue of migration remains to be one of EU’s most pressing questions. It will be the determining factor in the upcoming European Parliament 2019 elections. In addition, a World Bank study says that by 2050 climate change could force 86 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa to move within their countries. Therefore, migration is here to stay and will continue to pose profound challenges to the international community and to the EU Member States in particular.

Andreia Soares e Castro is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, ISCSP – ULisboa as well as a Researcher at the Centre for Public Administration & Public Policies CAPP/ISCSP-ULisboa. She received her Ph.D. in International Relations as well as her M.A. in International Relations from ISCSP-ULisboa.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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