Since 2009, 3.4 million irregular migrants—asylum seekers or economic migrants entering without a visa or confirmed asylum status—entered the European Union. They arrived on flimsy boats by sea or crossed land borders. As numbers peaked in 2015, some EU leaders and observers worried that the migration crisis was an existential threat to the EU itself. Migration sparked bitter debates about social integration, culture, values, security, and national identity. Member states were not able to agree on important steps like a common asylum policy to distribute refugees among countries, calling into question the effectiveness of EU institutions and leadership. Far right parties gained political ground in many countries and moved platforms of more traditional parties to the right. Moreover, skepticism about internal EU migration fueled the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the EU, commonly called the Brexit.
Since then, the EU has taken several steps to address irregular migration. This led to greater EU capability to manage migration through developing institutions, policies, and foreign policy approaches. EU actions also led to significant drops in numbers of new irregular migrants, from 1.8 million people in 2015, to 206,000 in 2017 and 104,000 in 2018 through September. However, these steps have also not fully addressed EU migration challenges in the long run, such as opening the EU up to criticism about complicity in human rights abuses along migration routes, poor integration of new migrants into European society and labor markets, and remaining migratory pressures from Africa and the Middle East.
Here are five strategies that the EU has adopted to address irregular migration, some signals about the effects of these strategies, and the remaining issues that the EU could now focus on addressing.
Strategy 1: Divergent National Approaches to Accepting Asylum Seekers
An initial response to the migration crisis was an EU effort to update its common asylum policy to distribute asylum seekers across EU member states and coordinate reception approaches. Even though Brussels had been working on this issue for over a decade, the EU repeatedly failed to agree on a common asylum policy. Meanwhile, a large number of irregular migrants stressed the ability of even the most generous countries to live up to their obligations regarding asylum rights, and other countries resented accepting additional migrants.
With little prospect of an agreed EU common asylum policy, the EU developed a concept of “flexible solidarity” as applied to migration issues. Member states have taken divergent approaches to accepting asylum seekers—accepting vastly varying numbers and using different criteria in making asylum decisions.
EU member states altogether have processed some five million first-time asylum applications from 2011 to 2017, accepting about half. Germany has taken 1.6 million refugees during this time. However, a serious problem is what to do with those who have not been granted asylum. Most of them do not return to their countries of origin, as many of are unable to go back. Such failed asylum seekers contribute to a shadow population of unknown size living in Europe without legal status or rights. This population faces shrill political rhetoric about expelling them (which may not be feasible), and the EU has proven unable to deal with this challenge on a practical level.
Strategy 2: Using EU Budgets to Support Refugee Integration
The cost of social services for asylum seekers in their first-year average 10,000 euros. While member states and sub-national governments bear some of these costs, the EU also distributes budgetary support to member states. Despite political controversy over the costs, the EU and the member states have the resources and political will to cover them. For instance, the proposed EU 2021-2027 budget allocates 11.3 billion euros to support member states with the costs to care for migrants. The greatest expenditure from a single member state has been by Germany, which is set to spend 78 billion euros through 2022 on the integration of refugees and addressing the causes of migration.
At the same time, such costs are offset and even recouped if asylum seekers can integrate into labor markets. And having a job enables the dignity of self-sufficiency among the asylum seekers. Absorbing them into European labor markets has not been straightforward, due to language barriers, mismatches between their skills and those that labor markets demand, and restrictive EU policies regarding the particular circumstances under which asylum seekers can work. Historically in Europe, integration of refugees into the workforce has not been fast, taking over five years to integrate half of the humanitarian migrants. Refugees have higher unemployment rates in Europe than all other groups. Refugee unemployment in Germany stands at 40.5 percent in comparison with 5 percent in Germany overall. There is room for improvement, as the EU’s labor market integration of refugees is weak in comparison with the United States, where refugees are employed at higher rates than U.S. citizens. In the longer term, the presence of new workers in the labor force may fill labor-force gaps in some countries. For instance, more than 20 percent of Germany’s population is at least 65 years old. The influx of young migrants can help to fill critical jobs.
Strategy 3: Strengthening EU External Borders
Most irregular migrants were either fleeing Middle Eastern wars or migrating from sub-Saharan Africa, and they crossed into Europe along eight main routes. Those fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan primarily took routes overland through the Balkans and by sea on the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece. People from sub-Saharan Africa, seeking asylum or economic opportunities, traveled primarily from Libya to Italy on the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean routes have been dangerous, with over 16,000 dying on the open seas since 2014.
During the peak of the crisis in 2015, some member states temporarily closed their internal EU borders, to stop migrants from transiting within the EU. Border closures raised the fear that irregular migration would undermine EU member states’ commitment to maintaining open internal borders through the Schengen agreement.
EU member states then focused on strengthening EU external borders, while keeping EU internal borders open. These efforts, along with Strategy 4 of cutting off migration routes in third countries, served their intended purpose: the number of irregular migrants dropped in 2016 and 2017.
Furthermore, the EU closed the overland border with Macedonia, nearly stopping travel along the Western Balkan overland route into the EU. The EU also provided increased responsibilities and resources for the European border agency Frontex in patrolling the Mediterranean, along with other steps. In July 2018, the Commission proposed recruitment of 10,000 new border guards for Frontex and new authorities. These plans are controversial, however, viewed as a significant increase in EU powers at the expense of national sovereignty.
Though irregular migration pressures have eased from their peak in 2015, in large part due to EU strengthened borders, they are likely to persist. Migration surges may result from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, while Sub-Saharan African irregular migration to the EU is likely to remain steady over the coming decades, stemming from rapid population growth, climate change, and chronic instability.
Strategy 4: Collaborating with Third Countries to Cut Off Transit Routes
The EU and member states have increased collaboration with third countries to address migration. This has included blocking migration out from transit and source countries to the EU and unsuccessfully aiming to create “disembarkation platforms.”
For instance, to address the flows of migrants fleeing Middle Eastern wars, the EU crafted a cooperative agreement with Turkey in 2016. Turkey obtained substantial funds to help it host refugees and other concessions in exchange for taking a tough line against migrant smugglers. While many observers had doubts that the agreement would endure, to date the agreement has led to the near stoppage of irregular migration from Turkey to Greece. The migration crisis has reinforced the strategic importance of Turkey to the EU and also undercut European criticism of Turkey’s deteriorating human rights performance and autocratic governance.
To address the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the EU boosted relations with African governments, especially Libya, the departure point for most of the migrant boats. The EU and Italy have worked on strengthening Libya’s coast guard. While this approach has decreased migrant flows out of Libya, it has also kept migrants trapped in squalid camps there where they are subject to human rights abuses. Amnesty International accused European governments of being “complicit in horrific abuse of refugees and migrants.”
In addition, the EU has proposed establishing “disembarkation platforms” in third countries with Tunisia, Egypt, and Albania discussed as potential points. The idea is that these would be countries to which the EU could return migrants crossing by sea while evaluating asylum claims. However, this proposal has also raised alarms about potential human rights abuses of those detained in such camps, and no North African country thus far has agreed to host such a platform.
Altogether, migration pressures have changed the EU’s collective approach to foreign policy priorities, leading to an EU “realist surge.” Human rights concerns, formerly very important in setting European priorities, have receded as the migration crisis brought home the impacts of globalization and political instability in the Middle East and Africa. These steps have come at great cost to the EU’s reputation as a defender of humanitarian values.