An approach that moves in circles

One year before the end of the European legislative term, the European Union must still […]

Senior Research Fellow and Editor in Chief of the Progressive Post

One year before the end of the European legislative term, the European Union must still find a synthesis between its member states’ different interests in migration. And an agreement on the Commission’s Pact on Asylum and Migration is still slow in the making. Yet, this synthesis is far from being achieved. In addition, every policy that is based on the current approach is doomed to failure, because it does not look beyond the limited horizon of short-term, ephemeral and questionable goals, like protecting borders from migrants, and it does not take into consideration the real and long-term interests of all stakeholders, including migrants.

“In 2022, around 330,000 irregular border crossings were detected at EU’s external border, according to preliminary calculations. This is the highest number since 2016 and an increase of 64 per cent from the previous year”. These are data released by Frontex last January, underlining that 2022 “was the second year in a row with a steep rise in the number of irregular entries”. Frontex also reports that numbers are further on the rise in 2023

In 2022, according to the Missing Migrants Project of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 3,080 migrants have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe through one of the major routes: the Central Mediterranean (the deadliest one), the Western and Eastern Mediterranean routes and the Western African one. These numbers too are on the rise, according to the IOM. 

On 11 April, the right-wing Italian government led by Giorgia Meloni declared a six-month state of emergency as a consequence of the increase in irregular arrivals in Italy with the aim “of giving prompter and more effective responses to the management of the influx” (or, to put it bluntly, to adopt a derogation of the law).

What is happening and what do those numbers tell us? Is the situation in the Mediterranean ‘out of control’? Are European and national migration policies there failing? Or is it rather another ‘crisis narrative’, as the many that have preceded this last surge of irregular arrivals?

The arrival of Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy to the Italian government, with their agenda on curbing migration to Italy (pushed also by the presence of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega in the government coalition) and ‘making Europe face its responsibilities’ regarding migration, together with the above-mentioned raising figures has brought migration back on the spotlight in Europe after the Covid-19 ‘break’.

The general trend in many EU member states, from North to South and from West to East (Sweden, the always-present Hungary, Greece, and above-mentioned Italy, to mention just a few), is to move towards increasingly restrictive migration policies. Despite this apparent convergence, however, the debate around this delicate and complex topic is far from being linear, and a synthesis of the European Union member states’ diverse interests (between those who ask for solidarity and those who refuse the ideas of solidarity sharing) is still difficult, if not impossible, to be found. The debate keeps being ‘drugged’ by ideology and captured by national political interests. 

The result is that, while trying to carry out the negotiations around the New Pact on Asylum and Migration (to be approved by the end of the legislative term in May 2024), the bloc keeps moving in circles. It issues new documents, proposals, or action plans which promise far-reaching solutions but are soon only partially implemented or completely forgotten (the November 2022 Action Plan for Central Mediterranean is just the latest example). It witnesses the striking of new deals among small ‘coalitions of the willing’ whose effect quickly runs out without ensuring any long-term solidarity among member states (such as the 2019 Malta Declaration). Or it discusses a new ’emergency’ in special European Council summits that produce yet other documents, declarations and commitments.

The more the EU seems incapable of finding that synthesis, the more it turns to externalisation and relies on third countries to manage migration, focusing on deterrence and border control (possibly the only points on which the EU member states manage to reach an agreement). The legitimate fight against trafficking and smuggling in this context becomes a smokescreen to hide the lack of ideas and the unwillingness to undertake more positive and active policies aimed at increasing legal pathways and managing migration in a safe and orderly way. Finally, the EU approach to migration increasingly depends on informal intergovernmental agreements put together only by those countries that, in a way or another, are more directly affected by the movements, undermining thereby the European integration project.

One of the consequences of this approach, which tries to seal borders, criminalises migration, condones or even endorses illegal practices (such as refoulment), suspects asylum seekers and even discredits people’s reasons to move, is that migrants find it increasingly harder to reach Europe through legal channels and embark on ever-dangerous journeys by land and sea. Of course, this account oversimplifies the much more complex dynamics and factors that ‘govern’ people’s mobility. But the more the European Union and its member states will rely on these policies, the more they will be one of the causes of the very harm that they want to stop: irregular migration. And even worse, they will be morally responsible for the increasing number of deaths at sea. 

European migration policies fail – and will always fail – if their goal is to close a migration route for good, and if they intend to turn Europe into a ‘migrant-proof’ fortress. They will always fail if they aim to waive the EU’s responsibilities by entrusting third countries with the task of managing migration to Europe on Europe’s behalf. 

This is because a new (or old) migration route will always be found. Possibly more dangerous and deadly than the previous one. And because such policies – besides the formal declarations that always accompany them – completely fail to analyse, grasp and recognise the complexity of the phenomenon, the many and mixed reasons that drive people’s decision to migrate, the geopolitical dynamics that affect migration trends, the interests of all stakeholders – including the very same third countries to which the bloc turns for help – and even Europe’s own interests in receiving migrants. 

Finally, the EU migration policies will always fail if the bloc, trying to seal its borders, will do so at increasingly higher moral costs, and if it will not take into consideration that, in an increasingly interconnected world, migration management is to be shaped in the broader context of Europe’s relations with its African neighbours, and of its own other policies in the African region.

Photo credits: Tricani

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