Immigration: defending openness against isolationism

Migration has ceased to be a hot topic but taking a moment of respite at the EU's Mediterranean borders for a sustainable response to the migration issue is a political mistake.

Professor of sociology and demography at the Robert Schuman Centre of the EUI (Florence), Founding Director of EUI’s Migration Policy Centre

Migration has ceased to be a hot topic. Now that the crisis is over, the European Union (EU) is devoting only limited space to it. In the Commission’s 2020 Work programme, “A Union that strives for more“, there are two brief mentions of migration: one to welcome the progress made on border control and announce the reform of the asylum system, and the other to underline the importance of demographic change, of which migration is a part. 

Furthermore, in the days following the publication of its Programme, the EU announced the end of the maritime mission that had carried out hundreds of rescues at sea on the migration route linking sub-Saharan Africa to Mediterranean Europe. The loop is now closed. That the world’s deadliest maritime route – more than 30,000 people have drowned on it since the year 2000 – is being used less and less is in itself good news. It is the way in which the EU has achieved this that is worrying. First carried out by fishing or commercial vessels with no mandate other than the maritime law, then by the Italian navy (Mare Nostrum, 2013) which soon came to be supported by the naval forces of a few other European countries (Sophia, 2015), and finally by vessels of humanitarian NGOs, search and rescue operations at sea for migrants and refugees are now entrusted exclusively to the Libyan Coast Guard, which receives logistical and financial support from the EU. The European strategy of outsourcing the containment of migrants to its Turkish and Libyan neighbours, turning a blind eye to their poor respect for human rights, seems to have paid off.

“the closure of the Mediterranean route should have been accompanied by the opening of legal means … but no embassy of any EU Member State is prepared to issue humanitarian visas or asylum”

While shipwreck survivors previously disembarked in Europe where they could apply for asylum (which would be granted or rejected after a fair examination of their case), they are now returned to Libya, where they are detained and deported to the border of the country from which they entered. Does keeping the migrants away from our shores solve the issue? No, because its causes, whether economic or political, have not changed. To be truly good news, the closure of the Mediterranean route should have been accompanied by the opening of legal means for people seeking international protection to reach Europe. These means exist in European law: they are humanitarian visas or asylum visas which allow asylum seekers to reach Europe safely from conflict zones and to lodge their applications upon arrival. But no embassy of any EU Member State is prepared to issue such visas.

Taking a moment of respite at the EU’s Mediterranean borders for a sustainable response to the migration issue is a political mistake. Not only because it is an implicit admission that nationalist populists who profess isolationism have a better understanding of the general interest than progressives who advocate openness, and that the former can therefore set the agenda for all. But also because migration is not only a problem, it is also a solution. 

It is a solution for those who migrate and for their countries of origin. “Migration is development”, as Peter Sutherland, the United Nations Special Representative for Migration during the years of crisis, liked to recall. The EU’s programme of funding development aid to Africa is good in itself. But hoping that it will reduce emigration from Africa is a blunder. On the one hand, because more development always results initially in more means to move, and therefore more mobility. On the other hand, because the money migrants earn and the knowledge they acquire in Europe is a key lever for Africa’s development. Stopping migration means losing this lever and trapping Africa in a negative spiral.

“There is no shortage of optimistic voices saying that automation and AI will replace the missing workers by machines and algorithms. In the current state of knowledge, however, this is more spell than reasoning.”

Migration is also part of the panoply of responses that Europe has to, and will increasingly have to, make to the ageing and demographic decline in which it is engulfed. Eurostat’s projections have established irrefutably that if migration were to stop today, all Member States, without exception, would see their populations decline. In the “no migration” scenario, the Europe of 27 would lose 60 million workers over the next 30 years, 33 million of whom would be between the ages of 20 and 45, which is the most productive and creative period of life. Its population would only increase beyond the age of 65, where it would increase by 37 million. There is no shortage of optimistic voices saying that automation and artificial intelligence will provide for this, replacing the missing workers by machines and algorithms. In the current state of knowledge, however, this is more spell than reasoning. The same Eurostat projections, but this time in the scenario with migration, show that maintaining the current level of migration (around 2 million per year) provides the desirable balance between young and old in the long term.

What can we do if we want to serve Europe and not deceive our citizens? 

Do not forget that migration remains a crucial issue.

People have been moving from time immemorial, and it is not by the will of a few ideologists and bureaucrats that they will stop doing so. Migration will continue; it is a matter of benefiting everyone. Progressives must fight the anti-immigration discourse of the far right instead of continuing it by default.  They must not remain silent but highlight the virtues of well managed migration.

Out of loyalty to its founding values, Europe must remain a haven for people seeking international protection.

To this end, the EU must be accessible to them and remove obstacles in their path instead of putting up new ones. Implementing humanitarian visas that will enable these people to reach Europe directly to seek asylum, without entrusting their lives to unscrupulous smugglers, would both satisfy the European ideal of protection and make the criminal activity of smugglers pointless.

– Extend to our African neighbours the liberal visa regime already enjoyed by some countries of the former Soviet bloc.

This does not mean allowing everyone to enter and settle in Europe, but opening up access, initially for a limited period of time, to those sections of the population whose mobility will be deemed beneficial.

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