Home / Our news and views / Although the numbers are down, migrant and refugee flows are still huge, and the European Union is still struggling to respond

Although the numbers are down, migrant and refugee flows are still huge, and the European Union is still struggling to respond


BRUSSELS – Since 26 September 4,561 people have illegally entered Greece, according to the European Commission’s latest report on relocation and resettlement. During the same period nearly 30,000 people arrived in Italy, confirming the expected shift in migrant flows from eastern to central Mediterranean after the Aegean/Balkan route was shut down earlier this year.

By contrast, however, the EU’s failure to handle the crowds is nowhere more glaring than the issue of location. Between 28 September and 8 November, just 1,212 people were relocated and 1,157 resettled – far below pace to meet agreed targets, especially regarding relocation. The member states agreed in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 people from Italy and Greece by September 2017. As of 8 November, 6925 people have actually been relocated.

Total numbers of migrants in Greece and Italy remain high, and their numbers will likely grow. Greece currently hosts 61,700 migrants, with 16,250 held on its various islands and 45,450 on the mainland. In Italy, migrant flows increased by 13.5 percent, compared with last year. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that nearly 165,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Italy this year alone, many from sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria and Eritrea. Some 170,000 have arrived in Greece. And the UN agency predicts that by year’s end, Italy’s 2016 inflow could surpass that of Greece.

UN figures for southern Europe as of 8 November show that the member states have pledged 4,954 places for relocation from Italy, out of a target number of 39,600. Of those pledges, only 1,549 persons have been relocated. In some countries, the numbers are stark. Estonia, for example, has pledged to set aside only eight places for immigrants from Italy and filled none of them. By contrast, it has accepted 66 people from Greece at the risk of overlooking Italy’s growing immigrant problem.

The large number of unaccompanied minors complicates any quick relocation efforts. The EU notes that 22,275 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy during January-October 2016. Greek authorities report around 2,400 for the same period. A majority of unaccompanied minors are travelling alone but a significant number are married to adults. Processing them is not an easy task since the legal definition of ‘unaccompanied minor’ varies from one EU country to another. Thus a minor married to an adult is an ‘unaccompanied minor’ in some member states but not others.

In this grim context, migration experts gathered here at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (GIISA) on 10 November to discuss the security impact of refugee flows. One commentator framed the dilemma as the result of specific ‘failures’.

First, Greece failed to manage the refugee crisis because it was so overwhelming. Secondly, European leaders failed to calm public opinion after terrorist attacks in Europe provoked widespread fears about refugees and their motives. They also failed to prevent a quasi-collapse of the Schengen system, while EU measures were slow and ineffective and EU states rushed to impose unilateral border actions that proved destabilising. The final failure, however, was the distrust in EU institutions that all of the above instilled in the public.

Referring to migrants stuck in Greece, one speaker at the event said the country’s “refugee camps could become breeding grounds for radicalisation. If they’re in the camps for many years, some will be radicalised.”

Perhaps just as worrisome is Europe’s growing xenophobia. As some polls show, half of all adults in 12 European countries hold anti-immigrant, authoritarian views. “French views are becoming mainstream [European] views,” said one expert at the GISSA meeting.

One German official was more optimistic, however, by noting that only 18 per cent of Germany’s population holds populist national views and that very few of its relocated migrants have committed acts of violence.

“The greatest prejudices disappear if there is intense contact. We don’t want parallel communities to emerge. Integration takes place on the ground, not in ministries,” said the official.

     THE UPSHOT: The Commission is playing an immigration numbers game, and so far, the numbers don’t look good. Yes, numbers have slowed since the extraordinary levels of September 2015, but the slowdown seems to have lulled the Commission and the 28 into a false sense of security – once again. Europe faces a future in which the camps are never empty, and island territories of southern members are permanently occupied by people banging on Europe’s door.
     This situation has dire security consequences. The vast majority of refugees mean Europe nothing but good. When they are properly welcomed, their gratitude is immense. But we also know that the quickest way to radicalise vulnerable young Muslim men is to place them in prison – or camps – for long periods without prospects and hope. The deal between the EU and Turkey bars those migrants from leaving their camps, making them feel isolated and frustrated, and possibly prey to those among them who harbour extremist ideas.
     While frustration is a far cry from extremist rage, it is also true that the line between anger and rage can blur, particularly in difficult conditions. Riots have already broken out, and it may be only a matter of time before rage becomes an ideological and long-lasting hatred.
     EU policy formulation is a bit like water flow. It tends to choose the path of least resistance. The EU-Turkey deal may have made the migrant problem go away for now, and maybe that’s all that matters for national leaders. But by dithering, Europe risks exacerbating a radicalisation problem it wants so much to avoid.

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