By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – On 4 July the BBC reported that many migrants relocated to the three Baltic countries have disappeared. The report claimed that, of 349 asylum seekers sent to Lithuania via the European Commission’s relocation programme for example, 248 left the country as soon as they received official refugee status. The UK news service speculated that the missing migrants may have left for west European countries where living stipends for refugees are greater, and family and community ties stronger.
EU insiders disputed the BBC report, asserting that its numbers were misleading. But the fact remains that refugees vote with their feet, meaning their movements show the strains on the EU’s migration policy. In the east, the so-called Visegrad 4 – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – remain determined to accept no more migrants. As of mid-June, the Czech Republic and Slovakia had, in total, accepted the grand sums of 12 and 16 migrants respectively, from Greece. They have accepted none from Italy.
The main EU focus now lies not in keeping track of relocated migrants – a controversy that, no doubt, will soon erupt – but in discouraging more migrants from crossing EU borders in the first place. EU leaders are acutely aware of the stakes: they must either get their common external borders under control, or risk losing the border-free travel that Schengen inhabitants enjoy. And shelving Schengen could call the entire EU project into question.
As DG Home Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said at a recent conference on EU border management and migration: “The end of Schengen would be the beginning of the end of Europe.”
Organised by Forum Europe on 20 June in Brussels, the conference featured Krum Garkov, executive director of eu-LISA, the agency that operationally manages the EU’s large-scale border-related IT systems. Using highly technical language, he explained the difficulties that eu-LISA now faces for linking national border-entry databases together and making existing EU-wide databases interoperable to produce a complete picture of who’s coming in and out of Schengen.
According to Garkov, eu-LISA is making good progress on its work – which is vital if the EU’s soon-to-be-implemented Entry/Exit control rules and its European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) are to function properly.
Garkov referred repeatedly to the EU’s 7th Security Union report, released on 16 May. Among other things, the report advocates the creation of a ‘Common Identity Repository’ across Europe to help detect whether a person is registered under multiple identities in different databases.
However, the database would use alphanumeric identity data such as names and passport numbers – a potential shortcoming since such information can easily be forged. To guard against that, the EU hopes to make the eventual identity repository interoperable with other databases, including shared biometric matching services containing non-forgeable identity indicators such as fingerprints.
It is hard to see how such an interlinking of databases would do much to stem the migrant tide, however. Few migrants attempt to enter the Schengen region through airports where border control is most strict. Meanwhile, migrant numbers continue to rise in the central Mediterranean, which has become the route of choice for human smugglers. According to the EUObserver, some 12,000 migrants arrived in Italy in only a few days in late June and early July. Overall numbers are up 20 percent from the same period compared to last year. The total number of migrant arrivals in Italy topped 181,000 in 2016.
In the long-run, demographic factors are pushing the trend lines even higher. At an 11 July debate on demography and migration organised by the Hanns Seidel Stiftung, Issaka Maga Hamidou of Niger’s University Abdou Moumouni in Niamey laid out some eye-opening facts about his country’s population growth.
Niger’s fecunity is the highest in the world, according to Hamidou, who noted that on average 7.6 children are born to each Nigerien mother. The country’s annual population growth is also the world’s highest at 3.9 per cent, meaning that Niger’s population doubles every 18 years. Its current population of 21.5 million is expected to increase to 50 million by 2035, and to 70 million by 2050. By contrast, at current growth rates Europe’s population doubles every 800 years.
Yet it’s the combination of population growth with widespread poverty that make Niger a “transit and emigration country,” in Hamidou’s words. Some 85 per cent of Nigerien migrants do not immediately head to Europe but to surrounding African countries such as Nigeria, Libya and Ghana in search of work. “Niger is a reservoir of under-utilised human capital,” Hamidou said. “And by consequence, it’s a reservoir of potential migrants.”
A reinforced, three-pronged policy is needed. First, there should be far greater flows of aid to central and west African countries in exchange for more aggressive efforts against human smuggling networks. The implicit collusion of those countries – in particular, bribes paid to police – is a big part of what makes the networks so profitable. A good start would be to buy more African agricultural products.
Second, quicker processing of migrants who do get to Europe is urgent to clear away all those refugee holding tanks in Greece and elsewhere. Finally, the EU could adopt a more Australian-style approach to border policing by processing migrant asylum applications abroad, perhaps in the North African countries where migrant boats embark. Such an approach may sound harsh, but doing anything less only ensures that the human smuggling networks that boost illegal migration will continue to thrive.