Home / Our news and views / While illegal border crossings into the EU are down from record 2015 highs, the United Nations seeks a global pact on migration

While illegal border crossings into the EU are down from record 2015 highs, the United Nations seeks a global pact on migration


BRUSSELS – Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, reported this month that its detections of illegal border crossings into the European Union dropped 60 percent in 2017 compared with 2016, to some 204,300 persons. By contract, in 2015 over 1.8 million persons crossed illegally, with nearly 90 percent coming either by sea through the Eastern Mediterranean or over land through the Western Balkans.

The 2017 figure is still high by historical standards. Between 2009 and 2014, according to Frontex, illegal border crossings averaged nearly 140,000 a year, with highs in 2011 during the Arab Spring and in 2014, when 280,000 crossings were detected.

Migration figures vary greatly by region. Numbers plunged in the Central Mediterranean, reportedly due, in part, to deals the Italian government cut with Libyan militias to turn back or imprison would-be migrants. In the Eastern Mediterranean, numbers remains roughly comparable to those of 2016, with a slight upward trend towards the end of the year. In the Western Mediterranean near Spain, however, illegal border crossings surged to an unprecedented 22,900 persons, more than double the previous record set in 2016.

The EU’s relocation programme, designed to settle illegal migrants who are granted asylum in EU countries, entered a ‘phasing out’ period last September, with about a thousand migrants still to be placed in EU member states. The programme relocated some 34,000 migrants – far fewer than the 160,000 initially proposed, mainly because fewer migrants than thought qualified for asylum. For 2018 and 2019, the EU aims to resettle 50,000 migrants in member states. ‘Resettled’ migrants apply for and receive asylum in their home countries, as opposed to ‘relocated’ migrants who crossed into the EU illegally and who were mostly detained in Italy and Greece.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has launched an ambitious initiative to negotiate a Global Compact on Migration. To kick-start the compact, the UN released its report, “Making Migration for All,” that begins with the sobering statistic that an estimated 258 million migrants now exist – a figure that is growing rapidly.

“The time for debating the need for cooperation in this field is past,” the report states. “The United Nations calculates that the total number of international migrants has grown by 49 per cent since 2000, surpassing the global population growth rate of 23 per cent”. It is probable that demographic trends, coupled with forces such as the impacts of climate change “will contribute to a further increase in migration in future”, it notes.

The report does not offer much in the way of solutions, since that is the role envisioned for the hoped-for Global Compact. It does make four broad recommendations to steer the debate.

First, the report says that member states should “maximise the benefits of migration, rather than obsess about minimising risks”. Second, the rule of law must be strengthened at all levels, in part to help secure pathways for legal migration. Third, while “[s]ecurity matters”, states should not implement strict security policies that make migrants more vulnerable. Finally, it call on states to “mitigate the human and natural forces that drive such large movements of people” so that those who choose to migrate do it safely and legally, and not out of “desperation”.

In a rousing op-ed released with the report, UN Secretary General António Guterres said “We must aim for a world in which we can celebrate migration’s contributions to prosperity, development and international unity.  It is in our collective power to achieve this goal.”

But he also notes that the proposed compact would not be a formal treaty, nor would it place any binding obligations upon its signatories.

     THE UPSHOT: Migration, whether legal or not, as the potential to be the defining security concerns of our time. In part, this is because it is more challenging, in its political consequences, than cyber-criminality, disaster response, information warfare, or even terrorism.
     Illegal migration has an unparalleled radicalising effect upon domestic politics because migrants serve as scapegoats for would-be authoritarians. Having gained a populist mandate for governance by demonising a convenient “Other”, such leaders can then set about concentrating their power by, for example, politicizing their country’s judiciary, as in Poland. And the future only seems to point to rising regional and global migration.
     One solution is a two-step process that could make sense politically. First, the borders must be secured. Such an approach might seem harsh, but illegal migration has risen in part because human traffickers recognise the porous nature of the EU’s borders. Making them stronger would help to shut down this market.
     Second, by making illegal migration less possible (or perhaps just more expensive) EU countries could then expand the possibilities for legal migration, which many of their economies desperately need. Migration can’t be repressed. But it could be regulated.
     We look forward to the UN’s upcoming Global Compact, although we have no illusions that it will be a definitive solution to a massive and expanding problem.


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