Kalyani Unkule examines the delicacy of the European migrant crisis and asks for a revisit to the historical aspects of European migration to come to a feasible solution.
It is easy to see why the large-scale in-flow of migrants to continental European shores is being described as a “crisis” when one considers that 1,700 lives were already lost this year before the end of April during the perilous journey, 800 of them in a single incident. Over the same four-month period, over 21,000 migrants are estimated to have reached Italy with Libya joining the list of last year’s sending countries in 2015.
Europeans have for decades not only largely based their relations with each other on the idea of solidarity but also maintained a discourse whereby this principle distinguishes the European way. The process of initiating and nurturing a workable supra-national project, the European Union, necessarily entailed de-linking identity from intuitive notions of patriotism. Solidarity was just the idea for the job and many of Europe’s public were already familiar with it through their experience of functioning welfare states. This European understanding of solidarity is, in essence, a combination of caring for the less fortunate, helping fellow citizens tide over misfortunes and balancing inter-generational rights and responsibilities. Solidarity finds expression also in the governance (originally theological) principle of Subsidiarity which seeks to keep local support systems alive in the age of the national and the global. In certain systems it has exerted a determining influence on state-society relations when interest groups organise so that individuals may stand in solidarity with each other to check excesses of power. Indeed it is a matter of pride for many that this marks off Europe from the American USP of eternal youth and unbridled competition. But this self-image built around solidarity has been challenged nationally and pan-Europe in the face of the migrant crisis.
The numbers of asylum applications received by different European countries vary widely with Germany receiving more than double that of the country ranking second, Sweden, which in turn outranks Germany when the figures are calculated as a percentage of population. UK, Ireland and Denmark maintain opt-out option on EU migration policies. Significantly, the humanitarian grounds that constitute the basis for granting of asylum continue to be defined by national legislation and thus vary from one country to another. The difficulty currently is that virtually all of the arriving asylum seekers are in Italy and Spain. This has led to an ongoing war of words between countries at the front-lines of the influx such as Italy and northern neighbours such as France who are extremely reticent when it comes to demands for burden-sharing. The French have refused to process demands for asylum on grounds that the Dublin accords hold the country of first entry explicitly responsible for this. In the past week, this has escalated into a full-blown stand-off at the Franco-Italian border with the French government refusing to back down and allow migrants to cross over.
To resolve the impasse, the European Commission has touted a system of quotas to achieve a more even distribution based on GDP, total population, rate of unemployment and number of refugees accepted between 2010 and 2014. This proposal has met with dogged resistance from the likes of France, United Kingdom and Poland. Statements coming from the Italian government this past week leave no room for doubt that faith in European solidarity as a way to manage and overcome the crisis is at an all-time low.
There is at the same time heated debate on whether the migrants are to be deemed bona fide asylum seekers or economic migrants. Eighty percent of applicants fall below the age of 35 suggesting the possibility of a significant net addition to working-age job-seekers. The fact that migrants who self-identify as asylum seekers still have preferences as to a final destination is being interpreted as weakening their asylum claims and pointing to migration for economic reasons. High existing youth unemployment has predictably triggered a negative response to this prospect, further unravelling the bonds of solidarity even within countries. Regional officials in northern Italy are, for instance, refusing to cooperate with the capital towards achieving a more even spread of asylum seekers, pending a decision on their status, leaving them to suffer in limbo.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, has acknowledged the need for a multi-pronged solution including development cooperation with “sending” states to curb the push-factors. But she too, like most national leaders, has been careful to couch this in terms of long-term European interest. The single response measure which is thus far agreed on is military action against so-called smuggler networks and discussion on medium and long-term steps has all but disappeared from the public domain. In any case, given the level of discord between European governments and within increasingly inward-looking European societies, this may not be an opportune time to bring up pending issues like large-scale displacement driven by climate change and the consequences of EU’s dogged pursuit of Free Trade Area deals around the world which, however thorny, are at the heart of the current crises and threaten worse to come.
A veritable deluge of statistics is available on sending and receiving countries and how the numbers vary from one year to another. But when the waters of the Mediterranean are somewhat calmer, the priority should shift to reading in between facts and figures to truly introspect on what they reveal about the implications of Europe’s historic immigration and wider economic policies. Europeans would do well to go back several generations and recall the patters of their own outbound migration when they settled the New World. Perhaps then, the Euro centrism that is currently driving the situation could make way for a sound, reasoned response based on restoration of Solidarity as the guiding principle.
Kalyani Unkule is Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean at Jindal Global Law School