North Africa changes, and so should Europe’s migration policy

Les vagues d’émigrants tunisiens arrivant sur l’île italienne de Lampedusa pose une nouveau problème à l’Union européenne. Astrid Ziebarth, du German Marshall Fund, estime que l’Europe doit revoir totalement sa politique d’immigration en fonction de la nouvelle situation prévalant en Afrique du Nord.

It is about 300 kilometers (185 miles) from Tunis to the Italian island of Lampedusa, as many current Tunisian migrants could tell you. From Alexandria, Egypt, the closest EU point is the Greek island of Crete, about four times as far. But immigrants departing Egypt would be ill-advised to head there. Rather, they should join the Tunisians in Lampedusa if they want to have a better chance at claiming refugee asylum in the European Union.

After the upsurge of immigrants from Tunisia to Italy, the EU will most likely see increased migration from Egypt due to the breakdown of Egyptian border controls after the revolution—a lack of law and order that is likely to get worse before it gets better. This poses two challenges for the EU. First, the need to reevaluate how the EU treats refugees and asylum-seekers, as epitomized by the dysfunctional Greek asylum system. Second, the question of how the EU can control Mediterranean migration inflows through targeting the root causes of migration.

Currently, policymakers in Italy and the EU are trying to get things under control on Lampedusa, more or less successfully fending off a larger discussion about adjusting the EU asylum and refugee system. Northern European countries like Germany conveniently hide behind the Dublin II agreement, which holds that irregular migrants have to file their asylum claim in the first EU country they entered, which for most North African migrants means in Greece or Italy. So these countries are at the forefront of protecting the EU’s external border.

It is no secret that immigrants try to steer clear of entering through Greece due to miserable conditions there for refugees and asylum seekers. Reports about physical abuses while in Greek policy custody and detention centers abound. The hardships they face in Greece was confirmed in a January ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which concluded that returning asylum seekers to Greece from any other EU country violates the European Convention on Human Rights because of the inhuman conditions and treatment returnees face in Greece.

Immigrant rights advocates hope that it will not be long before Italy faces similar charges due to Italy’s dubious border-control agreements with Libya, which frequently result in the mistreatment of refugees. If the EU cannot guarantee that fundamental rights are respected in their member states for refugees and asylum-seekers, it is time to face this challenge squarely. Top priorities should be burden-sharing within the EU and better support of Southern EU member states that are clearly overstrained in dealing with migration flows in a humanitarian manner.

Alleviating the inhuman conditions facing immigrants is only a short-term solution, however. Migrants will try time and again to cross the Mediterranean, and traffickers will find alternative migration routes. If the EU wants to fight root causes of migration then it should emphasize the Euro-Mediterranean trade partnerships. Helping to support political and economic stability in Tunisia and Egypt through greater European trade and investment will be the key, as those countries have not only been sending and transit countries but have become major destination countries for Sub-Saharan migrants. More coordinated efforts for aid effectiveness and business cooperation are needed, and sticking to the assistance pledges made at the 2005 G8 summit by European Union members would help. So far, only the United Kingdom, despite heavy austerity measures, has kept the target, and Italy is far behind. It might very well be that, for a short time, migration flows would go up with increasing stability and prosperity in the region as it is never the poorest who take on a migration journey. But a larger concept of migration and development policies needs to be employed alongside border management. In the end it is jobs and secure livelihoods that lets people stay where they want to live.

Maybe policymakers should follow on the surprising findings of the public opinion poll Transatlantic Trends : Immigration, carried out by the German Marshall Fund and its partners, which found that large pluralities of the public in the surveyed Mediterranean countries of France, Italy, and Spain see increasing development aid to poorer countries as the most effective policy to reduce irregular immigration, more so than increasing national border controls.

It seems that geographic proximity does let the Southern European public see a bit clearer what the real challenges are and how they could be tackled. It’s time for the rest of Europe to listen to those on the front lines.