Half-baked solutions are undermining a just response to migration

If there was a functioning scheme by which large numbers could be returned safely from Europe, the UK and the US, policies could be more easily overhauled

Migrants wait to disembark the rescue ship Ocean Viking after it arrived at the Italian port of Ravenna. EPA
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Migration flows as warfare has become an easy bogeyman to conjure with on the international scene.

Politicians are ever more engaged with the big policy dilemmas at the heart of this issue. A search for frameworks to cope better with the large volumes of people on the move is beginning to gain traction.

This is a world of trade-offs as much as it is about big black-and-white questions, such as illegal boat landings or border fences. It is also an area evolving in stages. First there was confrontation and despair. Soon there will be a shift to the practical response. That largely rests on mechanisms to ensure as many people return to where they came from as they land in the first place.

Take, for instance, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was confronted over the weekend with the question on how the earthquake in Syria and Turkey threatened a new wave of migration into Europe.

Mr Mitsotakis drew listeners back to the dark days of early 2020. The Greek borders were being tested. The Turkish frontier had a set of flash tensions around the arrivals of desperate Syrians and Iraqis. They were desperate in the sense that they saw their chance and tried for the sanctuary that had been available to migrants in the earlier crisis that dated back to 2015.

The comments brought back memories of Ursula von der Leyen, who took over as EU Commission President in December 2019, making solidarity visits to the eastern border of Greece, even while a pandemic swept the continent. As Mr Mitsotakis observed to a Munich Security Conference panel, the playbook of blackmail and geopolitical leverage from using the flow of people was available but could be resisted by a display of political strength in response.

Another example is UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who when pressed in Munich about how post-Brexit Britain is able to work with the EU, spotlighted efforts to control migration. Stopping the tens of thousands who use the northern European coast as a jumping-off point for the UK is a bitter bone of contention in British politics. London needs to work with Europeans even as it would prefer to assert its own sovereignty at this juncture.

The UK is wrangling with the big-picture challenge of how it is out of the EU but is still, most obviously, geographically in Europe. Migration is one area that has shown up this basic fact. Mr Sunak talked about the shared interest in tackling how gangs with deep networks can be stopped by the handful of countries that are staging posts on the way to the UK.

This is a world of trade-offs as much as it is about big black-and-white questions, such as illegal boat landings or border fences

These groups have become industrialised networks. In recent weeks, I have listened to radio accounts of how German-based businesses are supplying the 30-man boats that are used as improvised cross-channel ferries. I also listened to a man who had used one of these boats to cross into the UK and then travel on via public transport to Dublin in Ireland. He was on the radio because that was the day that the Irish had run out of shelter space for new arrivals and was refusing to immediately accommodate people like him. What was missing in his story was any sense that this was a man fleeing persecution or threat.

Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner with responsibility for migration, is the one with the hair-pulling task of trying to reconcile the genuine needs on all sides with the fight against the surge in irregular migration. The commissioner points to the need to look again at migration rules, which tend to be focused on educational, health or corporate needs. The refugee pathway in this spectrum is overshadowed by, and certainly much smaller than, the labour market component.

One tool available to the Europeans is to be more political in how this set-up is used and that means offering bigger legal routes for those seeking sanctuary.

To Ms Johansson, the current system has an unfair component, which lies at the heart of people trafficking. The strongest beat the system, not the most vulnerable. Or indeed the youngest, who can be educated and trained in ways that benefit European societies and economies.

In political terms, what the sudden spike into the tens of thousands crossing the English Channel in boats has highlighted is the need for a system that is better balanced. If there was a functioning scheme by which large numbers could be returned, from Europe, the UK and the US, the migration policies could be more easily overhauled. That would benefit from public trust, something that is lacking as the current set-up is tested so sorely.

Mr Sunak has inherited the reputationally toxic Rwanda deportation scheme, which can be expected to start operating once court hurdles have been cleared. European countries are seeking to allocate billions to Mediterranean rim countries in deals tied to migrant centres that could evolve into platforms for sending failed asylum seekers back.

Having as many going out in a system that is visible and efficient is important to how many can come in. Half-baked solutions have set back this quest. Ugly terms such as pushbacks and forcible deportation have eroded faith that the bureaucrats can find a set-up that is both just and worthwhile.

From his experience, Mr Mitsotakis stresses that domestic public faith in the system is key. He mentions returns as one pillar of an overarching solution. Whether or not it can help meet the UN Global Compact goal of enabling safe, orderly and regular migration is, in the end, the key test.

Published: February 20, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: February 22, 2023, 9:16 AM