Europe's 2022 migration troubles spread widely across the continent

Crises mount in Balkans, Mediterranean, Ukraine and English Channel

A rescue boat arrives on the English coast after picking up migrants crossing the Channel. AFP
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Europe’s migration challenges are spanning almost the entire continent as governments tried seemingly in vain this year to defend their borders.

In the cold north-west, a tragic end to a migrant crossing on December 14 underlined the perils of the English Channel route.

To the south-east, a land route via the Western Balkans has seen its busiest migrant traffic since the crisis of 2015, according to official figures.

The prolonged conflict in Ukraine and the hardline stance of Italy’s new government add further uncertainty to the outlook for 2023.

Italy

Giorgia Meloni was elected Italy’s first far-right leader since the Second World War on a platform to curb migration.

About 100,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to Italy’s shores in 2022, leaving Italy, as Ms Meloni sees it, with an unfair burden.

She quickly made her point by turning away a migrant rescue ship, forcing a furious France to take it in.

Ms Meloni has offered closer economic ties with countries in Africa if they work with Italy to curb migration.

It raises the prospect of a shift in Mediterranean migration as people respond to Italy’s tougher line.

The same thing happened in 2018, when Spain replaced Italy as the top destination while a hardline government was in power in Rome.

But Martin Hofmann, the author of an annual forecast by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, said Italy’s stance was not the only factor.

“Factors like legal changes, visa regulations, control capacities of state authorities, stability or instability in transit countries like Libya, operational capacities of smuggling networks and their interplay have their impact on these developments,” he told The National.

Another question is whether Italy can persuade the European Union to take a tougher line on deportations.

A shake-up of migration policy proposed by the EU in 2020 has been bogged down in Brussels horse-trading for more than two years.

“It remains to be seen if such a breakthrough will happen in 2023 or at least a more modest agreement on a ‘mini pact’ can be achieved,” Mr Hofmann said.

Balkans

Border guards say the journey from the Balkans to the EU frontier was the busiest illegal migration route of 2022.

More than 100,000 people arriving from that region were detected at EU borders, many of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey and Tunisia.

Some are believed to have taken advantage of liberal visa rules in non-EU member Serbia to position themselves near the bloc’s borders.

Austria is particularly unhappy that, as a landlocked country, it should be exposed to a wave of asylum claims.

An ugly row erupted after Austria used the crisis as justification to veto Romania and Bulgaria’s membership of the EU's visa-free Schengen zone.

A furious Romania said it was being framed for other countries’ problems and accused Austria of tawdry political manoeuvres.

“You have made a worthless political game of a country with such a rich political tradition", Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode wrote in a letter to Austrian diplomats.

The Balkan question will continue to occupy the EU next year as it tries to shore up its alliances against Russia.

The EU has made clear it expects candidate countries in the Balkans to close visa loopholes like Serbia’s.

English Channel

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is on the warpath against what he regards as spurious asylum claims from Albanians crossing the Channel.

The government’s figures say about 13,000 Albanians arrived in Britain in 2022, making up a third of those crossing the waterway in small boats.

“The vast majority of claims from Albanians can simply be declared clearly unfounded”, Mr Sunak told the House of Commons.

Although Britain and France have often traded barbs on the issue, they have, at least for now, agreed to work together.

Forensic investigators at the Port of Dover after a small boat capsized on December 14. Reuters

An agreement signed in November envisages joint operations and an increase in French patrols funded by £62 million ($76.6 million) of British money.

The UK has also been reinvited to a club of European migration ministers, after the antics of former leader Boris Johnson saw it banished by an enraged French President Emmanuel Macron.

“It can be expected that the revived France-UK co-operation with its focus on operational aspects will have a tangible, yet limited, impact on the numbers crossing the Channel,” Mr Hofmann said.

“In France it could lead to increasing numbers of irregular migrants waiting at the northern shores for an opportunity to cross. In the rest of Europe, it could lead to increasing numbers of asylum seekers as a result of a re-channelling of flows from the France-UK route to other European destinations.”

Ukraine

Refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine were received with generosity in the EU, where most were given legal status.

More than 7.8 million refugees have been registered across Europe, with Poland bearing the brunt of the exodus.

A well-oiled humanitarian machine, built up during crises in Syria and Afghanistan, cranked up once more to find homes for Ukrainian women and children.

A report by a German expert council said there had been no worsening of the mood towards refugees following the Ukrainian influx.

Ukrainian refugees — in pictures

But the big unknown is how the war in Ukraine will develop and how long Europe’s goodwill will last.

There are concerns that Ukraine’s freezing winter, worsened by Russian bombardment, could cause another wave of migration.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is openly putting that concern in the minds of European leaders.

In the meantime, Ukrainian refugees facing a second year away from home face obstacles in the labour market, such as language barriers and a lack of childcare and social networks, Mr Hofmann said.

“European states will have to significantly step up their programmes for economic inclusion to tackle this problem,” he said.

Updated: December 29, 2022, 7:00 AM