A large dinghy loaded with refugees and migrants crossing the Aegean Sea near Greece

GIS Dossier: Europe’s migration impasse

  • The factors causing African migration to Europe will persist
  • The root cause of the crisis is weakness of the states created in the Middle East by the Western powers
  • Demographically aging Europe has the opportunity to reap economic benefits, as more people to work means more growth

GIS “Dossiers” aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey is devoted to Europe’s dilemmas caused by mass immigration. The GIS service has reported – and alarmed – from its inception about the looming migration crunch. Europe’s leaders are, by and large, at a loss on how to respond to the rising human inflows from the Middle East and Africa. More often than not, their default response is to cater to public fears rather than act with statesmanship based on geopolitical wisdom, responsibility and long-term planning.

Demographics, economics and religion are the engines pushing global migration flows. Dictators all over the world have created the environment “in which warlords, tribal factions and extremists have emerged, feeding off a mixture of sectarianism, poverty and deep despair – all drivers for migration,” David Alton, Lord Alton of Liverpool, wrote in his Feb. 2016 essay for GIS.

He continued:

Worldwide, 55 million people are refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced persons, with a further 60 million forcibly displaced. In Asia, there are nine million refugees and 15 million internally displaced people. Afghanistan generates the second largest number of refugees globally…. Add to the mix climate change and the scarcity of resources such as water and it is ... a global problem – one which is not going away. Some 1.5 billion of the world’s people live in countries that are fragile and affected by conflict. They can’t all be found homes and work in Germany or the United Kingdom.

In such dire straits, what is a rich, aging Europe to do?

Demographic bottom line

According to GIS Expert Teresa Nogueira Pinto, European countries accounted for 25 percent of the global population in 1900, while today the 28 EU member states represent only 6 percent. By 2030, as the exploding population of sub-Saharan Africa reaches a forecast 1.39 billion, Europe’s workforce will inevitably contract.

Time is high for Europe to focus on the big strategic picture as it gears up for the next migrant wave

“These dynamics indicate that the factors causing African migration to Europe will persist,” wrote Ms. Pinto in her March 2017 GIS report.

With an estimated 65 million Africans (most of them from the Sahel region) on the move north, time is high for Europe to focus on the big strategic picture as it gears up for the next migrant wave. “If you fail to deal with the problems ‘out there,’ they tend to wind up on your doorstep and in your living room,” GIS expert Bernard Siman observed in July 2017.

A map showing the states of the Sahel region of northern Africa
The Sahel – the region that forms the border between the Sahara Desert and the savanna – is where many states have been destabilized by armed groups or are nearly failed (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Early warnings

GIS has been on this story since the service started. Dr. Uwe Nerlich warned in July 2011, in a report on the expected fallout of the Arab Spring revolutions, that European governments and the EU authorities should think hard on how to reconcile the growing influx of migrants from North Africa with the Schengen Agreement, which abolishes border controls between EU countries.

Two years later, Prince Michael of Liechtenstein, the founder and principal commentator of GIS, was already raising the alarm as Italy's coastguard and navy struggled to rescue thousands of refugees from overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean. The Prince observed:

Europe lacks robust policies and plans to address the immigration problem or a defined European concept of placing immigrants. Europe’s foreign policy toward the countries of origin of the refugees is not credible…. and its labor and welfare systems are over-bureaucratic and do not allow immigrants to be placed immediately in useful work.

GIS Expert Charles Millon made his point bluntly in a report from September 2014: “Africa needs Europe’s help to redraw its borders.” Only this, and encouraging African federalism, he wrote, could end the vicious cycle of violence and poverty on the continent. “This should not be understood as the creation of an authority superior to the states, in the image of the European Union,” explained Mr. Millon. In his view, a big international conference bringing together Western governments, especially those of Europe, with the current African leaders, could produce a new deal for Africa.

Exodus of Christians

The first report of Christians being driven out of Syria and Iraq by the forces of religious extremism appeared in GIS in early July 2014. “Christian towns and villages, around Iraq’s second city, Mosul, are being shelled by the ISIS forces” (a terror organization known also as Islamic State, IS, or Daesh.) warned an anonymous GIS expert in July 2014. Refugees from the scene followed in the steps of Syrian Christians, who fled into Kurdish territory after the Syrian civil war started in 2011.

The burned-out interior of a Christian monastery in Syria
Maaloula, Syria: A monastery devastated by the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra (source: dpa)

“Both Christian communities expect to see a further accelerated exodus as the sectarian civil wars intensify,” predicted the GIS expert. “Extremists from all the militias consider Christians to be infidels to justify killing them and destroying their ancient churches and monasteries.”

The crisis explodes

According to later estimates, approximately one million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, three to four times more than in the previous year. The vast majority landed by sea in Greece and Italy. Half of those crossing the Mediterranean were from Syria, 20 percent from Afghanistan and 7 percent from Iraq. It is estimated that more than 3,500 lost their lives at sea that year.

In the spring of 2015, it was already clear that Europe’s greatest catastrophe of this kind since the end of World War II was unfolding. As Prince Michael wrote in April: “The situation south of the Mediterranean is actually going from bad to worse and this is likely to continue.”

The possibility of a job is the most essential ingredient toward integration. Work gives pride, hope and stability

The problem, the author insisted, could not be left to the southern European countries to tackle on their own. Also, the refugees should be permitted to work in Europe. Even earlier, in January 2015, the Prince had observed:

Europe's rigid labor laws and its concepts of minimum salaries for unskilled people create a problem…. The possibility of a job is the most essential ingredient toward integration. Work gives pride, hope and stability.

Enter Merkel

By summer of 2015, the situation in Germany had become dramatic. GIS Expert Professor Stefan Hedlund described it this way:

Estimates released on August 19 showed a total expected inflow of 800,000 for 2015. It was decision time. The Dublin Regulation calls for refugees to be sent back to the first country of entry into the EU. On August 21, the German refugee agency decided that this requirement would not apply to Syrian refugees. The decision was announced in a tweet on August 25 that went viral…. [I]n her summer press conference on August 31, Chancellor Angela Merkel was confident that Germany could handle the crisis. In what will likely be remembered as the most important – and fateful – sound bite of her career, she pronounced: “Wir schaffen das” – “We will manage it.”

A German TV host sits in a studio decorated with a drawing of Chancellor Angela Merkel as a comic book character
Berlin, Dec. 17, 2015: Talk-show host from Germany’s ZDF television prepares for a debate entitled “The divided Republic – which way will Merkel’s Germany go?” (source: dpa)

Soon, the open-arms policy had to be reversed. Prince Michael wrote:

“Europe has more than 500 million inhabitants. It is not unreasonable to expect it to absorb 1.5 million immigrants per year, excluding internal migrants. This would amount to less than 0.3 percent of the bloc’s population” – argued GIS’s founder. He concluded: “The present immigration crisis could awaken Europe to the need for fundamental decisions. We should see the opportunity and seize it.”

Shadow over Schengen

On September 13, 2015, Germany reversed its “open-arms” policy of admitting all newcomers on humanitarian grounds by temporarily imposing border controls along its border with Austria. Vienna quickly followed suit and reintroduced controls along its own borders with Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia. Eventually, other countries announced similar measures, including Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.

A map showing migration patterns in the Mediterranean region
These migration patterns brought more than 1 million people, mostly young men, into Europe during the height of the migration crisis (source: macpixxel for GIS)

The Schengen system, “one of the main achievements of the EU, has come under intense pressure as a result of the refugee crisis and the lack of a common European response to it,” GIS Expert Stephanie Liechtenstein wrote on Sept. 18, 2015. “This has the potential to threaten the EU as we know it today. The reintroduction of border controls should therefore serve as a wake-up call to European governments and lead them to take collective action.”

Relocation plan

In late September 2015, EU interior ministers accepted a plan to relocate over two years 120,000 asylum seekers “in clear need of international protection” from the frontline states (Italy, Greece and Hungary) to other member countries. The decision was taken by majority vote, with four former Eastern bloc countries, including Hungary, voting against, and Finland abstaining.

Blaming others and hoping the problem will go away have left us with a policy of too little, too late

“I have to admit, as a European, that I am ashamed,” Prince Michael of Liechtenstein wrote the following day. “I am ashamed of the unpreparedness of individual governments and the EU as a whole, and of the pettiness of their response.”

Some 4 million refugees from Syria alone were stuck in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the Prince reminded readers. “There are plenty more in North Africa, not to mention economic migrants from the Balkans…. Pettiness, hypocrisy, blaming others and hoping the problem will go away have left us with a policy of too little, too late. It is time to face the facts.”

General view of a Turkish refugee center
Aug. 7, 2017: The Nizip-2 refugee camp is one of the dozens of facilities built in Turkey to hold 2.7 million refugees from Syria (source: dpa)

In the end, the relocation plan sputtered, due to poor compliance from EU governments: as of June 2017, only 22,504 people had been resettled through the quota system.

The GIS series

“Third Millennium Migrations” – a major, three-part series by GIS – was published in October 2015. In Part One, subtitled “An opportunity for Europe,” GIS’s founder pointed out that the root cause of the problem was weakness of the states created in the Middle East by the Western powers, mostly France and Great Britain, following World War I. “The artificial geopolitical structure installed at the San Remo conference (1920) has ceased to function. Maintaining the status quo in the region is no longer possible,” Prince Michael stated.

If this migration is an irreversible historical process, Europe at least has the opportunity to reap its benefits: “More people at work means more economic growth,” according to Prince Michael.

In the second part of the series, “Jihadist offensive spurs African flight,” Charles Million discussed how the EU should reshape its immigration policies, “which now act like a magnet to people dreaming of their own El Dorado.” The second aspect covered was how the EU should rebuild political institutions in the countries these people are fleeing from. Mr. Millon also depicted in painful detail how Muslim extremists and smugglers join forces to spur mass migrations as a way of ethnically “cleansing” vast areas of Africa and the Middle East.

The closing installment of the series, “Failed states multiply as the West shuns duty to intervene,” also by Charles Millon, explored the complex legal and practical aspects of a large-scale Western intervention – military, political and economic – that hypothetically could be mounted to restore a measure of political stability and growth to the migrants’ countries of origin.

EU-Turkey agreement

Brussels struck a deal on curbing the migrant flow with Ankara in March 2016. By agreeing to keep migrants and prevent them from crossing into Greece, Turkey helped to save Schengen politically.

In May, the head of Frontex ­– the EU’s border management agency - announced that “Turkey has delivered” – the number of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea fell by 90 percent in April 2016, to some 2,700 persons. In the same month, 8,370 refugees reached Italy.

European societies are increasingly sclerotic and inflexible

“Turkey sits smack on the natural route for Syrian migrants headed for Greece. With more than 2.7 million Syrians on its territory already, Turkey must be party to any conceivable solution to the crisis,” observed GIS Expert Dr. Emmanuel Martin in a June 2016 report.

That Europeans insist on perceiving opportunities as threats tell a disturbing tale of today’s Europe, Dr. Martin observed. “This civilization can no longer open up because of its overregulated labor and housing markets, and because of its overly costly, exclusionary social welfare systems. In such a context, migrations create only conflict, not value. Despite their common free market zone, European societies are increasingly sclerotic and inflexible,” he concluded.

Prince Michael’s assessment of the situation was not upbeat, either. In a comment dated June 21, 2016, he stated: “To Europe’s political class, both in Brussels and the national capitals, this is a problem that can be solved with money – lots of money.” As an example, he quoted the European Commission’s revamped “Migration Partnership” with Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Tunisia. “This plan to keep migrants from Europe by holding them in host countries (which will receive cash and perhaps limited travel privileges in return) is essentially the Turkish approach writ large,” he wrote.

A map showing migration patterns in the Sahel region of Africa
The European Commission’s “Migration Partnership” offers financial aid and development assistance to the North African countries of origin for migrants (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Germany takes the lead

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be the only European leader to draw conclusions from the fact that instability in Egypt would allow uncontrolled migration from (mainly) the Horn of Africa, while potentially spurring millions of young Egyptians to make the trek to Europe, Prince Michael of Liechtenstein observed in March 2017.

Ms. Merkel, he noted, appears willing to address this problem. “Europe still has no solution for the situation in Libya, the main transit country for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The country is in the throes of a civil war and Europe supports the internationally recognized, but totally toothless government in Tripoli, which has very little power and insufficient support among the population,” Prince Michael wrote.

In July 2017, GIS’s Bernard Siman identified one of the root causes of Europe’s uncertain moves on migration. They reflect “a deeper strategic malaise at the heart of the current EU strategic thinking and doctrine.” This malaise, Mr. Siman wrote, was the absence of any recognition, definition or articulation of a basic element of geopolitical reality: that the EU, as a bloc, has strategic spheres of influence, which must be defined, promoted and defended. “Once created, a geographically coherent bloc with 500 million inhabitants, located at a geopolitical crossroads, must have a profound impact on others,” Mr. Siman wrote.

Recognition of this basic fact, he said, seems to be behind German diplomacy’s “first paradigm shift in decades.” Berlin has moved from focusing almost exclusively on “regional” European and transatlantic issues to redirecting its policy priorities toward global challenges. “Another indirect acknowledgement of Europe’s sphere of influence is clearly visible on the issue of African development. The problem is rapidly acquiring priority status as a strategic German foreign policy objective,” the expert wrote.

“Africa has become, once again, a continent of direct strategic interest to Europe. It should be recognized as vital to the bloc's definition of its spheres of influence,” Mr. Siman concluded.

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