Opinion: The EU meets its perfect storm

Young men from Ghana and Nigeria rescued from the Mediterranean in February 2017
Entrusted with their families’ fortunes, these young men from West Africa will risk anything to get to Europe: hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean last winter (source: dpa)

The migrant crisis is developing into a perfect storm, set to overwhelm and eventually even sink the European Union. The reason, sadly, is not the size of the present migrant flow. As many proponents of unregulated migration relentlessly hammer home, migrant numbers to date, at least in theory, have been quite manageable.

The real reason why Europe’s future is so scary is its lack of leadership, combined with resistance among its political elites to factual accounts and research-based assessments of what is about to unfold.

Easy prediction

Given what is already known about migrant pressures from sub-Saharan Africa, it is easy to predict what is about to happen. Within several years, Europe will face an influx far beyond what its population is willing to accept. These migrants – mainly young men – will be ready to pay any price, including the very real risk of death, simply to enter the lottery and possibly make it through.

The EU’s current panic response of trying to stem the flow by interdicting transport across the Mediterranean and forcing migrants back to shore simply will not work. The main point of departure – Libya – is essentially a failed state, splintered among tribal and religious factions and rife with violent criminal gangs. Even if the outflows to the north could be temporarily stemmed, the inflows from the south will continue to rise, and Africans who find themselves trapped in North Africa will be subjected to unspeakable abuse.

Reports of slave markets and concentration camps in North Africa will increase pressure on the EU to do something


Within a couple of years, we can expect media reports of slave markets and concentration camps so horrid that European governments will be unable to resist pressure from humanitarian groups to do something. And their actions will only make things worse.

Wrong reactions

First, some EU governments will try to relieve the pressure (and salve their guilty consciences) by accepting a limited number of migrants. France has already done so. The effect will be to encourage more inflows from the south, as word spreads that the chances of getting to Europe have improved. Those who run the slave markets and concentration camps will make even greater profits.

The next reaction will be to throw money at the problem, fostering the illusion that increasing welfare in the countries of origin is the only real remedy for migration. But directing money to these places will also make matters worse.

Migrants from the sub-Saharan countries in a truck convoy through northern Chad
More aid to countries of origin may only help poor households scrape up enough money to send their young men north on the dangerous trek through the Sahara desert to Libya or Algeria (source: dpa)

Shoveling money into poor countries in hope of reducing the desire to leave is wishful thinking. There is little evidence that such flows contribute much to well-being, but a clear connection exists between the aid money coming in and private fortunes piling up in places like Switzerland.

More important, there is also a strong correlation between even slight improvements in welfare and outward migration. In countries where everyone is dirt poor, few can afford to get out of town. The situation changes when households start accumulating small surpluses.

Migration research provides firm evidence that the most lucrative investment extended families can make in poor countries is to pool their resources and send a strong young man to Europe. It brings a better economic return than, say, improving animal husbandry or crop rotations. Once settled, the young man can exploit rules on reunifying families to demand that his relatives be allowed in. This simple economic logic is one of the main drivers of migration, and it simply must be factored in.

Elite delusions

Even as new research helps us understand what drives the migration flows, and what policies exacerbate the problem rather than solving it, Europe’s political establishment remains in denial.

The experience to date of how the EU has reacted to the migration crisis has been unedifying, even sordid. The time and energy spent bickering about the distribution of a relatively small number of migrants stuck in Greece is a discouraging example. It will be even more impossible to formulate an effective joint policy once the roof really does cave in.

Europe has failed to get together on a common migration policy while the problems are still manageable


The scorn that has been heaped on Hungary, but also on Poland and the Baltic republics, for not accepting what Germany and Sweden claim is their fair share of migrants may be psychologically gratifying to some of the political elites in Berlin and Stockholm. But it is only moral grandstanding, devoid of persuasive power or practical effect.

Meanwhile, the EU can expect to pay a heavy price for failing to get together on a common migration policy while the problems are still manageable and the countermeasures do not need to be desperate.

However dismal this analysis, it has not considered what happens when the real mass migrations start as climate change begins to render vast areas of Africa literally uninhabitable. That will present Europe with a truly existential crisis.

This is not mission impossible. Migration research has given valuable insight into what works, including strictly regulated immigration, scrapping asylum rights, improving integration of newcomers, and developing a better understanding of who is a refugee.

But acting on good advice requires political vision and determined leadership that is nowhere in sight. It is so much easier to put the blame on Poland and Hungary, then wait for the horsemen of the apocalypse to arrive.

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