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The EU's Migrant Crisis and the Quest for Common Ground


FILE - A group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans aboard a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued 25 miles off the Libyan coast.

FILE - A group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans aboard a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued 25 miles off the Libyan coast.

An interview with migration analyst Hein de Haas

As the burden of Europe's record influx of asylum seekers and migrants continues to fall unevenly across EU member states, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been one of the few national leaders supporting EU calls for increased collaboration across all member states to resolve the crisis. But convincing individual member states to assume their fair share of the burden has largely fallen on deaf ears, as the threat of divisive right-wing nationalism continues to cloud popular debate. Following an interview with top EU officials about the current state of the crisis, we asked Dr. Hein de Haas, professor of Migration Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, about some of the popular assumptions that have crept into the debate. A fellow and former director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford, de Haas has repeatedly written that some EU border security policies only perpetuate the smuggling industry. The following was conducted in concert with VOA's Adrift: The Invisible African Diaspora.

VOA: You've consistently argued there isn't any genuine interest in decreasing migration to the European Union, and that restrictive border policies further incentivize smuggling. Are there specific EU migration and asylum polices that are the cause and should be eradicated?

de Haas: Well, it's mainly been a political crisis — I mean, look at numbers. Migration is a pretty stable phenomenon to Europe, just like it is to the U.S. Together with the U.S., Europe is one of the main global destinations of legal migration and still I would like to emphasize that, by and large, most migrants in Europe have come in legally. Of course, what we've seen in the last year is a particular phenomenon linked to war in Syria and quite an unprecedented increase in people seeking refuge in Europe, although the vast majority of refugees stay in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. Less than 10 percent come to Europe. When you consider the sheer size of the EU population, it's not a number that couldn't be accommodated. I think the real issue is that European nations have been masterful at shifting responsibilities to neighboring countries rather than sharing responsibilities, and that's sort of been the approach — and it’s a problematic one. If all European countries would really take in their share of refugees, it would be rather easy to deal with despite the big numbers. The European Union has about 560 million inhabitants, and we talk about an estimated 1 million people — nobody knows exactly — who've arrived in 2015, but only a share of those would have applied for asylum. So that, of course, is a manageable problem — if the responsibility was shared.

VOA: But is it incumbent upon EU officials or is incumbent upon EU member states to see that each country would take on their fair share?

de Haas: I think the European Commission had a clear vision, which I share, that there should be shared responsibility; the real problem is that individual states are not willing to take responsibility, because they behave very nationalistically and think they have to respond to xenophobic tendencies within their own countries, and I think that's a real problem.

VOA: You've discussed the incompatibility of prevailing EU economic and immigration policies, particularly in terms of border security. Is it possible or likely that the EU could sync economic and migration policy planning in a useful way?

de Haas: Well, it's the same for the U.S., right? We've seen three decades of economic policies since Reaganomics and Thatcher’s reforms kick-started the liberalization project of Western economies. Whether or not you support these reforms is irrelevant for understanding how these policies have fueled a demand for migrant workers. It has created an expanded market for all sorts of informal labor that natives shun and migrants are likely to take up. In other words, you have supply and demand. If you block the border, you block the supply, so the supply is going to find another way to meet demand, which is to say find its way across that border to seek employment. That's not rocket science. So, as an economic or political community — either the U.S. or Europe — if you are serious about doing something about it, you ought to change something about your labor regulations and their enforcement, or punish the employers who hire migrants. But there doesn't seem to be a real willingness to do so. That's the incompatibility. That’s why, in practice, governments often turn a blind eye to these employers that hire undocumented workers.

VOA: And what might a compatible economic/migration policy package look like? An expanded work visa program, or is there more to it than that?

de Haas: I can't really answer the question in terms of an ideal policy, because I think the real question is in what kind of society do you want to live. It depends on your economic objectives. Look at a country like Japan, which has a much more protective economy in many ways. It has lower immigration. So these are the trade-offs. But if you have an open-market economy with high levels of economic exchange with other areas of the world: to think you can combine that with low immigration is to create an illusion. As long as we live in open, wealthy countries that share land or sea borders with poorer countries, and as long as you are part of economic blocks such as the EU, the idea that you can really curb immigration significantly is an illusion.

VOA: A primary subject of our coverage is a young Somali mother of two who attempted suicide after being denied asylee status after arriving in Austria. She exhausted her life savings to get to northern Europe. She can't acquire any kind of status in the EU, and she refuses to return to Somalia. What advice if any might you be compelled to share with people in a similar situation?

de Haas: I would try to stay. Hers isn't a new story. It's been decades of this sort of denial policy, where we half-heartedly tolerate the presence of refugees whom we know cannot be returned, often because their home-country is unsafe. It's a paradox. We don't grant them asylum, or it takes many years, but at the same time their home country is unsafe, so we know we can't send them back. I think in that case you've got to be pragmatic and give them full status, which means they can also work. One of the misgivings in the whole European asylum system is that so many irregular arrivals are made passive, which often means they will depend on welfare. One of the main reasons they’re passive is because they're not allowed to work for years. So many refugees are quite eager to get on with life — especially if they've been traumatized. But if you lock people up in asylum-seeker centers — sometimes for years — it's a recipe to make these people unfit for the labor market. And I think that's the real tragedy, this reluctance to make clear choices. If you're going to reject somebody, then reject them. But we also know you simply can't send back big numbers of migrants or refugees to countries that aren't safe. Look, we know there are no easy solutions to these issues, but we also know people won't go back if they think it's unsafe. So, my advice to this particular refugee? Stay put. In the end, the likelihood of getting some kind of status is there, so long as you can't be sent back. It's not like in the U.S. where we're talking about Mexican nationals crossing the border; we're talking about people arriving from really incredibly dangerous places.

VOA: And what to make of U.S. immigration rules? Lots of Americans would say they’re opposed to illegal immigration, and yet once irregular arrivals land on U.S. soil, there’s very often gainful employment awaiting them.

de Haas: Yes, and look at all these Moroccans who arrived in Spain since the 1990s and, in the end, gained full status. They came there to work and there was no way around that, so there were these big amnesties in Spain several times. So, there is this reward, whether in the form of a paycheck and/or documented status, and that's just the reality on the ground. There’s absolutely a reward. Now, theoretically speaking, states are able to control migration pretty well, but it requires a state to be authoritarian and violate human rights to control migration entirely. Look at Central and Eastern Europe during the communist era: those countries were pretty effective at controlling borders, but we know what types of societies they were. You need an authoritarian or police state to seal off your borders effectively. And that is the real issue. I mean, if Donald Trump says "go and deport all illegals," that's obviously a huge issue; besides the fact that it’s unfeasible, it means you would separate people from their kids and all of the social consequences that come with that, which would make the U.S. a shame case in terms of international human rights. So the question isn't only whether countries would go that far but, in terms of U.S. immigration, whether doing so would violate your own constitution.

VOA: So, let's play “King for a Day.” If you could magically formulate a set of policies to "resolve the EU immigration crisis" — whatever that means — what would it look like? Mass asylum granted?

de Haas: No, I think it's a combination of measures, including genuine support for regional solutions. We know that the large majority of refugees stay in their region of origin, and that many refugees don't want to come to Europe. Not only because these people lack the financial resources to reach Europe, but also because they don't want to travel so far away. It is known that many Syrian refugees would prefer to go to Lebanon because they have family there or because it's a very familiar culture. Now, in terms of development and regionally targeted job creation, I am not saying that if we give enough support to Turkey or Lebanon or Jordan, nobody will come to Europe, but I think there's still a good case to be made for those who would like to stay close to home. To give them some support. And the real burden, of course, is taken by those countries in the region. A large majority of Syrians go to neighboring countries — at least 90 percent. So it's not Europe that's the main target. And as far as the migrants that come to Europe, you set up a reasonable system of distribution across Europe. What now happens, you know, you hear people saying "Angel Merkel is naive," but what she's been arguing is, indeed, is that there is no easy solution, and that we can't think this away and we must do something about it, and if we do it together, we can do it. So, if Europe does it together, it could do this. I mean, the biggest wealthy bloc of countries in the world could handle it. But the burden is always put on the shoulders of only a few countries. I think that's the real issue.

VOA: And is that because of geographic proximity to various regional crises, or because the displaced masses know some European countries — Sweden and Germany, for example — are just more receptive to outsiders?

de Haas: Sure, of course. There will always be some countries that are more receptive than others, and people will often go to those countries first. And that's a problem you can't ever solve, because if Germany makes it more difficult, people will simple move to other European countries. So that's why I said European countries have been very good at shifting responsibilities to neighboring countries without anyone actually proposing any real joint solutions. And so I think Angela Merkel and the European Commission are right that European nations need to give credible support to the process, and that everybody take their share. And I think if that were put in place, we'd be in a much better place. Look at it on the global scale: there are about 19 million refugees in the world, which is about .03 percent of the global population. And we know 80 to 90 percent of all refugees in the world are already in poor countries themselves, so it's a tiny fraction of those people actually coming to wealthy counties. And to suggest those wealthy countries couldn't afford to host those refugees, I think it's just an outrageous statement.

VOA: You've published a paper about this so-called swinging pendulum of migration policy, which constantly oscillates between extremely optimistic and pessimistic outlooks. From a policy perspective, what does the middle ground between these two extremes look like?

de Haas: We really need to steer away from this ultra-polarized debate, where you see these pro- and anti-immigration standpoints, which are both caricatures of themselves. I've already explained why a closed-border society is a no-brainer in many ways, because it would create a type of society that no one would want to live in. And a completely open border is also naive, because of course nation-states have a right to determine who's a member and who's not a member. But we have to steer away from these positions that are just far too simplistic and stop discussing migration as something that either brings our nations down or acts as a kind of silver-bullet solution for much more structural problems, such as aging or economic stagnation. It's neither this big threat nor a silver bullet that adversaries and proponents tend to portray. The biggest problem is polarization itself. Migration is an important phenomenon, but it's not a game changer, so I think reducing the polemical dialogue would help to cool things down. And cooling down is essential in order to develop sensible policies to deal with migration.

VOA: But following the Greek bailout, terrorist attacks in Paris, debating Schengen: Is that possible in such a rhetorically charged climate? It seems like there's just so much fear and xenophobia in the equation to have a calm, tempered discourse.

de Haas: Well, if you look at the public opinion polls, views of migration are pretty stable, and in quite a few European countries, even more people now support housing refugees more so than 10 or twenty years ago. The real problem lies in the politics; the real problem is that politicians don't show responsibility and leadership on the issue. Certainly in Europe there seems to be a common fear of the far-right taking away votes and leading all parties to shift to those same or similar positions. And that, I think, is the real danger: the lack of support for reasonable discussion and acknowledgement that there is no easy solution. That, whether you like it or not — and this is what German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been arguing — this is not something we can just think away. So, I'm not saying migration is all fantastic — although migration writ large does play a beneficial economic role — it would be foolish to deny there can be also disadvantages. And of course some people feel the negative consequences of migration much more acutely than others. It's often people that are left out of Western societies anyway who live in neighborhoods where many migrants settle, which makes it easy for right-wing politicians to make a connection between the economic misgivings of a people and presence of migrants, although both are not necessarily connected. You know, I often say that migrants are the most concrete manifestations of very abstract processes, such as economic liberalization and globalization; they're not the cause of it, but they're the manifestation of it. It's the same phenomenon that has made labor much more precarious for lots of native workers, and they feel they're worse off. It's just sort of underlying discontent in society that the Donald Trumps of the world have really understood well. You know, you can't blame the Mexicans or the Syrians or the Moroccans or the Turks in Europe for structural economic issues such as lack of job security and increased economic inequality, which is all the result of economic reforms pursued over the last 30 years. But of course it's an easy connection to make in the minds of some voters. So there's no easy answer to your question, but I think what we need is a more sensible debate, which means steering away from those hyperventilating pro- and anti-immigration arguments, which is just a ridiculous way of discussing open versus closed borders, neither of which are credible propositions anyway.

VOA: What continues to be missing from the coverage?

de Haas: Well, you would hope for much more investigative journalism that takes a critical look at what the migration industry is really about. I mean, politicians tend to take this moral high ground and blame the smugglers as "these mean people that are the cause of the crisis," which is outrageous to suggest. I would hope journalists ask more pertinent questions of the politicians, such as "Do you really believe the smugglers are the cause of this phenomenon, because don't people have real reasons to cross those borders? And why would they not use the smugglers?" That's what I find a total hypocrisy: Whatever you think of the issue, you can't deny that smugglers have a field day when you close borders. So there's no point in blaming the smugglers, when in fact the border restrictions have created this phenomenon in the first place. So, if there's a cause of migration, like a political crisis or war in Syria, people will keep on coming. If they can't cross the border in regular fashion, they'll use smugglers, who are basically service providers. A second issue, which I really think is way, way under-covered is the huge interest that defense contractors and corporations have in the whole border-control industry.

VOA: There is certainly loads of technology there. A massive infrastructure...

de Haas: Oh yes, yes. There is a website called themigrantsfiles.com, a journalism consortium that does research on how much money is actually spent on this and who gets all of the fat contracts. And there's a lot of money to be earned in this whole border-control industry. So, I think we should be more skeptical of politicians who say, "Oh, we need to control the borders, we need to fight those smugglers," when it's actually their own policies increasing the market for smuggling. And [look at] what interests are really driving those discourses. For example, is it really coincidental that since the end of the Cold War that migration has suddenly been staged as a main issue, particularly in Europe? You know, the so-called first asylum crisis followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the enemy was clear, right? The communist enemy. And of course it's attractive to find an external enemy to blame for your problems. The migration issue has become politicized. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, immigration wasn't a real issue of public concern; it only came up after the wall came down. And of course that's not a causal connection to the wall coming down, but there is a relation between the collapse of the “communist enemy” and the need to invent an external enemy. Unwanted migration has become that external enemy.

VOA: Instead of Huntington’s proverbial Clash of Civilizations, just a pervading vilification of outsiders in general?

de Haas: Exactly.

VOA: What are you looking for from Brussels in 2016?

de Haas: I hope the Commission and governments in powerful European countries will continue to push countries that have been very reluctant to take their share of responsibility. I'm just really hoping for a kind of mood change in Europe, and it requires real political leadership, but I think it is possible, even if only a few political leaders are willing to do this. I mean, the EU's current presiding nation is now my country, The Netherlands, and the only thing they can say is, "we have to drastically reduce the in-flow," which is not the right focus. The right focus is that we need to share responsibilities. So, depending on what happens, 2016 could be the year when it finally dawns on the European Union that the only way forward is collaboration. You know, it always takes a crisis to come to a point of intensified collaboration across European countries. And while sometimes the [EU] solution may seem to be just around the corner, the real solution is the end to conflict in Syria and other origin countries. Let's not forget that. That's in the interest of everybody. It's not that migrants or refugees aren't welcome, but we know that many people would love to go back. But that won't happen if you don't resolve this conflict within 1 or 2 years.

VOA: You've researched and published a lot about migration issues throughout the Mediterranean basin. Will that continue to be a focus for you and, if so, what do you make of the Libya factor? That we now have a failed state where once Gadhafi provided jobs, and now “the floodgates of illegal migration” are open.

de Haas: Well, as far as I know the Libyan economy still demands migrant labor and people still travel to Libya to work and to trade. And have you really seen the floodgates open? I don't think we've really seen that over the last year. Most people have arrived via other routes. And Libya is not a safe country, and so maybe migrants would shun Libya right now. So, no, it wouldn't say it's a flood.

VOA: And yet you hear it discussed in exactly those terms. And of course it was the late Moammar Gadhafi and Saif, his son and heir apparent, who routinely played on Europe's xenophobic fears that, should their regime collapse, the Mediterranean would "become a sea of chaos," and that the "dark-skinned Africans" would come.

de Haas: [Laughter...] Yes, exactly. They always played on those racist and xenophobic fears. And the same has been done by [former Italian Foreign Minister Franco] Frattini and it just has not happened. I've written this on my blog. It won't happen; it hasn't happened and we haven't even begun to see it happen. So just this is the idea that there are 3 million people eager to jump on a boat to leave Africa or Libya is just sheer nonsense. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, right? And now we've seen the collapse of Gadhafi regime, and so where is the flood?

VOA: Yes, UNHCR data shows pretty consistent numbers arriving from Libya for years. The surge is largely Syrians arriving via Balkan routes.

de Haas: Yeah, and we know why people move out of Syria now. What really triggered the recent surge were intensified warfare such as the bombings of Aleppo. That’s pretty clear. People cross the Turkish border and get into Europe. Actually, African immigration is pretty stable, as you've said. And, again, most African migrants come to Europe perfectly legally, so what you see in the Mediterranean is a small part of the total picture.

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