PARIS - Five years after a wave of asylum seekers flooded into Europe, the region is facing another reckoning on migration, with familiar bickering and lack of consensus on the way forward.
The numbers of arrivals are far smaller today than they were in 2015. The iconic images now driving migration back into the headlines are no longer of drowned toddlers, but rather of the thousands of migrants left homeless by fires at a squalid Greek island camp.
Whether the European Union can finally come together on migration will be tested when its executive arm next Wednesday unveils a long-awaited migration and asylum pact that will need member state approval to become reality.
"It’s going to be a very tough negotiation,” predicted former EU official Stefan Lehne, now an analyst at the Brussels-based Carnegie Europe policy institute.
“Everybody agrees the current situation is a mess,” Lehne said of the patchwork of migration initiatives, but, he added, there remains little agreement on how to fix it.
Cannot afford to fail?
The European Commission pact is expected to emphasize initiatives toward countries of origin and transit to keep asylum seekers from leaving, beef up border patrols and push for more burden sharing of migrants already within EU borders.
The fire that devastated Europe’s largest migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last week has lent urgency in coming up with solutions.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotaki, who has called for more EU support in building a new structure — and in handling the migrant influx in general — called the blaze and its aftermath a “warning bell” for the 27-member bloc.
“Europe cannot afford a second failure on the migration issue,” he said.
So far, however, less than half of EU member states, along with Switzerland, have offered to take in a few hundred accompanied minors from the now-devastated Moria camp. Several hundred more have been voluntarily moved to tent camps on the island, leaving most of Moria’s more than 12,000 initial inhabitants still sleeping outside.
These and other recent migrant numbers dwarf those of 2015, when roughly one million asylum seekers reached European shores. While Germany opened its doors, welcoming the majority of them, others, particularly eastern European countries, slammed them shut.
By contrast, about 48,000 migrants have reached Europe so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, most via the Mediterranean — with another 268 dead or missing en route.
“We no longer have the arrival numbers we had in 2015-2016—which means in principle we should be able to talk about migration management and the challenges in a more rational, pragmatic way,” said Marie De Somer, head of migration and diversity at the European Policy Center, a Brussels research institution.
But she added, “The divisions remain strong.”
Five years after the migrant crisis, states like Greece, on the frontlines of the influx, are still demanding greater burden-sharing from other bloc members, with some reluctant to do more.
“If we give in to the pressure, we risk making the same mistakes we made in 2015. We risk giving people false hopes,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has declined to take in minors from the Moria camp.
Still, Carnegie’s Lehne believes member states are more in harmony today on one aspect.
“In 2015, you really had big divisions between one group of countries that was very much for opening the borders and allowing refugees to come—and another group very much opposed,” he said.
Lehne believes that has changed.
“Everybody in Europe now agrees it has to be a managed process. It cannot simply be opening borders and letting everybody in,” he said.
In recent years, the EU has beefed up its border patrols and paid transit countries like Turkey, Libya and Morocco to keep migrants on their shores. In Niger, France opened a migrant processing center to screen asylum-seeking claims thousands of kilometers from European shores.
Far-right parties have also surged in recent years, partly riding on their anti-immigration platforms, helping to shape Europe’s tougher migration stance.
For their part, rights groups have accused front line countries of foot-dragging or failing to allow vessels carrying migrants to land—and Greece of escorting migrant boats back to Turkish waters.
The coronavirus pandemic, activists say, has also offered new pretexts to turn back ships carrying migrants over health concerns.
Michael Newman, a migration policy advisor for humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres, said he was “appalled” at the EU’s bureaucratic discussions on migration “when disasters are unfolding in front of our eyes.”
“I think we come short of words to describe both the situation lived by migrants, and authorities’ response,” he added.
By contrast, EU lawmaker Nicolas Bay, of France’s far-right National Rally party, said that Brussels bureaucrats risked rolling out an overly soft migration policy, offering incentives for more migration.
“By piling laxity on top of laxity, they're adding to the (migration) drama,” he told French radio.
Some of these arguments are playing out among EU member states. Analyst De Somer, of the European Policy Center, noted a broader skepticism of reaching member state agreement on a migrant deal.
De Somer, however, suggested the Lesbos fire might help act as a catalyst.
“One thing it did do,” De Somer said, "is to showcase to the wider public the urgency and importance of coming up with a European solution.”