PARIS - The tent camps sprouting around Paris are a potent affirmation that Europe has never figured out a sustainable migration strategy since its 2015-16 migrant crisis. In periodic pre-dawn raids, police dismantle them. But eventually they sprout back, often in tougher, grimier places.
Today, fears of another mass influx of asylum-seekers have come roaring back, and not just in France. The trigger came a week ago, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would no longer comply with a 2016 migrant deal with the European Union to keep Syrians and other asylum-seekers on Turkish soil.
Those now pressing to cross Turkey’s border with Greece number in the thousands, rather than the nearly 1 million migrants that flooded into the European Union a few years ago.
But they have again fueled nationalist rhetoric and, on the other side, concerns that the EU risks breaching international humanitarian law and its own values. More broadly, the current situation underscores Europe’s piecemeal strategy at best of handling another mass influx.
“The EU-Turkey deal was always presented as a temporary measure that would allow EU member states and leaders to catch their breath and stop firefighting, and really look at how they could improve their asylum system,” said Hanne Beirens, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a Brussels research group.
But, she added, “nearly four years onwards, we have not reached a new agreement on how we will reform the common European asylum system, or how we will share responsibility for newcomers who ask for asylum.”
A positive gesture
On Saturday, Ankara offered one positive gesture, as officials announced they would no longer allow migrants to reach Greece through the Aegean Sea because of safety concerns. But it has put no similar restrictions on its land borders with Bulgaria and Greece, where days of clashes between migrants and Greek border guards are exacerbating tensions.
In back-to-back emergency meetings of European interior and foreign ministers this week, along with visits to the Greek border by senior EU officials, member states pushed back, saying they would not be blackmailed by Ankara. Turkey must fully honor the migrant agreement, they said, before they will consider further assistance.
“Encouraging refugees and migrants to attempt illegal crossing into the European Union is not an acceptable way for Turkey to push for further support of the European Union,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday.
The 2016 deal saw Turkey keeping asylum-seekers within its territory, in return for nearly $6.8 million in humanitarian assistance. But today, Ankara complains the money has been slow to arrive and it is funneled through aid agencies rather than its government. Adding to the pressure of hosting roughly 3.7 million refugees is another wave of refugees pressing to enter Turkey following fighting in Idlib.
Even as they stood by member state Greece this week, the Europeans also expressed empathy for Turkey.
“We understand the big pressure that Turkey is suffering,” Borrell said.
Analyst Beirens doesn’t believe the current standoff with Ankara will lead to another mass influx of asylum-seekers into Europe. For one, she said, Turkey needs support from its European NATO allies in its conflict in Syria. For another, European governments have too much at stake.
“A lot of governments that came to power have campaigned on the issue of migration,” she said, “and have publicly announced they would never allow a new migration of the size and proportion of 2015-16 to happen again.”
Outsourcing migrant management
Europe has also reached out to countries across the Mediterranean Sea, including Tunisia and Morocco, to help reduce migration flows. In Niger, a French outpost screens asylum claims from West African migrants before they get anywhere near the coast.
The EU has also channeled millions of dollars to Libya, funding coast guard efforts to apprehend migrants off its shores. But an Associated Press investigation in December found that accompanying European promises of improved migrant detention centers in Libya were never realized, with the funds diverted to militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members.
While controversial, the outsourcing has produced results. Fewer than 129,000 migrants arrived in Europe in 2019, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Less successful have been Europe’s own efforts to handle its migrant influx. Central and Eastern European nations have long opposed burden sharing, leaving front-line Mediterranean states like Greece and Italy shouldering outsized caseloads.
Meanwhile, nationalist rhetoric is again heating up. In Budapest this week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowed to defend the EU border against the potential influx from Turkey. “As a last resort, as in 2015, there are the Hungarians,” he said.
In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen accused Erdogan of trying to “Islamize” Europe and described the migrants now on the Greek-Turkish border as trying to "invade" Europe.
For their part, rights groups have sharply criticized a number of Europe’s migration measures, both inside and outside its borders. An Amnesty International report this month, for example, claimed European activists trying to help refugees and migrants were being harassed and prosecuted using "flawed anti-smuggling laws and counterterrorism measures.”
The recent border clashes between Greek riot police and migrants have fueled more criticism, with Human Rights Watch calling for EU migrant policies to be “guided by solidarity, humanity and respect of international law.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced she will present a new EU migration pact in the first half of 2020.
Beirens of the Migration Policy Institute believes the current EU-Turkish faceoff could prove a tipping point.
“It could go in two directions,” she said. “If it strengthens and unites member states to come up with an agreement to deal with migration internally, that’s a very good thing. But it could actually deepen tensions.”