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The EU Approach to Migration: not a “Migration Crisis”, but a Managerial One

By Ilaria Colajanni

International Affairs Analyst

Wikimedia Commons

In the past few months, the so-called “migration crisis” has been on the forefront of the EU’s political agenda. News regarding the absurd number of migrants reaching European soil has reached most Member States and called for action. It is enough to think about the 5,000 migrants arriving on Lampedusa on the 12th of September of this year to realize the urgency of the matter. This caused Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to fervently invite President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to pay a visit to the Italian island and “personally experience the seriousness of the situation” . The fact of the matter is, however, that the European Union has been negotiating a New Migration Pact since 2020. Despite the long legislative process, EU technocrats emphasize the improvements made on that aspect, while politicians claim the EU intervention is still insufficient to satisfactorily face the migration “crisis”. However, in critical situations like these, it is crucial to ask one-self: what is a “crisis”, and which type of “crisis” are we actually facing regarding the migration phenomena? In some respects, it is more reasonable to talk about a “regulation crisis” rather than a “migration” one.


The Current Context Around Migration and the Need for New Regulation


The European Union has been experiencing surging numbers of migrants reaching its soil. According to The Economist, the number of illegal entries in the EU has increased by 77% from 2021 to 2022, with 84,500 applications for asylum placed in August 2022 alone - Ukrainian refugees excluded. The number soared in 2023, reaching 108,000 in September of this year - and representing the highest statistic recorded since the migration inflows - the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015-16.


The situation becomes especially critical when considering “border” or “periphery countries”. Also known as the “countries of arrival”, these are the entry points for migrants to get to European soil and then reach other EU countries - typically, they are Italy, Greece, and Malta. Only in the Greek island of Lesbos, more than 1,300 people have arrived each month since July 2023, a four-fold increase as compared to the previous year. Lampedusa is another notorious place for receiving migrants, as its location makes it closer to the North-African coast than to Sicily. In September 2023, the Italian island experienced an upsurge in migration inflows, peaking to more than 8,000 migrants. For reference, Lampedusa is home to slightly more than 6,000 inhabitants, and its refugee center is designed to accommodate around 400 migrants maximum. This obviously created highly problematic situations where migrants had to “fight” for food and clothing in order to survive in the centre.


The upsurging numbers of the past few months have led the media to draw comparisons between the 2015 and the 2023 situations, and to bring back into public discourse the “migration crisis” phrasing. Simultaneously, the existing EU migration policy has been criticized, especially for its lack of a true cohesive approach and an arguably insufficient solidarity between Member States. Overall, the situation called for a new EU approach to

migration. Negotiations for a new framework have, in fact, already begun in 2017 as EU Member States realized the limitations of their system in facing the 2015 crisis. In September 2020, the Commission proposed a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is still under negotiations. The general consensus, however, is that new regulation is urgently needed in order to address the current and future migration “crises”.


From a “Migration” to a “Regulatory” Crisis


Referring to the migration phenomenon as a “crisis” is, however, rather problematic. The term “crisis” is not neutral, but holds a strongly-negative connotation. It follows that the persistent mediatic use of such a term in relation to migration has the potential to stir citizens’ attitude towards migration in a negative direction. That is, it furthers a perception of migration that is closer to a dangerous threat to society, rather than as an existing phenomenon to come to terms with. LSE Professors Lilie Chouliaraki and Myria Georgiou, delve deeper into the issue in their book “The Digital Border: Migration, Technology, Power”, by arguing that the word “crisis” depicts migration as a “sudden, shocking and unmanageable event that puts “us” in Europe under pressure”. Migration, then, essentially becomes a security emergency, where migration flows are “uncontrollable “waves” that need to be “kept at bay””. Hence, the media, policy-makers as well as us as citizens, should be cautious in using the word “crisis” when addressing migration, as it is a loaded term that can impact our view of the phenomenon.


Not only that, but a too inattentive use of such terminology can also end up simply mis-representing actual facts. While the migration flows of 2015 and 2016 do reflect Chouliaraki and Georgiou’s definition of a migration crisis, what Europe has recently experienced hardly fits into the same category. Despite the upsurging statistics, indeed, the Council of the EU data on irregular arrivals to the EU do not even come close to the peaks of 2015. Thus, referring to both moments in time - and, specifically, to the current situation - as “crises” seems, at the very least, inappropriate.


Hence, what is currently being experienced is not a “crisis” of migration, if not an upsurge in migration inflows. One that, according to Professor Nando Sigona of the University of Birmingham, is not likely to diminish as new forms of migration - such as “climate migration”- become increasingly more widespread. This only further supports the notion that migration should not be conceived as a short-term, high-intensity occurrence, but rather as a reality.


One could argue now - what about all the previously mentioned issues? What about the refugee camps in Lesbos and Lampedusa? Are they not a symptom of a crisis? The answer is yes. They are, indeed, signifiers of a crisis - of a management, not of a migration, crisis. The real issue at hand is not the increasing number of migrants per se. As seen, the numbers are way lower than the real critical moment of 2015-16. The current problem lies in the lack of a convincing and effective European framework that is able to manage increasing numbers of migrants without having to forgo basic human living conditions. The real criticality lies in finding effective solutions.


What can, on the other hand, be said to be positive about the use of a “crisis” language is that it definitely created a sense of urgency at the EU level, and it spurred decision-making bodies into action. The main examples being Von der Leyen visiting Lampedusa, and the subsequent resumptions of negotiation for the drafting of a New Pact on Migration and Asylum of the EU, which has just recently reached agreement between the European Parliament and the Council in December 2023. In spite of the EU’s clear motivation to find a solution and hasten the bureaucratic process, it is crucial that their solutions are not rushed, but that rather maintain a strategic, long-term approach to the management of migration.


New Regulations at Hand - Issues at the Borders


The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum covers five areas, namely: Screening Regulation; Eurodac Regulation; Asylum Procedures Regulation; Asylum Migration Management Regulation; Crisis and Force majeure Regulation. Because of the width of its range, it would probably be too ambitious to try and cover all of the potential criticalities related to the new regulation. For the sake of space, I will then focus on a single, if essential, aspect: the issues at the borders. More specifically, the asylum procedure.

One of the key pillars of the New Pact is the Asylum Procedures Regulation, which the EU aims at making “quicker and more effective” (European Commission, 2023). While the goal is there, the pathway to it might be missing. One of the main factors contributing to the EU management crisis of migration is the situation at the borders. As previously highlighted, countries of arrival are the ones facing the difficulties of rescuing, supporting, and transferring asylum-seekers. At the same time, according to the EU Dublin Regulations on migration, the country of arrival bears the responsibility to process the migrants’ asylum applications - an obviously lengthy process, since it entails assessing the identity of people who often lack personal documents. Countries like Italy, Greece and Malta thus lack the sufficient infrastructures and resources to process such applications in a timely manner, especially when facing sudden upsurges, which often results in delayed application processing. As of September 2023, there were more than 1 million cases still awaiting decision. Rather than sharing the bureaucratic burden with other Member States, the New Pact actually extends the period of time during which frontline countries are responsible for asylum-seekers, even after they are transferred to another country (the period went from 6 months to 2 years).


In order to release the pressure from border countries, however, the EU envisions an update of the Voluntary Support Mechanism (VSM) - an EU framework which permits other EU Member States to provide help to countries of arrival on a voluntary basis, by relocating a certain number of asylum-seekers to their territory. This has been useful, for instance, in 2015, when Germany took it on itself to accommodate numerous migrants from Italy. The situation has however worsened more recently during this year, when countries like Germany and Poland, having to support a considerable number of Ukrainian refugees, refused to take in more migrants coming from North Africa. The New Migration Pact, however, updates the VSM scheme by compelling every EU country to choose between accepting a definite number of migrants each year, or paying €20,000 per refused migrant. Now, while this measure might spur criticism due to its “forced” nature, it does, to some extent, increase that solidarity that should be at the base of the EU ideal. The real issue, however, is that it seems to be a more reactive than proactive measure, which begs the question of whether the EU is acting strategically.


Overall, measures such as the VSM tend to buffer the consequences of a “crisis”, rather than create real solutions for a complex reality that the EU has to face. Despite this mechanism, the responsibility to process all the applications still falls on the shoulders of border countries. How can we expect Italy to process thousands and thousands of applications, taking also into account the already-delayed ones, and the not-so-expeditious reputation of its bureaucracy? If the real goal is to make the asylum application process quicker and more effective, I do not see how keeping the responsibility firmly on frontline countries is of any help.


Conclusion


While it is undeniable that Europe has faced increasing numbers of migration inflows, and that it has experienced several complications related to it, talking about a “migration crisis” is both erroneous and misleading, as it furthers a highly negative perception of migration. What rather constitutes a “crisis” in this matter is the EU approach to its own management and regulations. It is not a migration crisis, it is merely a management one. Despite the clear willingness to tackle its shortcomings, the EU and its New Pact on Migration and Asylum results unconvincing. The proposed changes to facilitate the asylum application procedure seem unconvincing at best, and counterproductive at its worst, as countries of arrival remain the main bearer of bureaucratic pressures, while the VSM seems a more reactive than strategic measure. Overall, it is essential that the EU realizes the real failures in its migration management policy system. It is not enough to formulate a new regulation if the limitations of the current system are not truly understood. Real solutions come from real understanding of the issue at hand. And the issue at hand is not more migrants coming to Europe, it is a managerial system that does not function.

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