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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Migration, protection and reception: the “crisis” in the Mediterranean

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate; Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

SPEAKER: Professor Brad Blitz, Middlesex University 

Brad Blitz gave the first SEESOX seminar of the Michaelmas Term on 15 October, on the highly topical issue of migration. How was the “hardening” of the EU’s external borders, in parallel with the “softer” internal regime under Schengen actually affecting migration flows and respect for the rights of migrants? 

Blitz pointed out that the current situation was not entirely new, with the first problems occurring before Sangatte, Calais in 2000. Nor had there been any lack of success in integrating previous waves of refugees (Vietnamese Boat People, Former Yugoslavian refugees) – in the latter case many had been returned once the fighting had stopped and their temporary protection ended. But refugee policy had historically always been dictated by foreign and security policy considerations and that trend is still evident today.

Flows across the Mediterranean so far this year had reached nearly 600,000, with over 3,000 deaths. And the crisis in Syria had added a new dimension to previously existing flows from failed states in Africa and central Asia. The flows are mixed, with refugees alongside economic migrants – in one instance labour migrants from Bangladesh crossed to Europe to escape the chaos in Libya, where they had previously been employed. The main routes were from Libya north to Italy and from Turkey to Greece and then through the Balkans to Austria and Germany. A new Arctic route had appeared in the summer, through Northern Russia to Norway.
Flow management was complicated when it mixed with intra-EU flows and visa free travel from the Western Balkans, especially affecting Kosovars who arrived in large numbers in Germany and as far north as Calais. EU policies on asylum and migration were under pressure, with poor implementation of directives; data gaps, inadequately shared, made it more difficult to challenge the prevalent negative political and media discourse using hard evidence.

At the same time, flows of migrants created challenges for the “harder” external borders, while some EU Member states practised beggar thy neighbour policies, pushing migrants round or over neighbours’ borders and pushing the costs of management onto other states. In general the Dublin system was being undermined by the actions of individual states.

Also of concern was a growing tendency, in the UK and elsewhere, for political discourse to refer to assisting “vulnerable” migrants – a sub-set of the overall flow of asylum-seekers; an egregious example in Hungary was the suggestion that the EU should only be open to “Christians”. Such discourse conceptualised asylum not as a universal right based on objective criteria, but as an arbitrary national decision, based on subjective criteria – thus a reassertion of nationalism in the face of efforts to maintain a common policy.

In other words, many, with no legal route to asylum, are forced to arrive illegally.

At the same time, while the EU at the political level demonstrates disarray, at the normative level its citizens have shown an outpouring of practical support for refugees, while criticising their governments’ positions. This raises a political question – how do individual Member States see themselves alongside others? And what do solidarity and responsibility actually mean at EU level?

Blitz is just starting work on two projects, the first funded by the ESRC and DFID is looking at migrant reception and examining the entire route taken by them, in order to assess the reality or not of the alleged “pull” factor in generating flows. The second, funded by the EU’s Asylum Migration and Integration Fund will examine the quality of legal and procedural information available; the European Commission Communication in May had identified widespread abuse by both authorities and migrants themselves, which hampered the progress of genuine applications. The lack of effective process had led to Member States reinterpreting their obligations unilaterally.

Blitz concluded by noting that the EU’s approach so far had mainly been to throw money at the problem – both within the EU and to third countries. But there was little evidence that this had led to greater respect for rights, nor to lessons being drawn from previous experience, with the existing toolkit insufficiently utilised. A comprehensive review of EU policy, covering the entirety of the Dublin system, and leading to a new approach, was well overdue.

The subsequent discussion looked at differing reactions in the post-2004 EU Member States as compared with older members – perhaps an indication of an identity-based response in the former? While it was clear that even the positive responses, such as in Germany, were justified on the basis of national rather than EU law, the further development of EU policy was seen as inevitable, with the creation of a single EU agency seen as inevitable in the longer term.

Historical precedent showed that responses to refugee crises was cyclical; with borders gradually tightening in response to successive waves, before unmanageably large flows finally forced them open again. Discourse could usefully refer not to “burden-sharing” but “human-sharing”.

Altogether a stimulating and informative review of the situation, building on the previous SEESOX discussion on the issue in February 2015 (

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