As the Migration Crisis Evolves, the Wealthiest Countries Still Aren’t Doing Enough

As the Migration Crisis Evolves, the Wealthiest Countries Still Aren’t Doing Enough
Migrant minors allowed to disembark the Open Arms rescue vessel wait to be taken to the Sicilian port of Porto Empedocle from Lampedusa, southern Italy, Aug. 19, 2019 (AP photo by Salvatore Cavalli).
Migration barely came up at the recent G-7 summit in France—a far cry from just two years ago, when Italy hosted the G-7 in Sicily, which has seen an influx of migrants and asylum-seekers given its proximity to North Africa. The most prominent mention of migration in Biarritz took place on the sidelines of the summit, when President Donald Trump’s adviser, Stephen Miller—the architect of the administration’s restrictionist immigration policies—defended Trump’s efforts to make migrating to the United States even more onerous than it already is. Yet even if migration has fallen off the front pages, each member of the G-7, with the possible exception of Japan, still has to address it on a policy level. Managing immigration and dealing with influxes of refugees and asylum-seekers remain delicate issues, with political consequences at home and economic repercussions within and across borders. The recent wave of migration crested in 2015, when well over 1 million people arrived in Europe in search of refuge from war zones like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and from economically and politically distressed countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and many in West Africa. The figures have dropped off dramatically since then, according to the International Organization of Migration—under 400,000 in 2016, and half that in 2018. Based on the first eight months of 2019, the numbers are continuing to decline. The U.S. case is more varied, with spikes this spring to more than 120,000 monthly apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border in May and June, and then a drop-off to a more normal average flow of 40,000 to 60,000 apprehensions per month. Analysts are not sure if the numbers reflect a usual seasonal shift brought on with summer, when the desert heat makes crossing the border much more dangerous, or the effects of Trump’s hard-line border policies of separating families and harshly detaining migrants. Counting border apprehensions, though, is a crude metric. At the other end of the process, only 22,000 people were granted asylum to the U.S. in all of 2018, a mere 10 percent of the number granted in 1980, when the flow of refugees from Vietnam peaked. Whether for humanitarian or economic reasons, Central Americans are likely to continue to migrant north. Meanwhile, migrants and asylum-seekers from across Africa and the Middle East are still seeking a better life in Europe, even if it means dangerously crossing the Mediterranean. Whether it’s Italy, Germany, France or the United Kingdom, each country faces challenges of adjusting its allocation of resources for absorbing people who have already been granted status to stay, and to try to comply with outdated European Union rules that have proven inadequate to handle the scale of the problem. Germany was initially the most generous, with an open-door policy and large-scale asylum approvals in 2015 and 2016. It brought some political backlash for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has seen her popularity decline while anti-immigrant sentiment has risen in German public opinion and right-wing party platforms.

European countries have tried to shift the responsibility for dealing with migrants to the southern Mediterranean—an effort to keep the migration problem away from their shores.

Among the G-7 countries, Italy is the most deeply affected by the continued if reduced migration from Africa. Under a populist coalition government that has since collapsed, Italy has tried to close its maritime border, turning away ships in distress that are full of migrants. The project to seal off Italy is mainly the work of Matteo Salvini, the far-right deputy prime minister and interior minister who has inflamed Italian politics and was responsible for bringing the government down this month. Salvini’s populist party, The League, could well return to power in new elections, further fueling anti-immigrant sentiment and deepening Italy’s estrangement from European and humanitarian norms. Giovanna de Maio, a scholar at the Brooking Institution, has characterized Italy’s approach as “the trap of addressing global challenges with more sovereignty and less solidarity.” But Italy’s current closed-door immigration policies also reflect the new reality across the Mediterranean, as European countries have tried to shift the responsibility for dealing with migrants to the southern rim of the sea. Mostly, though, this looks like an effort to keep the migration problem away from Europe’s shores. Both the EU and Italy have helped train Libya’s coast guard to intercept smugglers’ boats and prevent some of the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean—despite Libya being embroiled in civil war and unable to control its own vast land and maritime borders. Migrants have been regularly abused in poorly managed camps in Libya, or worse, and the Libyan coast guard has mistreated migrants in their custody. Yet it remains “Europe’s go-to partner to stem migration.” Other North African countries have more to contribute to managing migration, even if the total numbers of migrants crossing their borders pale in comparison to those in Libya. Since 2013, Morocco has worked to establish routes to legalize the status of the more than half a million African migrants on its soil. So far, the numbers are quite modest—under 25,000 on an annual basis. But it’s an important incremental step to address migration through a legal public policy process, in stark contrast to other Arab countries in the Levant that for decades have prevented Palestinians from normalizing their status, in order to maintain a political stance against Israel. For many African migrants, Morocco may look like a second-best option—not the dream of living in France, but still a better life than what they left behind. Next door in Algeria, a strict law-and-order approach has prevailed. Algeria has made clear that it will deport any migrants entering or living in the country illegally, often in ways that are not compatible with international humanitarian law. In that regard, it has lots of company, including the United States under Trump. In key sectors of its economy, Algeria has sometimes provided work permits to migrants, despite high unemployment among its own citizens. But its government has mostly viewed migration through a security lens and has not adapted its own laws to comply with its humanitarian obligations under international law. Whether in Morocco, Algeria or Libya, the migrants who are able to avoid deportation or the perilous journey across the Mediterranean often remain marginalized, without access to decent housing or other social services. The worry for states on both sides of the Mediterranean is the prospect of radicalization and extremist violence, even though there is little evidence that migrants are the source of such extremism. The migration crisis has evolved into a problem of migration management, albeit one in which the aspirations of international humanitarian law still rarely survive their encounter with sovereign states. Building state capacity on the southern rim of the Mediterranean represents modest progress, but it’s only one measure. The leaders who gathered on the French coast for the G-7 may have largely ignored migration, since the worst of this crisis has subsided. But it has hardly ended, and the world’s wealthiest countries must do more. Ellen Laipson directs the International Security Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She led the Stimson Center from 2002 to 2015, and served in government for 25 years.

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