Migrant crisis: Only by working together can EU states hope to deal with refugees fleeing violence, poverty and drought

World View: Last month, 110,000 irregular migrants were detected on the EU’s frontiers

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The Independent Online

When Angela Merkel said recently that the EU’s refugee crisis could “preoccupy” Europe “much, much more” than the issue of Greece and the stability of the euro, was she actually understating the case? Pay attention, holiday-makers: what is now happening on the EU’s external borders threatens the entire post-war European project, and it will take more than her Berlin meeting with President François Hollande tomorrow to sort it out.

The figures already sound biblical. Last month, 110,000 irregular migrants were detected on the EU’s frontiers: triple the number in July 2014. There have been 340,000 arrivals so far this year, compared with 280,000 in the whole of 2014. There are more refugees on the move around Europe than at any time since the Second World War, with every sign that there are many more to come. And we still have no common European asylum policy, nor even a basic strategy – no clue at all, in fact, about what to do.

Merkel is not the only European leader who knows it. David Cameron has also said that “a longer term, more comprehensive strategy” is needed to make a real difference. So far, however, we have merely applied sticking plasters – especially the British. A single naval rescue ship has been dispatched to the Med. Security guards and some extra fencing have been sent to Calais. Military action against people smugglers in Libya has been posited, and rejected.

We Europeans are torn between the impulse to offer shelter to those in need and the instinct to pull up the drawbridge, and our leaders are paralysed in consequence. Our  inadequate response – as voters, as politicians, perhaps even as a species – leaves the queasy feeling that the magnitude of this crisis could be beyond our organisational capacity to cope. Better management of the migrants, such as a deal to share the burden of asylum-seekers among EU nations according to the ability to take them, is no doubt essential. But even this elusive accord will only buy us time. This is not a passing storm. We are in the grip of forces that have already accelerated beyond our control.


The refugees are not only running from Islamic extremism (Syria, Somalia, northern Nigeria) or mad repression (Eritrea). These phenomena, in the end, are merely symptoms of a deeper problem: poverty, hopelessness, hunger, and thirst, driven by unprecedented population growth and exacerbated by climate change.

The world is drying up. Let’s not forget that the Arab Spring revolutions in both Syria and Yemen were sparked by disputes over the misallocation of water. Nine out of 10 of the 250,000 migrants who have voyaged from Libya to Italy this year are African, mostly from the parched sub-Sahara. And for a great many of them, it is better to risk death than go back. The poor, dry south is moving to the rich, wet north simply in order to survive.

Two years ago, in the five-mile channel between Lesbos and Turkey – still an irregular migrant hotspot – a Greek coastguard captain described to me how migrants routinely sank their own dinghies to oblige him to rescue them. What are our politicians supposed to do in the face of such determination? The current argument for curtailing migrant benefits in Britain and elsewhere, supposedly a major “pull” factor, is laughable. This is nomadism in the raw that we are dealing with here, an atavistic survival instinct that will not be diverted by such tinkering.

If Cameron is serious about a “long-term, comprehensive strategy” for irregular migrants, he – indeed, the West – must find ways of turning the source countries into places that their inhabitants no longer wish to leave; to focus on the mighty “push” factors rather than the little “pulls”.

The temptation, at least in small, misgoverned countries such as  Eritrea, “the North Korea of East Africa,” might be to force regime change through military intervention. But that, as we all know, can have nasty unintended consequences. Besides, regime change, on its own, is no answer to the underlying challenges of over-population and diminishing resources. After Syrians, the migrants now bobbing across the eastern Aegean are most commonly from Afghanistan.

The better policy, but slower, harder, and more expensive to implement, is development. This hasn’t achieved what it might have done over the past half century, but that doesn’t mean the policy is wrong – it needs to be reinforced and reprioritised. The cost to Britain of the war in Afghanistan is estimated at £40bn: the equivalent of £1,250 for every one of Afghanistan’s 32 million citizens. The US spent more than $1trn.

If all that money had been spent instead on jobs, education or agricultural reform, would so many Afghans still be running away?

Getting serious about long-term development is easier said than done, of course. Even a concerted development policy takes decades to ripen – and that has little appeal for our democratic governments which, locked as they are into four- or five-year electoral cycles, don’t really do “long-term”. It would require a revolution in our approach to the world, a mega new Marshall Plan, a top-to-bottom shake-up of the UN – and no big player has yet called for any of that.

The pressure, as never before, is on our supranational institutions. Merkel was right when she called the migrant crisis “the next major European project, in which we show whether we are really able to take joint action”. The prognosis, though, is poor. As the Italy’s premier Matteo Renzi heatedly remarked at a summit in June to discuss redistribution of asylum-seekers (a proposal that Britain vetoed): “You aren’t worthy of calling yourselves Europe.”

Britain’s policy towards migrants, like that of many other EU states, remains short-sighted, inward-looking and defensive, and that has to change if we are to preserve the post-war vision of Europe. If we go down the road of fortifying borders, à la Calais, where will it end? At a Fortress Europe, perhaps?

The Hungarians are already building a wall, four metres high and 110 miles long, on its entire border with Serbia in a bid to control an influx of, mainly, Kosovars. Events in Macedonia toll the same bell. It’s all beginning to look uncomfortably like a rerun of the Iron Curtain. Yet the lesson of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall is that fences don’t work. When enough people are desperate enough, they always find ways around them.

James Lovelock, the celebrated earth scientist, once said it takes a real crisis to bring out the best in people, and that only then do nations truly pull together. Being of that generation, he cited the marvellous Blitz Spirit of the British during the Second World War, and the miraculous co-operation between the allies who faced down the Nazis.

This migrant crisis could prove a comparable turning point in Europe’s history.

Twitter: @jferg66

Patrick Cockburn is away