North Africa changes, and so should Europe’s migration policy

by Astrid Ziebarth

BERLIN – It is about 300 kilometers (185 miles) from Tunis to the
Italian island of Lampedusa, as many current Tunisian migrants could
tell you. From Alexandria, Egypt, the closest EU point is the Greek
island of Crete, about four times as far. But immigrants departing Egypt
would be ill-advised to head there. Rather, they should join the
Tunisians in Lampedusa if they want to have a better chance at claiming
refugee asylum in the European Union.

After the upsurge of immigrants from Tunisia to Italy, the EU will most
likely see increased migration from Egypt due to the breakdown of
Egyptian border controls after the revolution—a lack of law and order
that is likely to get worse before it gets better. This poses two
challenges for the EU. First, the need to reevaluate how the EU treats
refugees and asylum-seekers, as epitomized by the dysfunctional Greek
asylum system. Second, the question of how the EU can control
Mediterranean migration inflows through targeting the root causes of
migration.

Currently, policymakers in Italy and the EU are trying to get things
under control on Lampedusa, more or less successfully fending off a
larger discussion about adjusting the EU asylum and refugee system.
Northern European countries like Germany conveniently hide behind the
Dublin II agreement, which holds that irregular migrants have to file
their asylum claim in the first EU country they entered, which for most
North African migrants means in Greece or Italy. So these countries are
at the forefront of protecting the EU’s external border.

It is no secret that immigrants try to steer clear of entering through
Greece due to miserable conditions there for refugees and asylum
seekers. Reports about physical abuses while in Greek policy custody and
detention centers abound. The hardships they face in Greece was
confirmed in a January ruling by the European Court of Human Rights,
which concluded that returning asylum seekers to Greece from any other
EU country violates the European Convention on Human Rights because of
the inhuman conditions and treatment returnees face in Greece.
Immigrant rights advocates hope that it will not be long before Italy
faces similar charges due to Italy’s dubious border-control agreements
with Libya, which frequently result in the mistreatment of refugees. If
the EU cannot guarantee that fundamental rights are respected in their
member states for refugees and asylum-seekers, it is time to face this
challenge squarely. Top priorities should be burden-sharing within the
EU and better support of Southern EU member states that are clearly
overstrained in dealing with migration flows in a humanitarian manner.

Alleviating the inhuman conditions facing immigrants is only a
short-term solution, however. Migrants will try time and again to cross
the Mediterranean, and traffickers will find alternative migration
routes. If the EU wants to fight root causes of migration then it should
emphasize the Euro-Mediterranean trade partnerships. Helping to support
political and economic stability in Tunisia and Egypt through greater
European trade and investment will be the key, as those countries have
not only been sending and transit countries but have become major
destination countries for Sub-Saharan migrants. More coordinated efforts
for aid effectiveness and business cooperation are needed, and sticking
to the assistance pledges made at the 2005 G8 summit by European Union
members would help. So far, only the United Kingdom, despite heavy
austerity measures, has kept the target, and Italy is far behind. It
might very well be that, for a short time, migration flows would go up
with increasing stability and prosperity in the region as it is never
the poorest who take on a migration journey. But a larger concept of
migration and development policies needs to be employed alongside border
management. In the end it is jobs and secure livelihoods that lets
people stay where they want to live.

Maybe policymakers should follow on the surprising findings of the
public opinion poll / Transatlantic Trends: Immigration,
carried out by the German Marshall Fund and its partners, which found
that large pluralities of the public in the surveyed Mediterranean
countries of France, Italy, and Spain see increasing development aid to
poorer countries as the most effective policy to reduce irregular
immigration, more so than increasing national border controls.

It seems that geographic proximity does let the Southern European public
see a bit clearer what the real challenges are and how they could be
tackled. It’s time for the rest of Europe to listen to those on the
front lines.

Astrid Ziebarth is Program Officer with the German Marshall Fund’s
Immigration and Integration program in Berlin