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Surging Waves of Concern: Navigating Europe’s Immigration Debate

Surging Waves of Concern: Navigating Europe’s Immigration Debate

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Almighty Allah says in His Holy Scripture, “O mankind, indeed, we have created you from male and female and made you in peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” (Surah Al Huzurat: 13) Father Adam and Mother Eve were the first human beings, and from them, their descendants dispersed worldwide. Since the dawn of creation, human mobility has been a fundamental trait. Humans have always been on the move, whether it was for their livelihood, ties to their families, efforts to save lives, academic pursuits, or simply a desire for adventure and renewal. Religious narratives say Father Adam himself journeyed thousands of miles to reunite with his beloved wife, Eve. Throughout the millennia of human history, travel and migration were largely unchallenged, unimpeded, and uncomplicated, in stark contrast to today’s reality. A mere century and a half ago, concepts like passports and visas were nonexistent. Individuals could relocate freely, settling anywhere without hindrance or interrogation. It is only in recent centuries that the requisites of passports and visas emerged, mandating individuals to seek permission before entering foreign territories. Traditionally, humans have migrated to regions offering improved prospects for elevated living standards. However, the introduction of constraints and regulations has engendered numerous challenges, rendering migration one of the most contentious subjects of contemporary times.

According to experts, there are two main factors that drive migration: push factors and pull factors. Push factors come into play when conditions in the native country compel or influence individuals or groups to depart. These conditions may include poor living standards, natural disasters, or man-made threats. On the other hand, pull factors emerge when the native country offers a relatively stable living environment, yet foreign countries present better opportunities that attract individuals to migrate. However, contemporary migration is no longer a straightforward undertaking. Authorities have become increasingly stringent in controlling and limiting the influx of migrants into their countries. This heightened vigilance and restrictive approach have raised significant human rights concerns, particularly due to the substantial number of immigrants and the rigorous enforcement measures. The European approach to immigration has been a focal point of considerable controversy. While Europe is undeniably a sought-after destination for migrants, the strict decisions made by European authorities also bear a significant share of responsibility for the challenges surrounding migration.

The migration landscape in Europe underwent a significant shift following the fall of the Soviet Union, specifically the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This period witnessed Europe’s transformation into a more stable, symmetric, cooperative, and liberal region, rendering it an appealing choice for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. The simultaneous rise of a new wave of globalization, championed by liberal and capitalistic forces, particularly in the Western world, further fueled the attractiveness of Europe. Until 2011, migration to Europe had maintained a steady pace, with more or less consistent numbers. However, the dynamics changed with the onset of the Arab Spring in the Middle East. Before this, large flows of undocumented migration were primarily from Africa, predominantly through the Mediterranean route. The Arab Spring, not unfolding as anticipated, led to a substantial influx of refugees seeking refuge in neighboring European states, primarily from conflict-ridden countries such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria. The Syrian refugee crisis emerged as a watershed moment, marking the most significant surge of refugees on the European continent since the conclusion of World War II. Over 700,000 refugees from Syria alone have sought shelter in Europe to date. A report by Al Jazeera indicates that in the first half of 2023, 55,737 migrants attempted to reach Europe, with 48,829 of them opting for the perilous sea route, constituting 88% of the total. Tragically, more than a thousand people lost their lives during these perilous journeys. Adding to the complexity, the war in Ukraine, which commenced in early 2022, intensified the challenges associated with migration to Europe. Many experts have labelled it the “new largest influx of refugees in Europe since World War II.” Paradoxically, the Ukrainian refugee crisis has accentuated the controversy surrounding European actions, with accusations of hypocrisy resonating prominently in discussions on the continent’s response to different refugee crises.

Amidst the turmoil caused by civil wars in certain Arab countries, the desperate attempts of their citizens to seek refuge in Europe have been met with considerable hostility from Europeans. The response has been characterized by a reluctance to accept these individuals and, if accepted, a failure to provide them with proper human dignity and basic living necessities. Tragically, many lives were lost on the coast due to cold and hunger, as authorities refused entry despite being aware of the dire conditions. The primary argument put forth was the unpreparedness and concern about increasing population density, which was feared to undermine economic and social stability. This stance sparked widespread controversy, drawing criticism, fueling campaigns, and prompting protests globally. Despite international outcry, European authorities remained steadfast in their position. However, a stark reversal occurred with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. European nations executed a complete about-face, abandoning their earlier ethical arguments and extending a welcoming embrace to Ukrainian refugees. Meanwhile, Arab and African refugees continued to suffer, facing starvation and freezing to death at European borders. Notably, European nations were swift to attribute any wrongdoing in their countries to these largely Arab and African refugees without conducting proper investigations. Furthermore, the European narrative of accepting Muslim refugees is contested, with claims of exaggeration.

The Syrian refugee crisis, the most significant of the century, underscores this point. While the highest number of Syrian refugees, over 3.5 million, reside in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan hold the second and third positions, respectively. Germany ranks fourth with 522,575 Syrian refugees, and Sweden is the only other European country on the top list that hosts over 100,000 Syrians. Despite the 70–80% of Syrian refugees residing in non-European countries, objections and criticism against them predominantly emanate from European nations. On the flip side, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic hold more than 1.5 million, 1 million, and 400,000 Ukrainian refugees, respectively, surpassing by far the numbers of Syrian refugees they host. Strikingly, there is a notable absence of objections, arguments, or excuses related to economic and social deterioration, a logic often cited in the case of Arab refugees. Although a report by Carolina University argues that the reasons are geographic and cultural proximity of the although a report by Carolina University argues that the reasons are geographic and cultural proximity of the Ukrainians, it also explicitly mentions that “Europeans are much more likely to support a Christian asylum-seeker than a Muslim asylum-seeker.”

The surge in immigration, particularly from Arab and African regions, into Europe has had a profound impact, notably in bolstering right-wing ideologies across the continent. Despite the German Institute for Economic Research revealing that migration has contributed to a 1% annual increase in the EU GDP, public sentiment tends to reject the idea of hosting refugees. This sentiment has translated into political victories for far-right parties in recent elections across Sweden, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. This trend has prompted a significant shift in the political landscape, with parties traditionally known for liberal migration policies now veering towards more hardline stances in response to prevailing public opinions. Notably, Denmark’s center-left Social Democrats successfully adopted a stringent anti-immigrant agenda, mirroring the far-right Danish People’s Party and effectively defeating it. Similarly, the Green Party in Germany, once recognized for its liberal migration policies, appears to have pivoted towards a more restrictive stance. However, research indicates that this shift in policy may not be achieving its intended outcomes. Wolfgang Muno, a political scientist at the University of Rostock, believes, “But we know from studies that if you try to take over far-right positions, it is the far-right who profits.” A study of 12 Western European nations, published by Cambridge University Press, challenges the notion that accommodating radical right positions on immigration weakens them electorally. On the contrary, the study suggests that such policies become self-defeating, strengthening the radical right at their own expense’. As a result, anti-migration or strict migration policies are being implemented one way or another across Europe.

The large influx of migration and the taking of power by the far-right government across Europe made a new immigration law under the EU inevitable. It became evident that this legislation would be characterized by heightened strictness and increased restrictions. The pre-existing European Union migration law proved ineffective, particularly with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees heading towards Europe in the wake of its civil war. In response to this challenge, European policymakers initiated research, examination, and negotiations to develop a new framework for managing migration. The proposed pact, introduced in September 2020, successfully gained approval from the European Parliament on December 20, 2023, less than a month ago. Expected to be implemented in early 2024, the agreement encompasses five key proposals outlined in the Pact:

* Screening Regulation: Creating uniform rules concerning the identification of non-EU nationals upon their arrival, thus increasing security within the Schengen area.
* Eurodac Regulation: Developing a common database and gathering more accurate and complete data to detect unauthorized movements.
* Asylum Procedures Regulation: Making asylum, return, and border procedures quicker and more effective.
* Asylum Migration Management Regulation: Establishing a new solidarity mechanism amongst Member States to balance the current system, where a few countries are responsible for the vast majority of asylum applications, and clear rules on responsibility for asylum applications.
* Crisis and Force Majeure Regulation: Ensuring that the EU is prepared in the future to face situations of crisis, including the instrumentalization of migrants.

The unprecedented influx of over a million migrants, primarily hailing from the war-torn region of Syria, in 2015 resulted in EU member states engaging in a blame game over the accommodation of these arrivals. In response to the challenges posed by irregular immigration, the new pact is designed to effectively manage the situation by allocating each EU country a share of the 30,000 individuals the bloc plans to host annually within its joint migration system. This allocation is determined based on factors such as GDP, population size, and the occurrence of irregular border crossings, including sea rescues. To ensure a fair and balanced distribution of refugee and migrant responsibility across the EU, nations not directly hosting individuals have the option to support hosting countries through financial aid (a minimum of 20,000 euros per person annually), equipment, or personnel. The agreement introduces a swift border procedure for individuals deemed unlikely to receive asylum to prevent prolonged stays within the bloc. This accelerated process is designed to handle their claims within a 12-week timeframe, and rejected applicants are expected to be repatriated to their home countries within an additional 12 weeks. The mechanism specifically targets individuals categorized as dangerous, uncooperative, or originating from countries with low asylum approval rates in the EU, such as India, Tunisia, and Turkey. Furthermore, EU nations have the flexibility to implement this expedited process for individuals intercepted at sea, those apprehended while attempting illegal entry, or those applying for asylum at a country’s border rather than in advance. This comprehensive approach aims to streamline the immigration process, enhance security measures, and establish a more equitable system for managing the challenges associated with migration within the European Union.

However, among the member states that have signed the treaty, there is a notable presence of confusion and hesitation. Italy and Greece have raised initial concerns about the feasibility of the new system, primarily due to the reluctance of certain states to host migrants. Southern countries express apprehensions about potential overburdening, while those situated farther from the EU’s external borders are hesitant to admit arrivals. The implementation of solidarity schemes introduces complexities and delays, posing challenges to effectively managing the influx of migrants. Additionally, monitoring the movement of individuals within Europe’s borderless travel zone remains a significant challenge, further complicating the operational aspects of the proposed system. Past attempts to share the responsibility for hosting migrants and refugees have faced obstacles, particularly because eastern EU members were unwilling to accept individuals who arrived in countries such as Greece and Italy. But the main issue is the overwhelming concerns from human rights groups.

In a recent post on X, formerly Twitter, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a prominent umbrella body advocating for migrant rights, strongly criticized the new migration rules, describing them as “Byzantine in their complexity and Orban-esque in their cruelty.” The reference to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suggests a comparison with his approach, which involved erecting razor-wire fences to prevent the entry of migrants. Numerous refugee rights groups have echoed these concerns, asserting that the proposed deal would establish a “cruel system” that is impractical and could effectively lead to the creation of prison camps at the EU’s borders. If implemented in its current format, the deal is feared to normalize the arbitrary use of immigration detention, extending to children and families, while also increasing racial profiling. The letter from 56 NGOs raises additional points of contention regarding the use of “crisis” procedures to enable pushbacks and the return of people to so-called “safe third countries.” According to these rights groups, such practices could expose individuals to the risk of violence, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment. The letter further highlights concerns that the proposed scheme might revive distressing scenes reminiscent of tragic events that unfolded on the Greek islands several years ago. There are fears that the new plan could contribute to the establishment of overcrowded migration camps at the edges of the EU, potentially resulting in the protracted detention of minors. Criticism is also directed at the perceived emphasis on keeping people away rather than providing assistance to those in need, raising ethical questions about the proposed approach to managing migration.

Criticism has also arisen from Hungary and the former government of Poland, both known for being vocal opponents of immigration from the Middle East and Africa within the EU. Despite providing shelter to millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war, Warsaw has staunchly refused to host predominantly Muslim arrivals. Save the Children has expressed concerns that the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, known as the agreement, will lead to blatant violations of children’s rights, endangering those on the move and contributing to the further separation of migrant families. The critique emphasizes that the agreement is poised to systematize the detention of children of all ages at EU borders, undermining their fair access to asylum across the continent. The opportunity for the EU to reaffirm its role as a champion of child rights is perceived to be lost with the potential validation of this reform by the majority of the European Parliament and Member States in spring 2024. The systematic detention of families with children is predicted to become the norm, jeopardizing the safety of children, especially those travelling unaccompanied.

The EU Member States have rejected the absence of mandatory relocation and effective solidarity in sharing responsibility for receiving people seeking protection in Europe. Instead, the new law is seen as opening possibilities to construct more fences and walls, leaving people stranded at EU borders and subjected to inhumane treatment and violence. Rather than addressing these failures, critics argue that the pact risks legitimizing current violations and perpetuating a cycle of mistreatment for those seeking protection. Furthermore, concerns are raised about children not being exempt from accelerated evaluation of their protection needs at borders. This may result in many of them being denied asylum or other forms of protection based on their personal history and needs, depriving them of access to education, health, housing, or psychosocial support like any other child in Europe. Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, states, “This agreement will set back European asylum law for decades to come. Its likely outcome is a surge in suffering on every step of a person’s journey to seek asylum in the EU.” The pact, instead of prioritizing solidarity through relocations and strengthening protection systems, is seen as enabling states to simply pay to fortify external borders or fund countries outside the EU to prevent people from reaching Europe.

In the turbulent seas of Europe’s immigration debate, the surging waves of concern are indicative of a complex and multifaceted challenge that demands nuanced solutions. As we navigate the intricate currents of history, policy shifts, and humanitarian crises, it becomes evident that the dynamics surrounding migration are deeply intertwined with geopolitical events and societal attitudes. The recent EU Pact on Migration and Asylum serves as an example of the European Union’s response, which raises serious concerns about cooperation, management, effectiveness, and human rights violations. The consequences of this ongoing debate are far-reaching, shaping not only the continent’s political landscape but also influencing the rise of right-wing ideologies and the evolution of migration policies. As Europe grapples with these challenges, the journey ahead necessitates a collective effort to find solutions that uphold the principles of solidarity, safeguard human dignity, and address the legitimate concerns of all stakeholders involved. The future requires careful navigation in the face of raging waves, guided by empathy, understanding, and a dedication to fostering a more inclusive and just Europe.

The author is a researcher and analyst specializing in South Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Georgetown University, Qatar

References :
1. Pew Research Center. “Key Facts About Recent Trends in Global Migration.” December 16, 2022.

2. YouTube. “Can EU states agree to a deal on migration? | Inside Story”

3. Foreign Policy. “The Far Right Is Winning Europe’s Immigration Debate” November 1, 2023.

4. “The EU and asymmetrical pressures”

5. University of California. “As refugees surge, European voters show ‘resilient’ support, study finds”

7. Al Jazeera. “EU reaches agreement to overhaul migration system, tighten asylum rules” December 20, 2023.

8. Reuters. “What’s in the new EU migration and asylum deal?” December 20, 2023.

9. ReliefWeb. “Historically bad: New EU pact on migration and asylum normalises rights violations and endangers children”.

10. Amnesty International. “EU: Migration Pact agreement will lead to a “surge in suffering” December 2023.

11. Associated Press. “EU hails a migration deal breakthrough after years of talks. Critics worry about rights abuses”

12. International Rescue Committee. “What is the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum?”
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ishfak Farhan Siyam
The author is a researcher and analyst specializing in South Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Georgetown University, Qatar
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