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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Ways Forward after the Migration Crisis?

Tommaso Virgili
Ways Forward after the Migration Crisis?
Refugees in Hungary with all their belongings, during a standoff with police, while refusing to go to an already full registration center, 2015. (UNHCR/Mark Henley)

While migration to Europe is not a new phenomenon, the topic has definitely gathered new momentum in the last few years, especially because of the Syrian civil war that has caused a wave of migration considered by some analysts unprecedented since World War II.1 However, the Syrian crisis will not dissipate the phenomenon of migration to Europe, as most fluxes nowadays are actually coming from Africa through Libya, and they include both asylum seekers and economic migrants.

Whatever the causes and origins, the migration issue as a whole now stands prominently among the top priorities of the European Union and its member states, and it does not seem destined to decrease in the upcoming years.2

How has this phenomenon impacted the European Union and its member states? Required is an analysis of the causes of the shock and the measures put in place to face it, focusing on an often-overlooked aspect of migration – i.e., the socio-cultural integration of newcomers into the liberal-democratic values of the host countries. A proper balance needs to be found between the moral (and in certain cases legal) duty of hospitality and the need to preserve the security, liberty, and social cohesion of European societies.

The Refugee Crisis and EU Divisions

In the last four years, Europe has received a large influx of (mainly) Syrian asylum seekers escaping the civil war. The most crucial year was 2015, when the European Union, Norway, and Switzerland had to cope with over 1.3 million asylum seekers.

Annual number of asylum applications received by EU-28 countries, Norway, and Switzerland, 1985 to 2015

Annual number of asylum applications received by EU-28 countries, Norway, and Switzerland, 1985 to 2015

First time asylum applicants registered in the EU Member States, 2015/2014

First time asylum applicants registered in the EU Member States, 2015/2014

In spite of all its tragedy and magnitude, this geopolitical earthquake alone fails to explain why a rich and developed giant such as the European Union (which did not even absorb the highest burden of fleeing Syrians) suffered so much to accommodate less than 1.5 million asylum seekers among its more than 510 million citizens.

Syrians in neighbouring countries and Europe

Syrians in neighbouring countries and Europe

Furthermore, numbers by themselves are insufficient to explain why, once the emergency has subsided, the political debate around migration has not ceased to become more and more prominent and vitriolic. According to Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) and the European Asylum Support Office, 2017 has registered a 60 percent decrease in irregular crossings of the EU external borders and 43 percent fewer asylum applications, thus bringing the situation back to the pre-crisis situation.3

Illegal border-crossings: Overview

Illegal border-crossings: Overview

What happened, in fact, is that the migration peak caught Europe unprepared from several points of view, unveiling strategic short-sightedness, lack of political unity, and inadequate instruments to face the event.

The political earthquake created by the refugee crisis was reflected both domestically and at the international level.

Internally, it created a deep divide between political forces in favor of receiving refugees and others pushing for a closed-door policy. While the latter narrative assumed, in certain cases, a populist or even xenophobic connotation, it was also fed by objective problems related to security aspects and management of uncoordinated influxes, as I will explain.

At the supranational level, Europe witnessed profound drifts. On the one hand, differences emerged between frontier states – penalized by the Dublin regulation – and continental ones. The Dublin Regulation, namely EU Regulation n. 604/2013, stipulates that the responsibility for processing an asylum request mainly lies on the state of first entrance, both in the case where the asylum seeker applies at the border of the concerned state4 and if he crosses illegally.5 Both occurrences, evidently, put a disproportionate pressure over frontier countries. For this reason, several discussions have taken place on how to ensure a fairer distribution of asylum applications among all member states of the European Union.

On the other hand, a split occurred between Western and Eastern Europe, with the latter almost hermetically sealed. In Western Europe, conversely, Germany, in particular, adopted a remarkably open-door policy in 2015, suspending the Dublin protocol and opening its gates to all Syrian asylum seekers, in a bid to counter Eastern European and UK resistance.6 More than one million asylum seekers thereby flooded into Germany. In the East, on the contrary, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic took a particularly harsh stance against asylum seekers, refusing them entry.

The European Union, caught amid such polarizations, had but little margin of maneuverability and a short time to face the crisis.

To cite The Economist, “mutual recognition of positive asylum decisions across the EU, which would give refugees the freedom of movement that ordinary citizens enjoy, is years away”7 since the legislative reform of the Dublin system is deadlocked.8 The European Union has adopted emergency measures to mitigate, at least in part, its effects, thereby diminishing the pressure on frontier states. In 2015, the Council adopted an “Emergency Relocation Scheme” to share the burden of asylum applications submitted in Greece and Italy among the other member states.9 In consideration of the increased migratory pressure on the Eastern route, a second relocation scheme was proposed less than three weeks after the first one. Although this would have included Hungary as a beneficiary, besides Italy and Greece, Hungary refused to be part of it.

While the two schemes provided for the relocation of 160,000 individuals, as of March 2018 only 34,323 asylum seekers had been effectively redistributed, with Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom accepting none.10 Such political division even assumed a contentious dimension in 2017, when the European Union launched an infringement procedure against the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland for not complying with the emergency relocation scheme and then referred the three recalcitrant states to the European Court of Justice.11 Hungary was also made the object of an additional infringement procedure and finally brought before the ECJ in July 2018, for not complying with EU asylum and return legislation.12

However, popular opposition against migrants is not the monopoly of Eastern Europe. In Germany, Merkel is under siege over her migration policies, as explained in Chapter One. Austria has been threatening for months to seal its borders with Italy and Slovenia, to prevent irregular migrants from crossing these borders. France has attracted its share of criticism for using a heavy hand with similar attempts occurring at the Italian border and has significantly tightened the rules on asylum,13 following the examples of other countries such as Sweden and Denmark.14 Italy, on its part, has entered into a controversial agreement with Libya to prevent smuggling of migrants through the Central Mediterranean route, and, under the new government, has closed its ports to NGOs’ vessels rescuing people outside national waters. Italy has revised the law to remove a layer of humanitarian protection.15

In sum, the migration issue has unleashed a wave of national selfishness jeopardizing European unity, and even threatening the EU project as such.

Deals with the Devil?

Regardless of the member states’ lack of compliance, the Emergency Relocation Scheme described above was clearly insufficient to address the consequences of the 2015 crisis. At the same time, Merkel’s hope to lead the rest of Europe by example crashed with the reality of national self-centeredness and political concerns.

It is not by chance that Merkel herself, overwhelmed by the internal pressure and her responsibility as the de facto European leader on this issue, proposed the radical solution of an agreement with Turkey to block the migrants’ attempts to reach Europe through the Eastern route. Under this agreement, signed in March 2016, Turkey committed to reaccept all-new irregular migrants reaching Greece after March 20, 2016, and to prevent by any means further illegal traffic toward Europe. On its part, the European Union committed that “for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU taking into account the UN Vulnerability Criteria.” Furthermore, Turkey obtained €3 billion to face the refugee crisis, plus the pledge of additional €3 billion once the previous disbursement is exhausted, and an acceleration in the visa liberalization procedure for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe.16

The deal has been criticized on multiple grounds. First of all, it could be considered as a collective expulsion of foreigners, which is prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights. According to the terms of the agreement, compliance with international law against collective refoulement17 should be guaranteed through the examination of all individual asylum petitions presented in Greece, with the consequence that the “irregulars” to be returned are those not seeking asylum or whose petition has been considered unfounded. However, under articles 35-38 of the EU Asylum Procedure Directive, an application may be inadmissible if the asylum seeker is entitled to protection from a “safe third country” – as Turkey is considered – thereby making every Syrian arriving through Turkey irregular. The very qualification of Turkey as a “safe third country” has been put into question, due to alleged forced repatriations of Syrian asylum seekers and risks of persecutions against Kurdish asylum seekers.18 In certain cases, these concerns have been confirmed by European courts, which have blocked deportations to Turkey.19

Regarding the political aspects of the deal with Turkey, the European Union has evidently bestowed upon an unfriendly, more and more dictatorial regime, with potent human leverage against Europe: Erdogan can now easily use the threat of opening Turkey’s borders to multitudes of refugees should the European Union adopt unfriendly policies and resolutions against his government.

The ink had barely dried on the EU-Turkey agreement, having sealed the Eastern route, when Europe found itself exposed to a new migratory crisis, this time coming from the Central Mediterranean route – the one that the UNHCR identifies as being currently the most active.20

Overview of the main migration routes to Europe

Italy, in particular, has traditionally been the country bearing the highest number of arrivals among European coastal states, mostly passing through Libya, (with the exception made for the peak influx from Syria in 2015).

Overview of the main migration routes to Europe

For this reason, the former Italian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Libyan Government of National Accord.21 The document, which expressly builds upon the Treaty of Friendship, Partnership, and Cooperation signed in 2008, provides for cooperation between the two countries in stemming illegal migration through a system of border control ex-art. 19 of the 2008 Treaty. The most controversial part of the agreement concerns the fate of those prevented from leaving the African shore: the MoU explicitly mentions “the provision of temporary reception camps in Libya, under the exclusive control of the Libyan Ministry of Home Affairs, pending voluntary or forced return to the country of origin.”22

Reports from the UN and human rights organizations describe an appalling situation for migrants in Libya. Abuses begin when they are stopped by the Libyan coast guard, allegedly responsible in many cases for beating and robbing migrants before bringing them to reception centers. These centers are in theory run by an agency of the Ministry of the Interior, but sometimes they are handed over to local militias as downright prisons where migrants, abusively detained in the absence of any incrimination and judicial overview, endure torture, sexual abuse, and de facto enslavement. Indefinite detentions and torture are sometimes the tools corrupted officials utilize to extort ransoms from migrants’ families. Many never manage to leave the camps alive.23

Human rights organizations accuse EU member states of being complicit in this system of human rights abuses, not only for aiding the Libyan coast guard to intercept and stop migrants but also for providing support to the authorities running the horrific centers.24 Indeed, article 2 of the MoU speaks openly about “training of the Libyan personnel within the above-mentioned reception centers to face the illegal immigrants’ conditions,” and about “adaptation and financing of the above mentioned reception centers’ already active compliance with the relevant provisions, making recourse to funds made available by Italy and the European Union.” At the same time, no clause imposes the respect of human rights for the purposes of the accord, insofar as each party, independently from the other, merely commits “to interpret and apply the present Memorandum in respect of the international obligations and the human rights agreements to which the two Countries are parties,” in the absence of whatever control mechanism.

In spite of these concerns, the European Council explicitly endorsed the Memorandum of Understanding and expressed its readiness to support Italy in its implementation, while vowing to help Libya hinder irregular migration by various means. The human rights component merely deserved a generic affirmation of compliance, with no reference at all to the specific situation on the ground.25

Long-Term Proposals at the EU Level

Irrespective of the political motives behind the states’ behavior, the emergency nature of the adopted measures shows that the European Union, both before and after the crisis, has failed to put in place a sustainable and permanent mechanism to face the migratory pressure.

Discussions have gone on for years at the EU level regarding a better planned and orderly asylum process, based on a previous evaluation of individual requests outside Europe, followed by safe and legal migration routes.

In 2015, the Council adopted a Commission proposal on a European Resettlement Scheme, intended to establish legal pathways into Europe for 22,000 individuals over two years, mainly from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.26 This scheme, completed in 2017, was followed by another one in 2018, designed for at least 50,000 refugees not only from the Levant but also from North Africa and the Horn of Africa.27

A very promising pilot initiative following the same logic is that of the “humanitarian corridors,” initiated in Italy and copied in other countries such as France and Belgium. Conceived, implemented, and financed by the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Waldensian Church, and the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, it is about a civil-society-led resettlement program, approved by the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. Under this plan, around 1,000 Syrian refugees are expected to arrive in Italy over two years, legally and safely. After being preselected by the NGOs among those in situations of special vulnerability, they are vetted by the Ministry of the Interior; Once cleared, they obtain a humanitarian visa limited to the host country, which they reach through safe pathways. The program is completely financed by the NGOs involved, with no cost for the state.28 An additional humanitarian corridor has been recently opened by the Catholic organization Caritas and Sant’Egidio to bring refugees from Somalia and Eritrea.29

These laudable initiatives are nevertheless not completely exempt from doubts. First of all, resettled asylum seekers under this system are very few. Although the slogan of the organizations involved defines them as a few drops “which are changing the ocean,”30 the program needs to be scaled up to be effective at the national (and European) level. Secondly, the Belgian Center of Secular Action31 has raised sensible concerns over entrusting a typically public task to private religious organizations, in spite of the principle of state secularity: which criteria are going to be observed in the choice of the selected individuals? Furthermore, asylum seekers are a very vulnerable category: while some religious organizations do commendable work in genuinely helping them, others might exploit and indoctrinate them in the pursuit of a political agenda.

Regardless of these problematic aspects, the numbers speak by themselves: neither the humanitarian corridors nor the broader resettlement schemes are adequate to cope with intense migration flow, especially during situations of crisis as seen in 2015.

The latest EU proposal advanced in July 2018 by the Commission attempts to define a long-term framework. It is centered on two main pillars: the setting of “Regional Disembarkation Arrangements” outside the European Union, and of “Controlled Centers” inside.32

The former is a revamped proposal of the old external hotspots: essentially, it aims to secure a shared responsibility among all Mediterranean states, calling on them to promptly search and rescue migrants at sea in their SAR (Search and Rescue) area, and to ensure their safe disembarkation and transport to “reception facilities providing adequate, safe, and dignified reception conditions,” under the control of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In those centers, their situation would be assessed and their fate thereby decided: either resettlement (not necessarily to an EU country) if they deserve international protection; or return to the countries of origin. What’s the core of the proposal? The fact that, if migrants are rescued in third country waters or international waters by third country vessels, disembarkation and status assessment will take place in third countries. This way, the burdens of first aid and asylum evaluation would take place outside the European Union, considerably reducing pressure on European coastal states. So far, however, all North African countries have vigorously rejected the proposal, and it seems likely that the European Union will need to frame it in a greater cooperative scheme, including more incentives for Arab coastal states.33

The “Controlled Centers” are de facto closed centers, run by volunteer member states with EU support, where migrant status is to be processed after disembarkation in EU territory. These centers are essentially meant to avoid secondary movements and to facilitate quick returns in case of negative decisions. As an incentive for member states to accept disembarked migrants in their territory, they will receive €6,000 per each person transferred to it.34 In spite of this, until now, this proposal does not seem to enjoy better fortune than the Regional Disembarkation Arrangements, insofar as no EU state has expressed its readiness to host a closed center on its territory.35

To address the very root causes of migration from African states, the European Union in 2015 launched an ambitious €1.8 billion plan, called “Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa.”36

The plan is conceived as a comprehensive and long-term strategy, embracing all the main root-causes of both economic and humanitarian migration through funding different projects aimed at:

  1. creating employment opportunities;
  2. supporting basic services for food and nutrition security, health, education, social protection, and environment;
  3. improving migration management, “including containing and preventing irregular migration, effective return, and readmission, international protection and asylum, legal migration and mobility;”
  4. promoting conflict prevention and enforcing the rule of law.

The plan has been criticized on multiple grounds: First of all, for being too ambitious in its aims, especially in relation to the economic commitment; and secondly, for fostering an often nontransparent system of migration policing in Africa, de facto entailing abuses and human rights violations. According to a Washington Post report, institutions supposed to control migration fluxes often receive bribes from smugglers.37

Regardless of the initial assessment over the plan, what is sure is that it is not meant to address the immediate causes of migration, especially the humanitarian ones, and that its effects, whatever they are, will only be visible in the long run.

The Challenges of Socio-Cultural Integration of Newcomers Finally inside Europe

Hurdles related to migration do not stop with border management. It would be dangerously ingenuous not to consider the often dramatic cultural differences between the hosted and the host populations. To ensure safe and harmonious coexistence of both, it is crucial that European states do not disregard this aspect in the name of misguided multiculturalism and invest decisively in values-based integration.

This assumption is corroborated by a study recently conducted by the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) on the integration of refugees in seven European countries, wherein this author took part.38 We analyzed policies and practices in operation, and we interviewed 114 individual officials and civil society operators involved in refugee integration, as well as 131 refugees and asylum seekers.

This survey has unveiled a number of vulnerabilities and areas of concern related both to security and integration.

Interviewed officials admitted certain difficulties in assessing the identity of people traveling without documents or with fake ones, as well as their aims for coming to Europe. In particular, the poorly controlled influx of 2015 overstretched the competent offices, jeopardizing a proper vetting. However, officials downplayed the security risk, evidencing the strict cooperation with security services in evaluating the asylum procedures, as well as techniques to detect inconsistencies during the interviews.39

In spite of the precautions taken by secret services and officials involved in asylum procedures, inevitably some aspiring terrorists were able to reach Europe through the migration flows and apply for asylum, before attempting or succeeding to enact terrorist plots.40 This is not to imply that asylum seekers represent a generalized security threat (on the contrary, most terrorists and foreign fighters are actually European citizens), but it shows the necessity of orderly and properly managed migratory procedures.

The problematic aspects of a poorly managed migration are not limited to the initial assessment of the applications. In our research, several issues emerged in relation to the subsequent phases.

Hurdles already begin in the refugee centers, where many of the interviewees witnessed or experienced episodes of violence, abuse, religious and political clashes, sexual harassment, and homophobic attitudes. Among the main triggers of tension seem to be controversies over the Syrian revolution and mistrust or downright hostility between Christians and Muslims. Some refugees also reported episodes of Islamist intolerance (e.g., for alcohol consumption, mistreatment of Christians and “bad Muslims,” etc.).41 Homophobia seems to be an endemic phenomenon, to the extent that Germany has started to open separate reception centers for LGBT asylum seekers.42

According to some refugees, authorities in charge of the centers do not always enforce rules on rights and duties strictly enough.

While one must take into account the stress and difficulties connected to living in such an awkward setting, which exacerbate tensions and frustrations, it would be unrealistic to assume that these issues simply disappear once asylum seekers are granted protected status and start their new life in the host country. Cultural barriers remain to various degrees, and most first-line practitioners acknowledge the existence of problems around sexual mores, gender rights, homosexuality, freedom of religion (including apostasy and atheism), and expression (including blasphemy).43

It is up to states’ authorities to ensure refugees understand and respect the laws and values of the host country while protecting them from possible acts of racism and xenophobia.

Unfortunately, such awareness is not always present among policymakers and civil society actors, with the consequence that the focus of integration activities in Europe is disproportionately placed on the labor market and practical aspects of daily life, at the expense of training and activities concerning the values of liberal-democratic societies. While in some cases this is due to naïveté, in others it is a deliberate choice to guarantee “multiculturalism” and avoid “assimilation.”

What champions of multiculturalism often tend to forget is that the first victims of this reticence to enforce liberal democratic values are nonconformist newcomers themselves, who happen to be victims of harassment from their peers when they seem to deviate from the mores dictated by the culture of origin. This problem is particularly acute in places with a high concentration of immigrants, whether refugee centers, as mentioned above, or “ghetto” neighborhoods. Among other things, we were told of episodes of harassment against asylum seekers for drinking alcohol and, in the case of women, for not wearing the headscarf or behaving too much à la West.44 Many refugees interviewed also expressed distress with the conservatism and attempts at indoctrination they experienced in certain mosques, or from individuals and religious organizations allegedly helping them. While this phenomenon is already serious when happening outside any control (an example for all: Salafists trying to indoctrinate asylum-seekers in Park Maximilien in Brussels during the lodging crisis of 2015), it is even graver when it occurs in the framework of aid and integration activities delegated by the state.45


The abovementioned areas of concern show that a generic humanitarian call to “open the ports” would be too simplistic and naïve in the absence of a proper integration strategy.

At the same time, there is no point in boasting about the protection of our way of life from the external menace, if we are the first to brutally betray the very moral values upon which our societies are built. We are not showing the values of Humanism or Christianity in looking away from the children, women, and men drowning in the sea. We are not preserving the sacrifices of the heroes who died in order for us to enjoy the freedoms we are now more and more taking for granted, when we turn a blind eye to our fellow human beings imprisoned, tortured, and killed while fighting for the same liberty, or merely because of their ideas, religion, sexuality, or color of their skin.

If we really want to preserve the values we are rightfully proud of – as we want and must do – we are under a moral imperative to find a balance between the lures of baseless, ideological optimism, and multiculturalism, which disguise the sometimes brutal reality under the rose lenses of a perpetual, colorful festival of ecumenism, and the temptation to egoistically lock ourselves in ivory fortresses.

* * *


  4. Article 3
  5. Article 10
  17. Refoulement definition, Oxford dictionary: “The forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution.”
  21. The English translation may be found here:
  22. Ibid.
  31. Centre d’Action Laïque
  38. Refugees in Europe, Review of Integration Practices & Policies, available at
  39. EFD, 33.
  40. Europol, EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report 2018, 24. Europol, EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report 2017, 14.
  41. EFD, 46.
  43. EFD, 47.
  44. EFD, 32.
  45. EFD, 32.