Europe’s Refugee Crisis: Pressure Points and Solutions


Author: Jon Rodeback

Key Points

  • Europe’s refugee crisis beginning in 2015 is the largest population movement the continent has seen since the end of the Second World War.
  • The EU’s asylum system was not designed to deal with large, irregular influxes of asylum seekers and places unreasonable strains on individual countries.
  • At the same time, several member states view burden-sharing mechanisms as unacceptable encroachments on national sovereignty.
  • Various institutional mechanisms can help the EU overcome the public good problem, which is driven by a lack of commitment to absorbing specific numbers of refugees, absence of incentives to resettle, and an overall lack of coordination.
  • Since security considerations have become central in political discussions of the refugee questions, a European asylum policy needs to be accompanied by measures that would prevent radicalization of incoming asylum seekers, which represents a far more serious risk than the commonly discussed ISIS infiltration of refugee flows.

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With more than 1 million people arriving on its shores in 2015 and almost 400,000 in 2016, Europe’s refugee crisis is the largest population move­ment the continent has seen since the end of the Second World War. The crisis has been profoundly destabilizing to the European Union (EU) and politics in individual member states. The perceived failure of public authorities to control the flows of asylum seek­ers and migrants across the European continent has given an unprecedented boost to anti-immigration and nativist political parties. Even in countries, such as Poland and the United Kingdom, which are relatively unaffected by the influx of refugees, the events came to the forefront of public debates and played a role in swaying important elections and votes, including the UK referendum in June 2016 on EU membership.

The crisis is not over. On the Central Mediterra­nean route between Libya and Italy, migration might return as weather conditions continue to improve in the spring. The European Commission’s current pol­icy is premised on a series of agreements with non-EU states to prevent asylum seekers from traveling to Europe and effective readmission on a vast scale, which may prove fatal if carried out. For example, it remains an open question whether the EU’s current deal with Turkey, which has nearly halted the influx of asylum seekers to Greece, is sustainable given the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey and its deteriorat­ing relations with the EU.

Although the EU has taken some meaningful strides, particularly in strengthening its border pro­tection force, it lacks a truly coordinated approach to asylum policy. The reasons for this situation, we argue, are not legal or technical, but political. Because EU member states do not know how many asylum seekers ought to be allowed into Europe, if any, and to which countries they should go, the refugee crisis has led to a reintroduction of temporary border con­trols within the Schengen area and to new border fences and barriers. These disagreements reflect the substantial collective action problems in achieving a genuinely common European asylum policy, with incentives stacked against individual countries step­ping up their efforts.

The EU would be unable to cope systematically with a repeated influx of 2015 proportions. Another iteration of the refugee crisis would shift leaders’ attention away from other long-term strategic chal­lenges and force the bloc back into crisis-fighting mode. It is unthinkable for the EU to become a major geopolitical player, project strength, or actively engage with its neighborhood if it cannot provide a public service as elementary as a function­ing border protection and rights-respecting asylum policy. A return to the unmanaged flows of 2015 would also give new impetus to reactionary nativ­ist politics, amplifying the already significant risk of the EU’s uncontrolled implosion.

This report explains how the EU can overcome the current political deadlock and create a system of asylum protection that solves the incentive prob­lem facing European governments and reconciles the divergent views of member states about their own humanitarian obligations. Several options, including tradable refugee quotas and a centralized clearing­house matching refugees to countries, are available. Furthermore, the paper addresses questions of secu­rity and terrorism, which have been associated with the refugee influx in the popular imagination.

Whether or not the risk of ISIS fighters and other terrorists infiltrating refugee flows is credible, address­ing it has become a political necessity. Smarter security controls and screenings of incoming asylum seekers can mitigate such risks and ought to be an integral part of any functioning asylum system. That should not come at the expense of addressing the more pressing concern of radicalization of asylum seekers in Europe, particularly if member states continue to seriously mismanage the asylum process and the integration of asylum seekers into local labor markets.

Read the full report.

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