Refugee Crisis

Europe's Immigration Debacle

asylum seekers arrive Berlin getty
Asylum seekers arrive for registration in Berlin, 2015.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe cannot bury itself in its own prosperity and avoid a growing immigration problem that is feeding right-wing xenophobia across the Continent.

  • Facts


    • Last year nearly 280,000 illegal immigrants crossed borders into the European Union – 155 percent more than in 2013.
    • According to a survey, 37 percent of Germans say dealing with immigration is the European Union’s most important challenge.
    • The mayor of an eastern German town resigned this week to protect his family from anti-immigration mobs outside his home.
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In eastern Germany, a refugee-friendly mayor had to resign this week after local authorities refused to block another anti-immigration demonstration by neo-Nazis outside his home.

In Greece, the new government is threatening to give Islamic immigrants documents allowing them to move to Berlin. And in France the xenophobic right-wing Front National could win a third of votes in upcoming local elections.  

All are symptoms of a problem the European Union can no longer ignore – growing migratory pressure.

Political leaders appear helpless. Migration and immigration will be at the top of the agenda when E.U. interior ministers meet this week, but there are still no groundbreaking ideas on how to deal with the challenge. Diplomats freely admit this.

Europe must devote more attention to constructive cooperation with countries of origin and transit to stem migratory movements at an early stage.

The number of people seeking jobs, or simply safety from violence in their home countries, will continue to increase dramatically. There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of humans sitting on packed bags in Africa and especially Libya. “There’s a time bomb ticking,” said one diplomat in Brussels.

And what is the European Union doing to deactivate this “bomb?” Politicians are great at shedding crocodile tears. Immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean make people in Europe uncomfortable but that’s just short-term relief for a bad conscience.

In the mid-term, there are growing problems that have been crying out to be resolved for years. In 2014 there were nearly 280,000 illegal border crossings, according to the E.U. Commission, 155 percent more than in 2013.


Refugee Flow to Europe-01


Yet there are few other issues that addressed with as much hypocrisy as refugees and poverty migration. The E.U. commissioner for home affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and human rights activists can stress as often as they want that we shouldn’t make a fortress out of Europe. But that’s exactly what the European Union can’t avoid in coming decades. It just can’t carry on without invisible, but effective walls.

Of course, Europe will have to deter potential immigrants from leaving their own countries. Of course, the border protection agency Frontex will have to be technologically upgraded, so it can turn away fortune-seekers. Likewise, anyone who believes that all will be well thanks to efforts to enable well-trained people to immigrate to Europe is fooling himself.

But Europe seems to have a knack of making well-meaning mistakes. And it has almost completely failed in its ambition to export democracy based on political good sense to its Mediterranean neighbors. 

Never before has the situation at Europe’s external borders been so precarious. So it’s no wonder that 37 percent of Germans consider dealing with immigration the European Union’s most important challenge. Only in Great Britain and Malta is that figure higher. All these people deserve to be told the plain truth:  Europe feels it has a duty toward humanity, but that doesn’t come cheap. The unpleasant truth is Europe cannot avoid the high price of its prosperity and have peace of mind on immigration.  

Externally, Europe must devote more attention to constructive cooperation with countries of origin and transit to stem migratory movements at an early stage. People have to be offered protection in conflict zones and new settlements must be secured. Particular attention should be paid to where human smuggling routes begin. Internally, Europe needs more civic engagement on integrating bona fide refugees. That includes quotas to distribute asylum seekers among the 28 E.U. nations.  

As long as war and poverty affects Europe’s neighbors, people will risk everything for a life under the “ring of stars” flag. The European Union will not be able to please both groups in equal measure – neither potential immigrants nor its uneasy citizens.


Thomas Ludwig is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels. To contact him:

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