Special Contribution by Christopher Newport University Junior, Nathan Sieminski
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.
Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa currently face one of the largest refugee and migration crises of the 21st century. Irregular migration from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to Europe has been a fairly constant phenomenon over the past couple of decades, but the recent Syrian conflict and general instability of the region post-Arab Spring has exacerbated the numbers of migrants and refugees seeking new homes in Europe and abroad. As of September 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that around 4,086,760 Syrians have fled their homes (2015, September 17). Some of these are internally displaced within Syria itself. Many are being housed by neighboring nations such as Turkey. Still, hundreds of thousands are now seeking the perceived stability of Europe. The Mediterranean Sea has become the major route for migrants and refugees to flood into Europe, seeking temporary sanctuary in the Southern European nations of Italy, Spain, and Greece, among others, before heading to Northern Europe in search of greater economic opportunity. Each displaced person’s story is different; some seek asylum from war like the Syrian conflict, others are economic migrants like many from Sub-Saharan Africa, while still others are displaced by climate change. For many, it can be a complicated combination of all three factors.
The Syrian conflict has created a vast majority of all refugees and migrants in the last 5 years. It was born out of the protests of the Arab Spring, though many of its underlying issues have been simmering under the surface for decades. After the Assad regime cracked down on these protests in 2011, a civil war erupted between pro-Assad forces and rebel forces. Though originally a political struggle between Syrians, extremist groups, particularly ISIS, have taken advantage of the instability created by the conflict to infiltrate it and conquer territory. The conflict has descended into a protracted struggle between sectarian groups often organized along ethnic and religious lines. The collateral damage inflicted upon Syrians has been massive, and it has forced millions to flee.
Economic hardships have also created many migrants and refugees. Many of the countries in the MENA region are oil-rich, but this has led to what is termed the “resource curse,” where economies that are overly dependent on natural resources tend towards lower economic growth and development (Ross, 2011). Additionally, unemployment is especially high in MENA countries. In 2014 report, Lili Mottaghi explains that “unemployment rates in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen (the MENA 7) have remained stubbornly high, particularly among youth (15–24 years) with an average rate of 22 percent for young males and 39 percent for young females.” This has naturally led to high numbers of economic migrants searching for better opportunities in Europe and abroad.
Finally, climate change has hit the MENA region particularly hard. In Syria for instance, the amount of arable land has been steadily decreasing as constant droughts have turned an already dry land into a desert. From 2001 to 2010, Syria had 60 significant dust storms; “the most important physical aspect of these storms, as was the experience in America in the 1930s, was the removal of the topsoil.” This increase in storms, drought, and temperature has made land that once supported large population uninhabitable, forcing population to move. It has also created much of the economic and political instability explained above. Polk even suggests that it was climate change that created the political upheaval necessary for the Syrian Civil War (2013, December 10).
With hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants attempting to find political and economic security in Europe, it is important to address the implications for those involved. The Mediterranean Sea is one of the most porous borders between EU member states and MENA countries. However, it is also one of the most dangerous. Refugees and Migrants flock to countries on the southern and eastern coast of the Mediterranean in hopes to gain aquatic passage to Europe. Unfortunately, many boats that are used are unsafe. It is estimated that from January 1998 to September 2014, 15,016 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean (Fargues & Bonfanti, 2014). These numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years as migration and asylum seeking has also increased. Refugees and migrants are also exposed to miserable conditions while waiting to make their journey or while being processed by their destination nations. Many are set up in temporary camps that are overcrowded and beginning to look less than temporary.
EU States and Policy Makers
EU member states face their own problems when confronting the issue of migration. First of all, the burden of dealing with migration is not evenly spread amongst states. Countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece are overwhelmed by the initial thrust of migrants and refugees who are using these countries as the staging grounds for further European diffusion. Unfortunately, these countries face stagnating economies that make citizens wary of large influxes of immigrants. These countries also do not have the resources to handle such large numbers of displaced persons, especially those at sea (Hammond, 2015, May 19). The tensions around these issues—combined with the weakness of the Euro due to the Greek crisis—are starting to create cracks in the EU, and threaten the long-term stability of the EU as an economic-political union.
EU policy makers are facing what might be termed an identity crisis. Two pillars that the EU has traditionally held up as central to its mission are freedom of movement and respect for human rights; these pillars are being shaken by irregular migration. Policy makers feel obligated to balance these concerns with concerns over economic stability, extremism, and demographic shift. The Dublin Rule, an EU regulation that limits irregular migrants to the country in which they first arrived, in particular, is being challenged by the scope and scale of the migration, and it is unequally distributing the load of dealing with migration on southern European states.
Solutions and Policy Recommendations
If this problem is to be fixed, it must be done in short-term, medium-term, and long-term increments. In the short term, EU policy makers should reform the Dublin Rule. Already, countries like Germany have suspended the regulation. Others have simply stopped enforcing it. If the EU was to adopt a burden-sharing policy based on increased integration of irregular migrants and solidarity in regard to allocating irregular migrants between EU member states, it would go a long way to elevating many of the problems currently facing EU states. Adopting this policy would also increase funding for Operation Triton so as to continue to save lives rather than merely monitor migrant movements.
In the medium-term, policy makers should shift their focus towards the Syrian conflict. If the conflict remains protracted, many of these refugees will simply never return home. The United States, in particular, has a vested interest in bringing stability to the region, due to its own culpability in the rise of ISIS. Therefore, Europe and The United States should take a more hands on approach in dealing with the Syrian conflict. Simply bombing is not enough. There should certainly be “boots on the ground” in some limited fashion so as to restore peace as quickly as possible.
Finally, all developed countries must look for a long-term solution to climate change. The United States, in particular, needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and gear itself towards renewable energy. This can be done through tax incentives and subsidies. Carbon Dioxide emissions must be reduced if the negative trends of climate change are to be reversed. If this is not done soon, millions more will become refugees due to the climate wars that are sure to ensue.
Fargues, P., & Bonfanti, S. (2014). When the best option is a leaky boat: why migrants risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean and what Europe is doing about it. Migration Policy Centre.
Ross, M. L. (2011). Will oil drown the Arab Spring? Democracy and the resource curse. Foreign Affairs, 2-7.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”