The media in recent times has coined the term “refugee crisis”, a term primarily resulting from coverage of the sad loss of a great many lives of migrants (I use the term migrants as these individuals have not yet been formally identified as refugees) trying to travel by sea from war-torn countries to Europe. Yet “crisis” lends a sensationalist tone to this phrase, which has both positive and negative effects. It has served to garner support for these migrants across the board of previously uninterested populations, yet has also served to stir concerning levels of racism and xenophobia in both political and popular spheres.

Is the descriptor “refugee crisis” appropriate or warranted, however? This blog suggests not and furthermore that its use may have a predominantly negative effect.

The EU migration policy in figures

A few figures provide a bird’s eye snapshot of EU migration policy.

  • The EU and its member states have recently announced a budget of €3 billion for 2016-2017 in respect of the facility for refugees in Turkey, in association with the EU-Turkey.
  • The EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) was set up for the period 2014-20, with a total budget of €3.1 billion for the seven years. State and non-state actors may apply for an allocation of resources from this fund (say a rudimentary €443 million per annum).
  • The EU Internal Security Fund (ISF) was set up for the period 2014-20, with a total budget of € 3.8 billion for the seven years. This fund supports measures of internal security, in which the management of the EU’s external borders is included. State and non-state actors may apply for an allocation of resources from this fund (say a rudimentary €543 million per annum).
  • The 2016 EU budget for Frontex – its agency tasked with providing security and external border control support to member states – is €250 million.
  • A legislative proposal for a new EU Smart Borders package to improve security at the external borders is estimated to cost €430 million over a four-year period (i.e. three years of development and one year of operations) (say a rudimentary €108 million per annum).

If we consider these, on a per annum basis, it is apparent that while €443 million will be allocated to the assistance of migrants (incidentally, only a part of which will assist refugees, and only a part of this in turn will provide short-term humanitarian assistance) within the territory of the EU, €3 billion will specifically provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in refugee camps in Turkey, notably outside the territory of the EU. A further €901 million will be spent on security measures at the external borders of the EU, aiming to keep migrants outside the territory of the EU. The EU-Turkey Agreement itself has the primary objective of ending irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.

The right to apply for asylum

It must be recalled at this juncture that asylum seekers (those who would like to apply for refugee status), do not have a right to enter any state; they only have a right, once in the territory of a state, to apply for asylum therein (subject to more complex rules of the EU Dublin III Regulation allocating responsibility for asylum applications between EU member states). It is up to asylum seekers themselves to figure out how to get from their respective countries of origin to a safe country in order to apply for asylum.

Global migration in figures

More statistics at this point will assist in building my argument. While the UN Population Division has recorded an increase in global migration, this should be considered in light of global population growth. According to the UN, there were 244 million international migrants in 2015 – people officially recorded as residing in a country other than that of their birth. This figure represented 3.3 % of the world’s population, a proportion that has changed little in recent decades (it was 2.3% in 1965). Here are further data, which suggest a fairly stable increase of global migration, which is increasing only fractionally faster than global population growth.

  2015 2010 2005 2000
Global migration 244 million 222 million 191 million 173 million
Global population 7.35 million 6.93 million 6.52 million 6.127 million
% of migrants 3.3 3.2 3 2.8

These global migration statistics confirm that there has not been any dramatic increase in global migratory movements in recent years, and certainly not to the extent as to warrant the descriptor “crisis”.

Yet, refugee camps just outside and just within the perimeter of the EU and indeed at key positions throughout the EU are a relatively new phenomenon. Why is this? The bird’s eye snapshot of EU migration policy above provides a possible explanation.

Explaining the growth in number of refugee camps

The EU was founded in the aftermath of World War II, in part, on the principle of freedom of movement of people, initially among member states but with a vision of more expansive free movement. Alongside internal free movement, prior to the creation of “Fortress Europe”, a certain level of irregular migration across the external borders was tolerated or indeed unobserved; migrants entered by stealth and were gradually absorbed into the economies of their host states with little ado. Indeed, the distinction between a regular and irregular migrant is itself a relatively recent concept – it is seldom appreciated that a generalised use of passports only came into being after World War II. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor once observed that at the turn of the twentieth century “a foreigner could spend his life in [Britain] without permit and without informing the police.”

The intensification of efforts to seal the external borders of the EU has created bottlenecks of migrants en route, preventing them from continuing on the paths previously trodden by their friends and family members. Essentially, EU policies rather than migratory movements themselves have created this “refugee crisis”. The trajectory, in this regard, of not only EU but also individual member state policies does not bode well.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, EU member states have built or commenced 1,200 km of anti-immigrant walls and wires at a cost of at least €500 million. That distance is almost 40% of the length of America’s border with Mexico. The EU refuses to fund fences, and so this particular trend is at the level of individual member states. The recent announcement by the UK of its intention to build a wall in the French refugee camp of Calais confirms that this trend holds firm.

Use of the phrase “refugee crisis”

This blog contends that the use of the phrase “refugee crisis” is neither appropriate nor warranted. It obfuscates the reality of migration flows and deflects focus from ineffective EU and individual member state migration policies. The ease with which it has been leveraged as a political tool by right-wing parties to promote anti-immigrant sentiment is reason enough to question its continuing utility.

There has not been an increase in global migration to such a dramatic level as to warrant the descriptor “refugee crisis”. Refugee camps have grown in number around Europe as a result of bottlenecks of migrants caused by increasing expenditure by the EU and its member states on border control measures. What had been a difficult passage for migrants fleeing war-torn countries in order to reach a safe country in which to apply for asylum has now become almost impossible. The often missed point is that they have arrived before with little ado and will continue to arrive in the future. This movement is not new. A return to the use of the wall, the very symbol of xenophobia, is the problem.

As an alternative to reliance on EU and member state migration policies, there has been a more recent growth of civil society initiatives. Individuals looking out for individuals. This will be the topic of my next blog.