Journal

The Influx of Illegal Immigrants is Ripping Europe Apart

Ding Yuanhong former Chinese Ambassador to Switzerland and Belgium and Head of the Chinese Mission to the European Union
As the debt crisis in Greece has eased temporarily, Europe is under the serious impact of a rare tide of illegal immigration. It has not only become a social issue that the people in Europe are most concerned about, but also been exerting serious consequences on the integration process in Europe. German Chancellor Merkel indicated that the biggest influx of refugees is ripping Europe apart.
 
The issue of immigration in Europe has a long history. Europe used to welcome immigrants, in particular those with special skills, because of shortage of labor force. However, as the times and economic situation have evolved, countries such as Germany that received the majority of immigrants have adopted more stringent policies towards immigration as they face increasingly worsened domestic job losses. Early this century, the European Union began to expand eastward and to prevent massive immigration from new members in Central and Eastern Europe to West Europe, it clearly set forth a seven-year transitional period. Even today, some old EU members such as the UK and Denmark still have many restrictions against immigrants from Central and East European countries. They refuse to accede to the Schengen Agreement for the purpose of border control and prevention of disorderly entry of immigrants into their territories.
 
The current influx of illegal immigrants has much to do with the situation in North Africa and the Middle East. It is not a new phenomenon that illegal immigrants travel from North Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean. Before the war in Libya, Kadafi’s Government and Italian government have reached an agreement on controlling the immigration from North Africa. The issue of immigration from North Africa completely span out of control after Kadafi’s government was overthrown. In the wake of the “Arab Spring”, Libya and Syria were mired in wars chaos successively and the number of people who try to flee to Europe for a better life has risen sharply. According to the statistics issued by the International Organization for Migration on 1 September, by far 351,000 illegal immigrants arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015, more than 60% larger than the figure of the whole year of 2014. Among the immigrants, 2,643 people died when traveling across the Mediterranean.
 
Since Italy and Greece in South Europe are right opposite to North Africa across the sea, they have been the top destinations for illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants are all settled temporarily on several islands in Italy and Greece. Those who have been granted the refugee status after registration and identification are then sent to other EU countries. According to statistics available, this year both Italy and Greece have received over 100,000 immigrants respectively. Recently, large groups of illegal immigrants from Syria and Turkey have entered Europe via the borders of Turkey and Greece and tried to enter Germany and Austria via the former Yugoslavian region and Hungary.
 
Both Greece and Italy are now in serious economic difficulties due to the debt crisis. The heavy influx of illegal immigrants has worsened the situation, with which neither of the two countries can cope. They have repeatedly called on the EU to lend them support, intensify patrols and interceptions and speed up the process of refugee reception by other EU members. However, owing to difference in interests, few members responded to their request. As a result, Italy and Greece even threatened to let illegal immigrants travel to other countries on their own. EU members have quarreled fiercely over the issue and some countries even closed their borders. International human rights organizations have also time and again made condemnations on deaths of illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean.
  
Under both internal and external pressures, the European Commission proposed in late May that the 40,000 refugees stranded in Italy and Greece (immigrants who illegally crossed the border and were allowed to stay after identification) be sent to the EU members on a quota basis. The size of the quota would be determined by the member states’ economic aggregates, population, unemployment rate and the number of refugees that they have already received. Under this quota-based mechanism, Germany would have to receive 18% of refugees, France 14%, Italy 12% and Spain 10%. As an incentive, the EU would offer a subsidy of 6,000 euros for each refugee that its members receive.
 
However, after the plan was proposed, it encountered strong obstacles though countries like Germany, Sweden and Austria which have received a large number of refugees indicated their agreement. Since the very beginning, the UK made it clear that it would not join the plan. Denmark also indicated that it would not be part of the plan, claiming that the plan might help those political parties that oppose immigration gain advantages in the upcoming general election. Central and East European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic emphasized that they would receive refugees on a voluntary basis and would not accept the plan of the European Commission. Even Donald Tusk, President of the European Council was against it. France also opposed the plan on the ground that France has already settled many immigrants and a more equitable way to share the burden should be adopted. At the EU Summit held in late June, leaders argued heatedly over the plan and could not reach consensus. To avoid making the difference public, the Summit did not vote on the plan. Instead, it only mentioned in the conclusion of the Summit that consent was given in principle to the resettlement of 40,000 applicants for refugee status within two years, without any mentioning of the obligation to compulsorily share the burden of refugees. In essence, the plan was stalled. 
 
With no other options, the European Commission announced on 10 August an appropriation of 2.4 billion euros (which were actually the subsidies of 6,000 euros for each of the 40,000 refugees) to deal with the refugee crisis before 2020. The fund will help Italy and Greece, countries that bear the brunt of the crisis, set up refugee centers, assist the member states to strengthen border control and security and advance relevant plans for illegal immigrants repatriation. Italy, Spain and Greece got the largest shares of the fund, valuing 1.5 billion euros in total and the rest was given to such Central and Eastern European counties as Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Estonia as well as countries like Sweden, Austria and Finland which have already received quite a number of refugees. However, drinking water far away cannot satiate the immediate thirst. This plan, which will be realized in 2020, is of little significance in changing the reality.
 
In the meantime, the issue of illegal immigration has been further aggravated. A series of incidents involving refugees have shocked Europe: several cases occurred in which illegal immigrants forcefully broke into the English Channel tunnel; a truck with dozens of bodies of refugees was found in Austria; a ship carrying illegal immigrants sank again near the coast of Italy; bloody conflicts broke out between refugees and the police in the border of Hungary; the German ultra-right forces opposed to immigrants set fire to refugee shelters. In particular, the scene of the dead body of a three-year old Syrian boy on a beach triggered indignation globally. There were incessant criticism and condemnation against Europe. At such a grave moment, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande held an emergency consultation and reached agreement on a general plan to solve the immigration issue. It was reported that the plan included the following aspects:establish shelter centers in Italy and Greece to separate those who are entitled to apply asylum from those who are not so as to legally expel the latter;fairly distribute refugees among EU members;decently treat those who enter borders illegally and protect refugees;set up unified rules and form an asylum-seeking system in Europe;formulate a list of “safe countries” whose citizens have no right to apply for asylum;fight more forcefully against human traffickers; establish an European border police force. One of the core contents of the plan was the fair distribution of refugees, which was in essence another form of the plan proposed by the EU Commission about compulsory quotas of refugees.
 
Even before the official discussion, the plan was strongly opposed by some EU members, countries in Central and Eastern Europe in particular. On 4 September, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (the Visegrad Four) held a high-profile summit to coordinate their positions and made it clear that they would not agree with the distribution of refugees, emphasizing that they were not the destinations of refugees and the crisis should be solved at its source. After the summit, refugees who were stranded in the border areas of Hungary were immediately transported to the border of Austria. British Prime Minister Cameron, in total disregard of the call by German Chancellor Merkel, only indicated that in principle the UK could accommodate more refugees and offer more funds for solving the issue. But he made it clear that the UK would not join the distribution plan. Since President of the European Council Donald Tusk, who is Polish, expressed his opposition to the distribution plan, President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who is from Luxembourg, had to propose on behalf of the rotating EU presidency (Luxembourg), that the EU Interior Ministers’ meeting on 14 September discuss the refugee issue. Such a rare move showed that it was by no means easy for the EU to reach consensus on the issue of illegal immigration.
 
On 11 September, the Visegrad Four held a meeting again to reiterate their opposition to the distribution plan. Germany, after relaxing the entry of refugees into its border, had to close it again due to unbearable pressure. Under such circumstances, the Interior Ministers’ meeting on 14 September only in principle agreed to distribute refugees that were stranded in Italy, Greece and Hungary to ease the pressure for the three countries. But discussions were yet to be held on how to distribute the refugees.
 
Three reasons contribute to the thorny issue of illegal immigration in the EU:
 
First, the issue cannot be solved at the source. As long as the turmoil in countries like Libya and Syria in North Africa and the Middle East persists, more and more people are bound to embark on the dangerous path of fleeing to Europe. Die Welt, a newspaper in Germany, claimed that this year over 700,000 refugees apply for immigration into the country and Germany can hardly bear the burden. No other country in the EU is comparable to Germany in terms of economic strengths, and for their own economic interest, they cannot shoulder the extra economic burden of refugees either. This is the underlying reason for the internal disagreement within the EU.
 
Second, free movement of refugees cannot be stopped. The Schengen Agreement has ensured free movement of people among the EU members. As long as refugees are settled in one country in the EU, there is no way to stop them from going to other member countries. As most of the immigrants are from Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East, the EU countries are quite concerned about the influx due to political and religious prejudices. Slovak Prime Minister indicated that they were firmly opposed to quotas of refugees in any form, because if they accepted the system of automatic distribution of refugees, then someday Slovak people would have to wake up together with 100,000 immigrants from the Arab world and this was not something that he wanted to see in Slovakia.
 
Third, there are no laws, regulations or mechanisms on compulsory repatriation. Some EU members call for formulating relevant regulations on repatriation. One of the purposes of the EU Commission’s appropriation of 2.4 billion euros is to advance relevant plans on repatriating illegal immigrants, and the new plan introduced by Germany and France also included the separation of refugees that have right to apply for asylum from those who have not, so as to carry out legal repatriation. However, repatriation of illegal immigrants is still quite difficult, because the immigrants are from the war-torn countries with whom it is impossible to discuss how to repatriate them. What’s more, as those immigrants risk their lives to enter Europe after being exploited by illegal intermediaries and human smugglers, how could it be possible that they will accept voluntary repatriation? And to where can they be repatriated?
 
In some sense, the EU should take the blame for the problem. The EU countries have to swallow the bitter fruits since they have been involved in creating the wars and turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. The EU, which boasts unity and consensus, has been caught in a dilemma again on the illegal immigration issue. A recent article on Die Welt claimed that the EU has become a club of egotists and the influx of refugees has smashed the EU’s legendary unity. As the problem continues to worsen, the internal division within the EU is bound to be aggravated. The combined effect of the debt crisis and the refugee crisis has been increasingly manifested. It may not be a false alarm when Chancellor Merkel said that the biggest influx of refugees in history is ripping Europe apart. 
 
 
Ding Yuanhong is former Chinese Ambassador to Switzerland and Belgium and Head of the Chinese Mission to the European Union.

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