Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Europe's Other Challenge: Immigration

| May 21, 2012

The movement of people — refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants — is one of the greatest challenges to stability in a society. What is the obligation of the receiving nation to those who want to cross into its borders? This question — a moral, political, historical, and economic one — explains the complicated, and sometimes contradictory, nature of our immigration enforcement and assimilation policies.

And it is also true in Europe.

The tumultuous events involving the future of the European Union, occurring against the backdrop of the Group of Eight summit this weekend, revolve around economics. But they are also about solidarity. That cohesion is not only being tested by the debt crisis and austerity measures, but by a much less publicized tension about the EU's borders and the movement of people across them. Europe, meet the Arab Spring.

In 2011 alone, close to 60,000 people fled the instability in North Africa to seek shelter in Europe, mostly in southern countries. Boats took them across the dangerous Mediterranean Sea, whose currents and overcrowding made it the deadliest stretch of water in 2011. Putting aside unlawful migration, the EU experienced a 59 percent increase in applications for entry from Syrians; 85 percent from Egyptians; 293 percent from Libyans; and 911 percent from Tunisians. These numbers do not include the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled Syria in 2012.

In the same way that the fiscal crisis is pitting northern and central Europe against southern Europe, the refugee challenge is making similar distinctions. Those fleeing instability are mostly heading to Europe's southern borders — Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Even such large numbers are manageable, though challenging, but the stresses that go along with such an influx have contributed to an already raw bitterness about the disparate obligations of member states.

In particular, the heavy migration is putting a particular strain on the rules regarding asylum and immigration. In order to ensure that there was consistency across so many nations, the Common European Asylum System became the foundation of EU policy. Though sometimes confusing and inconsistent, its premise rests on one simple rule: The country where the asylum seeker arrives is the country that shall process him first. For decades, and even more so now, the "state of first arrival" rule has disproportionately burdened the Arab-proximate southern countries, who believe that their northern neighbors have not carried their fair weight in absorbing these new arrivals. Distrust, again.

It was with this in mind that Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, the man in charge of Turkey's fiscal policy, told me recently when we met in Boston that any of these European countries can easily absorb the Arab migrants. Turkey, which is not in the EU, has had a similar influx of 25,000 Syrians seeking refuge. But hosting so many "visitors" isn't a serious problem, he said. The bigger concern is that, with migration as with the monetary drama, "People are inclined to put blame on externalities. And that's never good for Europe."

The same southern countries that are most responsible for the EU's fiscal woes happen to be the ones that are most unfairly burdened with handling those who seek to enter Europe. Though these tensions pale in comparison to the fiscal drama, they explain why finding a solution to the fiscal crisis is about more than about money: This is a crisis of unity as much as of currency.

These are not the worst of times, yet, but fears that an unraveling of the union will lead to a rebirth of European nativism can't be dismissed; such fears are the given right of anyone who has lived or studied the 20th century. The fiscal meltdown is of immediate concern, but there should be no delusion that many other policies across the EU will also need to be fixed. As pressing as saving the currency is, it could too easily blind us from understanding what that alliance was all about: Creating a Europe that could absorb and adapt to change without resorting to violence. That change is not only happening at the banks, but at Europe's once common border.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Europe's Other Challenge: Immigration.” The Boston Globe, May 21, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem