Is the European Union doomed to repeat its past humanitarian mistakes when dealing with migration?

By László Molnárfi (Adapted from an essay for Geography), EEB1, S7HUA.

In November 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatened to “open the gates” of the shared border between Greece, igniting the flames of the long-standing conflict between Turkey and Europe once again. Soon, amidst the panic of member states like Austria who have threatened to close their border and the worried voices of European leaders, violence erupted. After a decision on the 1st of March 2020 automatically denying migrant entry to Greece, when migrants who took to heart international obligations and human rights common to all attempted to cross the border after encouragement by Turkish authorities, they were assaulted, sexually abused and robbed by Greek border patrol, according to Human Rights Watch[1]. The European Union seems only to abet this abuse with their silence and thus covert support.

With careless ease, the Greek and Turkish authorities have treated stranded migrants as pawns of a chessboard on the stage of international world politics, resulting in atrocities along the border. On the verge of this new crisis, it is up to those in charge, such as leaders of the European Union, to act humanely. In the past, this has not always happened to the fullest possible extent. By studying past mistakes, such as the 2015 European migrant crisis, perhaps humanity can do better in the future. So, what is the way forward for European leaders on dealing with this crisis, and what were these past mistakes?

Past mistakes

The year of 2015 was the beginning of a fateful period for the European Union (EU). It had come to mark the beginning of a time in European history lasting from 2015 until 2016 known as the European migrant crisis, which can be aptly described as a sharp rise in the number of people arriving to the EU to claim asylum either through the Central Mediterranean route (through Niger and Libya into Italy by sea) or through the Eastern Mediterranean route (through Turkey into Greece). This is to be understood as mixed migration, consisting of refugees and economic migrants as well, with no clear way to distinguish who is who[2].

As a result, Europe had been pushed to its breaking point, not only through the forceful testing of European institutions to manage the mass of migrants arriving on the EU’s shores and the pressure effected upon member states to deal with the movement of undocumented migrants within the EU, but the whole ideology of Europe lay shaken under the weight of 2.3 million irregular crossings in 2015 and 2016[3]. The European Union, despite the unwillingness of some member states to cooperate on solutions was effective in dealing with migration, but in its strive for reducing the influx of migrants failed to take into account the human aspects thereof. In other words, the EU in its sudden panic focused overbearingly on pushing away migrants and on domestic affairs, by developing partly-military and security-driven strategies, such as strengthening the EU’s external borders (e.g. Frontex operations such as Poseidon and Triton), making deals with foreign countries to suppress migration (e.g. readmission policies into Turkey and suppressing migration in transit countries such as the cash injection of 1 billion euros to Niger), creating the “hotspots” system in Italy and Greece whereby resources were intensely focused to deal with the sudden influx of arrivals and stopping human smuggling through initiatives such as Operation Sophia of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This, while helping alleviate the pressure on the EU and its member states, had the side effect of ignoring the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. What was once planned to be “dealing with migration” became “curbing migration”. As result of this, the humane such as looking out for the needs of migrants, ensuring adequate conditions for migrants, preventing the death of migrants, and upholding human rights under international law and European founding principles became only secondary objectives. In addition, the failures of the EU in certain cases to come up with overarching solutions to the crisis, such as the inability to instigate a working Europe-wide migrant relocation scheme and the reluctance to make deeper changes in the system such as amending the Dublin regulation point out the Achilles heel of the EU, that which federalists lament; the lack of enforcement mechanisms, fragmentation of policies, and the power of nation-states such as the Visegrad Four to easily override EU-mandated solutions. In other words, the EU’s policies were effective, but they could have been much better in relation to humanitarian aspects and could have been much more effective had there been more solidarity across member states.

A hopeful plan

On the 20th April of 2015, near the onset of the crisis, a vessel carrying over 800 migrants sank off the coast of Italy and took almost all lives on board[4] – the public outcry was huge. Three days later on the 23nd of April, a special meeting of the European Council was called to discuss the situation[5]. There, proposals that would form the backbone of the EU’s migration policy were forged, and on May 13th of 2015 the European Commission adopted the European Migration Agenda[6] with the systematic goal of effectively and humanely dealing with the sudden and complex crisis, embedded with a structural solution for frontline member states to maximally use the resources and support that the European Union can provide. For example, plans to create a temporary migrant relocation scheme, to triple the budget of Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) operations Poseidon (monitoring the Eastern Mediterranean) and Triton (today known as Themis, monitoring the Central Mediterranean), to set up a so-called “hotspot system” that would enable more cooperation between Frontex, Europol, Eurojust and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) on the frontline countries of Greece and Italy to process arrivals (e.g. readmitting irregulars, revocation or granting asylum) and to engage the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU in order to combat human smuggling were discussed[7]. In general, as can be seen, the EU was focused on reducing migration by strengthening border defences and dealing with the difficulty of frontline states to handle migrants – such as curbing human smugglers, setting up hotspots, patrolling the coastlines (this would also mean saving lives), readmitting migrants – but also on helping member states cope with the increased economic and social pressure caused by the crisis. In addition, another goal was to protect the recipient country, e.g. through filtering out dangerous individuals and to prevent migrants from moving across the EU uninhibited as they wish as per EU law, since anti-migrant sentiment caused by such individuals hurts legitimate asylum seekers the most. Perhaps the noteworthiest of these projects was the relocation scheme, which had the goal of redistributing migrants across EU countries to alleviate the economic and social stress on the frontline member states of Greece and Italy. The number of migrants was based on the receiving countries’ GDP, population, unemployment and other factors.

Adoption of the plan hailed a success

On the 14th of September 2015, the Home Affairs Council adopted decision 2015/1523 that would transfer 40000 persons away from the aforementioned two frontline states[8], and on the 17th of September 2015 the European Parliament voted in favour of relocating a further 120000 persons from the frontline states of Italy, Greece and Hungary[9]. According to an official document published by the European Parliament on the 5th of February 2018, a total of 33 582 asylum seekers (11 853 from Italy and 21 729 from Greece) had been relocated[10], which had undoubtedly helped Greece and Italy. In September of 2017, this mandatory relocation scheme ended with the aforementioned number of relocated migrants, unfortunately falling considerably short of its original quota. In addition, despite calls to widen the range, only migrants with a 75% recognition rate of needing international protects could take part[11], such as those from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq, and thus the scheme was not as effective as it could have been. This was from one side a political compromise, but on the other a message to show that the EU’s solidarity stands only with those migrants who are in dire need of it, and not economic migrants, which is alas not an “open borders“ solution that leftist think-tanks praise as a panacea for migration, but an understandable decision.

On the flip side, the scheme still worked to a certain extent and provided emergency relief to the frontline states of Italy and Greece. Another policy with the same goal in mind was the so-called hotspot approach, which involved strengthening and uniting European agencies (Frontex, EASO, Europol and Eurojust) in problematic places such as Italy and Greece[12]. In 2015, Frontex had two operations – Poseidon and Triton – which had seen its funding increase by 17 million euros[13], and more resources allocated to it, for example 291 border guards by member states[14]. The European Union Regional Taskforce (EU RTF) – a cooperation platform for EU bodies and the local authorities – was also set up, comprised of Europol, Frontex and the EASO, with the goal in mind to cooperate in protecting the EU’s borders and in processing third country nationals, specifically in identification, fingerprinting, referral to asylum processing through the correct and quickest channels, registration and possible removal of irregular migrants. EUROPOL together with local cultural authorities (e.g. for translation/interpretation) handled the detection of possibly dangerous individuals (after all, the 2015 Paris Attack perpetrators arrived through migratory routes), FRONTEX helped member states prepare for protecting land- and sea-borders in face of mass migration and EASO aided in preparing the necessary documents for the asylum process. This agency operated in affected places in Italy, such as in Lampedusa and in Greece, such as in Lesbos. For the removal of irregular migrants by the EU RTF, a list of safe countries and safe third countries were drawn up[15] on default presumption, which essentially meant that member states could apply an expedited expulsion process on migrants from those countries on the list, but all were given the chance to explain otherwise as pre-empted by the default presumption clause (e.g. a Syrian in Turkey who is an opponent of Erdogan‘s regime would not be sent back outright, even though Turkey is considered a safe country for Syrians). The list included Turkey for Syrians only, Kosovo and Serbia.

It takes two to tango

Naturally, for the dance to be successful, the EU had to broker a deal with Turkey to deal with the (mostly Syrian) 3 million migrants already in the country (who had hoped to travel through Turkey into the EU) and the migrants readmitted from Greece to Turkey for a sum of 3 billion euros, the promise of “re-energizing” Turkey’s EU ascension project and the “one-to-one” scheme which would involve the EU accepting one Syrian national from Turkey per Syrian national returned from Greece to Turkey, and would see 20000[16] or so transferred in this way[17]. The EU-Turkey deal and the list of safe countries initiative has been hailed as a success as the numbers of asylum applications dropped by half within three years from 1.2 million in 2015 to around 580 000 in 2018[18]. Fighting human smuggling was also a priority of the EU and so was “saving lives at sea” according to the European Agenda on Migration[19]. In addition to tripling the funds of the Frontex Triton and Poseidon project in 2015[20], the European Council had also set out to create CSDP’s Operation Sophia[21] on the 22nd of June 2015[22], with the goal of rescuing migrants at sea identifying and destroying vessels used by human smugglers (through cooperation with Europol). An article from October 2016 says that as a result of this, 13000 migrants were saved on the sea, and 68 smugglers were captured[23], and the triple frontier of Operation Sophia, Poseidon and Triton pride themselves on reducing the total number of deaths caused by sea crossings (and sea crossings themselves) from 3771 in 2015 to 2277 in 2018[24]. Finally, the EU had also brokered deals with transit countries, such as Niger for 1 billion euros to better control migration on behalf of the EU – Niger proceeded to step up prosecution of migrant smugglers and started criminalizing migration[25]. During the first half of 2017, 10000 migrants were expelled from Niger[26] and according to an EU report from December 2016 the number of crossings using Niger had decreased from 70000 in May 2016 to 1500 in November 2016[27]. All this shows that if counted by numbers only, the European Union’s policies were very effective in curbing migration in the 2015 European migrant crisis.

The cost of success paid in backroom deals

Yet, numbers never tell the whole story. In a sense, these policies were very utilitarian – earning the name “Fortress Europe”. They worked, but at what human cost? While the European Union did act in compliance with international law like the Geneva Convention (1951[28]) and EU law, like the Schengen Border Code[29], there are additional aspects to consider – one of them is considering fundamental human rights relating to freedom of movement that is by some think-tanks interpreted as a basis for an open-borders society[30], and related with this is perhaps the most poignant example: externalisation of borders, which means that the EU distances itself politically and legally from migrants, where it is easier to diffuse responsibility due to the unclear geopolitical jurisdictions. This can also be demonstrated by earlier events, such as the time around the Arab Spring in 2011. Amnesty International estimates that the EU spent 2 billion euros protecting its external borders between 2007 and 2013, and also cites for that time period the EU’s member states attempting to create a “buffer zone” by funding tougher border control in countries such as Turkey, Morocco and Libya to prevent migrants from ever reaching the EU’s borders[31]. For example, Italy had struck a backroom deal with Libya for 50 million euros in 2009[32]. The conditions were that Libya had to increase its maritime border patrolling and had to take back migrants that were captured by the Italian coastguards[33].

One can see similar patterns in the handling of the 2015 crisis. Most of the above-mentioned policies which focused on security and the interests of member states had side-effects which raised humanitarian questions. For example, about the cessation of the first relocation scheme in 2017 due to the unwillingness of member states to continue taking in migrants Amnesty International director Iverna McGowan said the following: “Two years after this scheme was agreed, most EU member states have fundamentally failed refugees and asylum-seekers, shirking their responsibilities and leaving thousands abandoned in Italy and Greece” – indeed, many migrants in Greece and Italy have been left in a legal limbo and with long waiting times due to the failure of the scheme to take stress off the Greek and Italian asylum system, but also due to an ineffective legal system that underperforms in enforcing deportations – despite the EU Migration Agenda agitating for a proper system, highlighting the lack of political cohesion across the EU. Today, the Greek islands, such as the Aegean Islands are overburdened with stranded migrants, hosting 40000 migrants[34] (when only being designed for a fraction of this number) in terrible sanitary, nutritional and security conditions[35].

Illustrated with another example, increased border defences and patrols may result in a humanitarian crisis for Europe due to causing the deaths of economic migrants and refugees alike – since traditional routes are closed, migrants are forced to take more dangerous paths, even sometimes being forced to pay human smugglers (who are also compelled to smuggle using the more dangerous routes to avoid getting caught) to get to Europe as they flee war and persecution, or as they simply seek a life free from poverty. Since, as was discussed before, the EU has struck deals with Turkey and Niger to close traditional routes, the EU may be indirectly guilty of not saving thousands of migrants where they could have. Additionally, while Operation Sophia, Poseidon and Triton do take part in sea rescue operations, enforcing border security is their primary objective, and this shows in the fact that while absolute numbers of sea deaths (and crossings) have decreased, the death rate per 1000 sea crossings have actually increased from 4 in 2015 to 37 in 2018[36]. This could be for example due to the fact that vessels used by human smugglers are being destroyed, and thus human smugglers have to use and buy other vessels, maybe those of lower quality and of course as aforementioned the fact that more dangerous paths are taken to avoid these border security patrols. Naturally, human smugglers operate an economic business model, so the fact that they often buy cheap boats can also be attributed to a drive for profit, in which case routes should be made more accessible and less dangerous so that those seeking better lives do not have to resort to human smugglers and human smugglers can take more peaceful routes.

Since the EU – or rather, the frontline states – do not have an actual search and rescue organization since the cessation of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum in October 2014 (Amnesty International strongly disagreed with this and predicted it could put lives at risk)[37], it can be said that the EU was not doing enough to look out for the lives of migrants in a humanitarian way. However, while FRONTEX operations are more security-driven[38], they did engage in search and rescue missions in addition to patrolling the sea. Treaties signed by individual member states such as Italy with Libya in February 2017 (again) also needs to be considered – the treatment of migrants in places such as Libya is a cause for concern as there exists evidence of sexual and physical abuse in migrant detention centres in Libya[39][40]. While 20000 would-be migrants were detained by Libya by November 2017 reduces the pressure on the Italian government[41], there is always a humanitarian aspect to consider. It must be interjected here that the European Union did fund the UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Mechanism program for 10.3 million euros, aimed at resettling those stuck in Libya to Rwanda, but it would have been much more efficient had externalisation not been pursued in the first place[42]. Frontex themselves admit to making safe passage impossible: “[..] as migrants can no longer rely on the transportation services provided by the authorities and need to bypass additional prevention measures [..]”[43] – this is why the externalisation of border controls and the toughening of the EU’s external borders have drawn such fierce criticism from humanitarian agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The so-called hotspot approach has also been criticised by Amnesty International, stating that the pressure to swiftly get a “100% identification rate” has pushed Italian authorities to go to the limit of the law. They identified three points of interest: one, that uncooperative migrants are sometimes subject to prolonged detention and ill-treatment, two, that the early screening and interview process takes place right after migrants have disembarked their vessels (when they are still in a state of shock), and three, that the decision to repatriate is based on the former interview, and as such it is unfair[44]. As far as the early screening and interview process takes place, this is not to be understood as the asylum procedure, but the provisional identification, on which frontline states’ local authorities insisted. The former combined with a fear of not being reunited with their families or friends (some EU member states have adopted sovereign policies that hampers the EU’s family reunification scheme[45]) also contributes to the fact that many migrants are reluctant to show up to asylum proceedings and do not register in the first safe country they arrive in as would be required by the Geneva Convention (1951), a fact which – as opposed to what some may say – is not to be oversimplified as migrants wanting to go for the highest per-capita country or country with widest own cultural diaspora in Europe (even though asylum procedures are supposed to take personal motivations into account, and migrants have both rights and obligations, it is a more complex issue than blaming one side or the other) – it can be perhaps best described as a lack of social cohesion between migrants and the recipient countries (where they often face bad living conditions, crime and xenophobia). All this can be summed up by a single statistic. In the same time period where the EU spent 2 billion euros on border security in 2007 to 2013, it had spent only 700 million euros on reception conditions for migrants. Perhaps this proves the inherent wrong of borders and serves as a wake-up call to the EU which points out that migrants are not just numbers, but living, breathing individuals, ones who deserve an open, accepting Europe, not just in promises, but in direct monetary support and on-the-ground resources.

One-off oversight or structural issue?

Clearly, the European migrant crisis in 2015 aptly demonstrated that Europe has a problem with solidarity, unity and the enforcement mechanism for solutions. Until this is corrected, one can only dream of a borderless, open and accepting Europe. Some of the solutions invented by the EU could never reach their full potential, as certain member states failed to cooperate – an issue dubbed “Europe á la carte” in official terminology. This was the case of the mandatory relocation scheme, which was declared dead on September 27th of 2017[46]. The Visegrad Group comprising of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic had flat out refused to take in any migrants, and even after the European Court of Justice had ruled against them[47] did not budge. Others, such as Spain, had fulfilled only a small percentage of their quota[48]: Spain had met “13.7% of its quota, taking in just 1,279 out of a total 9,923 refugees.” Some member states took it upon themselves – despite the protests of the EU – to build fences, keep migrants in horrible conditions, and deny them basic rights such as applying for asylum, like in Hungary[49]. Some solutions, such as amending the Dublin agreements (e.g. either a permanent relocation scheme, or for example a proposal in November 2017 by the European Parliament[50] stated that migrants should be able to choose “between the four-member states which have received the lowest amount of applicants” and that “larger and wealthier countries will have a larger share than smaller and less wealthy countries.”) never even made it to the discussion table[51], as member states are simply unwilling to agree on a harmonized political policy. This has the knock-on effect for the EU’s member states, such as Italy attempting to dismantle NGO’s (e.g. Open Arms) that would otherwise rescue migrants, due to knowing that their government will receive no support from other European countries[52].

There are certain arguments against NGOs and there certainly has been tension between FRONTEX and different non-governmental organizations over their role in encouraging migration through sea, thus resulting in more deaths and serving as a viable support for the business model of human smugglers. It cannot be flat-out denied that NGOs have had a role in encouraging migration in some cases[53], but like many other topics, it is more complex than a black-and-white issue. A Human Rights Watch report from June 2018 based on statistical analysis from the Italian political think-tank ISPI[54] has found no definitive correlation between NGOs and increased ratio/rate of deaths, instead arguing that the flow of migration is more unpredictable and composes itself of substantially more factors than the often non-existent information received by migrants or human smugglers on the other side about NGO activity – in other words, push factors of war, poverty and misery are stronger than the pull factor of being rescued at sea – and finally concludes that NGOs are justified in engaging as they have a civil right and duty to intervene if they feel the national government is not doing enough[55]. Thus, this chicken-and-egg problem definitely is a double-edged sword[56], but it remains in the end up to the strong political cohesion of the European Union to address migration in a humane way, and to cooperate with NGOs rather than applying smear campaign tactics as beseeched by the United Nations and a study by Oxford (that correlated the period of time between the cessation of Mare Nostrum and before substantial NGO activity in the Central Mediterranean to hold both the highest number and ratio of deaths)[57] in a bid to prevent deaths[58]. Currently, much like how Poland’s coal industry is hampering the EU’s ability to progress towards an emission-free future[59], the lack of common political action prevents the EU from dealing with the issue of migration in an effective and humane way. One begins to understand the European federalists in light of these seemingly inherent inhibitions.

The way forward?

In short, the European Union was effective – in a utilitarian sense – at dealing with the migrant crisis in 2015, despite the unwillingness of certain member states to take part in the proposed solutions. However, in certain cases the EU had lacked the commitment to upholding human rights and to upholding its founding principles. To deal with migration slowly became to reduce migration and above all lacked a vision for an open-borders Europe, even earning the nickname “Fortress Europe”. The launch of initiatives such as an increase in the funding of Frontex’s operations Poseidon and Triton, and Operation Sophia, surely helped reduce the number of migrants arriving to the shores of Europe, and it has even saved lives. The hotspot system has helped frontline states such as Italy and Greece survive the crisis, and the short-lived relocation scheme in 2015 manged to relocate more than 30000 migrants. The CSPD’s Operation Sophia helped reduce human smuggling and helped rescue shipwrecked migrants to a certain extent. Deals that the EU brokered, such as that with Niger in 2016 and Turkey in March 2016, or that Italy brokered with Libya in February 2017 did undoubtedly reduce the influx of migrants, and aid to projects like the Emergency Transit Mechanism serve testament to the fact that the EU still focused on the humane in the crisis. However, some actions had overlooked consequences. The externalisation of borders and the toughening of the EU’s external borders have led to the needless death of persons fleeing war, persecution and those wanting a better life but not seeing any other way of reaching it than through dangerous routes. A lack of mutual cooperation between NGOs and EU organs and policies meant that loggerheaded political rivalry took the stage instead of a focused effort on saving lives. These aforementioned deals have led to these persons suffering abuses in foreign countries, and ultimately, the failure of the relocation scheme and an ineffective legal system coupled with a lack of social cohesion between migrants and their recipient countries has left thousands of migrants abandoned in camps such as on the survival-of-the-fittest Greek Aegean Islands where they have to fight for their survival. Some countries had completely ignored the EU’s founding principles and took it upon themselves to build fences, mistreat migrants and refuse to cooperate to help, such as Hungary, all while the EU was powerless to act.

In this respect, the European Union could have done much better and much more lives could have been saved, had there been more solidarity with one another, had there been proper enforcement mechanisms for policies, and had an effective and humane system been developed by all member states, but not only member states – investments in source countries to reduce poverty, war and misery – to deal with migration, to the tune of an open, borderless, and accepting Europe. With the Turkey-Greece-EU crisis once again reaching a boiling point, rather than looking at numbers and statistics in times of crisis, maybe it is time the world started looking at people and humanity, lest history repeat itself again.

What can you do?

It is a myth that the individual cannot influence global events. A small step by you can lead to drastic changes when combined with thousand other actions collectively. We stare in awe at the Mona Lisa not because Da Vinci lunged at the canvas with a single mad stroke of the paintbrush but because of a thousand perfectly, beautifully executed small brushes. So can we, with a thousand revolutionary steps, no matter how small, collectively act to prevent want and misery around the globe.

Here are some tips on what you can do. Firstly, you can spread awareness by sharing this article on social media or talking to friends. Then, you can always join local organizations like Amnesty International or donate to charities such as Help Refugees. Finally, to combat misinformation, you need to be armed with knowledge about the issue, which you can acquire by reading books, such as the one a student from Varese has recently written about on 13 Stars Newspaper called “Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian”, or further researching on the Internet.










































  42. page 4

  43. page 6.









  52. (FRONTEX report)







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