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Economist– VIKTOR ORBÁN, Hungary’s prime minister, says the “overwhelming majority” of migrants in Europe are not refugees but are merely seeking a better life. Robert Fico, his Slovak counterpart, says up to 95% are economic migrants. The distinction matters, for under the 1951 Refugee Convention and a string of EU laws, European countries must offer refuge or other types of protection to asylum-seekers who can demonstrate that they are fleeing war or persecution. They are under no such obligation to those looking to improve their prospects, even if they have left behind lives of destitution. So if Messrs Orbán and Fico are right, Europe’s migration crisis amounts largely to a problem of border management and repatriation; not relocation, integration and the rest of it. Are they?
Let’s look at the numbers. According to the EU, in the first quarter of 2015, there were seven countries whose nationals obtained a “rate of recognition”—some form of protection in an EU country—over 50% (see chart). Put crudely, citizens of these seven countries obtained protection in the EU over half the time they applied. How many of these people are reaching Europe? The UNHCR says that Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq account for nine in ten of the quarter-million-odd migrants detected arriving in Greece this year. Citizens of Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan comprise 41% of the 119,500 arrivals in Italy, and another 6% come from Syria. In other words, citizens from countries that usually obtain protection in the EU account for fully 75% of illicit arrivals by sea this year. Crunch the numbers further and we find that at least 81% of those migrants entering Greece can expect to receive refugee status or some other form of protection in the EU. The figure for those entering Italy, who are a far more diverse bunch, is 46%. Many Nigerians, Bangladeshis and Gambians, among others, fail to obtain protection after crossing the Mediterranean (see chart 2).
Another way to look at the data is as follows: under the European Commission’s new proposal to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from Italy, Greece and Hungary to most other EU countries, only nationals from countries with acceptance rates over 75% will be eligible. For now that means Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis. This matters because it is only these people, once they are relocated, that will trouble the likes of Mr Fico. Mr Orbán has the misfortune to govern a country that many migrants traverse en route from Greece to Germany. According to the UNHCR’s figures, these three groups account for 62% of total arrivals by sea this year. We might also note that 227,169 Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis have already been detected at the EU’s borders so far this year. The commission’s proposal aims to cover the next two years. Even if it is enacted, the plan will cover well under half of the total number of eligible nationals who reach Europe in that period.
These numbers capture only those entering (and detected) by sea—some European countries, Germany in particular, have a separate problem of asylum-seekers travelling overland from Balkan countries like Kosovo, Serbia and Albania, the vast majority of whom are denied protection—and cover only “first-instance” decisions. Still, the headline numbers suggest that the vast majority of illegal migrants reaching Europe will be eligible for protection once they arrive. In Mr Orban’s defence, it is true that the legal distinction between refugees and economic migrants often fails to capture the complex mixture of motives that drive migrants to make their epic journeys. War may be the catalyst for a journey that refugees will then seek to make as economically beneficial as possible. But in dealing with large numbers of migrants who, the data show, have fled countries stricken by war or the caprice of dictatorship, European politicians should strive for a more generous approach.
Hungary’s outspoken prime minister has spurred Europe into action (September 2015)
Angela Merkel is showing admirable leadership in addressing migration (September 2015)