Migration Watch

Europe’s migration challenge in perspective

Even the loss of life does not stop migrant wave

Mass migration to Europe has become a threat to relations between the members of the European Union (EU) and might impact on the union’s political and economic stability.

In previous articles we predicted that with the mass migration of thousands of desperate people across land and sea into the EU, the region is facing one of its most serious challenges in decades.

Watching the situation unfold, it is obvious that the challenge is far more serious than previously envisioned.


Regardless of thousands who have lost their lives in the process, there is no decrease in the number of people attempting to escape to what they believe could be a better life.

Reuters reported that more than three times as many migrants than a year ago, 107 500, were tracked entering the EU by irregular means last month. Nearly 340 000 migrants arrived in the EU thus far this year, a 175% increase compared to the same period last year.

The crisis, described as “a humanitarian crisis that is unprecedented in recent history”, shows no sign of abating and European governments are battling to cope with the challenges posed by the continuous influx.

Tensions are increasing between the 28 member states as they struggle to develop a collective approach. Southern European states, particularly Greece, Italy and Spain, are bearing the full brunt of the migration and demand that the lesser affected and more affluent countries of central and northern Europe do more and help share the burden. 

Controversial internal political issue   

Migration has become a controversial internal political issue in many EU states. Political parties, particularly to the right of the political spectrum, have exploited the problems associated with the migrants to good effect.   

Under increasing right-wing pressure, some governments have responded by introducing or considering firmer control measures. The tendency seems to indicate that across the entire political spectrum anti-immigrant policies could become mainstream.

Hungary, for example, plans a fence to stem migrant influx and placed thousands of policemen on patrol at its southern border with Serbia.

Bulgaria has already started erecting a 160 km fence on the border with Turkey, raising an interesting scenario if more states should follow suit.  

It remains to be seen if the international outcry will reach the same level as when Israel erected a security fence on the West Bank.

The US has largely escaped criticism, despite the 1 000 km fence built on the border with Mexico in an attempt to stop the illegal crossings into the US.

Big debate

The current big debate, which could still determine the future treatment of the migrants, focuses on the differentiation between economic migrants and refugees.

Fleeing poverty and searching for a better future is not considered by the international community as reason enough to be granted permanent residence. Economic migrants do not fit the UN 1951 Geneva Convention’s criteria for refugee status.

The EU seems to be well disposed to grant asylum to people fleeing war and conflict, but less so to people looking for work or trying to escape perilous conditions in their home countries.

Public opinion is split

Public opinion in the EU is also split on the issue.

Across Europe, local welfare organisations, NGO’s and church groups are setting up support networks and structures to assist the foreigners.

There is, however, consensus that this accommodating attitude and compassion have their limits.

Every country in Europe seems willing to be the transit point for migrants, but none is willing to be unconditionally the point of settlement. Practically every European country is debating the pros and cons of either deporting migrants, making the asylum laws more difficult, or simply shutting their borders.

A recent opinion poll found that anti-immigration Sweden Democrats enjoyed the most support and should emerge the strongest party if an election is to be held in Sweden today.

This unexpected result reflects the growing worries over immigration and integration in Sweden, which has taken more asylum seekers in recent years than any other European country relative to the size of its population.

A similar trend is noticeable in Denmark and Finland, with anti-immigration parties showing spectacular growth.


Critics, however, claim that the concern and fear that the influx of foreigners would speed up the collapse of the European social order is untrue and baseless.  

The number of migrants, although portrayed as overwhelming in the media, is in fact minuscule when measured against Europe’s total population of 740 million. The world’s wealthiest continent can easily handle the current influx.

In 2014 Germany, the EU’s most prosperous country and the final destination of most refugees and economic migrants, recorded 203 000 asylum claims. It is expected to reach a record 800 000 this year, more than the rest of the EU combined.

To some these figures are staggering and a confirmation that the EU is under siege. Others would argue that migration is as old as the history of man and inextricably part of human nature to improve his standard of living – including migrating if need be.  


Despite the myth of an ‘asylum invasion’ in Europe, the majority of refugees are currently found in the southern hemisphere, particularly Africa and Asia. The bulk of the burden still falls upon the poorest parts of the world.

The focus, as result of the media hype, is on Europe, while in reality other countries, mostly much poorer but closer to the conflict zones, carry a considerably higher burden.

Lebanon, for example, is a hundred times smaller than the EU, but has already taken in more than fifty times as many refugees.

And, contrary to popular belief, the majority of people seeking refuge in Europe are not from Africa, but from Syria and Afghanistan.

The African exodus is led by Eritrea, followed by Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan – all countries that are experiencing conflict and human rights abuses.

Europe’s challenge

Opinions might differ, particularly in Europe, regarding the gravity of the migration dilemma. Europe is grappling with its own problems and challenges, including a faltering economy, but is nevertheless paying the price for prosperity and stability, which appeals to millions across the globe.

Several things are clear:

  • The migration wave reflects deep-seated and permanent factors, which are unlikely to abate any time soon;
  • These factors are political chaos in the Middle East and the extraordinarily huge income gaps between Europe and Africa;
  • With globalisation, the knowledge of these gaps as well as the practical means to bridge them by migrating to a rich country, is more known and affordable than ever; and
  • These trends look even more unmanageable for Europe when one is reminded that the sub-Saharan African population, which is currently only slightly greater than that of all of Europe, is expected to be almost six times greater by 2100. Thus, economic migration will, if anything, increase.

It is obviously beyond the immediate power of the EU to eradicate the root causes of all migration.

But over time, if the EU wants to reduce migratory pressure, it will have to provide more development aid, debt relief, and fair trade, and it will need to be better equipped to prevent conflict and keep the peace in trouble spots around the world – objectives that lie at the heart of the EU’s common foreign and security policy.

by Garth Cilliers

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