Migration Watch

EU progress only tackles tip of migration iceberg

Migration wave to Europe

The European Union (EU) finally has a plan to alleviate its migration problem, but it tackles only the tip of a global iceberg.

The plan and the wider international response still fail to accept migration as inevitable, and an irreversible historical fact that also affects South Africa.

Although not always a shining example of logic and insight, South Africa’s minister of home affairs, Malusi Gigaba, had it right this time when he observed that the people flooding into Europe constitute no migration crisis.

For now Europe dominates the news scene, after a vivid image was captured of a three-year-old dead toddler’s body, face-down in the water on a beach. The year 2015 has been marked as the year of the immigrant – a year during which hundreds of thousands of desperate, men, women, children, old and young, are trying to reach Europe against all odds.

Scope of European crisis

Germany, the economic powerhouse in Europe and the final destination of most of the refugees, will – under the new EU plan – accommodate 800 000 refugees this year and 500 000 per year for the next couple of years.

It is, however, a myth that Europe stands to be overwhelmed by foreigners. Compared to the EU’s 500 million population, the number of foreigners trying to enter Europe are miniscule and constitute less than one per cent of the EU’s total population.

It is the response of European countries to the movement of people, more than anything else, that has created the present crisis and it is not only Europe that presently has do deal with the increased momentum in migration.

South Africa, for example, receives two-thirds of the number of migrants the EU receives per year and Gigaba rightfully suggests that “a constructive dialogue with Africa and the Middle East in order to deal with the source of the recent spate of movements of people” is needed.

Historical perspective

The phenomenon of migration is as old as humankind itself. In modern times there has been a steady flow of migration to North America, Western Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and wealthier parts of the Asia-Pacific region.

What Europe is experiencing is “the globalisation of borders, where people view the entire world as a place to choose where to pursue a better life”.

The present wave of migration is the biggest migratory event in Europe since World War II, and is also proving that governments are, like in the past, powerless to stop it. Europe has not, will not, and cannot stop the flow of people seeking a better life and has to deal with it humanely, legally, and quickly.

Nearly half a million migrants have reached Europe thus far this year, and it seems to buckling under the pressure.

But it is only the tip of the iceberg, with more than 59 million displaced people around the world, all potential migrants yearning for a better life somewhere else.

The present wave started with what became known as the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 – popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East (Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon). Protesters were calling for authoritarian rule to be replaced with popular democratic rule, for the end of police abuse, impunity and corruption. 

Strikingly, 51% of those heading for Europe are from Syria. Afghans are a distant second on 12% and Eritreans third on 8%. The remaining 29% mainly come from Nigeria, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. In truth, the Arab Spring largely failed to deliver in Libya, Egypt and especially Syria.

Syrian president Assad responded to public demands for greater freedom with massive firepower. Trying to hang on to power at all costs, he decimated his own people over the last four years in attempts to destroy opposition forces.

Syria fragmented into different conflict zones of clashing interests, fuelled by external fundamentalist intervention.

Militants within ISIS have taken control over most of Syria, leaving Assad in control of only a quarter of the country.

Yacoub El Hillo, the top United Nations humanitarian official in Syria, describes the crisis as the “worst of our time”. It is a country that will be in disarray for years to come.

Tension is on the increase as Russia appears to be stepping up its military assistance to Assad. The West, with the US, Britain, France and Australia in the forefront, is responding with threats of increased aerial bombardments of selected targets that include both Assad’s forces and ISIS.  

Prospects for a political solution remain remote and Syria looks set for further fragmentation into a patchwork of territories.

Role of the West

The West, and the US and the EU in particular, is also partly to blame for the human tragedy that is unfolding in the Middle East and Syria. It has little moral grounds to claim victimhood as hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees descend on them.

Military assistance to authoritarian regimes and intervention by the US and its European allies in the region have had devastating consequences in countries like Iraq. The results must have been foreseen and they were warned – warnings rejected or ignored by self-serving political leaders such as George W Bush and Tony Blair.

Business Day rightly wrote in an editorial: “Iraq has been a mess for more than a decade thanks to a war widely accepted as illegal, expensive and the catalyst for sectarian fissures that have exacerbated wanton violence. The entire region is so unstable that it simply does not have the social and political infrastructure needed to help deal with the humanitarian crisis in Syria” and “... the major western powers must shoulder the responsibility for the tragedy.”

It was never any secret that a rising tide of Syrian refugees would sooner or later burst the borders of the Middle East and head for Europe.

In another irony of history, the very same European powers, now inundated by hundreds of thousands of refugees, are the ones that as colonial powers created the artificial divisions and borders of the current Middle East. And the US certainly played a contributory role through its own interventions, particularly during the Cold War and afterwards. 


Syria is a country in flight, with more than half of its population of 23 million having been uprooted and seeking safety and security elsewhere.

Since 2011 some 4.1 million people have fled their country. In addition, an estimated 7.6 million have been displaced inside their homeland.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Syrians now officially comprise the largest refugee population under its mandate, overtaking Afghans that held that position for more than three decades.

First it was Lebanon and Jordan that were overrun by refugees, but conditions in these countries are not good either, so Europe is their final destination.

Angelina Jolie, actress and a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, is correct in her assessment that, “The current calamity is not Syria’s problem any longer; it has become a global problem.”

EU plan

As recently reported, the debate between EU member states is intense and has at times led to tension in the union, exposing sometimes irreconcilable views.  At one point it even placed the Schengen agreement, the EU’s open-border regime, in jeopardy.

Last week the EU finally unveiled a plan to share 160 000 migrants/refugees among member states, according to a quota based on a formula linked to each country’s GDP, population size, unemployment rate and asylum applications already processed.

Australia will take an additional 12 000 refugees and several South American countries also agreed to help, as did the US and New Zealand.

The EU also announced plans to set up a €1.8 billion (about R27.5 billion) aid fund for poor sub-Saharan countries, the source of many migrants “to address the crises in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, the Horn of Africa and the North of Africa” by November, this “… to help create lasting stability, for instance by creating employment opportunities in local communities, and thereby address the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and illegal migration.”

Demographic challenges

The crisis, however, also presents Europe with opportunities.

With many of the refugees well-educated and trained, there is now a view, promoted by Germany, that they could offer a solution to the growing demographic challenges due to an aging population.

More European countries share this problem and could benefit from the influx of migrants.

Estimates are that by 2060 28% of the EU’s population will be 65 years old or older, compared with 18% in 2013. Those aged 80 plus will be almost equal to those aged 14 or less.


Looking ahead, there is a very strong possibility that the world is in the midst of an extended wave of migration. Europe will face the brunt thereof, given its position nearest to the world's most volatile hotspots in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

Europe has to choose between enabling the process that will dramatically change the face of Europe or building ‘walls’ to try and keep it at bay.

But the international community also needs to do more to contain the causes of migration at sources. To date it has proven to be largely incapable of ending the wars and conflict, resource depletion and unsustainable population growth driving the migration wave. As a result, the recent surge in migration may prove to be just the tip of the iceberg, posing a massive challenge to Europe and other areas of the world under similar strain.

The people of Europe could and should not be condemned for voicing their legitimate apprehension. But there is some solace in the words of a commentator who wrote: “Today’s migrant situation is reminiscent of 70 years ago, when millions of Europeans sailed on boats to America, Australia, and Canada. Every wave of immigration creates fear and resentment, but ultimately the migrants form a new version of the country they came to.”

by Garth Cilliers

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