The hidden failure of Europe’s migration policy billions

Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

It’s tempting to think that Europe’s migrant and refugee “crisis” is largely behind us, that the EU’s desperate deal with Turkey has had the desired effect – images of dozens of boats depositing refugees on Greek shores and trekking through the Balkans have largely disappeared from our TV screens. 

Sure, boats are still arriving in Italy, but overall figures for arrivals in 2016 are way down from the same period last year – nearly 300,000 sea arrivals so far compared to 1.1 million during the whole of 2015.

But sea arrivals only tell part of the story, the most visible part. A new report released today by the Overseas Development Institute shines a light on the less visible channels that asylum seekers are using to reach Europe and finds that the billions of euros governments are spending on fences and cooperation agreements with third countries are having little impact.

The report’s authors looked at registered arrivals of migrants and refugees to Italy and Greece over the last two years – what they call the ‘overt’ arrivals who are tracked and quantified by organisations like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration. They then compared those figures to the total number of asylum claims lodged throughout the EU during the same period and found a huge discrepancy, even when they accounted for backlogs of claims some countries are dealing with.

In 2015, UNHCR and IOM registered about 1.1 million new arrivals and yet 1.7 million asylum claims were lodged, suggesting that 600,000 people found their way into Europe through covert means.

In 2016, the discrepancy between registered arrivals and asylum claims is much larger. Based on current rates, the authors predict that by the end of the year 890,000 asylum claims will have been made while only about 330,000 new arrivals will be registered.

So while ‘covert’ arrivals accounted for 38 percent of new asylum seekers in Europe in 2015, they will account for an estimated 63 percent in 2016.

In fact, 2015 was the anomaly. The report shows that for at least the past seven years, the majority of asylum seekers arriving in Europe have used covert means. These typically include traveling overland concealed in vehicles, flying into the EU using false documents or arriving on a legitimate visa and then applying for asylum.

These clandestine routes don’t come cheap. They often involve paying for forged documents or bribing border officials. A breakdown of the nationalities of covert arrivals in 2015 show that they were much more likely to be from upper-middle income countries than overt arrivals and that less than a third were from the Middle East, of which only 33 percent were from Syria.

The findings should sound an alarm bell for policy makers, said one of the report’s authors: ODI’s interim executive director Marta Foresti. “The number of people we know about is going down and the ones we don’t know about are increasing,” she told IRIN.

“This crisis isn’t going away,” she added. “Even if the Syria crisis was resolved, everything we see in these numbers in terms of overall trends suggests a steady increase [in asylum applications].”

Big spending

The second part of the ODI report looks at the costs of deterrence measures both within Europe – in the form of fences, border policing and surveillance – and outside Europe, through funding for external migration controls and for programmes aimed at addressing root causes of migration such as lack of jobs and development.

Inside Europe, fences have been going up at a rapid rate over the past year. During the latter half of 2015 and early 2016, five fences were erected at a cost of €238 million. In total, Europe spent €1.7 billion on fences and other border control measures between 2014 and 2016, according to ODI’s “conservative” estimate.

“What we found particularly on border control is a very clear domino effect,” said Foresti. “If a country erects a wall, it’s only a matter of time before their neighbours do the same.”

The result, notes the report, is millions of euros “poured into shifting burdens across individual countries in Europe, with little progress made on actually reducing the numbers arriving as a whole.”

Europe’s uneven approach not only to border controls, but to receiving and processing asylum applications has led to the majority of recent asylum seekers gravitating towards a handful of member states that are now shouldering a disproportionate share of the financial burden for hosting them.

In Sweden, for example – the country that has the highest number of asylum seekers as a proportion of the local population – ODI estimates that the cost per citizen in 2016 was €245. In the UK, which has taken in a relatively small number of refugees, the cost was just €16 (see map).

Meanwhile, European governments are spending vast sums trying to deter migrants and asylum seekers from ever reaching Europe’s borders. Over the past year, the EU has committed €300 million to strengthening security and border controls in non-European countries and promised billions of euros to support economic development through bilateral agreements and trust funds aimed at discouraging would-be migrants from leaving home.

Most recently, the EU announced the Partnership Framework on Migration, which could see €9 billion in aid distributed over the next four years to countries that cooperate with the EU’s goals on reducing migration.

‘A bottomless pit’

Considering the amounts of money involved, there’s a surprising lack of evidence that this approach actually works to reduce migration flows. In fact, all the evidence suggests that, in the short term at least, migration actually increases when poor countries experience development and people have more resources and aspirations to travel.

The failures of Europe’s unilateral and short-term responses to the refugee “crisis” have highlighted the urgent need for multilateral action, argue the authors, and the timing of this report just ahead of the high-level summits in New York next week is no coincidence. One of the major goals of those summits is to achieve greater consensus and responsibility-sharing when it comes to dealing with large movements of refugees and migrants.

“Without international and regional cooperation, investing in isolated border controls and security is a bottomless pit,” notes the report.

Even more worrying are the wider, ripple effects as other countries are encouraged to emulate Europe’s approach with their own deterrence policies.

“It’s highly risky because if others join this race to the bottom, it could result in even greater flows to Europe,” said Foresti.

The forced closure of Kenya’s camps in Dadaab, hosting more than 300,000 Somali refugees, for example, could see some of those refugees making their way towards Europe.

“One key thing we’re trying to get across in the call for multilateralism is not just on grounds of solidarity and protecting the rights of refugees, but that it’s actually in the self-interest of countries themselves,” said Foresti.

ks/ag