In February 2012, Greece announced that it will build a “six-mile long fence topped with razor wire on its border with Turkey to deter illegal immigrants.” While the fence, even during its construction, cut arrivals of illegal immigrants by land down, these outdated measures of control and deterrence have simply diverted immigration flows to the sea and the Greek islands of the Aegean. Thousands of ‘boat people’, mostly from Africa, attempt each year to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded and frequently unseaworthy vessels in order to enter the southernmost EU member states. As Greece was about completing its fence, twenty Iraqis drowned when, within sight of Turkey, their small overcrowded boat sank off the Greek island of Lesbos.
Who were the people in the boat? What were their motivations and needs? What was their legal status and in whose responsibility did they fall? Migration is a multi-faceted and highly complex phenomenon. People may move for a great variety of reasons: to flee persecution, conflict or intolerable living conditions due to poverty and environmental degradation. They may seek enhanced economic opportunities or they move in order to realize other personal objectives. People increasingly do not move for one single reason but have mixed motivations and different groups of migrants move alongside each other, using the same means and routes of travel.
Some 14 years ago, at the EU Summit in Tampere, European leaders called on the European Union to develop common policies on asylum and immigration so that there is a harmonized or common way for immigrants and asylum seekers to seek and obtain entry to all EU states. As the Union expanded, however, this vision contracted. In 2008, the European Union finally decided to give a new impetus to the development of a common immigration and asylum policy. Based on a security and national sovereignty rationale, the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, however, gave priority to national competence over that of the EU in the area of immigration and asylum. So far, there is still no sign of a common asylum policy – the latest deadline, December 2012, has passed largely unnoticed – nor has a common policy on migration been realized.
According to Søren Jessen-Petersen, former Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the EU, in the absence of a common migration policy, has for years attempted to manage migration through asylum policies. Consequently, anybody trying to enter European countries without a visa could only hope to gain entry by, often with the expensive support of smugglers, convincingly presenting a story claiming persecution. In this process, the asylum institution has been discredited with asylum seekers facing suspicion and pressures to provide almost impossible burden of proof. Thus, not just the absence of a common policy but also much of existing policies is part of the problem: Many migrants are now forced to use illegal means if they want to access Europe at all. With the Dublin II Regulation in force, the initial EU country of entry is responsible for the processing of asylum applications. This also implies the relocation of unauthorized immigrants throughout Europe to those countries until their cases are adjudicated with the consequence of particularly Greece and Italy being turned into the “waiting rooms” of irregular immigrants to Europe.
Unforeseen events like the Arab Spring or the conflict in Syria can overstretch the asylum capacity of any country. Sharing of responsibility in managing migration among frontline and other EU member states thus remains a key challenge for the European Union. However, there is no doubt that most countries in northern Europe are hiding behind those with external borders. Borrowing from EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, “Europe’s commitment to solidarity was tested in 2011 [and] it is worrying that Europe collectively failed the test.” Yet, every person is entitled to the right to seek asylum. Therefore, the availability and scope of protection should not depend on where an individual is able to seek asylum or by which procedures and under which conditions his or her request is assessed. It is especially the denial or neglect of social and economic rights during the processing phase that causes suffering and deteriorates the already vulnerable position of the individual.
International legal obligations and EU member states’ proclaimed high aspirations for human rights aside, there are also good reasons to see international migration as an economically positive phenomenon. Human mobility has great potential to promote development, economic growth and reduce poverty worldwide. A future shortage of labor in Europe due to a declining and aging population means that the EU will need an influx of immigrants to keep the workforce stable as well as to finance living standards and rising costs for healthcare. Already today, Europe and the US compete for talent internationally and lobby intensively to attract high-skilled migrants. There is also substantial need for low-skilled labor as migrants frequently fill the most menial ‘3D’ – dirty, dangerous and difficult – jobs which European labor is often no longer prepared to accept.
According to forecasts, Europe would need to open its borders to more than 1.3 billion migrants to keep the dependency ratio constant between the years 2000 and 2050.
An honest discourse on asylum and migration in the EU must certainly recognize the challenges to social cohesion and legitimate concerns of the receiving societies that develop with the arrival of migrants. But it must also be informed by the political, humanitarian and economic reasons behind a constructive migration policy. Europe has to make up its mind: Managing migration through asylum policies alone ignores the mixed motives of people on the move. Outdated measures of deterrence and control fall way short of addressing the challenges faced by frontline states. Instead, solidarity and burden-sharing must not only be discussed but practiced. Above all, increasing populist politics, intolerance and xenophobia in some member states must not make the EU become indifferent or less generous towards the world’s victims of conflict and persecution. Policy makers, the media and the wider public must realize that humanitarian values are at stake in this development.
 The Associated Press, “Greece to Build Border Fence to Deter Illegal Immigrants,”New York Times, February 6, 2012, accessed March 30, 2013, at
 Cecilia Malmström, “Refugees: How Europe failed,” Times Of Malta, January 19, 2012, accessed March 30, 2013 at 2012http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120119/opinion/Refugees-How-Europe-failed.402977.
 Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan, Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 248.