In May, it emerged that Greek police were using “sound cannon” to fire bursts of deafening noise at irregular migrants on the frontier with Turkey. Earlier, the British government was discovered to be contemplating the construction of “floating walls” in the English Channel to keep out unwanted arrivals. Whatever other quarrels divide the EU and UK, a determination to use any and every futuristic means to deter irregular migration is not one of them.
The latest example concerns a Danish law that envisages sending asylum-seekers to faraway reception centres, perhaps in Africa, for their claims to be assessed. This concept appeals to the British government, whose Nationality and Borders Bill floats a similar proposal. It remains a mystery why Copenhagen and London expect leaders in Africa or anywhere else to go along with such legally dubious schemes.
Measured by actual numbers, the situation on the EU and British borders is less turbulent than five or six years ago. In 2015, the EU recorded 1.8m illegal border crossings, mostly refugees from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and other migrants. Thousands drowned in the Mediterranean.
By contrast, there were fewer than 50,000 illegal border crossings in the first five months of this year, according to Frontex, the EU’s border control agency. The equivalent figure for cross Channel arrivals in the UK was fewer than 5,000. Each number is higher than in 2020, when the pandemic limited illegal crossings, but they are nowhere near the levels of 2015 and 2016.
Europe’s migrant question is less one of raw numbers than of the political struggles, social tensions and legal disputes to which the crisis of 2015-16 gave rise. Unlike Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, which are on the frontline of irregular sea crossings, and unlike Germany and Sweden, which accepted large numbers of asylum-seekers and migrants in 2015-16, the UK played a largely peripheral role in that crisis. But migration, legal and illegal, was a factor behind the vote for Brexit in 2016. The Conservative government sees political advantage in equating its hard line on migrants and refugees with its assertion of national sovereignty outside the EU.
Matters stand differently in the 27-nation bloc. Step by shameful step, the EU’s asylum and migration policies have degenerated into a ragbag of uncoordinated national efforts to keep out unwanted people. One method is “pushbacks”, a euphemism for arbitrary expulsions of individuals on their arrival without proper assessment of their asylum status. Felipe González Morales, a UN special rapporteur on migrants, said in May that they “result in human rights violations incompatible with states’ obligations under international human rights law”.
Pushbacks are becoming the norm on the EU’s southern and eastern borders. They show that EU governments are hopelessly divided on whether and how to distribute asylum-seekers. A European Commission proposal to place some people in the EU’s asylum system, put others in temporary facilities and remove the rest to their places of origin is paralysed. Burden-sharing is anathema to governments that regard control of their own borders as the top priority.
Pushbacks are also a consequence of a hasty deal that the EU struck with Turkey in 2016. In return for €6bn in financial assistance, Turkey promised to stop irregular entries into the EU and to accept the return of migrants who had crossed to Greece. In practice, a mere 2,140 returns took place between April 2016 and March 2020.
The EU and UK pride themselves on upholding human rights and the rule of law. But their harsh, haphazard treatment of refugees and migrants tells a different story. Pushbacks and sending asylum-seekers to distant lands are methods unworthy of prosperous, civilised nations.