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Sep 15, 2015 | 16:00 GMT

The Uneven Effects of Europe's Migrant Crisis

(AFP PHOTO/PETER KOHALMI)

Editor's Note: This article was updated at 1600 GMT to reflect developments on the ground.

The rise in asylum seekers continues to generate disagreement among EU members as the Continental bloc struggles to come up with a comprehensive solution to the problem. Some countries, including Germany and France, have announced that they will accept a larger number of asylum seekers, while also pushing the rest of the European Union to accept mandatory refugee quotas. However, other member states believe these measures will lead to heavier migrant flows and put additional pressure on the bloc's external borders, causing entry point countries such as Greece and Hungary to become overwhelmed by the number of migrants seeking to apply for asylum in Europe.

Sources of Asylum-Seekers in Europe

As the above map shows, the effects of the migration are spread unevenly across Europe. Countries such as Germany are receiving a large number of asylum applications in absolute terms, while others such as Hungary are dealing with high rates of immigration compared with their population. Though many of the asylum seekers are fleeing war, which explains the large number of applicants from countries like Syria and Iraq, there are also many applicants from Western Balkans states, including Kosovo and Albania. In the coming weeks, EU officials will try to make it harder for the latter group to receive refugee status.

Increased migration is also calling into question the sustainability of the Schengen Agreement, which eliminated border controls among member states. In recent weeks, several EU members temporarily re-established border checks in an effort to contain the influx of asylum seekers. Most of the countries that did so are located astride the so-called Balkan route, which takes immigrants entering the European Union in Greece through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary and onward to Austria and Germany. Hungary's Sept. 15 decision to enhance controls on its border with Serbia will probably trigger changes in the Balkan route. With Hungary becoming increasingly difficult to enter, migrants may try to enter the EU via Romania and Croatia, which would add pressure on two countries that so far have only faced modest repercussions of the crisis. Serbia, Macedonia and other countries on the route are also likely to increase their own border controls. If they do so, Greece will feel the impact  because immigrants arriving in Europe through Greece will have a harder time leaving the country. This could, in turn, shift migration routes to Italy.

Meanwhile, the rise in immigration has also triggered tension between Italy and France, as well as between France and the United Kingdom. In June, for example, French police temporarily closed the border near the Italian town of Ventimiglia to prevent crossings by asylum seekers. Paris and London have also struggled to come up with a joint response to the rising number of migrants trying to reach Britain through the French port of Calais.

Though rising immigration may somewhat mitigate the effects of Europe's aging and shrinking population, it also generates conflict in the receiving countries. In Germany, for example, the influx of asylum seekers has led to a rise in attacks on refugee shelters. Meanwhile, in Sweden — a favored destination for asylum seekers — the popularity of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party has been rising in opinion polls. While most nationalist parties in Europe have remained somewhat silent in recent weeks, the combination of an increase in the arrival of foreigners and a fragile economic recovery in many EU member states has created a fertile environment for the growth of anti-immigration groups.

Last week, the European Commission presented a list of proposals to address the issue, including the introduction of an automatic system to distribute migrants during times of crisis, the establishment of a list of safe countries — from which nationals would not qualify, generally, for asylum — and the creation of new asylum centers in gateway states such as Greece and Italy. However, Brussels will struggle to implement broad reforms to its asylum policies, since member states still have very different regulations when it comes to asylum.

On Sept. 15 the German government threatened to cut EU funds for countries refusing to participate in the relocation of immigrants. This threat will probably not materialize because Germany does not control the allocation of EU money. In the coming days, however, Berlin will probably increase political pressure on countries such as Poland and Romania to take a larger number of refugees. The situation will remain problematic, however, because there is no way to force EU members to accept foreigners into their territory. Even the introduction of financial punishment (in the form of fines for non-participating countries) will only exacerbate political fragmentation inside the European Union. The European Union is, therefore, moving in the direction of semi-permanent border controls to react to the increase in asylum requests.
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