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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
DPA/PA Images Migrants sit behind a fence at the Central Initial Reception Facility for Asylum Seekers in Brandenburg, Germany. 6 October 2021.
The Good Info Project

Helping or hurting? The reality and the politics of migration in the EU

The Good Information Project has looked at the global policy issue of migration through the lens of Ireland and the EU.

IN THE COURSE of a regular day, the average person in Ireland probably doesn’t spend much time thinking or talking about migration issues.

Apart from the odd flare up – when a political candidate in an election might dog-whistle about migrants during a TV debate, or when there is a heartbreaking story such as the 39 people who were found dead in a lorry in Essex in 2019 – it is not a topic that features frequently in Irish news and current affairs.

The most visible way Ireland has grappled with migration is through its Direct Provision centres – an archaic housing system for asylum seekers that has been sharply criticised, sparked protest movements, and is earmarked for replacement.

In the weeks that we have been covering migration as part of The Good Information Project, however, one of the recurring themes has been about the urgency of the problem and the need for solutions. It is hugely contentious politically for European states such as Germany and France – but for EU countries on the ‘frontline’ of irregular migration, it’s becoming critical, meaning Ireland will need to play its part.

Here’s a round-up of all we’ve covered over the past few weeks on one of the biggest issues of the day. 

The reality – not the politics – of migration

In our opening article on this topic, we raised the issue of the skewed perception of migration among citizens in six wealthy countries, and how that plays into politics. 

The figures on migration trends to the EU seem to have surprised some people when they see the proportion of migrants make up the EU’s population.

Such figures to hand to contextualise the numbers of migrants arriving in Europe:

  • On 1 January, there were 447.3 million inhabitants living in the EU. 5% of this total, or 23 million, were non-EU citizens. 8% were born outside the EU.
  • Out of the EU’s total population of 447 million people, as of 2019 its refugee population made up 0.6% of its total.
  • EU countries granted some sort of asylum to around 280,000 people last year. 

after-the-fire-in-the-refugee-camp-moria-on-lesbos DPA / PA Images A boy stands in the port of Lavrio near Athens. 29 September 2020. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Moving away from the figures and looking at the more personal side of the story, a look at how Ireland’s Brazilian community developed – helped hugely by not requiring to have a visa before travelling here, and being able to work on a student visa – proves a migration policy success story.

“The reason that I fell in love with Ireland was the people – obviously not the weather,” Carolina Pessoa told The Journal as part of the series. “Once I was here, I knew I wasn’t going to go back. I didn’t want to say that for sure but I just felt it in my heart. In the first couple of months, I knew.”

The flip side of that coin is when you cut off migration in response to political whims – and you get a shortage of workers in certain sectors, a previously-highlighted post-Brexit problem that came to a head during the course of this series. 

“It’s just insolence to think that migrants are like a tap which you can open and close when needed,” is how a Glasgow-based Polish HGV driver put it. This is an issue that will only get worse with time, it seems with the UK’s care sector and food processing sector among the other industries that could be next to struggle. 

Now the politics: the EU’s Migration Pact

At the other end of the migration scale, is those who are fleeing persecution and death in politically unstable regions of Africa and the Middle East. This instability is sometimes exacerbated by climate change

Unlike Ireland, an island located on the north-west edge of Europe, Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece are struggling to cope with the numbers of asylum seekers who land on their shores unexpectedly, due partly to a lack of a unified EU migration system.

The EU’s draft plan to alleviate the pressure on these states is something called the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is planned to be the first unified approach to migration.

The European Commission has proposed the plan, which needs to be approved by the European Council – that’s the leaders of the 27 EU countries – and the European Parliament’s 750 parliamentarians.

It plans to ‘share responsibility’ between member states through obliging each EU country to do one of three things: house asylum seekers who arrive in Europe; offer funding to help other countries house those asylum seekers; or to be responsible for returning migrants who are unsuccessful in their application to their own country.

Despite a policy proposal being on the EU table for the first time, there are concerns that it doesn’t go far enough – and worse still, that it’s more of the same problematic policy. That policy being as long as migrants don’t land on the EU’s shores, that’s a successful migration policy, according to NGO’s interpretation of the draft plan.

germany-europe-must-act-rally-in-berlin SIPA USA / PA Images A protest outside the German Reichstag Building against the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Sub-standard EU camps for refugees

This is supported by comments from an EU Commissioner to Irish think-tank the IIEA. Margaritis Schinas said that the EU’s migration deal with Turkey “worked well”, which sees migrants that arrive on EU shores being resettled in Turkey in exchange for funds from the EU, and the possibility of Turkey joining the EU.

But migrants are kept in camps on Greek islands with sub-standard conditions for up to three years before they can move on to Turkey. There have also been questions about the conditions, opportunities and care for the 4 million Syrian refugees already living in Turkey.

This is coupled with another political migration crisis in the form of Poland’s approach to migrants arriving on its border with Belarus by erecting barbed wire fences along that border, which has been criticised by Irish MEPs.

This issue raises the concerns around getting consensus across Europe on how to house migrants humanely and with respect – especially between 27 governments that are constantly shifting.

kara-tepe-new-temporary-refugee-camp-in-mytilene-greece-28-jan-2021 SIPA USA / PA Images The Greek Army - Hellenic Army is seen building the new refugee camp. Built by the Hellenic Army, UNHCR and the European Union. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Search and rescue missions

There is also the question of how to respond to the hundreds of people travelling across the Mediterranean each year in leaky, unstable vessels towards Europe. 

An EU mission called Operation Sofia,was wound up in early 2019 after some argued that navy-ship rescues were aiding the smugglers by encouraging people to cross; others argued back that they can’t leave people to float adrift at sea and die.

In October 2019, when the European Parliament had the chance to put pressure on the European Commission to resume search and rescue missions through a non-binding motion on the issue, it was defeated by two votes. Four Irish MEPs voted against it.

This defeat prompted a public outrage that has lasted online until this day, including against those four politicians who voted against the resolution.

174-migrant-rescued-from-alboran-sea Jesus Merida A migrant woman are seen holding a baby migrant on a rescue vessel as she waits to disembark after their arrival at the Port of Malaga. July 2019. Jesus Merida

So – what is Ireland doing?

It is hard to tell how effective Ireland’s response to migration is – the suggestion is that it’s well-meaning, but on a very small scale.

After a fire destroyed a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ireland committed to resettle 50 people from those camps. Eleven families arrived in mid-September, and were welcomed by the Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman. 

Ireland also scaled up the humanitarian-access visas it has offered to Afghanistan citizens since July – from 50 to 400 – meaning these people will be granted asylum if they arrive in Ireland.

Before this announcement, we published the results of an opinion poll that indicated that Irish people are happy to house more refugees than the State had then committed to: 34% of Irish people wanted to take in between 230-1,000 Afghan refugees; 27% said 230 is about the right number; 19% said we should take over 1,000 and the same proportion of respondents said we should take less than 230, or zero (8% each).

Interestingly, younger people, educated people and non-religious people were the most likely to want to take in more refugees than the State had already committed to.

Between that hint of support from the public, and while it occupies a seat on the UN Security Council, Ireland has a chance to make its voice heard in the EU on how to deal humanely and respectfully with migrants.

Those arriving on Italy’s and Greece’s shores are not fleeing to those countries, but to the EU as a whole, and Ireland shouldn’t lean into its geographic position to absolve itself of responsibility.

During the Brexit debate, Ireland made a point of differentiating itself from the political move the UK made which it based partly on anti-migration sentiments. Now Ireland has a chance to show exactly how different it is – as one contributor said during this series, that will require courageous political leadership.

That’s all from myself and Adam Daly on the topic of migration and the EU for The Good Information Project. My colleagues Orla Dwyer and Lauren Boland will be breaking down the topic of climate change for you in the next cycle, which begins on Monday 11 October. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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