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John Rapley: Europe's migration crisis

Published:Friday | August 28, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Europe faces a migration crisis. But it's not what most people think it is.

This summer has provided us with a steady flow of tragic images: abandoned trucks filled with decomposing bodies; people drowning in the Mediterranean when overloaded boats capsized; crowds of illegal migrants trying to rush border guards in France.

Far-right politicians have had a field day with it, conjuring images of barbarian hordes massing at the continent's gates. Didn't the leader of ISIS say he was going to march on Rome? And haven't terrorists been hiding in the Trojan horse of migrants and infiltrating Europe - most recently, in an incident on a French train that was dramatically foiled by some off-duty American soldiers?

Well, not quite. Europe has a security problem on its hands, but putting up border fences probably won't do much about it. Most terrorists have been either home-grown or were radicalised during their time in Europe. ISIS may be providing them with inspiration, but most of them are lone wolves taking advantage of the freedom of manoeuvre in a liberal society. Dealing with it will be one of the thorniest problems Europe addresses, but it is largely a separate issue.

Europe's fault

As for the image of a tide of humanity washing over Europe, there is only a grain of truth in it. The actual numbers are not as large as the images of crowds at entry points would suggest. Their anarchy, on the other hand, is real - but also, in no small measure, Europe's fault.

In 2000, the ratio of average income in the West to the rest of the world reached an all-time high. Amid such imbalances, the pressure of people wanting to migrate to greener pastures to give their families better lives was bound to become intense.

The thing is that under the rules of the international state system, it's the job of states not only to keep people out, but to keep them in. You can't leave your country without a


But after the collapse of several states in the Arab Spring in 2011, itself in large measure a product of the failure of development models to meet the needs of their citizens, border

controls in North Africa and the Middle East became more porous. Moreover, amid war, refugee flows rose.

Meanwhile, countries like Italy, or even more so Greece, have little experience with migration control. Historically, they have been net exporters, not importers, of people. With limited capacity to process migrants, they became attractive targets for human traffickers. Proximity to the exporting countries augmented this effect.

There are Greek islands so close to the Turkish shore you can reach them in a small boat. And since the Turks have been overwhelmed by refugees from Syria, they're of no mind to enforce border controls if people want to leave.

Once they get into Europe, migrants then drift around because there is no common policy for dealing with them. And this is where Europe needs to get its act together. The seeming anarchy of the current wave of migration largely because Europe's approach has been that of an ostrich: stick your head in the sand and hope the migrants move on and become someone else's problem.


Moreover - and this is what hardly anyone wants to acknowledge - Europe actually needs more, not fewer, migrants. In many countries, the population is ageing and declining. The labour force to support them is not being generated internally. Such countries will either have to take in more immigrants or, like Japan, accept a slow decline.

I've yet to see a European politician who campaigns on a pledge to make everyone poorer. So the continent's leaders will need to get their act together and craft a common strategy for processing migrants in an orderly manner.

Until they do, migration will proceed in the rather chaotic manner we're seeing, and border fences will make little difference.

- John Rapley is a writer and academic based in London, and author of 'The Money Cult' (Simon and Schuster, 2016). A long-time Gleaner correspondent, you can follow him on Twitter @jarapley and at Email feedback to