The migrant crisis that erupted in 2015 has drastically altered the landscape of European politics in several ways. It created a divide among EU member states, separating countries into two groups: those that willingly took in migrants and agreed to the quota system, and those that did not. The crisis has also encouraged the rise of anti-immigration, anti-establishment political parties, which now play key a role in politics in countries of the latter group.

In the past two years, migration has fallen significantly. The International Organization for Immigration reported that 172,000 migrants reached Europe by sea in 2017 compared to 363,000 in 2016. But despite the decrease in numbers, migration remains at the center of many political debates in Europe. It is especially pressing because most migrants who have arrived since 2015 are likely to remain on the Continent in the long term. Migration will therefore be a key political issue in Europe (and European elections) for years to come. Anti-establishment movements are highly invested in the immigration issue and won’t let it fade away easily.

Immigration will also play a critical role in defining the European identity and the European Union’s function in the future. Internationalists hope for a United States of Europe but lack the coercive mechanisms to make this dream a reality. They are in direct conflict with those who want the EU to be secondary to the pursuit of national interests, whatever those interests may be. The debate will keep Europe internally focused as it faces divisions and struggles to define its path forward. This Deep Dive will assess the status of the migrant crisis today and the impact migration will have on the geopolitics of the Continent.


Migrants coming to Europe can be divided into two categories: refugees fleeing war, often coming from the Middle East and South Asia, and economic migrants fleeing dire economic conditions, often coming from Africa.

For refugees from the Middle East and South Asia, Bulgaria and Greece are two major entry points. From there, migrants use three routes (all of which end in Austria and Germany) through the Balkans to access the rest of Europe. Though the Balkans is a predominantly mountainous region, the mountains have not acted as a natural boundary to curb the flow of migration, as refugees typically use rail and road transport for at least part of their journey.

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The majority of people using these routes are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq. Of the illegal border crossings through the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkans reported from January to March this year, 2,882 were from Syria, 1,833 were from Iraq, 1,046 were from Afghanistan, 806 were from Turkey, 430 were from Pakistan, 68 were from Kosovo and 57 were from Albania.

Migrants coming to Europe for predominantly economic reasons tend to originate from Africa and often use Italy and Spain as entry points. From January to March this year, Eritrea was the largest country of origin for migrants to the EU through the Central and Western Mediterranean with 1,552, followed by Tunisia with 1,190. Others included Morocco (507), Guinea (498), Mali (410), Nigeria (401), Ivory Coast (310) and Pakistan (288).

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Building Walls

Due to the accessibility of modern transportation in this region, the mountains of Southern Europe are not an effective natural barrier against migration. Given that the EU is a free movement zone, its poorly defended external borders render it especially vulnerable. The EU was not established to deal with external security threats as a bloc, and diverging national political interests have hampered the establishment of common security policies.

The lack of a common foreign policy made it more difficult for the EU to stem the flow of illegal migration. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, was established in October 2016 to improve the security of the EU’s external borders. Originally, Frontex’s main mandate was to facilitate coordination between the border agencies of member states. In May 2018, the European Commission proposed the creation of a body consisting of 10,000 border guards to patrol the external borders of the Schengen area. In addition, the commission has proposed an increase in spending for 2021-27 by 35 billion euros ($41 billion), nearly three times the current budget, to protect the EU’s external borders and manage migration. This proposal will likely be heavily diluted and include opt-out options after further negotiations, as is common for all EU policies.

Within the Schengen area, temporary border controls have been erected in an attempt to monitor and stem the flow of migrants. France implemented border controls as early as 2015, after a terrorist attack in Paris left 130 people dead. Germany has patrolled its border with Austria since September 2015 and, in September 2017, temporarily introduced systematic checks on incoming flights from Greece to prevent illegal entries. The Austrian government introduced checks on all borders in September 2015 but later limited them to the borders with Hungary and Slovenia. All of these controls are due to be reassessed this month, but they will most likely be extended. France, for instance, confirmed in April that checks will remain at all border crossings, including airports and ports, beyond the May deadline. The aim of these border controls is to prevent migrants from entering member states illegally, thus forcing migrants to claim asylum at official checkpoints and borders.

In January 2018, Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the anti-immigration Freedom Party ordered the creation of a “border protection unit.” If another major influx of migrants were to occur, this standby police unit would secure border crossings and carry out identity checks. Austria may also extend its checks to the German border. Last month, Kickl said this was a possibility for the second half of this year, when Austria will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Denmark introduced border controls in January 2016 for all of its land borders and sea routes to Germany. The Swedish government established border controls in November 2016 at ports in the south and west of the country, as well as on the Oresund Bridge, which connects Sweden and Denmark. Norway (which is not a member of the EU but still a member of the Schengen area) introduced checks on ferry routes to Denmark, Germany and Sweden back in 2015 and has boosted police checks along its Swedish border.

In Hungary, the government has spent more than 1 billion euros on strengthening its border defenses since the crisis began. This includes erecting a fortified barrier along its border with Serbia and Croatia. Likewise, fences have been erected between Slovenia and Croatia. And even Macedonia, a non-Schengen state, has built physical barriers along its border with Greece.

Under EU law, it is the member states, not the European Commission, that have the prerogative to reintroduce border controls. The commission can only issue an opinion on the necessity and proportionality of these measures. In 2016, the EU officially recognized the necessity of border controls.

The reintroduction of such controls is not a fatal blow to the free movement of citizens and legal residents in Europe; when crossing a border, one is required only to show an identity card or passport. These borders do not affect the ability of people within the free movement area to travel for business or leisure, or even to choose to reside and work in other member states. The border checks are of the same type as those between France and Britain, which is part of Europe’s free movement area but has opted out of the Schengen zone and therefore requires passport checks at its border. But the reintroduction of border checks among Schengen countries does help certain political parties make the case that national interests should trump those of the EU.

Outsourcing the Problem

Migration flows have fallen not because solutions to the crisis were found but because Europe has managed to outsource the problem to Turkey and Libya.

In 2016, the EU signed a deal with Turkey stating that people arriving illegally on Greek islands through the Aegean Sea, including asylum-seekers, would be returned to Turkey. Turkey agreed to improve conditions for refugees there, and it was understood that Turkey would use its security forces to intercept migrants and prevent boats from leaving its shores. In exchange, the EU agreed to several conditions. First, the bloc would provide 6 billion euros of assistance to Turkey, divided into two tranches, for dealing with refugees. The EU would also resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey legally; one refugee would be resettled for every illegal migrant returned to Turkey. The EU also agreed to grant Turks access to the Schengen zone by June 2016 if Turkey fulfilled 72 conditions on border security and human rights. Lastly, the EU agreed to renewed EU membership talks for Turkey.

These commitments have yet to be carried out. In June 2016, the European Commission announced that Turkey had failed to meet the 72 conditions and that visa liberalization was thus postponed indefinitely. At a press conference in Ankara last February, Turkey’s presidential spokesman announced that Turkey had completed all the necessary conditions and submitted to Brussels a working plan for visa liberalization. So far, there has been no response. In March 2018, Turkey’s Ministry of European Union Affairs criticized the EU for not transferring the full first tranche of aid, which totaled 3 billion euros, to Turkey. In addition, the promise of renewed membership talks has yielded no tangible results.

The EU, on the other hand, has reaped the benefits of the deal. As a result of the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan, the number of arrivals on the Greek islands has fallen dramatically. A joint report issued in 2017 by the European Commission stated that irregular arrivals decreased by 97 percent. And though arrivals to the Greek islands still outnumber returns, the action plan has achieved its main goal: to contain one of the largest flows of refugees to Europe in the union’s history.

Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, ruled in April that refugees and migrants who cross by boat from Turkey to the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios, Rhodes and Leros must be allowed to travel to the mainland instead of being held in camps, which are increasingly overcrowded. This decision applies to new arrivals, not to those currently held in camps on the islands. If the court’s ruling is applied, the number of migrants reaching Greek shores will likely spike once again; and after reaching the Greek mainland, migrants will attempt to move farther inland to Central Europe. So although Europe’s containment of refugees arriving through Turkey to Greece has reduced flows since 2016, it remains fragile.

The number of migrants coming to Italy from North Africa has also been contained, this time through cooperation with Libya. Of all the migrants who reached the European peninsula by sea in 2017, almost 70 percent arrived in Italy. Thus, Italy’s efforts to curb migration flows have had a significant impact on the total number of migrants arriving on the Continent. The EU did not make a deal with Libya similar to the one reached with Turkey for several reasons. First, there are three competing governments in Libya and numerous clan-based militias that answer only to themselves. Thus, there is no central authority that could follow through on a deal. Second, the EU-Turkey deal labels Turkey as a safe country for refugees. There is simply no way such a determination could be made about Libya given the country’s state of affairs. This has left Italy to solve its immigration problems on its own.

Italy has reached out directly to Libya, a former colony and an old ally. Geographically, Libya is the most convenient place from which migrants from Africa can reach Europe via Italy or even Greece. During Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, Libya made an arrangement with Italy to contain migration. When the civil war broke out there and Italy sided with the rebels, Gadhafi threatened to release migrants to Italy. This inevitably occurred after the collapse of Gadhafi’s regime and his subsequent death, with smugglers taking advantage of the disorganized and ineffective coast guard.

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In 2017, Italy took steps to change this. In April of that year, Italy’s interior minister mediated a peace deal between tribal groups that control trafficking routes from Algeria, Chad and Niger. The Italian coast guard trained the Libyan coast guard and sent aid to repair Libyan service boats. Furthermore, Italy forced aid groups rescuing migrants to operate far from the Libyan coast. The idea behind this was that if migrants knew help was less accessible, fewer would take the risk.

The interior minister’s biggest victory was reaching an agreement with clan-based militias along the Libyan coast west of Tripoli, which helped stem sea-based human trafficking to Italy. The Italian government has denied making any direct payments to militias. Instead, it says aid has been funneled through the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, including vehicles, boats and salaries to militias in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, the largest launching point for migrants across the Mediterranean. Several unity government officials have told The New York Times that Rome also increased payments and supplies of equipment to militias in other coastal smuggling hubs, including Zwara.

The Italian strategy has proved extremely effective at reducing flows. Migrant arrivals from Libya fell by about 50 percent between June and July 2017, the month the deal was reached, and have since remained low. The bargains made with the rebel groups, however, remain fragile: They depend on continual buying of support from militias that have the upper hand at the bargaining table.

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Italy’s arrangements in Libya, which have gained support from several EU governments, have faced legal challenges. Allegations that these arrangements have led to human rights violations, including torture and slavery, were made this month after a case was filed in the European Court of Human Rights against Italy. Global Legal Action Network, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization, and the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration, an Italian NGO, filed the case on behalf of 17 Nigerians who survived a sea rescue operation in November 2017. These migrants were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy and were returned to Libya, where they say they were verbally and physically abused. The submission is supported by the Italian nonprofit ARCI and Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, among others. The legal process can take up to three years. Should Italy lose, it may be forced to stop equipping, training and coordinating with the Libyan coast guard. If this happens, more migrants are likely to reach Europe’s shores. This case serves as a demonstration of the fragility of European containment strategies.

Europe Divided

Migrant flows may be receding for now, but the effects of the migrant crisis are going nowhere. The immigration issue has divided European states both internally and among themselves, and the influx of migrants from outside of Europe has played into the hands of populist parties across the Continent. These parties share a common theme: rejection of the establishment, both at the national and the EU level. This anti-establishment view is anchored in the economic downturn following the 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent austerity programs imposed on the eurozone under Berlin’s leadership. Populists often denounced these economic policies as being contrary to the interests of the nation, but they were imposed nevertheless by governing elites serving other, non-national interests. Most populist parties adopted similar rhetoric over immigration policies, in particular the attempt by Brussels to establish quotas for refugee intake by member states.

Concerns about Muslim migrants have become a key topic of debate in domestic elections. The main point of contention is how many people should be taken in and whether the mechanisms proposed by Brussels to deal with the migrant inflow are appropriate. In the 2016 French election, Marine Le Pen’s National Front faced off against Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, which took a softer stance on migration but still argued for controls. In the German election last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel and then Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz both said Muslims are part of Germany. Merkel defended her 2015 open door policy, which has divided not only her party but also the Social Democrats. In the Hungarian election, a central pillar of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s campaign was that if he was not elected, Hungary would be overrun by refugees. During the 2018 Italian election, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi denounced illegal migrants living in Italy as a “social time-bomb ready to explode,” pledging mass deportations. The other member of his Forza Italia coalition, the League (previously called the Northern League), agreed with his position, arguing that migration should be controlled. The Five Star Movement, the party that won the most votes in the election, strongly criticized how Brussels has dealt with the influx of migrants. The Italian Democratic Party defended the deal engineered with Libya.

The main geopolitical impact of the migration crisis has been the weakening of the EU through internal divisions. These run, broadly speaking, between the east and the west. This split is intimately connected to who holds power in member states. Anti-immigration populists have had the most success in Eastern Europe, in countries such as Poland and Hungary. The immigration issue has, as a result, become an even more important topic in domestic politics in these countries because it is a means for parties to mobilize their base. These parties vehemently criticize the softer immigration policies of Western Europe and those engineered in Brussels to spread the burden of migrant resettlement across the EU. The Hungarian government has consistently framed the immigration debate as a choice between a multicultural EU and a Europe based on Christian values. In essence, the immigration debate has brought to the forefront questions about the EU’s core principles and future.

Anti-immigration parties have a stronger presence in post-Soviet countries than in Western member states for two reasons. First, there is a different historical experience with immigration in these two regions. After World War II, Western Europe took in large numbers of non-Christian migrants from multiethnic backgrounds, particularly from former colonies. France, for example, saw an influx of Algerians fleeing the civil war from 1954 to 1962. In Britain, immigrants arrived from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. In general, from the 1960s onward, the majority migrants to Western Europe came from outside the Continent, including people arriving as guest workers. Germany, for example, signed treaties with Turkey (in 1961), Tunisia (in 1965) and Morocco (in 1965).

Post-Soviet counties, on the other hand, historically have had fewer migrants of diverse ethnicities, religions and cultures. While it is true that non-Europeans came to the Soviet Union for schooling, they came in much lower numbers compared to those who went to Western Europe. And since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, there have been no large waves of non-European migrants to Eastern Europe. That Eastern Europeans have had less interaction with migrants of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds makes it much easier for populist leaders to frame non-European migrants as a threat to their nations.

The second reason anti-immigration parties have a stronger presence in post-Soviet Europe is that those parties also typically reject liberal social values that are more prevalent in Western member states and instead support Christian-based values. Since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet bloc, Christianity has re-emerged as a pillar of national identity. Therefore, populist rhetoric about the threat from Muslim migrants has gained much more traction in this region of Europe than in Western states, which tend to be more secular. These differences in historical trajectories illustrate why populists have had more success in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, cementing the east-west rift over immigration policy.

The most controversial measure proposed by Brussels on immigration was refugee quotas. A resettlement plan for 160,000 asylum-seekers was launched in 2015 to relieve pressure on Italy and Greece, the main countries of entry for migrants. The aim was to spread the refugee burden among member states based on the size and wealth of each country. Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary voted against mandatory quotas, but to no avail. However, the program was curtailed in September 2017, after the transfer of fewer than 28,000 refugees. The same month, Slovakia and Hungary sued the EU for its quota policy, but the European Court of Justice ruled against them. Nevertheless, since the quotas were initially assigned, the Czech Republic has accepted only 12 of the 2,000 asylum-seekers it was supposed to take in, while Hungary and Poland have accepted none. In December 2017, the European Commission launched a legal procedure against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the European Court of Justice for refusing to accept refugee quotas. But these governments will likely only face fines.

Currently, under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, a refugee or migrant must register in the first EU country of arrival and cannot seek asylum elsewhere for six months. This system is meant to prevent migrants from claiming asylum in several EU countries at the same time. With the June 2018 EU summit approaching, Bulgaria, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, has proposed extending that period to 10 years. This proposal is supported by Berlin but has met fierce criticism from Italy and Greece. Others have proposed encouraging voluntary allocations of refugees from those countries that are hardest hit to others. These voluntary allocations would be encouraged with financial incentives, and mandatory quotas would be imposed only if migrant numbers spike again. The 2021-27 budget plan proposes linking EU cohesion funding – which supports economic development and investment in member states – to new conditions that include the acceptance of refugees. With this new condition, Brussels is trying to penalize members that do not accept migrants and reward those that do. As with most of its policies, the EU can incentivize this behavior but ultimately cannot force its will on member states.

Migrant flows are receding for now, but the divisions in Europe they have brought to the surface are not. The east-west divide between states willing to take at least some refugees and those resisting any efforts at redistribution continues to deepen. In 2015 alone, over 1 million migrants arrived in Europe. Although steps are being taken on the national level to integrate migrants, populists will continue to use the issue for years to come to gather electoral support by portraying migrants as a threat to the nation. Most migrants come from regions that are unstable, and the deals struck to contain migrant flows in Libya and Turkey remain fragile. As a result, Europe might face another wave of migration in the coming years, and the EU is little more prepared than it was in 2015.