A boatload of Syrian and Iraqi refugees nears the Greek Island of Lesbos. The Syrian civil war highlights the global crisis involving refugees and migrants, a crisis the author believes requires a new international migration system that recognizes all types of population movement between countries. Photo: Ggia/Wikipedia Commons
A boatload of Syrian and Iraqi refugees nears the Greek Island of Lesbos. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill, in  a speech that history will always remember, asserted that an iron curtain had fallen across Europe. Some 75 years later a not totally dissimilar curtain seems well in the making, with one caveat. The curtain, this time, is the doing of the Europeans themselves, and the purpose is not to restrict movement from parts of Europe but rather to regulate movement to Europe.

The end of the Cold War saw a dramatic increase in the number of displaced persons throughout the world. Current estimates put the worldwide number of people forcibly displaced at some 82.5 million, or double what it was 20 years ago.

This number, which refers to both refugees outside their country of origin and those internally displaced, does not include the scores of illegal migrants who seek to better their lot by moving to destinations they perceive as providing better economic opportunities. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the emergence of the United States as the only superpower and provided Washington with the mostly unconstrained freedom to intervene militarily throughout the world wherever it saw fit to do so. 

While these interventions might have met, at least initially, with some success from a limited military perspective, the chaos they have generated has become an enduring phenomenon. From Libya to Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan, irregular population movements have emerged as potentially the most destabilizing after-effect of Washington’s various military interventions.

And while the majority of these movements are still regional, either in the form of internal displacement or regional quests for asylum, the trend is toward an increasing and persistent population movement from the areas of conflict toward accessible developed economies.

Thus, if only for geographical reasons, it is America’s allies and more specifically the Western Europeans who now must bear the full brunt of the collateral damage resulting from Washington’s martial ventures; Libya is a case in point.

Libya fallout

In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, disturbances broke out all over Libya. This provided the impetus for then-US president Barack Obama’s administration, with the support of France and Britain, to intervene militarily in the country and ensure the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

Under the Gaddafi regime some 2 million migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa would come every year to Libya, where they would find temporary employment before returning home. The economic impact of that exercise was considerable and provided for the livelihood of some 20 million Africans. 

In parallel, Gaddafi had an informal arrangement with Italy, which provided that illegal emigrants from Libya who were intercepted at sea by the Italian coast guard would discreetly be returned to their point of departure. The  fall of Gaddafi and the anarchy that followed brought this process to an end.

Conversely, it provided a windfall to criminal gangs of people-smugglers and turned Libya into a major avenue for illegal migration toward Europe. But it was a migration fraught with danger.

Most of the boats used by the people-smugglers were unsafe and the number of those drowned is estimated as being in the tens of thousands. Danger, however, did not prove to be much of a deterrent to those who wished to move to Europe.

With the human floodgates through Libya to Europe practically unconstrained, the projections regarding the number of potential migrants who would likely take this route over the next 25 years give a figure of some 4.2 million.

During the same timespan, the population of sub-Saharan Africa from which most of the movement originates will increase from 1 billion to 2 billion, and the population of North Africa from 210 million to 350 million.

One can presume that none of these demographics were factored in when the Obama administration opted to promote the fall of Gaddafi.

Syria/Afghanistan fallout

With some variants, the same outcome resulted from Washington’s interventions in Afghanistan and Syria.

The unsuccessful attempt to dislodge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime resulted in the largest population displacement crisis in our time. Out of a total population of some 17.5 million inhabitants, some 13.5 million Syrians have been displaced, of whom 6.8  million fled the country as refugees and 6.7 million  are displaced internally. 

In the case of Afghanistan, 1.4 million refugees are registered abroad, mostly in Pakistan and Iran, and an estimated 3.5 million are displaced internally. These numbers, however, give no indication of what the future holds.

Indeed, the coming of winter with the potential simultaneous collapse of the Afghan economy might fuel a massive exodus in the coming months. And while most of those who are liable to leave will initially seek refuge in neighboring countries, many will undoubtedly join the ongoing movement to Europe via Turkey and Greece.

From a European perspective, defining the parameters of the inflow, present and potential, is no easy task and relies as much on perceptions as on data. 

‘Invasion’ of Europe

Overall, the inflow, inasmuch as it is uncontrolled and occurs beyond the sphere of government regulations, has created a pervasive feeling of anxiety. This anxiety has been compounded by the fact that the inflow is often perceived as an invasion, not to say an imposition by people of another culture who seek to force their presence on societies that do not necessary want them and of which they are not necessarily willing to obey the laws. 

That this anxiety is in great part fueled by the fact that the arrivals are predominantly Muslims is now well established.

Thus when a Kurdish father in Sweden proceeded to slit the throat of his daughter because she wished to marry a Christian and provided as his only explanation that “between your laws and my faith I chose my faith,” the repercussions were massive. Both the media and the parliament got involved in an acrimonious debate on immigration, which fueled an increasing level of hostility toward foreigners among a not insignificant segment of the population.

In 2019 some 2.7 million migrants were recorded as having arrived in Europe. This number, however, does not include asylum seekers and, even more so, illegal migrants who are not recorded. However, whatever the numbers, these by themselves do not fully reflect social realities.

It is common for advocates of unrestricted immigration to ague that compared with the total population of the European Union, the number of arrivals is insignificant. In absolute figures that point can be made. The problem resides, however, in the fact that the arrivals do not redistribute themselves evenly throughout the European Community but focalize on a few countries that bear most of the burdens of the inflow.

Again figures alone can be misleading. Switzerland, of which some 24% of the population is foreign-born, is the European country with the highest percentage of migrants and refugees. Anti-foreigner sentiment as such is contained, however, if only for one reason: The overwhelming majority of foreigners are German, French or Italians and do not embody social values which are significantly at variance with those of the native population.

Conversely, some of the countries with the lowest levels of immigration are also the ones that demonstrate the greatest  hostility to a foreign inflow. Thus the Visegrad Four, namely Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which have practically no migrant communities, have stated that as a matter of principle they will not give asylum to migrants or refugees.

Conversely Germany has granted asylum to about a million Syrians, while Denmark has tightened its asylum legislation and Britain is struggling  to control an inflow by sea from France.

Chaotic response and weaponization

The end result is that there is not one single European pattern of reactions to the inflow, just as there is not one coordinated European policy to address it.

This lack of a common internal approach is mirrored by the absence of a global, coordinated external strategy, which now has to confront what has become an additional dimension of the crisis: the weaponization of migration.

In 2015 Turkey opened its border with Greece, thus permitting some 900,000 refugees in essence from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to flood the country on their way to Germany. In 2016 in a landmark agreement, the EU and Germany prevailed on Turkey to close its border in exchange for a financial package worth millions of euros.

While Turkey obliged, it has made it understood that it is ready to open the tap again and permit potentially 2 million to 3 million more refugees to flood Europe should it be in its interest to put pressure on the EU.

In 2021, in retaliation for EU sanctions, Belarus sponsored the movement to its border with Poland of several thousand refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan who wished to reach Germany. The resulting crisis saw Poland mobilize part of its army and erect a massive fence on its border with Belarus. 

Having contributed to creating a population flood they do not know how to contain, Western governments have focused their efforts on short-term attempts to keep this man-made chaos under control. The end result has been a major escalation of what comes under the label of  humanitarian action.

The humanitarian industry

In 2018, the international community disbursed some US$28.9 billion under the heading of humanitarian aid. And while it comes under the label of “multilateral,” it is for all practical purposes a Western endeavor.  

This was only the beginning of a colossal upsurge in humanitarian assistance that saw an unprecedented escalation in the staffing and budgets of humanitarian organizations.

In 1990 the UN Refugee Agency had a budget of $800 million and 2,500 staff members. By 2021 its budget had reached $8.4 billion and  its personnel stood at 17,900. During approximately the same timespan the budget of the World Food Program increased from $1.5 billion to $8.4 billion managed by a staff of 20,600.

Meanwhile, the whole UN system that channels humanitarian aid has followed suit, led by  the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Created in 1991 as a small coordinating unit with a personnel complement of some two dozen, it has now morphed into a behemoth with no operational responsibility but with a staff  of 2,300 officeholders.

While aid escalation has become a generalized phenomenon throughout the humanitarian community, it is only a stopgap. Not only does it fail to address the root cause of the problem but agencies, whatever their nature, are not policymakers. They are only tools, funded by governments to help fill a space pending the implementation of political solutions.

While resorting to a patchwork of short-term solutions might bring some temporarily respite to the beleaguered Europeans, addressing the substance of the various inflows is quite another proposition. This would require political will leading to a comprehensive process involving the countries of origin, the countries of transit, and the countries of destination aimed at engineering a number of political solutions.

And it would also require that the Europeans seek to put some constraints on Washington’s proclivity to take military action without weighing the full spectrum of the consequences that it would entail. That such a process is not even in the making is an unstated fact. 

Which leaves another question unanswered: How long, and at what cost, can the lid be kept on a boiling kettle?

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.