Analysis… Migration: the enemy within

Syrian refugees crossing the Serbian-Croatian border. © Francesco Malavolta/IOM 2015


The director of the IOM Regional Office for the EU, Norway and Switzerland, Eugenio Ambrosi, provides a commentary on the migration challenge facing Europe.

By Eugenio Ambrosi

The evening of 9 November 1989 promised to mark the end of an era of confrontation, tension and threats from opposing sides, of exported wars and destruction in so many parts of the world. For my generation – which grew up in the shadows of the Cold War – the symbolism of the Berlin Wall being chipped away by jubilant crowds on both sides that night meant long-awaited change had arrived with the beginning of a new world order of co-operation and mutual respect among former enemies. Or so we thought.

Little did we know then that in the mere blink of an eye we would again see the gloomy symbolism of the rise of walls on European soil returning to haunt us.

The construction of the Berlin Wall began in August 1961 and today we are erecting new barriers. Only now we are not defending ourselves from tanks or foreign armies, but from desperate people trying to survive with no option but to move in search of protection and the bare minimum of a better life. If during the Cold War we stood at the wall to protect the values of freedom, democracy and fundamental rights, the new barriers put those very same values in jeopardy.


We are seeing the largest displacement and movement of people in recorded history. Europe’s neighbours to the south and the east are experiencing unprecedented levels of instability, war, conflict, poverty and economic collapse. The war in Syria and attendant regional instability, and the intolerable conditions for many in Africa, continue with no end in sight; driving desperate people to make the rational decision to leave home to reach safety, join families already in Europe or to try to support families back home.

Over 475,000 migrants and refugees have arrived by sea to the EU so far this year, almost entirely via the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes to Italy and Greece, surpassing arrival totals for all of last year. Shamefully, at least 2,800 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, more than during the same period last year.

Conditions are dire on the Greek Islands and secondary movements from Greece have ignited tensions on the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as an estimated 3,000-8,000 migrants are crossing from Greece to the FYROM and on into Serbia every 24 hours.

Further on, hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees scrambled to reach Hungary before completion of the border fence with Serbia, and those who did not make it in time now face a wall, tear gas and water cannons a mere 26 years after Hungary removed its barriers with Austria at the end of the Cold War, and only 59 years since almost 200,000 Hungarians fled their country and received refuge elsewhere in Europe and abroad in the wake of the 1956 uprising.

When migrants do manage to make it to the EU – against all odds and at maximum risk to life and limb – they find disunion, discord and hardened attitudes towards their condition and their fate. They find more barriers, more coldblooded smugglers, and the most widespread and intense anti-immigrant sentiment seen in decades as political and popular rhetoric over migration becomes ever more toxic.

Without question, the migration challenges Europe and the world are facing have grown both in scale and complexity.

However, we need to put everything that is happening in perspective. It may seem as if the whole world is knocking on our door but this is not the case. Not everyone wants or is able to come to Europe. Nor do they necessarily want to stay here. In fact, the number of people moving between developing countries – ‘south to south’ migration – is essentially equal to that of migration from south to north. Europe’s neighbours are handling most of the current displacement, while countries in Africa have their own, often more significant challenges in managing displacement and the movement of people. For example, there are now over 2.1 million people displaced in Nigeria.

Able to respond

It is important to step back and grasp that the numbers of migrants arriving are absolutely manageable for a Union with the size and resources of the EU and these are even small in comparison to the numbers other countries such as Turkey (1.9m) and Lebanon (1.2m) are dealing with.

Europe faces challenges in the integration of migrants as it has gone from a continent of emigration for centuries to one of destination just in the last four decades. Here, the concepts of the mono-ethnic nation state and national identity are still relatively strong. This means that immigration politics and policies in many European countries are often shaped by fears and misconceptions rather than evidence, objective debate and a strategic outlook for the future. We need to join those leaders finding the political courage to turn the debate around, recognising that historically, well-managed migration and migrants themselves have had positive impacts on society when welcomed and given a fair chance to contribute.

Unfortunately Europe is prioritising policies which claim to aim to regulate migration flows and counter smuggling, but the measures being enacted are not stopping or even slowing the flows to Europe. They even contribute to empowering smugglers who rise to meet demand made easy for them with the dearth of safe and legal bridges for migrants and refugees to cross.

Europe’s friends in Africa and the Middle East can see the walls from there and they can hear the political debate on immigration. Far from deterring flows, this only complicates the negotiations that the EU will have with countries of origin and transit, while migrants and refugees will keep on coming. However, a Europe acting as a Union and in harmony with its founding principles will resonate positively with the third countries with whom we need to co-operate in better governing a phenomena that is not only inevitable, but desirable.

Enemy within

Let’s be clear: Europe is not ‘under siege’ by migrants. We are not looking at an external threat. Our enemies are within. We blame migrants for our problems, but xenophobia and racism are the twin antagonists putting Europe at risk of losing itself and its fundamental values of humanity, freedom and respect for all human beings regardless of race or religion.

Hidden behind the difficulties of managing this complex situation lies the monster of the same intolerant rhetoric that once wreaked havoc across Europe a few short decades ago, when we ourselves were blighted by racial discrimination and hatred.

History abhors a wall. It is time to implement measures that are both humane and effective, that are flexible and favour human mobility which can work both for countries of origin and for Europe as it enters an ageing period and declining workforce.

The first elected president of the European Parliament, Simone Veil, once said: “Europe’s destiny and the future of the free world are entirely in our hands”.

We ought to ensure that our destiny does not end up dashed against a wall.


First published at the Pan European Networks (PEN) website here