Migration Policies and the Future of the Union

While Germany is well known for receiving the most asylum seekers, France, Italy, and Portugal have stood out among Southern European countries for their progressive policies on curbing illegal immigration and smooth lining the legal asylum seeking process.

In 2016 alone, The EU granted asylum to and resettled over 720,000 refugees – three times as many as Australia, Canada and the United States combined. While the Union seeks to delineate an integrated approach, many Member States have struggled to find their own domestic policies. France, Italy, and Portugal have all stood out for their proactive commitments to mitigate rampant illegal immigration practices and open their doors to asylum seeking applicants.


Despite having been dismantled, the French port city of Calais still hosts up to 700 migrants, all of who continue to wait for their chance to attempt crossing the Channel Tunnel. In January, French President Emmanuel Macron made an official visit to the town that unwillingly became a symbol of the migrant crisis affecting the European Union. There, he vowed not to allow Calais to become another “jungle,” as the informal refugee camp had become known. On February 21st President Macron approved a draft bill that aims at toughening migration policies in France. The reform, to be voted by the parliament, cuts down the asylum application period by half (to 6 months), and shortens the appeal period. It would also punish illegal border crossing with up to one year in jail, and double detention time in holding centres to 90 days. The bill has received mixed reviews, drawing heavy criticism from civil society organisations and even members of the president’s own party for its harsher penalties. The government responded by noting that the bill also seeks to improve integration by speeding up and simplifying asylum demands, and expanding visas known as Passeport Talent, or “Talent Passport”, for entrepreneurs, researchers, and employees hoping to live in France. The bill also includes increased language training and support for accepted asylum seekers to find work and housing.

President Macron’s proposed measures and the conflicting reception they have received well exemplify the challenges that European governments are facing while trying to regulate migration flows under the current political and cultural climate (as of Q3 2017 France had the third-highest number of asylum applicants in the Union). In 2017, detections of illegal border-crossings to Europe saw a 60 percent decrease compared to the previous year. The numbers have decreased for the second year in a row, after a record-high year in 2015. The EU-Turkey deal of 2016 and the Italy-Libya agreement of 2017 contributed to slowing down the migrant flow. However, the number of arrivals detected in 2017 shows that migratory pressure on the EU’s external borders remains high.


In 2015, images of Syrian families attempting to cross barbed wire fences on the Hungarian border, only to be met by hostility and armed police, shook the European continent and led to the phase of the Willkommenskultur (“welcoming culture”), a courageous approach by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who invited refugees to Germany. The same year the European Commission agreed to create a resettlement program to redistribute 160,000 refugees (then revised to 98,000) from the frontline countries of Italy and Greece over the next two years. In September 2017 the somewhat unsuccessful resettlement program came to an end, and the total number of relocated refugees reached just over 29,000 people. Despite having taken in just 7,000 of the 27,000 people it committed to, Germany has by far resettled the most people.

While state quotas to resettle refugees in Italy and Greece were based on a number of factors, including population density, GDP, and the subsequent capacity to absorb and integrate migrants, not all countries complied. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland all refused to accept asylum seekers and infringement procedures were opened for the non-compliance of their obligations. Now, Chancellor Merkel has put forward a daring proposal to link EU regional aid for member countries with their wiliness to take in and integrate migrants, stating in a recent interview that “solidarity is not a one-way street.” Chancellor Merkel’s position, while attempting to shape the migration policy of the Union, is also aimed at national politics where migration has become a crucial point of discussions for the new government with the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Germany.  The European Commission has now invited Member States to a new pledge to resettle 50,000 people in need of international protection by 2019.


Italy has had strong success in curbing the illegal immigration activity on its borders over the last year. In September 2017, the country’s interior minister, Marco Minniti, successfully negotiated a cooperation deal with Libyan authorities to prevent migrants from leaving Libya’s coast to reach Europe. While this has created a dramatic drop of 87 percent fewer crossings over the Mediterranean, it has raised criticism over human rights violations of migrants detained in Libyan camps. Analysts have also expressed concerns for the long-term sustainability of the pact, which will hold as long as Libyan armed groups find it profitable to focus on the smuggling of goods (mostly petrol) instead of people.

The policy change that took place in Italy was determined by a number of factors. Prior to the deal, the tightening of border controls by France and Austria on Italy’s northern borders led to a sharp increase in Italian asylum applications. Secondly the government saw a pushback from many local municipalities whose mayors refused to take in any refugees, while those who did were often punished in local elections. The third element was identified by Mr. Minniti himself, when he spoke about fear being “the crucial element of the next 10 years in democracy.” The history of the past few years, coupled with looming national elections just days away, has left the Italian left-wing government facing an uphill battle against an anxiety ridden public, growing more and more fearful of migration, with many populist parties trying to capitalise on anti-immigrant sentiments for political gain.

Despite having one of the lowest rates of asylum applications with respect to its population, the Portuguese government has offered to accept up to 10,000 asylum seekers in the hopes of buoying its declining population and increasing the country’s human resources. Copyright: meowKa/


Portugal has been far from the epicentre of Europe’s migration emergency, as it holds one of the lowest rates of asylum applications in relation to its population.  Despite the country’s economic turnaround after the 2011 crisis, and the growth prospects for the upcoming years, the number of asylum seekers and refugees in the country remains very small. This has made the country somewhat less desirable for new migrants who cannot count on a support network of friends and relatives like those that can be found in other EU Member States. Under this backdrop, Prime Minister Antonio Costa took a relatively bold approach to immigration by committing to receive up to 10,000 migrants. By setting an example of solidarity, while other members of the EU increase their anti-immigration rhetoric and resist refugee relocation, Portugal’s prime minister is making a rational, political calculation.

Portugal seeks to improve its standing in Europe, demonstrate its willingness to do its part in sharing the burden of the crisis, and reap the ensuing political dividends. For Portugal in particular, there are also demographic and economic elements at play.  First, the country is hoping to repopulate some of the regions most affected by Portugal’s declining population. Secondly, the government is making the safe bet that attracting human resources will boost the country’s growth. The government plans to recruit famers and forestry experts to repopulate rural areas most affected by demographic decline. The government also aims to recruit some university and vocational students, talent that could help its economic recovery. Portugal’s migration policies are a bet on its future, and a strategic attempt to solve longstanding domestic challenges. The lack of right-wing xenophobic parties in Portugal, and the overall positive attitude towards migration (similar to Spain), has allowed Prime Minister Costa to tackle the challenge of migration as something more than just a border security problem.

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Simon Meretab

Simon is a freelance writer focused on migration, human rights and development. He holds a MA in International and European Relations from Linkoping University, Sweden. He worked in international development in Italy and South Africa and human rights advocacy for NGOs based at the United Nations Offices in Geneva.

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