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Illegal Immigration to the EU: the V4 Proven Right Again in 2018 – but not all will Admit it

Reading Time: 11 minutes

By Olivier Bault.

Article originally published on

Central Europe, Visegrad Group – Although the number of illegal immigrants flooding to Europe has been significantly reduced since the crisis of 2015, when about one million migrants made their way north through the Balkans in just a few months, this issue remains unresolved, and many Africans and Middle Easterners continue to arrive illegally in the European Union each year. The permanent compulsory reallocation scheme formerly advocated by the European Commission and by many EU countries including Germany, France, Italy and Greece, but opposed by others, not least by the Visegrád Four, was formally abandoned in 2018, although not all have given up on the idea. In Italy, the League’s coalition partner the 5-Star Movement (M5S) and its leader Luigi Di Maio still demand that illegal immigrants should be reallocated to other EU countries, as does Greece’s Syriza-led leftist government under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. In the last days of January 2019, Spanish socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez reacted to Italy’s refusal to open its ports to an NGO vessel with 47 African men on board by renewing calls for financial sanctions against countries that do not take their share of illegal immigrants. Spain’s government intends to side with France and Germany to have European funds withheld from countries like Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary until they agree to open their borders to asylum seekers (most illegal immigrants apply for asylum in order to avoid deportation).

As a matter of fact, under its new socialist minority government supported by the far left (Podemos) and regional nationalists, Spain has become, since Sánchez took office in early June 2018, the main gateway for illegal immigration to the EU. This is partly due to signals sent from the very beginning by Spain’s new government, such as the welcoming in the port of Valencia of the 600+ immigrants rescued by the Aquarius, the announcement that razor wire would be removed from border fences in Ceuta and Melilla, and the decision to restore free medical care for illegal residents. The second factor which led to this new situation was of course the formation in Italy of a new coalition government by the M5S and the League, with the League’s leader Matteo Salvini becoming Italy’s interior minister and taking the reins of Rome’s immigration policy. That meant, as the League had promised voters, that Italy would now close its ports to NGO vessels carrying illegal immigrants from the coast of Libya, and also to illegal immigrants rescued by navy ships taking part in Operation European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EU NAVFOR Med, also known as Operation Sophia). Under the terms of that joint operation, all migrants rescued at sea were to be taken to Italy. With Italy now requesting that migrants rescued by Operation Sophia should be taken to the country of origin of each rescuing ship, some countries are now withdrawing from the operation, as is the case with Germany, which will not replace its frigate after it ends its current mission in early February.

The consequences of Spain’s taking a more pro-immigrant stance while Italy was doing just the opposite can be seen in statistics. While the overall number of illegal immigrants who made it across the Mediterranean in 2018 (135,798) was significantly lower than in 2017 (184,374), the figure increased very significantly on the Western Mediterranean route from Morocco to Spain: from 23,143 in 2017 to 56,644 in 2018, plus some 6,800 illegal migrants who forced their way into the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco’s northern border. At the same time, the number of arrivals in Italy – via the Central Mediterranean route – fell from 118,912 in 2017 to 23,276 in 2018. On the Eastern Mediterranean route through Turkey and Greece to the Balkans, the number of illegal immigrants rose in 2018, to 55,878 from 42,319 in the previous year, reflecting the shortcomings of the EU–Turkey agreement.

In this regard, it should be recalled that the agreement signed with Turkey in 2016 only provides for Syrians arriving illegally on Greek islands to be sent back to Turkey in exchange for the resettlement in the EU of a corresponding number of Syrians residing in Turkey. This was intended to deter Syrians from crossing the sea illegally, but it does not apply to other nationalities, nor does it apply to those illegally crossing the land border between Turkey and Bulgaria. But even for Syrian nationals, the agreement does not seem to be working effectively, because Greece’s legal system makes it difficult to expel Syrians even when they theoretically qualify for the EU–Turkey scheme. This situation was denounced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself during a state visit to Greece in early January 2019. As Merkel put it: “Everyone knows once you’re on a Greek island, you can get to the mainland, and once you’re on the mainland you can then somehow get to Germany, Sweden, Austria or somewhere else, so then we are supporting illegal migration.”

Just as in the case of Spain’s new pro-immigration government, Syriza’s pro-immigration stance is at least partly responsible for the new surge in illegal immigration. Were Greece to adopt Hungary-style laws on immigration, it would not consistently create such an incentive for illegal migrants to try their chances on the Eastern Mediterranean route.

For this very reason, the case for continued strict surveillance of Hungary’s southern border remains very strong, as is the case for the V4 countries’ participation in border surveillance further south, like on the border between Macedonia and Greece. Fabrice Leggeri, the director of Frontex, himself admitted in a statement to French senators in June 2016 that the huge reduction in arrivals on the Eastern Mediterranean route in early 2016 was due to “the double effect of the closure of borders on the Balkan route and the enforcement from March 20 of the agreement between the EU and Turkey”. The closure of national borders in the Balkans was initiated in February 2016 by Austria. The countries further south then followed suit in a chain reaction, because they did not want migrants to become trapped on their territory. The Austrian decision and the active support offered by the V4 countries for border surveillance in the Balkans were then strongly criticised in Berlin and Brussels as well as in the mainstream European media, even after over a million illegal immigrants – Muslim terrorists among them – had made their way north in 2015.

While Italy is now the main target of attacks from pro-immigration governments and from Brussels, pro-immigration Spain is encouraging migrants to travel further north just as Greece did in 2015–16. In France, illegal immigrants now mainly cross the border from Spain instead of Italy. Some 7,000 migrants were sent back to Spain at the French border in the Pyrenees Mountains last year, but French border police were present at only five crossing points. According to statements made in the media by police union members, many more illegal immigrants were able to enter French territory. This movement northward seems to be actually encouraged by the Spanish authorities, in spite of their pro-migrant rhetoric. Consequently, France registered 122,743 new asylum requests in 2018, up 21.8% on 2017, which was already a record year. At the same time the number of asylum requests in neighbouring Germany was down 16.5% to 185,853. However, some of the migrants now travelling through Spain travel on to countries like the UK or Germany. British and German media have now started to raise the alarm about this clear violation of EU rules by the government of Pedro Sánchez, since many of those migrants later apply for asylum to avoid deportation, while under the EU’s Dublin rules Spain should be the country responsible for their asylum requests.

Notwithstanding the economic motivation, by far the number one cause of emigration to Europe, there are two major pull factors for illegal immigration which have been regularly described in Frontex’s yearly analyses. One is facilitation by people smugglers on particular routes. On the Central Mediterranean route an important facilitating role was also played by rescue ships operated by NGOs very close to the Libyan coast. In some cases it has even been proven that crews actively coordinated their operations with Libyan smugglers. When the number of migrants sailing from the coast of Libya began to decrease between July and August 2017, long before Matteo Salvini closed Italy’s ports to illegal immigrants, this was due to the extension of the Libyan Coast Guards’ search and rescue zone and to the enforcement by Italy’s left-wing government (which had just suffered heavy losses to right-wing parties in local elections because of the immigration issue) of a new Code of Conduct for NGOs operating in the Central Mediterranean.

The second major pull factor for illegal immigration is linked to the presence of relatives or friends of potential emigrants in their destination country and the conviction that if they make it to that country the risk of being sent back home is very low. This is why until 2017 Italy was preferred to Spain by many Africans, even though the route through Libya and the Central Mediterranean is much more dangerous that the one via Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar or the triple border fence of Ceuta and Melilla. With Spain’s new government having announced that it will bow to the European Court of Human Rights and cease to enforce “hot returns” at its land borders with Morocco, and with Spain now preferring to push illegal immigrants north instead of keeping them in closed centres before deporting them, it should be no surprise that this has now become the immigrants’ preferred route, even compared with the eastern route, where migrants still have to cross several closed borders in the Balkans if they want to get further north than Greece. But other European countries also bear part of the responsibility for this pull factor, as they allow illegal immigrants whose asylum requests have been rejected to stay and move freely in the Schengen Area.

For example, out of 406,153 people who were refused asylum by Germany in 2016–17, only 49,300 were deported. Many of those who were not deported simply vanished in the Schengen Area. Of almost 85,000 people who were refused asylum and ordered to leave France in 2017, only about 14,000 were deported. Between 2013 and 2017 Italy was able to deport only about 20% of illegal immigrants who had been ordered to leave its territory. Part of the problem lies in the lack of will to cooperate on the part of their countries of origin, and this is especially true of many African and Islamic countries. But there is also a lack of will from Brussels and EU countries to expel those who cross their borders illegally and to exert appropriate pressure on their countries of origin.

Source: Frontex, Risk Analysis for 2018.

The proposal repeatedly put forward by the V4 countries since the immigration crisis of 2015, and more recently also by Austria and Italy, to create closed centres where illegal immigrants would have to stay until granted asylum or deported back to their countries of origin, is still rejected by a majority in the EU, including by Germany and France. Hungary’s success in stopping illegal immigrants on the Balkan route (which is a continuation of the Eastern Mediterranean route) shows that what is needed is a combination of effective border surveillance and tougher laws allowing for hot returns on the border and for the detention of those illegal immigrants who are caught further from the border.

So why do other countries and EU institutions criticise so harshly the stance taken by the V4 and now also by Austria and Italy? Their humanitarian motivations do not stand up when confronted with hard facts. First of all, European leaders must know from Frontex’s yearly reports that those who choose to emigrate illegally to Europe are not among the poorest in their home countries, since such a trip costs thousands of euros. Secondly, the argument that Europe should help immigrants to get to its shores in order to avoid deaths in the Mediterranean is ludicrous, because liberal immigration policies lead to more attempts with more deaths, as has been proven by past statistics. Salvini’s closed-door policy has in fact cut the number of deaths in the Central Mediterranean by more than half, from 2,853 in 2017 to 1,306 in 2018. In the meantime, Sánchez’s (partial) open-door policy has lead to an increase in the death toll in the Strait of Gibraltar from 223 in 2017 to 769 in 2018. Australia’s “No Way” policy, enforced since 2013, has shown that it would be possible to reduce the death toll to almost zero were the EU to wage a concerted and consistent fight against illegal immigration, with those attempting to cross the sea illegally receiving an automatic lifetime ban from European territory, and with all asylum seekers having to wait in closed centres, preferably outside EU territory, until they either gain asylum or are deported.

There seems to be a lot of hypocrisy on the part of the pro-immigration and pro-relocation lobby now formed by Germany, France, Spain, Greece and the European Commission against Italy, Austria and the Visegrád Four. There is also no doubt that the immigration question is an important factor behind the accusations made by the European Commission and the European Parliament against Poland and Hungary concerning the rule of law. As Zoltán Kovács, the Hungarian secretary of state for international communications and relations, told journalists in Brussels before a debate on Hungary planned by the European Parliament for January 30, “left-wing and liberal migration policy advocates” seem to have “hijacked” European institutions. The majority in favour of mass immigration will probably still be in place, albeit with a thinner margin, after the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament. The case for encouraging mass immigration – both legal and illegal – was made in front of the British House of Lords Migration Committee in 2012 by Irishman Peter Sutherland, the then UN Special Representative for International Migration and chairman of Goldman Sachs, who had earlier been European Commissioner for Competition and Director-General of the World Trade Organization. According to Sutherland, migration was not only a “crucial dynamic for economic growth” for EU nations “however difficult it may be to explain this to the citizens of those states”, but also the only sensible answer to an ageing and declining native population, which was the “key argument and, I hesitate to use the word because people have attacked it, for the development of multicultural states.” Another of Sutherland’s arguments for mass immigration was that from a European integration perspective, the EU “should do its best to undermine” the “homogeneity” of its member states.

In February 2017 at the University of Geneva, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos openly declared that the EU-27 would need 6 million more immigrants in the coming years and that the EU would open immigration offices in all countries on the southern coast of the Mediterranean and in western Africa as a way to fight illegal immigration. This sounded very much like the supposedly non-existent Soros Plan often denounced by Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán. Avramopoulos conceded that “we cannot however let everyone in”, as it “would only feed xenophobia, nationalism and populism”. Later on, in December 2017, Avramopoulos published an article to explain to his fellow Europeans that illegal “migrants are here to stay”, that “we cannot and will never be able to stop migration” and that we should therefore “collectively change our way of thinking”.

In June 2018 Federica Mogherini, a former communist who is now Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, defended the need for continued mass immigration in front of leaders gathered at an EU-G5 Sahel summit in Brussels, telling them that “some economic sectors in Europe, without immigration, would just have to stop working from one day to the other”.

The clear divide in Europe on the issue of immigration was further illustrated last December at the international conference in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, when the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was not attended by Italy and a number of Central European countries: Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia and Estonia.

On 28 January, the question of immigration was again the central topic of a meeting between Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó and Poland’s interior minister Joachim Brudziński. The joint declaration after that meeting stated that both countries considered retaking full control of migration flows to be a priority for the EU, and that they would not agree to hand over to Frontex the task of controlling their own sections of the EU’s external borders, which is something France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel want to achieve. As Viktor Orbán put it in September 2018, “Angela Merkel has said that the plan is that part of the border control should be handed over from frontier states to Brussels, which means that they want to take away from us the keys to the gate.”