According to Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, last year there were over 1.8 million illegal border crossings detected along Europe’s external Schengen borders—six times the detections reported in 2014. Europe’s external border security measures are now under immense pressure, while its internal border controls are all but non-existent.
Despite the magnitude of the European border security problem, Frontex’s release this month of its annual risk analysis (PDF) for 2016 has received little media attention. That’s unsurprising given the report itself offered little in the way of new solutions or hope when it comes to managing Europe’s frontier challenges.
Instead, Frontex told us what we already know. Europe’s experiencing an unprecedented rise in migratory pressure, an increasing terrorist threat and a steady rise in the number of regular travellers. The highest number of illegal border crossers in 2015 were those who declared that they had come from Syria (594,059) and Afghanistan (267,485). Arrivals from West Africa also rose and were over 64,000 last year.
In fairness to Frontex there’s no quick or easy fix to Europe’s border security crisis. No new wall, warships or deployed soldiers are going to be able to secure Europe’s borders in the face of the current migration tsunami.
There are strong economic and political pull factors in Europe for asylum seekers and economic migrants alike. Those, combined with Europe’s close proximity to the Middle East, and associated well-established migration routes, ensured that Schengen’s external borders would be a mass migration frontline. With ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the flow of asylum seekers was always going to rapidly increase. And an offshore processing regime like that used in Australia is unlikely to work given the geography involved and scale of migration flows.
Europe’s internal and external border control measures are unable to deal with the existential nature of the migration crisis as Syrians, Iraqis and Libyans flee from harm. But the crisis is also a threat to the existence of the protections contained within the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. There have been frequent calls to change some of the definitions and rights of asylum seekers contained within the Convention.
Europe’s Schengen Zone was developed to promote ‘the free and unrestricted movement of people, goods, services, and capital’. While the Schengen Agreement was also concerned with harmonising rules for controlling external borders, it wasn’t designed to deal with unplanned mass migration from the Middle East and Africa.
The Schengen Agreement and Frontex are both ill-equipped to cope with the current crisis. The Schengen States need to rethink their approach. Long term strategies focused on promoting peace, stability and economic development in source countries need to be established and integrated with stop gap border security measures.
To be fair the EU has sought to be more innovative and proactive in its use of official development assistance in Africa and the Middle East to address the migration crisis. Unfortunately, aid investments in origin countries are strategies that require time and stability to succeed.
Current initiatives that involve the return of asylum seekers and economic migrants from Europe to Turkey are likely too small in scale to effectively alleviate or discourage the migratory pressure.
The 26 members of the Schengen Area are unlikely to allow the zone to fall apart. Private sector profit margins and public sector budgets across the Area are now reliant on the cost and time savings provided by open internal borders. And during a time of fiscal austerity the permanent reinstatement of border functions could prove unaffordable for many member states.
The conclusion of Frontex’s Risk Analysis 2016 provides an important kernel of hope for a more effective strategy stating that ‘border management will increasingly be risk-based, to ensure that interventions are focused on high-risk movements of people, while low-risk movements are facilitated smoothly.’
The Schengen countries now need to make some hard policy choices. On one hand they can continue to ‘fight’ the irregular migration flow through the creation of stronger border security measures including, as we have already seen, the deployment of military capabilities. But under this scenario the Schengen states would increasingly fail to meet their obligations under the 1951 Convention.
As an alternative, the Schengen States could develop longer term strategies focused on mitigating the migration push factors through human security improvements. The EU has attempted as much. In the short term Frontex could process irregular migrants with a focus on mitigating the potential terrorist and organised risks associated with irregular migration flows as compared to stopping and detaining them en masse.
Frontex’s border management process is focused on assessing the risk of every border crossing by goods or people. But finite resources are increasingly being stretched to failure by the increasing number of travelers and volumes of goods crossing borders. In contrast the Australian approach is focused on a model that seeks to identify high-risk shipments or travelers. In this model most people and goods pass quickly through the border with limited contact with officials.
Australia’s geography means that it isn’t under the same pressures as Europe. And we are better equipped than most nations to deal with migration pressures. In 2015, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection produced its Strategy 2020 with a clear focus on managing risk as a key border security activity, not transactions.
There are two lessons from the Schengen crisis that are particularly relevant for Australia. One, we need to be especially mindful of social, geopolitical and economic changes that impact on migration flows and border security in order to employ early intervention strategies. And two, Australia’s border security policy professionals must also constantly review their risk assumptions. The recent attacks in Paris and Brussels have shown us that a European passport does not assure a lower level of risk.