The refugee crisis is subsiding while political fallout is going strong

Though the flood of immigrants in 2015 and 2016 has subsided, Europe is ending the year without having prepared for the next migration wave. Meanwhile, many immigrants are languishing.

This year, German refugee applications declined to levels not seen since 2014. Greece and Italy, which bear the brunt of migrant arrivals across the Mediterranean have also gotten a little more breathing space.

In part, that can be explained by the winding down of the Syrian war, in part by the efforts to shut down the routes that most asylum seekers took in 2015 and 2016. First, the Turkish one was effectively destroyed by an EU-Turkey deal on sending back undocumented migrants and by fences erected by Central European nations to stop people from crossing them on foot. More recently, EU efforts spearheaded by Italy have succeeded in reducing the number of people taking the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean, mostly from chaos-ridden Libya.

According to the United Nations, 83 percent of September arrivals came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where most of those who could and wanted to flee are already gone. Things could get ugly fast if a new war breaks out in the Middle East. Lebanon, already overpopulated with Syrian refugees, is one of the more distinct possibilities as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran heats up. A new refugee stampede could easily overwhelm the feeble barriers Europe has managed to construct. Neither Turkey, whose relationship with Europe is undergoing a cold phase, nor Libya would be able to staunch another flood.

Europe is not ready. The refugee relocation scheme it hastily concocted in 2015 is barely working: In more than two years, only 32,000 people have been moved from Greece and Italy. On the Greek island of Lesbos, more than 5,000 people are living in a facility meant for 1,400. In the Italian town of Ventimiglia, on the French border, 600 extremely miserable migrants and asylum seekers created enough tension for the mayor to appeal to the EU for help. But other European nations are unwilling to take the immigrants; three of the four countries of the so-called Visegrad group — Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary — are especially adamant, creating perhaps the most important split in the EU today. All attempts to shame them into taking in more people have failed, and the European Commission is now suing the three countries to force them to accept mandatory resettlement.

Last week, European Council President Donald Tusk — a Pole but a strong opponent of the country’s nationalist government — sent a memo to national leaders saying the resettlement system was divisive and unworkable. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos panned the message as “anti-European,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the current system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

The Dublin system requires the country in which an asylum seeker lands with taking care of that person while processing his or her application. That’s unfair to Greece and Italy, but reform proposals are not much better. The European parliament’s idea of a solution looks like more of the same.

Eastern European countries have signaled they’re only willing to show solidarity with fellow EU members on migration by paying for efforts to keep asylum seekers from coming to Europe. On Thursday, the four Visegrad Group members announced they’d kick in some 9 million euros ($10.6 million) each to support Italy’s investment in shoring up the Libyan border. That’s only a tiny part of the 2 billion euros the EU is spending in Africa to both improve local conditions and tighten security — an iffy plan at best, given that Africans who partake of the development aid will have more money to travel to its source.

No final decisions seem possible until Germany forms a stable government. Paradoxically, it doesn’t have one because of the migration issue: By opening the country to asylum seekers, Chancellor Angela Merkel lost the support of her more conservative voters, who defected to the far-right Alternative for Germany party. The Social Democrats, with whom Merkel is in tough coalition talks, achieved ther worst-ever election result — in part because they have remained, on principle, immigrant-friendly. If an alliance takes shape early next year, one of its goals will be to show that immigration is, on balance, favorable for Germany. That, however, is an even harder task than processing hundreds of thousands of asylum claims.

The European Network Against Racism has published the results of a survey of recent immigrants to Europe, with the plurality of the sample living in Germany. The newcomers report a life satisfaction level below five on a ten-point scale and high levels of discrimination. Many of those who are employed, including 55 percent of Arab immigrants, say they are overqualified for their jobs. Only 33.4 percent (in Germany, 51 percent) have reported taking part in integration programs.

On the other hand, German employers I’ve talked to complain about the difficulties of hiring people with a poor command of German and hard-to-certify skills.

The EU and its individual members urgently need three working systems. One would keep people from heading to Europe, another would streamline application processing and settlement for those who do, and a third one would put them on intensive, effective integration programs. More than two years after the acute migration crisis began, neither of the three goals is in sight. As they squabble and follow a learning curve, European leaders can only hope the Middle East doesn’t explode again anytime soon.

Leonid Bershidsky.

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