Migration is more than asylum. Last week, the Ministry of Justice and Security listed the figures for the Netherlands. What seems? Of every ten migrants who come to our country, only one applies for asylum (origin: Syria remains the frontrunner). The other nine report for work, study or family. Of this group, more than five come from other EU member states (Poland and Germany are the first); the rest from outside the EU (India, China and the US).
this first ‘State of Migration’ also provides global figures and trends. Worldwide, an estimated 280 million people live outside their own country, about 4 percent of the population. Large flows of migrants move within their wider region, such as southern Africa or western Asia. In Europe, too, the share of migrants from Europe itself is very high (51 percent), thanks to the free movement of people in the EU. In the Netherlands, more than 6 percent of the inhabitants have a different nationality; in Belgium and Germany about 12 percent.
Cool numbers can temper emotion, clarify policy choices, show ghost stories and fictional fiction, in short: bring peace to the chatter. An essential function. At the same time, politicians know that one incident of violence can raise the debate temperature again. Significant: together with the ‘State of Migration’, the ministry sent an overview of police reports, which naturally attracted much more media attention (“Tackling serious asylum crime fails”).
In the EU too, the migration and asylum debate is full of emotion. The trauma of the great refugee crisis of 2015-2016 has not been processed. An unprecedented influx of asylum seekers then led to fierce struggles between proponents of ‘open borders’ and ‘close borders’, both within and between member states. Afterwards the eastern member states’ no to solidary solutions caused a lot of bad blood.
About this disruptive crisis recently appeared a sharp essay. Author Hugo Brady, then advisor to EU summit president Donald Tusk, divides the countries and institutions into ‘pigeons’ and ‘hawks’. Pigeons, prominent in Brussels, Berlin and Luxembourg, wanted solidarity with refugees and preferred not to hear about people smugglers or taxi services provided by NGOs. Hawks, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, focused on territorial protection and were stunned to find that, after Schengen accession, their country had no de facto guarded border with Syria or Afghanistan; southern member states allowed migrants to walk north without registering. Angela Merkel, although proclaimed pigeon-in chief, had to navigate between the two approaches and eventually Erdogan turned Turkey into Europe’s border guard.
According to Brady, the Dutch government was one of the rare hawks that wanted more EU integration. In the crisis, Prime Minister Rutte deployed an EU border and coast guard and support for asylum reception in Greece or Italy. Brady about the latter: “The Dutch thought, perhaps a little naively, that the Mediterranean countries should adopt their ultra-efficient asylum assessment system in a few weeks.”
In this Dutch do-it-yourself optimism you can also taste the neglected privilege of geography. Thanks to Schengen, the Netherlands no longer has an external border. Schiphol Airport, plus some seaports, are the only gateways. That is easy to monitor and register, compared to the immense coastline that Greeks and Italians have to keep an eye on, or the Turkish border for Bulgarians and Greeks again. This geographical privilege allows us to be a pigeon at home (we don’t build a border wall, after all) and outsource the hawk tasks. At least until the boats come from across the North Sea on a bad day, with refugees from who knows, a second English Civil War, or the manned drones from the Middle East land directly on Groningen’s grassland.
If the Dutch government in the EU were to look at asylum and migration as business-like and numerically as it recommends us domestically with the ‘State of Migration’, one point stands out. Instead of wasting a lot of energy with chagrin about Hungary that refuses asylum (the Somali who is placed there immediately runs to Munich or Malmö), The Hague should better bet everything on the confidence and motivation of Southern Europe. That is asking, as stated at the end of 2020 an AIV advisory report that I co-authored, for concrete gestures, for example the relocation of asylum seekers. Italy and Greece were not good at it for years, but telling those countries that they are “unlucky that they are where they are”, as Rutte once said, is no longer possible.
Luke of Middelaar is a political philosopher, historian and professor of EU law (Leiden).
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 14, 2021