Migration has been at the center of debates regarding reforming the European Union ever since a ‘refugee crisis’ hit the continent more than three years ago. Reforming the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) has been on both the Commission’s and the European Parliament’s agenda ever since right-wing parties used the system’s failures to garner votes. Most high-level meetings between different heads of state of EU Member States usually include discussion regarding the shortcoming of Europe’s border management. The problem, however, is that these debates regarding migration reform usually center around asylum seekers, while the concerns, struggles, and needs of regular immigrants are pushed aside, ignored, or generally misunderstood.
Legal movement of people is undoubtedly intertwined with the ability of European leaders to manage the flow of refugees into the continent. Jean-Claude Junker has made it clear that the only way to manage the movement of asylum seekers is by opening more avenues of legal access to Europe, forever engraving in the public opinion the link between regular and irregular migrants. While Junker might have the best policy options in mind, it seems that the refugee crisis has so far created a perception of a continent-wide backlash against all kinds of migration.
The chart below shows the trends, over time, of the influx of regular migrants, as compared to irregular migration and asylum applications in the European Union. These trends alone are not enough to assume that a rise in asylum application and irregular migration are somehow related to the net number of immigrants on the continent during the refugee crisis— especially since there are no reliable statistics regarding the total number of regular immigrants in the last couple of years. There are, however, certain aspects arising from these statistics that deserve a closer look.
Asylum applications, as well as irregular migration, do not seem to have any sort of effect on the number of legal migrants that are accessing Europe. As a matter of fact, public attitudes regarding migration are not becoming more negative, and are therefore not discouraging legal paths toward European shores. But, the issue is becoming more salient in public discourse and, unfortunately, it is treated homogenously: asylum policy, deterrence of illegal migration, and facilitation of regular migration are lumped together, with most emphasis being placed on the former two concepts, and very little on the latter. As Figure 1 shows, however, residence permits have been issued overall in larger numbers each year as compared to the previous. So why aren’t discussions between political leaders focusing on ways of enhancing the rights and rewards of legal migrants? Junker has indeed directed much of his rhetoric on providing legal pathways as a way of lowering the number of those reaching Europe illegally. But if the data above shows us anything, it is that legal pathways not only exist, but are also used regularly. A more comprehensive approach would be not only to promote legal access to immigrants in certain ‘hotspots’ where illegal immigration originates, but also to promote the wellbeing of those who have already gone through the legal process of relocating in one of the EU’s Member States.
All kinds of immigrants, whether legal, irregular, or people seeking asylum, are now subjected to the same debate. The European Commission’s migration priorities, for example, focus mainly on asylum seekers and deterring irregular migration, while it makes little mention of legal migrants in Europe. A plan for the creation of more legal paths for access to Europe is not described, nor is an intention of addressing the needs of seasonal workers or third-country students, a plan for attracting innovators, or any other relevant strategies. Such plans could help Europe eschew this trend towards migrant anxiety.
The needs of those risking their lives to reach Europe should by no means be ignored. Neither should the needs of legal immigrants—both from within and outside the European Union. Addressing the systematic discrimination of East European workers in Western Europe, for instance, should be a key aspect of any new policy. Similarly, the Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs should be more active in any policy development regarding the attraction of innovators and entrepreneurs from beyond Europe’s borders. This is not just an issue of tax policy, or technological advancement, but an issue of migration, one in which this Directorate-General needs to show initiative and control.
This topic is represented by much more than a discussion about asylum seekers and irregular migrants. Migration is about economic development, about technological advancement, and about a more prosperous and diverse community. In a time when migration is demonized for votes, and when immigrants are all treated as a hoard, regardless of each personal story found within this large group, the European Union should signal that all aspects of migration are attended to appropriately. Europe can simultaneously secure its borders, give asylum to those in need, and provide an enriching, prosperous environment in which immigrants play an important part. It does not have to pick and choose which policy to follow, as it is doing now.