Look to Europe to solve America’s immigration crisis

Both sides of the Atlantic Ocean could witness migration crises this year. But the number of illegal arrivals is likely to be much lower in Europe than in the United States.

That’s largely due to the role of gatekeepers: neighboring countries with which the European Union (EU) and several member states have signed agreements to stop, or at least mitigate, the flow of irregular mass migration.

The scope of the challenge is enormous. In 2022, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, detected approximately 330,000 irregular entries at the EU’s external border. This figure does not include the more than 13 million people who left Ukraine after the Russian invasion and who, thanks to the EU-Ukraine visa-free agreement and the temporary protection directive activated by the EU in March 2022, crossed the border legally into the EU. In the case of the United States, border “encounters” totaled 2.38 million in fiscal year 2022, not to mention undetected illegal entries, which, according to some analyses, could add hundreds of thousands to that figure.

However, in Europe, if we look at longer-term trends (with the exception of the 2015 refugee and migration crisis), irregular arrivals in the last five years ranged from 126,000 to 330,000 per year. By comparison, the number of encounters at the US Southwest border never fell below 458,000, even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (and its travel restrictions) and with President Donald Trump’s strict border policy. Trump in 2020, almost four times the similar European rates.

Why so much difference? Are people from the Middle East and Africa just less eager to come to Europe? According to the African Youth Survey and IPL, this is not the case: millions of people intend to move to the EU. And, if they manage to reach Europe’s relatively open maritime border, it’s almost impossible to send them back. Between 2015 and 2019, only 19% of non-EU citizens with exit orders were returned to countries of origin outside of Europe.

So why can’t more of them reach Europe’s southern border? The porters.

From Turkey and Egypt to Niger, Senegal and Morocco (just to mention a few), Europe has an extensive network of agreements, cooperation and common policies with states that have tools to stop illegal migration towards the EU. Perhaps the most famous example is Turkey, which is home to at least 3.6 million Syrian citizens and hundreds of thousands of other refugees.

Following the EU-Turkey Statement, Ankara agreed to prevent migrant crossings into Europe. As compensation, the EU and its member states have mobilized €9.5bn ($10.3bn) for refugees and host communities since 2015. While this seems like a significant amount, compared to the potential cost of managing millions of new irregular arrivals , it is actually a cheap solution.

There are similar understandings along the Mediterranean coast. For example, in the first nine months of 2022, Morocco thwarted 40,000 illegal crossings into the EU. In compensation, Brussels pledged €500 million ($540 million) in development assistance for Morocco’s migration management efforts. In October 2022, in reaction to the increase in irregular migration from Egypt, the EU signed an agreement with Cairo on an €80 million ($87 million) border management program to “assist border guards and Egypt’s coastlines to reduce irregular migration and people smuggling along its border, and provides for the acquisition of surveillance equipment, such as search and rescue vessels, thermal cameras and satellite positioning systems. There were at least 9 million migrants in Egypt in 2022, 3 million more than the previous year, mainly due to unrest in Sudan and the economic fallout from Covid-19. Many came to Egypt illegally with the intention of moving to Europe; without the measures taken by the Egyptian government, they would have done so.

Collaboration with guardians is not without its challenges and risks. However, Europe’s experience over the last decade shows that it is an important instrument in protecting Europe’s external borders. In fact, without the help of partner countries, the number of arrivals in Europe would increase exponentially.

By comparison, the United States has modest agreements with guardian countries, some of which, for example, the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as “Remain in Mexico,” have been compromised in recent years. Much of the previously promised aid for certain transit states and countries of origin, such as the $4 billion assistance package for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, has not materialized. Thus, countries south of the US-Mexico border have little intention of stemming the flow of irregular migration. President Joe Biden’s recent summit in Mexico is not likely to change this; the policies outlined by the three North American leaders may well increase the migratory flow.

Appropriate border walls and policies are key instruments for resolving migration crises. But it is also true that the protection of a country does not begin at its borders. In the era of irregular mass migration, guardian states must be part of a lasting solution, even if it requires attention and sometimes financial investment by the destination country.

Viktor Marsai, PhD, is the Director of the Budapest-based Institute for Migration Research and an Andrássy Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC.

Image: Flickr/Customs and Border Patrol.