Three years after the apex of the European refugee crisis, the European Union’s immigration and refugee policy is still in utter disarray. In July, Greek officials warned that they were unable to cope with the tens of thousands of migrants held on islands in the Aegean Sea. Italy’s new right-wing government has taken to turning rescue ships with hundreds of refugees away from its ports, leaving them adrift in the Mediterranean in search of a friendly harbor. Spain offered to take in one of the ships stuck in limbo, but soon thereafter turned away a second one.
Behind the scenes, however, European leaders have been working in concert to prevent a new upsurge in arrivals, especially from sub-Saharan Africa. Their strategy: helping would-be migrants before they ever set out for Europe by pumping money and technical aid into the states along Africa’s main migrant corridors. The idea, as an agreement hashed out at a summit in Brussels this June put it, is to generate “substantial socio-economic transformation” so people no longer want to leave for a better life. Yet the EU’s plans ignore the fact that economic development in low-income countries does not reduce migration; it encourages it. Faced with this reality, the EU will increasingly have to rely on payoffs to smugglers, autocratic regimes, and militias to curb the flow of migrants—worsening the instability that has pushed many to leave in the first place.
THE FIRST WAVE
How did we get here? In many ways, European leaders are still grappling with the impact of the refugee crisis that has shaken the region since 2015, when record numbers of people landed in Greece, Italy, or Spain after crossing the Mediterranean Sea in rickety, overcrowded boats. Arrivals leaped from 60,000 in 2010 to 280,000 in 2014 to over one million in 2015. In 2014 and 2015 alone, more than 7,000 died while making the perilous journey across the sea, leading Pope Francis to describe the Mediterranean as a “vast cemetery.” Almost 80 percent of the newcomers sought protection from conflicts
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