Three years since the start of the European refugee crisis, the continent’s politics are still convulsed by disagreements over migration. This is despite the sharp decline in the number of people crossing the Mediterranean into Europe—60,000 between January and August 2018, compared with over one million in 2015 and 350,000 in 2016. The crisis, in short, is not one of numbers but one of trust: European publics believe that migration is out of control and that their leaders have no real plan for handling it.
Among the new arrivals, some are refugees with no choice but to flee to Europe, while others are refugees who might have found protection closer to home. But many are aspirational migrants, leaving poor but not necessarily dangerous countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, for better jobs and opportunities in the EU. Europe’s problem is that it currently has no effective way of distinguishing between these groups or of forcing EU member states to share responsibility for legitimate refugees. And with some countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, which return less than half of rejected asylum seekers, migrants without a real claim to asylum have an incentive to apply for it anyway, knowing they will probably be able to stay regardless of the bureaucratic outcome. The absence of rule of law in the admission of migrants, coupled with haphazard integration policies, undermines public confidence, in turn fueling a populist backlash with devastating consequences for both migrant welfare and European democracy. From Brexit to the rise of the populist Alternative for Germany party, divisions relating to migration have poisoned politics.
The populists grossly exaggerate and distort the socioeconomic impact of human migration, which is often beneficial. The primary source of public anxiety is structural economic change, in particular the collapse of labor-intensive manufacturing. Yet even if migration is not the root cause of discontent, migration policies must enjoy democratic legitimacy if they are to remain sustainable.
European politicians, however, have neither the effective policies nor the unifying
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