Europe’s History With Refugees Has Something to Tell the U.S.

Germany, Serbia, and Sweden hosted tens of thousands of migrants three years ago. Can the U.S. take a page from the EU as caravans mass at our border?
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Refugees land on the shoreline of Lesbos, Greece, after successfully crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey in October 2015.

Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Not long ago, the world watched heartbreaking images of fleeing refugees, not unlike those now emerging from the southern U.S. border. 

Within months, beginning in 2015, more than 1 million migrants and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa had crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe—some escaping war and violence, some seeking work—and their numbers overwhelmed the continent.

And now, as thousands of Central American refugees from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala continue to surge toward the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s worth noting important similarities to how European countries responded to its migrant crisis, the impact of which is still being felt there.

“It really is kind of a search for survival, economic survival, political survival,” says Dr. Kathie Friedman, associate professor at University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Like the Central Americans coming to the U.S. border, those arriving on Europe’s doorstep also did so en masse. Some experts hesitate to call it the “new normal.”

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“Caravans have been happening in the U.S. for a couple of years now, but now we are paying more attention to them,” says Susan Fratzke, policy analyst and program coordinator at the Migration Policy Institute’s International Program.

“What’s different is that this is a way of people moving that allows them to not rely on smugglers but … on things like social media networks to travel more stably and more independently.”

And just as factions in the U.S. disagree now over how to treat refugees on the southern border, so too did squabbling European Union countries.

At the height of the migrant crisis there, countries “threw everything at the wall,” Fratzke says. They greeted the refugees, most of them Muslims fleeing war and violence, with a mix of hostility, confusion, and apprehension.

In the end, Germany, Serbia, and Sweden hosted tens of thousands of people in camps, apartments funded by the U.N. Refugee Agency, and in residents’ homes, while other countries closed their borders.

Initial sympathies hardened as public backlash grew and the crisis expanded.

After allowing people to enter freely, for example, an overwhelmed Sweden, the most refugee-friendly European country, began instituting strict border controls. By 2016, it had begun to deport thousands of refugees in an effort to contain the crisis—as had another Nordic country, Finland.

Germany, which had the most generous response to the refugees in Europe, initially took in nearly 1 million before trying to slow the flow. In 2017, it began to deport failed asylum-seekers.

Slovenia, Austria, and Macedonia also tightened their borders. Hungary’s government was one of the most xenophobic, stirring up sentiments against refugees and migrants, with the prime minister going as far as calling migration “poison.” It built a fence to respond to the surge and made it a felony to climb or damage it.

“When countries stop people from crossing the border and asking for political asylum, they are really kind of breaking the law.”

On this side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has consistently called the refugee situation in Europe a “total mess” and earlier this year urged the Spanish government to build a wall across the Sahara desert as a way of containing Mediterranean migration.

He has stepped up efforts to restrict refugees on our southern border. He signed a proclamation denying the right to seek asylum to anyone not using official ports of entry. A federal judge temporarily blocked the order, calling it a violation of a “clear command” from Congress. The administration is appealing the order.

Trump dispatched thousands of troops to the border and suggested they would fire on refugees who threw rocks. Then, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, U.S. authorities fired tear gas across the border on refugees who had stormed the fence separating the two countries. Much like the iconic images that emerged from the Europe crisis, one photo of a Central American mother with her two small children trying to evade a cloud of tear gas captured the attention of the world.

It’s a far departure from a role the U.S. has long played as a welcoming place for the world’s displaced, and especially at a time when more people around the world need help. Historically a leader in refugee resettlement, the U.S. accepted more than two-thirds of the world’s refugees each year for the last decade.

But the travel ban and other restrictive policies by the Trump administration have changed that. The U.S. had set a refugee cap of 45,000 people for fiscal year 2018 but admitted just 22,491. It was the lowest number of refugees admitted in nearly 40 years. This year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the administration was setting the cap even lower—at 30,000.

In addition to direct restrictions, countries have also used financial threats and incentives to control this mass movement of people. President Trump, for example, threatened to stop aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the home countries of most of the refugees. The European Union struck a deal in 2016 to pay Turkey 6 billion euros to keep Syrian asylum seekers there. It has been deemed a success by some because of a drop in the number of boats crossing into Greece and a failure because both Greek and Turkish governments aren’t able to ensure an effective and fair asylum-filing process.

“Migration is a normal part of the entangled life that we lead in a globalized society.”

And long before the migrant crisis, Italy had a $5 billion agreement with Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to keep migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. That deal ended with the dictator’s assassination in 2011, and migration ramped back up. Last year, the EU gave Libya more money to stop boats leaving its coast and increase training for its coast guard.

Friedman says the U.S. is sloughing off its obligation under the 1951 Refugee Convention it adopted, requiring it to allow the Central American refugees to make claims for asylum. The convention defines the term “refugee,” and outlines both the rights of people seeking asylum and countries’ obligations to them. But by not allowing people to cross the border and ask for asylum, both the U.S. and Europe are violating the convention, she said.

“When countries stop people from crossing the border and asking for political asylum, they are really kind of breaking the law that they signed onto, that they incorporated into their own domestic law,” she says. “And I believe that’s what the U.S. is doing right now.”

Loren B. Landau, director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, points to agreements between countries to keep people out and increased border control spending in the U.S. as flawed methods of controlling emigration.

In an article for Foreign Affairs, he and two of his colleagues make a counterintuitive argument that Europe is making its migration problem worse by pumping money and technical aid into countries asylum-seekers are fleeing.

The idea is to create a socioeconomic transformation to entice people to stay. But the problem with it, Landau and his colleagues write, is that investing in education and vocational training in low-income countries encourages, rather than curbs, migration because having money and more education makes it easier for people to move.

“If we’re worried about people costing us money, why don’t we dedicate that money to services at home and make sure that these people are productive, entrepreneurial, helpful people in our societies?” he says, pointing to the large sums governments have spent to keep people from migrating.

Governments need to find a way to stop responding to migration as a crisis, Landau says, noting that citizens should not be expected to host migrants in their homes and otherwise support them.

“Migration is a normal part of the entangled life that we lead in a globalized society,” he says. Countries of means, he said, should “collectively find ways for migrants to enter into the destination country’s labor markets, housing markets, and education systems.”

“Let’s look at a way of providing them the assistance they need to get going and realize, ‘Look, they’re moving here, like anyone else.’ Let’s get them the legal documents,” he says. “Let’s get them rights. Let’s make sure they’re not exploited.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.