The EU between wars and migration

The "economic" migrations have historically been an engine of development, being distinct from the migration motivated by specific political circumstances. But now the ravages of Middle Eastern wars have created a plot that makes abstract and distorting the opposition between the two typologies.

One of the most amazing mantra of Donald Trump, now safely Republican candidate to the White House, was the commitment to build a 3000 km wall between the United States and Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to stem the flow of migrants between the two countries. A similar proposal dates back to George Bush, but it was abandoned, being deemed too costly. To reassure his voters, Trump has pledged that the wall will be erected at Mexico’s expenses. All this may seem surreal. But, unfortunately, in the European Union a number of countries have already built walls and barbed wire fences to keep out desperate migrants coming from the neighboring regions.

1. The debate on migration periodically crops up like a poisonous mushroom: an ominous event. It’s forgotten that migrations have been, and continue to be, a fundamental engine of world economic development.

Already in the ancient world Athens and Rome it was normal to be a “metizo”, and they became great having been capable of attracting large flows of migrants. The same can be said for the Maritime Republics, first, as well as the European, the French and British, empires formed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, later. And Vienna became "the Great Vienna" of the nineteenth century because of its ability to attract thousands of refugees from the Russian czarist pogroms

The United States in the twentieth century have become the largest economic power in the world by virtue of an almost uninterrupted flow of immigration: first, from Europe, then from Asia and Latin America.Germany has become Europe's largest economic power having opened the doors first to the migrants from southern European countries and Turkey, then to millions of migrants from the centre-eastern European countries after the fall of the Berlin wall.

The only major industrial power closed to migration is Japan which is experiencing for a quarter century a prolonged economic stagnation, and a dramatic demographic imbalance due to its aging population.

Indeed, the large migration flows are not random. The movement is driven by reasons that reflect the different economic and labor market landscape: in other words, the actual or perceived possibility for migrants to improve their living standard, even though it means enduring the sacrifices and the hardness that the migrant status leads. Not surprisingly, immigrants, excluding intellectuals and businessmen elites, occupy low skilled and lowest paid segments of the labor market. The OECD focuses on an aspect often forgotten or perceived in terms overturned. That is, migrants being prevalently young and economically active,” contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits” (1)

2.  Yet migration for economic reasons is not the only path. European history has known migration processes due to non-economic reasons: forced migration, originated, for example, by religious and political persecution. The Diaspora of the Jews has a long history. The first ghetto, a district specifically intended for Jews, was established in Venice at the Doges’ epoch. Examples of political migrations have multiplied in the twentieth century, first with the dissolution of the old Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, then with the establishment of fascist regimes.

The distinction between the economic path of migration and the political one was in the past generally transparent. Even in the aftermath of WWII, millions of Italians, especially from the South, emigrated to France, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany not for political reasons, but to look for a job and get a salary that, through the remittances, could even relieve the condition of the family living in the native countries.

Can we today carry out an equally absolute distinction concerning the different migration processes that are undermining the European Union? In effect, a clear-cut opposition between one and another kind of migration paths - as suggested at the institutional level and by some experts and economists (2) – it’s, in the actual geo-political context, deceptive and misleading. Here's why.

During the last twenty years, the migration flows to the European Union countries were substantially constant. What today looks like an emergency has taken shape over the past two years. It’s no coincidence that In 2015 the flow of migration from the Middle East to the European Union has almost tripled. The reason is mainly in the tragedy of the Syrian civil war - while relatively stable the flow keeps being from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Due to five years of devastating civil war, six million Syrians are internally displaced, while another five million people have fled the country, where the main cities had been reduced to miserable skeletons by years of bombings, to seek refuge in neighboring countries: over half a million in Jordan; almost three million in Turkey, a million and a half in Lebanon, as to say a third of the local population. (3)

Is it still appropriate and meaningful, in this horrible context of war, the distinction between the classic types of migration? Indeed, until the explosion of the civil war, the Syria wasn't a nation of emigrants. The opposite was true. Syria hosted a sizeable number of refugees from Palestine and Lebanon, and more than a million refugees from Iraq, hit by the longest war in the modern times.

Facing the dramatic biblical exodus of whole families, as well as widow women, children and orphans (it’s worth to remember that, according to data reported by the American press, five hundred thousand deaths are so far the tragic price of the war in Syria), the distinction between a typology and the other of migration risks being a pure and misleading intellectual abstraction.

It is no coincidence that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). jointly uses the terms of migrants and refugees, writing, for example, that "in 2015, 292,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea".
In turn, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines forced migration as a migratory movement in which there is an element of coercion,  such as "escape persecution, conflict, repression, natural and human-made disasters, ecological degradation, or other situations that endanger their lives, freedom or livelihood (my emphasis). (4) 
And significantly the Geneva Convention of 1951, sponsored by the United Nations, which expressly lays down the principles governing the status of refugees, mentions a "subsidiary protection which can be granted to those people who cannot qualify for the status of refugees, but that would be at risk if returned to their home countries".

3.    Europe cannot exorcise its responsibility with respect to the Middle East drama. The Syrian issue is the straw that breaks the camel. Without sharing the responsibility of the Middle-eastern wars beneath the absurd pretext of democracy implementation in Afghanistan, Iraq and later Syria (to not mention Lybia), the EU countries wouldn’t have been faced with the growing dramatic mass migration flows.

Now, the mercenary agreement with Turkey, signed by a frightened Europe, crossed by waves of xenophobia, is aimed erecting a virtual wall against migrants fleeing from the war devastation. Turkey has been assumed as a sort of country-prison to which Europe acquires the right to dispatch the migrants to which the right of asylum is denied.

In exchange for six billion euros, Turkey should provide for their deportation to their home countries, or lock them in its own detention camps. An agreement, harshly criticized by all humanitarian organizations, contracted with an authoritarian government that persecutes the Kurds, helps more or less openly ISIS, and sentences to long years of imprisonment opponents, as it happened in early May to two foremost journalists from the opposition press.

Moreover, a fragile agreement, as evidenced by the removal of the prime minister Davutoglu, who negotiated the agreement with the EU, pledging to implement a number of  political reforms in return for visa liberalization for circulation within the Union of the Turkish citizens, and the resumption of negotiations for Turkey's accession to the European Union.

4.    According to the Italian Prime minister, Matteo Renzi, the agreement with Turkey should become an European model to be replicated in respect to African countries. The so called "Migration compact", should allow, in exchange for agreed sums of money,  the European countries to return to their home the migrants arrived, at risk of life, on European coasts (in this case, mainly on the Italian coast). It would be interesting to know if the proposal has been referred to Pope Francis.

But to what countries, should the EU propose this kind of agreements? To make some examples, Somalia, a failed state? Eritrea, a country dominated by a dark dictatorship, from which it is even difficult to get out? Or Nigeria while its northern regions are out of control and a prey to the Boko Aram, a movement linked to ISIS? According to a UN report of 2014, the sub-Saharan region is among the countries with the highest rate of "extreme poverty" (meaning an income of $1, 25 per day); at the same time, they are typically driven by authoritarian governments who fight, torture and eliminate the opposition movements, with a muddle of miserable life conditions with lack of freedom.

In any case, it is worth mentioning that in the early months of 2016 the immigration from Africa is down. According to IOM "Migrant arrivals in Italy  for all of 2016 are close to 32,000... That compares to around 47,500 through the first five months of 2015". Yet, more than hundred thousand migrants have arrived to Greece in the first three months of 2016 mainly from Sirya along with from Iraq and Afghanistan) (4), once again confirming that the migration "emergence" is incontestably linked to the Middle Eastern and, in particular to the Syrian, war contexts..

5.   Is there a solution? The European Union has so far not offered any. So the game has passed into the hands of the United States. In a long conversation-interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the American magazine, The Atlantic (6), almost a political testament devoted to future historians of his presidency, Barack Obama reflects on the Middle Eastern war disasters started from the second Bush administration. We can also find out some harsh and tinged with irony comments toward the most belligerent European regard to the Sirya and Libya issues. Here it is a brief extract from the conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg:

“Obama knew his decision not to bomb Syria would likely upset America’s allies. It did. The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, told me - Goldberg writes: “We were absolutely certain that the U.S. administration would say yes. .. It was a great surprise”.

“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said (in regard to Libya), “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up”..(But) British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things”.

“Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention.“This sort of bragging was fine”, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement … In other words, giving France extra credit in exchange for less risk and cost to the United States was a useful trade-off,except that “from the perspective of a lot of the folks in the foreign-policy establishment, well, that was terrible. If we’re going to do something, obviously we’ve got to be up front, and nobody else is sharing in the spotlight”

Libya - Goldberg:writes -  proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided. “There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” he recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake”.

In other terms, Obama shows his determination against the US falling into the traps of new wars after the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters, which he had inherited from the second Bush.In The Atlantic's interview he also unleashes his own frustrations at the Washington foreign policy establishment: "There's a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow that...tend to be militarised responses" - he said - " But the playbook can also be a trap". Coming back to Syria's mayhem, for Obama, "the priority issue is not Assad, but the Isis".

6.     To conclude, the Obama's strategy, in opposition to a large part of the US establishment, turns around the map of the diplomatic relations in the Middle East. The new approach involves three fundamental choices: the agreement with Iran, the distancing from Saudi Arabia (and from Netanyahu's Israeli government), and the rapprochement to Russia in order to carry out a solution to the civil war in Sirya to Russia in order to carry out a solution to the civil war within Sirya, as an unavoidable condition for a first stabilization of the region and to effectively confront the Isis’ challenge.

Indeed, the solution of the Syrian mess is hard and uncertain. It is no coincidence that the old Bush's middle-eastern  friends are waiting for the departure of Obama and the possible arrival at the White House of a more malleable President, as it might be the case of Hillary Clinton. In this tricky framework, it is the substantial absence of the EU's initiative, after having in the past assumed a direct responsibility for the Middle East mayhem.

Until a few years ago, the migration issue has raised recriminations and opposition, but they were mainly bounded to the rightwing political areas, not becoming an emergency and without occupying the center of the political debate. Now it has become the central issue of the EU’s crisis.

However, it isn’t the very cause but rather one of the effects of the deep and widening crisis in the European Union and, in particular, in the Eurozone’s countries. There isn't only the Brexit game; Greece remains in full emergency and on the verge of the likely exit the euro; Spain is without a government after the defeat of the parties that have ruled the country alternately in the post-Franco era; in France, tMarine Le Pen’s Front National is the first national party and, according to opinion polls, candidate to the ballot in 2017 elections for the presidency of the Republic.

The Syrian conflict cannot be tackled without reaching a compromise possibly aimed at forming a federal State.The Assad removal, who was the first objective for France and Britain, cannot be the premise for an effective peace negotiation, but rather its ultimate goal.

In the meanwhile the desperate masses of migrants and refugees poses  a humanitarian issue. When the war that ravages Syria, the last link in the chain of wars brought by the Western  powers in the Middle East, it will have found an answer, it is quite likely that a great number of migrants will come back to their native countries, from which war, devastation and misery of human conditions have driven them off. 

1. OECD, 2014  Migration Policy Debates

2. D. Mario Nuti 1.Schengen and the European Migration Crisis /  Schengen e la crisi europea delle migrazioni ; and
Robert E. Rowthorn 2. Schengen and the European Migration Crisis ,Insight, May, 2016 (

3. UNHCR (Geneva, March 30,  2016): “ There are more than six million Syrian internally displaced people and nearly five million Syrian refugees in the region” (

4. "Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals in 2016"

5. "The Obama Doctrine", The Atlantic

Antonio Lettieri

Editor of Insight and President of CISS - Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body, Member of the OECD's Trade Union Advisory Council and Advisor of Labor Minister for European Affairs.(

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