Even though the number of migrants observed globally has been steadily increasing over the last couple decades, a report released by the United Nations in the middle of the last year showed that COVID-19 reduced their total number by two million. Generally, this phenomenon can be attributed to border closures and travel restrictions. As a result, experts reported a 27% drop from the number of migrants originally anticipated. According to the director of the Population Division in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, John Wilmoth the total number of migrants worldwide reached 281 million in 2020, which amounts to 3.6% of the world’s population. Almost two-thirds of international migrants live in relatively high-income countries. The United States continues to top the list of receiving countries (in 2020, there were over 51 million migrants dwelling in that country), followed by Germany, which received about 16 million migrants and Saudi Arabia that received 13 million. Another two major players, Russia and the UK are not far behind with 12 million and 9 million migrants received respectively.
Out of the total number of all migrants, no more than 12% are refugees.
According to recent media reports, when the current travel restrictions are to be lifted, the flow of refugees to Europe will inevitably increase, and the topic of mass migration will once again become relevant in political discourse. Experts say that tensions may begin to rise due to the fact that migrant flows now can easily be blamed for spreading COVID-19. And the blame game won’t keep us waiting for it to start, as general elections in a total of three key European countries (the Netherlands, Germany, and France) are just around the corner, and there’s a distinct rise in far-right sentiments that can be easily observed in all three, so the issue of migration will be discussed on the front pages of all the major European newspapers.
For example, the Migration Watch entity located in the UK, which would typically advocate less migration, has recently announced that 61% of all coronavirus cases registered in England were recognized as variants of the original virus. Those variants were first detected in September, the month when there was a surge in illegal migration to Britain. Although the center notes that there is no direct link between these two events, they nevertheless express concern that when Europe begins to open its borders, populists and the far-right advocates will start promoting the idea that migrants are responsible for the spread of the virus. And this trend of blaming migrants is not a strictly British affair, as it can be observed in Greece and Italy.
Typically, migrants are always the first to take the blame during any crisis, and the pandemic is no exception. Previously, migrants were blamed for stealing jobs and using too much of public resources, when Europe started experiencing a sharp economic downturn. Also, there’s been a lot of cases of discrimination against visitors from China recently, due the fact that the US propaganda machine spent the last year blaming Beijing for the spread of COVID-19 around the world.
We should not forget that problems that are often associated with refugees are largely caused by the reluctance to recognize their rights to asylum and address overcrowding in refugee camps, as we’ve seen in Greece and Italy. According to German media, when concluding a deal on refugees with Turkey in 2016, the EU pursued a single goal: to reduce the flow of illegal migrants, and it was achieved rather quickly. Before the final conclusion of this deal, the number of illegal migrants crossing the sea, on average, was 60 thousand people per month. For the entire subsequent year after the deal, the number of illegal migrants arriving to Europe didn’t exceed 26 thousand people.
In addition, according to this deal, Turkey takes back migrants who have not been granted asylum in the EU. Brussels pays Ankara 6 billion euros so that it would keep on building the infrastructure necessary for the resettlement of refugees and this kind of financial assistance has drastically improved the lives of certain categories of migrants in Turkey, in particular Syrians.
However, as it’s been noted by the EU, it only received 28 thousand migrants from Turkey, which is much less than it was expected. At the same time, since 2016, no more than 2 thousand were sent back by Greece due to the extremely long time process of establishing whether or not a migrant should be granted asylum. As a result, due to the fact that Europe didn’t take the responsibility of improving its legal mechanisms when the deal was signed, refugee camps remain overcrowded, in particular those on the island of Lesbos. This creates tensions that give rise to anti-migrant sentiments.
In addition, Ankara has repeatedly criticized the terms of the agreement concluded in 2016, accusing the EU that it is in no hurry to transfer the financial assistance that it promised. Turkey has repeatedly threatened to break the deal. In particular, in March 2020, it opened its border crossings, after which clashes were registered between migrants and Greek border guards.
On March 22, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a critical comment about migration and Ankara’s relations with the European Union at the international conference on migration in Izmir. In particular, he noted that the European Union provided 3 billion euros to Greece for it to be able to accommodate 100 thousand asylum seekers, while it abandoned 4 million refugees seeking asylum in Turkey.
Commenting on Erdogan’s statement, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who participated in the conference, stressed that cooperation between the EU and Turkey is of strategic importance. “Turkey has a crucial role in stopping illegal migration,” he noted, which is why “the EU should pay the 6 billion euros it previously promised to Turkey.”
Meanwhile, EU member states continue to argue over the distribution of migrants, and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell has recently announced that the deal on refugees will need to be reworked. However, even if the EU member states decide to strike a new deal, will it be able to solve all of the problems that have already accumulated on the humanitarian front?
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.