Europe’s Other Migration Problem

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By Christopher Zhang

Imagine a place where you can travel between almost two dozen countries with no visa requirements and no passport and find work in any of them with minimal regulations. This dream is the reality in the European Union’s Schengen Area, a place that values the principle of “free movement of peoples”. Recently, however, the economic crisis and illegal immigration are turning that dream into a nightmare.

Three main problems have risen out of Schengen. The first deals with its basic economics. Eastern Europe and Portugal poorer than Western Europe, and visa-free travel and work opportunities have resulted in richer countries being swarmed with immigrations. This is only intensified by the ease EU residents not in the Schengen area – a handful of poorer countries like Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania – can obtain visas. Only one country has to give a visa for a migrant to be able to travel in all countries in the Schengen area. With the average Norwegian making fifteen times the average Bulgarian, the incentive is powerful for Eastern Europeans to leave their homes and go West, creating an influx of legal immigrants.

An even greater problem deals with illegal immigrants. With open borders, controls are at a minimum, and it is difficult to catch migrants when they have entered the area of “free movement”. The situation has become so desperate that Hungary, receiving a stream of migrants from non-Schengen countries in the Balkans, has erected an electric fence across its Southern border, complete with “attack dogs” and “watchmen”, mainly to keep Syrian refugees out of Schengen. Meanwhile, the strategy of getting a visa from a poorer Schengen country, then overstaying that visa in a richer country, has become a common route to illegally immigrating to Germany, the UK, and Norway. Since policing is minimal and visas from any single Schengen country apply to all of them, the free movement zone is a drawback in the fight against illegal migration.

The third and final problem is that Schengen is being used as a bargaining chip by desperate politicians. Unlike more contentious political environments such as the United States, the EU functions on a principle of consensus. This means there are few defined checks and balances rogue countries with radical governments can use the threat of their control over regulations to damage others. For example, any country in the EU can grant illegal migrants Schengen visas, and the recently deposed Greek SYRIZA government even threatened to make “members of ISIS” Greek nationals, giving them full rights to go anywhere in the European Union.

Due to these problems, Schengen is under attack all through the EU; many countries are defying the protocol, while others are using it as a bargaining chip. “Austria and Hungary are threatening to close their borders to migrants, and France and Switzerland are refusing them entry from Italy. Police are patrolling international rail traffic, flouting the passport-free travel rules governing Europe’s Schengen area.” The French government defended its conduct by claiming that if it followed the Schengen area’s rules, it would be a “victory for ISIS”. Worse yet are the threats that some leaders might exploit Schengen for leverage. Italian Prime Minister Renzi threatened that “Rome would start issuing migrants with temporary visas allowing them to travel elsewhere in Europe” if Northern Europeans refused to help Italy block Mediterranean migration. With leaders taking advantage of Schengen or shielding themselves from those who do by leaving the protocol in all but name, free movement seems to be collapsing.

That perception, however, is deceiving, as the defenders of the Schengen Area have stood strong. A large majority of EU parliament reaffirmed the principle, and German Chancellor Merkel, widely viewed as the EU’s powerbroker, has declared the principle as important above all others. They have clear reasons: intra-EU migration helps European economies far more than it hurts: “Recent studies by the European Commission and University College London show that intra-EU migrants are in fact net-contributors to their new places of residence. There is thus currently no evidence that intra-EU migrants are disproportionate users of the welfare systems in their countries of residence, let alone that they are ‘welfare tourists’”. Economically, Schengen helps.

The issue then lies in solving the immigration problems. One Irish paper states, “In particular, the migration crisis has exposed the flawed logic of setting up a common travel area without a functioning common asylum and immigration policy”. The root cause of these also has to do with Schengen, but in its asylum policy, not in its movement policy. Currently, the so-called “Dublin Convention”, which allows the EU to decide which countries should take refugees, is no longer respected as a convention. Ironically, it is not Greece and Italy, the worst affected countries by illegal immigration, who are breaking free, but better off countries such as Germany. To prevent countries like Italy threatening to give visas to illegal immigrants, and to open the door to legal immigration, will require a fairer asylum policy.

Fortunately for European leaders, fairer asylum policy may be coming. Recently, Angela Merkel said: “If we don’t arrive at a fair distribution then the issue of Schengen will arise – we do not want that”, and announced that Germany will receive 800,000 refugees in 2015, four times the number of 2014. Despite German prejudice against migrants and Islam, Germany is taking the lead in lifting the pressure off Greece, Hungary and Italy. Gradually, European leaders are coming to realize that illegal immigration is not just a Greek and Italian problem, but a problem for all of Europe:  only by stopping the flow of migrants into all countries can any of them have peace.

In this regard, Hungary’s border wall has an ironic element to it. European leaders may have condemned the structure, with Romania’s Prime Minister equating it to “the 1930s”. But the wall has totally stopped the flow” of migrants, admits one journalist writing against it. It is growing increasingly difficult to control migration once someone has penetrated the border defenses of the Schengen Area of the EU. In the future, EU leaders may be faced with the need to build walls around the EU, so that they do not need to build walls inside.

Evelyn, Ersanalli. “Mass-migration Fears in Europe: Some Facts about Intra-EU Mobility.” May 22, 2014.

“EU Scorns British PM over Bulgarian Migrants ‘Xenophobia'” Sofia News Agency, March 31, 2013. Accessed September 17, 2015.

“France Says Taking All Refugees Would Be Victory for Islamic State.” Cyprus Mail, September 8, 2015. Accessed September 17, 2015.

“Hungarian Police Clash with Migrants at Serbian Border.” AP Online, September 16, 2015. Accessed September 17, 2015.

Kureková, L. (2011) The effects of structural factors in origin countries on migration. The case of Central and Eastern Europe, IMI working paper WP-45-2011,

Kureková, L. (2011) ‘The role of welfare systems in affecting out-migration: the case of Central and Eastern Europe’, IMI working paper WP-46-2011, “Migrants Defy Hungary and Cross the Border; Hundreds of Refugees, Many from Syria, Stream to the EU on Foot.” The Saturday Star, September 5, 2015. Accessed September 17, 2015.

Suzanne, Lynch. “Schengen Area: History and Significance of the Border-free Zone.” Irish Times.

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