The refugee crisis: Fixing Schengen is not enough

17 February 2016

Solving the problems of the Schengen area will not stop Europe’s refugee crisis. This is a foreign policy crisis with domestic spill-over; it has to be solved abroad as well as at home. 

In January, the European Commission gave Greece three months to improve its border controls, and process refugees and migrants more effectively, or face suspension from the borderless Schengen area. Border controls have been reinstated by six of the 26 Schengen states (Austria, France, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden). Hungary built a fence last year to keep out migrants arriving from Serbia. EU ministers are discussing whether to suspend the Schengen arrangements for up to two years.

The EU is looking inwards for solutions to its problems when it should also be looking outwards. The refugee crisis is not merely the consequence of Schengen’s deficiencies. Governments are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of immigrants, and even with better migration and border security policies they would struggle to control the multitudes making the short voyage from Turkey to the Greek islands. Once refugees make it to Greece’s territorial waters, they become Europe’s problem.  

There are certainly many economic migrants coming to Europe to seek their fortunes, but the majority of those travelling to the Greek islands and Italy over the past year have been genuine refugees.

The EU needs a new strategy to deal with the area beyond its borders to the south and south-east. The arc of countries from Turkey to Morocco should be part of Europe’s protection against the consequences of instability further afield, but is in fact contributing to the problems. The EU has to think afresh about how to reduce the flow of people before they reach the Mediterranean coast. If it only concentrates on making its external border controls more effective, it will be sticking its thumb in the garden hose instead of turning off the tap.

According to the UN refugee agency, 55 per cent of those arriving in Greece over the past 12 months have been Syrian refugees. They will not stop leaving Syria until the country begins to return to stability. That is a very distant prospect. Since the conflict started in 2011, EU member-states have been unable to agree on what to do, beyond backing UN efforts. They wanted Syrian president Bashar al-Assad replaced, but would not intervene decisively to force him out. They wanted the moderate opposition forces to succeed, but would not train and equip them militarily. They wanted Daesh defeated, but would not deploy ground forces to do that. They criticise Russian airstrikes but do nothing to deter them.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has clearer objectives in Syria: to defeat the moderate opposition, and then to present the West with a choice between Assad and Daesh. That will result in the victory of Assad. Meanwhile Russian bombs continue to strike civilian targets including hospitals, leading to Western fears that Putin may be deliberately worsening the refugee crisis to contribute to the destabilisation of Europe. The fall of Aleppo – a stronghold of anti-Assad forces – could lead to hundreds of thousands more refugees.

Alternative futures look as bad: Saudi Arabia has threatened to send ground forces to Syria, while Turkey is increasingly being drawn into the conflict as it fights Kurdish militias. Will Ankara and Riyadh intervene more heavily to prevent Assad’s victory, or pursue more limited objectives? In either case, their involvement will not lead to quick solutions.

There are no good options in Syria. The conflict has already produced almost 12 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The West could support a no-fly zone inside Syria, in which Syrians could live safely, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested on February 15th. But such a step would now entail a military confrontation with Russia. However awful Russia’s bombing campaign, it seems clear that neither Europeans nor the US are ready to risk war to save Syrian civilians.

The least risky choice for the EU would be an enormous increase in its aid to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, making education and jobs available to refugees, enabling them to stay in the region for the long term. The London conference on supporting Syria and the region on February 4th pledged around €10 billion over the period to 2020 – around €160 per refugee or IDP per year. That is clearly inadequate.  

If Syrian refugees are to be stopped before they can reach Europe, Turkey’s role will be vital. In November, the EU reached an agreement with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: in return for €3 billion to support refugee camps in Turkey, and commitments to move forward with visa liberalisation, Ankara is expected to contain the flow of people, and take back asylum seekers who arrive in Greece from Turkey. The problem is that the deal is not working; more than 2,000 people a day are making their way across the Aegean, despite the winter conditions. NATO has decided to mount patrols in the Aegean to track and deter people smugglers, though it is not yet clear how the operation will work or how it will link to EU efforts.

Politically, Turkey has the EU over a barrel: the overwhelming priority for the EU is to prevent refugees reaching Greece, and it is prepared to offer all sorts of inducements to Turkey to help (even though it is unclear whether Ankara is actually capable of shutting down the flow of people). Instead of focusing exclusively on the refugee camps, the EU should also pay for an EU-operated asylum processing centre in Turkey. That should select which people do, and which do not, have a legitimate basis to apply for refugee status in Europe, allowing the authorities to return failed asylum seekers to their home country. Those that qualify could then travel to the EU safely, without having to rely on people smugglers and avoid risking a perilous journey only to be turned away. The EU must also ensure that those asylum seekers awaiting a decision are kept in humane conditions. But this plan will come at a cost: the Turkish government may insist on concessions in the EU accession talks, which some member-states are reluctant to offer.

If the problem of the Turkish route could be solved, that would still leave North Africa, and especially Libya. Before Syrians overwhelmed the Greek islands in 2015, most of the EU’s attention was focused on people crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. Though the numbers have declined from last summer, last month 6,000 migrants arrived in Italy; most embarked from Libya’s coast. Libya has no national government, few if any functioning institutions and a vast desert hinterland in which people smugglers can circulate freely.

As in Syria, the EU has hoped that the UN would find a political solution to the country’s problems; new national institutions could then control law and order and put an end to people smuggling. Although the UN-brokered Libyan Political Accord was signed on December 17th 2015, the government established to implement the accord remains confined to a hotel in neighbouring Tunisia. The growing presence of Daesh is also a challenge for Libya’s beleaguered authorities.

Once migrants set sail from Libya, they are the EU’s problem, de facto if not de jure. They cannot be pushed back to Libya; nor can they be left to die at sea if their ships sink. Last summer the EU launched the maritime mission now called ‘Operation Sophia’. Its objective is to stop migrant smuggling from Libya. Among other things, the EU wants to apprehend smugglers before their ships leave port. That phase has not yet started, but can only be successful if the EU has eyes and ears on the ground in Libya. With the consent of the legally-recognised (if ineffective) Libyan authorities, the EU should consider a civil-military mission, with sufficient air mobility and intelligence assets, to track and disrupt smuggling networks in Libya. This mission would undoubtedly be demanding; but the alternative is for the EU to continue providing a taxi service to Italy for those who cannot get there under their own power.

Further south still, as part of its work on a new security strategy, the EU needs to review how its development policies can contribute to stopping the flow of economic migrants and preventing people-smuggling from sub-Saharan Africa.

Schengen reform
Even if the EU succeeds in cutting the numbers of refugees and irregular migrants reaching its territory, some will get in. As a forthcoming policy brief by Camino Mortera-Martinez will explain, the Schengen countries’ most pressing need is to reform the Dublin system governing asylum seekers. Under that system the first EU country the refugee enters is responsible for processing the asylum application. Greece and Italy have found it impossible to cope with the numbers of people arriving, and the system has allowed transit countries, such as Hungary, to take measures to stop asylum seekers travelling further north.

The ‘quota’ system adopted by the Council of Ministers in September sought to distribute asylum seekers across all Schengen countries. The system has failed so far, not least because the centres designed to process and relocate refugees (so-called ‘hotspots’ in Italy and Greece) are not functioning: some of them have not been built yet, and those that have are not yet dealing with migrants properly. Greece claims that it does not have the money or staff to make the centres work. The Commission and the member-states blame the Greek authorities for ‘serious shortcomings’ in the way Athens manages Schengen’s external borders. For the hotspots to function, all sides need to do more: Greek authorities should do a better job in staffing them, and work with Frontex ‒ the EU’s border agency ‒ and other member-states on the ground. Other member-states have only provided two-thirds of the 775 border guards requested by Frontex in October; they need to do more. The European Commission should provide more cash to build and equip the hotspots.

To increase pressure on Athens, the EU is now considering sealing the Greek border with Macedonia. The idea is to pile up refugees in Greece so that the situation becomes so serious that Greek authorities would have no option but to step up their game. The Commission also believes that doing so would leave other member-states no choice but to take in their promised share of refugees.

This is a dangerous idea: Greece’s febrile politics do not need inflaming, and no one factored in the cost of a migrant surge to last summer’s Greek bailout deal. It is also misguided: shutting the border with Macedonia would not disrupt smuggling networks. It would only change the routes they use. As long as there is a demand for people smuggling, organised crime will provide a supply.

Scapegoating Greece would also be hypocritical. Other governments are not living up to their commitments to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers: so far fewer than 0.4 per cent have been moved. Member-states must take in their share of refugees.

Schengen is under fire and is unfairly blamed for social tensions, alienation and even terrorism. Despite its imperfections, the borderless area within Europe is one of the great achievements of the EU. EU countries have become closer trading partners thanks to Schengen, and labour mobility has increased. For many European citizens, passport-free travel around the continent is one of the EU’s most important and recognisable accomplishments. It would be a great mistake for EU leaders to erect borders again, only to find that in solving nothing they jeopardise the EU’s future.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy, Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow and Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.


Protecting the Schengen Area should be the goal of all EU negotiations. Hungary has been decried for its erecting of a fence by other member states, when in reality all this fence has done is too increase external border security. The Visegrad countries have not instituted border checks, but are instead advocating for the building of a fence that would ensure more stability for the external border. Increased internal border checks are more threatening to the Schengen Area than fences to temporarily secure the external border. The Commission should continue to focus on policies to secure the external border as this is the best bet for preserving the future integrity of the Schengen Area.

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