The number of refugees has recently risen sharply. While Europe failed in 2015 due to the influx of immigrants, the continent is now facing a new refugee crisis without a plan.

Belgrade is a beautiful place. The Serbian capital attracts many tourists from near and far, who come here to enjoy the varied architecture and the meat-heavy cuisine. But a group of newcomers have recently attracted attention. Hardly anyone would have guessed that citizens from Burundi, the poorest country in the world, would decide to vacation in the Balkans.

Since Serbia approved visa-free entry for Burundians in 2018 – a rare privilege for Africans traveling to Europe – thousands have jumped at the chance and arrived by plane. No one was surprised that the unexpected tourists didn’t want to admire the beautiful Belgrade Opera House.

For example, European Union border guards have reported an increase in the number of Burundians illegally entering the union, which partially borders Serbia (this is well known to smugglers who charge $3,000 a head to cross the border).

In exchange for Burundi’s withdrawal of diplomatic recognition of neighboring Kosovo, the authorities in Belgrade had abolished visa requirements for Burundian citizens. In the meantime, the loophole has been closed after the EU itself threatened to tighten entry conditions for Serbian citizens.

The Burundian fake tourists are not the only ones hoping for a better life in Europe. Recently, the number of illegal immigrants into the EU has skyrocketed. Since the beginning of the year alone, 281,000 people have arrived in the EU – an increase of 77% since 2021. The latest available data shows that around 84,500 asylum applications were made in the EU and its neighboring countries in August (excluding Ukrainians, who were intending to stay in the EU). EU do not need asylum for up to three years).

This is the strongest influx in just one month since the migration crisis that rocked the continent in 2015/16. Back then, the image of a stranded, drowned Syrian toddler had entered public consciousness, prompting a generous – albeit belated and uneven – offer of aid in Germany that welcomed more than a million refugees.

The death toll in the Mediterranean this year is already 1,811 – a grim balance. Amid the Ukraine war and the energy crisis across Europe, few seem to have taken notice.

A political issue could now change that. On November 11, French authorities reluctantly granted a berth to the rescue ship Ocean Viking, which was apprehended while crossing the Mediterranean Sea with 230 migrants on board. For weeks, Italy had refused to let the ship near its coast. France stepped in to avoid loss of life, accusing its neighbor of “irresponsible” behavior and violating legal norms.

Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, had spent her first few weeks in office allaying concerns from EU partners about her right-wing policies and past praise of Mussolini. In the meantime, it seemed as if she could form an opposing duo with French President Emmanuel Macron or at least develop a civilized cooperation. That is now unlikely.

There is no doubt that the influx of migrants to Europe’s shores will continue to grow – and with it tensions. Afghans and Syrians are still fleeing the catastrophic situation in their countries. There are also Asians and Africans who have fallen into poverty as a result of the rising food and fuel prices in the wake of the Ukraine war.

Covid-19 has apparently led to many migrants postponing their travel plans to Europe, but not rejecting them. The fact that more people will dare to travel to Europe in the future is also likely to be due to climate change. Hugo Brady from the International Center for Migration Policy in Vienna emphasizes that this is currently causing unusually warm weather conditions and thus sea and land routes that remain open.

The receptiveness in Europe is low. What generosity may remain has been eroded by the arrival of nearly 5 million Ukrainians who have received asylum-like protection in the EU since the war began. Unlike 2015, the economy is heading into recession, limiting both potential job opportunities for migrants and tax revenues to support them.

In some places, the first problems are already appearing. For example, asylum seekers in Austria were accommodated in tents, to the horror of the non-governmental organizations. An infant died in a reception center for migrants in the Netherlands in August. And the proliferation of small boats in the English Channel prompted Britain to pay France to patrol its beaches to catch migrants and stop them leaving.

The resurgence of a migration crisis, albeit on a smaller scale than before, poses two problems for Europe. The first is at the national level. Support for Ukrainian women and children fleeing Russia’s bombs has sufficient support from voters. The acceptance of mostly male economic migrants from more distant countries, however, is not. In 2015, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared: “We can do it”.

Today only a few share this opinion. Populist politicians have gained ground across the EU. One example is Sweden, which was once relatively open to asylum seekers. The country is now run by a government backed by an anti-immigrant party.

The second problem lies in the cooperation. The European approach to migration management is a jumble of national and European policies. Southern Europe resents regulations that force potential refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they reach.

These are often coastal countries such as Greece and Italy. They are demanding that their EU partner countries share the burden by resettling migrants (who would usually prefer to end up in countries like Germany anyway).

Europe’s northern states, on the other hand, only accept a system on a voluntary basis that has not proven itself. As a result, trust has disappeared. At the same time, southern member states are accused of flouting the rules in force, mistreating migrants and encouraging them to travel to other EU countries to seek protection. The result is an unwanted return of border controls in many countries that had previously been abolished within the EU.

The improvement measures implemented since 2015 are largely focused on curbing immigration. Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency, has been strengthened; Countries like Libya and Turkey, through which many migrants come to Europe, received money to limit migration flows – which also meant supporting dubious regimes.

Europe has not been able to stop the influx of migrants. The task now is to overcome it. That’s why it failed in 2015 – and still has no plan.

The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “A new migration crisis is brewing in Europe” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.

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