By Alexander Betts and Paul Collier

This week European heads of state meet in Brussels to discuss reform of the region’s asylum and immigration policies. The recent push-back by Italy of the Aquarius, a boat carrying 630 African migrants, and other boats since, highlights the urgent need for leadership. Without effective international cooperation, lives are at stake, and so is the credibility of the European Union.

Can Europe develop an asylum and migration policy that is humane, economically sound, and widely accepted? The 2015 crisis revealed how unprepared the EU was for a mass influx. Yet progress on reforming the Common European Asylum System has been slow. The main consensus has been on building external partnerships with transit countries in Africa. But on issues like the allocation of responsibility for asylum seekers in Europe, where and how refugee claims should be assessed, and whether arrivals in one Schengen country should get full welfare and work rights throughout the Union there is deep division. Angela Merkel, once a moderating voice within European migration debates, faces mutiny as coalitions of states cluster around diverging positions.

Some degree of transnational mobility is an inevitable and positive feature of globalisation. Across Europe, firms need workers and workers need jobs: sometimes globalisation works best if workers move to jobs; mostly it works best if jobs move to workers. There is also a clear moral imperative to enable people fleeing from disorder or famine to cross borders to find refuge. No matter how these processes are managed, disorderly mass migration cannot be part of it. On the horizon, citizens are realising that automation will dramatically cut the demand for low-skilled labour. Fears of a loss of both jobs and the control of borders, are fuelling a political backlash with devastating consequences, from Brexit to the rise of populist nationalism. Polarisation and panic have become the norm.

An alternative vision is needed. Last week in Oslo, we launched our ‘sustainable migration’ framework. Its purpose is to find a common and unifying language. To achieve this, we begin with ethics. Politicians need a clear, consistent, and common basis on which to rebuild consensus among citizens as to our duties to each other, and our more limited duties to others. Sustainable migration policies must meet these obligations: fulfil basic ethical obligations, have broad democratic support, and not lure people into decisions they will come to regret. If policies deviate from these criteria, they are liable to come unstuck.

Europe has two moral duties of rescue to non-citizens in the rest of the world. In the minority of poor countries where people lack credible hope of progress, we have a duty to help the society catch up. The core of this duty is to harness globalisation to bring productive jobs: the German-led G20 initiative Compact with Africa, is an example of what is needed. Our other duty of rescue is towards people fleeing disorder or persecution and seeking refuge. Europe has not met either of these duties adequately. However, there is no equivalent duty towards economic migrants or people leaving from poor to rich countries because of aspiration. Those obligations we have towards economic migrants, such as movement of European citizens within Schengen, are choices based on the principle of reciprocity, determined mainly on a transactional logic. They have to be backed by electoral support and a ‘no regrets’ approach. Only once we are clear on principles can we build shared policies.

A significant part of movement from Africa to Europe is aspirational migration. Those coming on boats from Libya are disproportionately young, male, and educated. Their hope and sense of purpose is driven by an idealised vision of Europe. A long-held fiction has been that development can stop this kind of migration. Yet we know that in the short-term, increased income actually increases people’s likelihood of emigrating. What is needed is more profound: it is to restore purpose; to enable young people across Africa to recognize that Africa itself will provide a future of promise, just as young Chinese now look confidently to their future. As part of this psychological transformation, Europe’s approach to Africa must switch from financing entitlements to consume, to bringing opportunities that empower people to produce.

For those who have the ability to contribute, and fill skill shortages, there should be other ways to support safe and sustainable movement. Circular migration should be on Europe’s agenda. To be able to come, contribute, earn, learn, and return, can benefit everyone, as examples from the United States and elsewhere highlight. For those that are admitted by one European country, though, work rights and certain benefits might be provided only within that state. Reciprocal free movement of European citizens has no logical corollary for temporary workers.

As to refugees, the purpose of refuge is to provide safe haven and autonomy to people until they are able to go home or be integrated in another society. For the most part, this can continue to take place in developing countries; 85% of the world’s refugees find haven in low and middle-income countries. But Europe has shamefully failed to show solidarity with these haven countries. For the first four years of the Syrian crisis the regional havens of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were left to bear the costs: in 2014 some European countries even cut their contributions, forcing food rations to be reduced. Again, globalisation can be harnessed for good: it is both more humane and more feasible to bring jobs to the havens, than for refugees to struggle to get jobs in Europe. Bringing jobs, education and opportunities to refugees in haven countries is entirely feasible if European business and development agencies work together. As long as the people of haven countries share in the benefits their governments will welcome it, as has already happened in Jordan. Refugees are not natural migrants: they are people who chose to stay home until they were forcibly displaced by crisis.

Once we meet our responsibilities to the majority of refugees in the countries of safe haven, asylum in Europe becomes a minor matter, but we will need to address it. Two issues stand out for attention. Europe needs common standards for granting the right to asylum and for equitably distributing those recognised as refugees. Yet common standards cannot leave settlement determined simply by refugee choices, by boat captains, or by whether it is possible to disappear from view in an informal job market. In democracies, policies should be determined by citizen preferences and values. Since different European societies have very different democratic preferences towards integrating refugees, common standards must respect these differences. With modest numbers, this should be entirely feasible through a new system of matching the characteristics of refugees with the willingness of communities to accept them.

But entry bought from people smugglers cannot continue to confer an advantage over entry by due process. Hence, consulates must be enabled to assess asylum claims made from the regional safe havens. Once this is in place, the people smugglers can be put out of business by transporting their remaining clients to one or other of these regional havens where their claims can be processed. Without this, young Africans will continue to be tempted to play the roulette of the boats, reassured by the smugglers that they can disappear into informal markets, and that even if caught, only a third of failed asylum claimants are sent back.

Migration policy will shape Europe’s future. Our leaders need to make wise and ethical choices. To do so they first need clarity and consensus on the principles that should guide sustainable policy-making. From there, clear-sighted and longer-term policies can emerge. If they do, there is no reason why migration policy need be divisive and polarising.

Alexander Betts is Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, and Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy, both at the University of Oxford.

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