Fortress Europe alone will not solve our migration crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Preparing medicine for distribution. [Partnership for Transition in Côte d’Ivoire]

Europe should invest in healthcare, agriculture and job creation, write Debarati Guha and Volker Hauck, not just militarising its borders. 

Debarati Guha is Director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) and Professor at University of Louvain School of Public Health, and Volker Hauck is Head of Programme Conflict, Security and Resilience at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM).

Dealing with illegal migrants to Europe in a sustainable way means investing in healthcare, agriculture, food security and job creation in the countries where many of these migrants come from – and not just by policing or militarising Europe’s borders. The Centre for Research for Disaster Epidemiology estimated that 180 million people lived in conflict-affected regions in 2012. No surprise then that the thousands of people attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Italy by boat are emanating from these regions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently stressed the importance of gathering knowledge on the causes of migrant ‘flight’ in their countries of origin as a way of overcoming the current crisis in numbers, in a speech at the G7 Dialogue Forum in Berlin.

The Chancellor emphasised the need for the international community to prepare for health disasters, such as the West Africa Ebola outbreak, outlining what Germany plans to do. In this, she is spot on.

On the heels of this speech the results from the Special European Council Summit on migration fell short of addressing the real issues, disappointingly remaining within the confines of border patrols and surveillance devices. In other words, they looked at how to deal with the migrants as they wash up on shore, not where they get on the boats.

Europe has made substantial investments in security and migration to Europe through different programmes like FRONTEX, EUROSUR and Security Research. These offer technological solutions for surveillance and deterrence at the border.

Finding solutions to this stream of migration does not entirely lie in new surveillance devices attempting to keep migrants at bay. Used alone, they are unlikely to effectively stem the flow of desperate people from fragile or failed states. The debate centres on policing and military actions, with the logic running from ‘search and rescue’ to ‘turning them back’ and finally to the bone chilling ‘let them drown’ scenarios.

Fortunately, along with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, many of the EU member state foreign ministers have recognised the importance to at least calm and stabilise communities in countries still reeling from conflict, with plans for localised interventions. For example, both the UK and German ministers for international development have underlined the lack of basic services in post-conflict countries as essential ‘security’ concerns and have been tasked to “vanquish the causes of flight”.

Fight or flight?

People living in highly insecure environments actually value food security, health care and employment more, explains research by the Norwegian think tank FAFO. Scarce food, health services or schools will inevitably encourage families anywhere to try to leave. Often, these are push factors that drive young men to violence and extremism – creating a vicious cycle with no end in sight.

Consider Yemen, where bloody diarrhea in small children has more than doubled in the last two months and medicine prices are rocketed by 300%. Polio has re-emerged in parts of Syria as vaccination programmes have broken down and doctors and nurses are forced to flee the country in droves.

Dealing with the root causes of illegal migration, asylum seekers and refugees is not easy – but we need to try. Along with better patrols of Europe’s borders, we need to find innovative ways to support local communities in Europe’s neighbourhood, helping countries emerging out of conflict to pick up the pieces.

Ebola will not be the last of a post-conflict disease outbreak. To contain the risk of disease transmission, it needs to be tackled at community level and this in turn depends entirely on how well the local public health staff are prepared and that the systems have the capacity to manage coordinated responses. Mobile labs from abroad are prohibitively expensive and are not sustainable, even in the short term. On the other hand, existing laboratory facilities that have been supported by, and continue to work with prestigious European organisations like the Welcome Trust, Pasteur or Max Planck Institute could be effectively utilized to monitor emerging diseases.

We have learnt from Iraq that supporting the local health professionals is crucial. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, local public sector doctors and nurses were excluded. Many left the country as a result, leaving chaos in its wake and gaps in health systems to be filled by masses of overseas humanitarian health staff. Other basic public services like education, suffered a similar fate, and they seem a low priority in the scheme of things.

But they are not – especially not in the setting of fragile or failed states. Innovation is needed and ‘business as usual’ models of development aid humanitarian relief do not work in these countries.

Innovations in information and communication technology need to be tried and tested by local communities. When Mozambique emerged from conflict, its programme of vocational training in education for young people worked with remarkable success, and it should be replicated elsewhere. These could reap dividends in the medium run, while these fragile environments are getting on their feet. Peace dividends from interventions in countries like Libya and Iraq can only emerge when the provision of basic public services like health and education are at their core, meeting the most basic needs of the civilian population.

Thinking and acting through this lens in the countries of Europe’s neighbourhood may discourage thousands of desperate people from risking their lives. In the words of Mr Tusk. Whatever you label them – migrant, refugee or asylum seeker – like all of us, they would much prefer to stay at with their families and communities, rather than undertake a perilous voyage risking their very lives. Let us help them to do so.

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