THE BLOG

Eight Weeks to Regain Control of the Migrant Crisis

27/01/2016 17:54 GMT | Updated 27/01/2017 10:12 GMT

In eight weeks' time the tides will fade away across the Mediterranean. The snow will begin to thaw across the Balkans. The numbers of asylum seekers entering Europe is set to once again reach record highs. At this moment in time the EU is neither resourced, nor equipped to deal with another year like the last. We are approaching the point of no return.

Tough actions and even tougher words are being deployed in efforts to regain some control of the ever-growing migrant crisis. This kind of rhetoric was roundly condemned a year ago as lacking compassion but finally leaders are realising that compassion is only possible with some common sense policies.

The policies pursued to date have eroded public opinion; whilst the lack of resources, squalid camps and poor integration policies have let down migrants and refugees who deserve to be treated as human beings even if they do not have a right to remain here.

Quite simply, we need to be firm but fair. To date, we have been neither. When I was UK immigration minister, we resettled thousands of Bosnian refugees. I was proud of that fact, but I also realised that we could only offer refuge to those most in need, because race relations and community cohesion are central to any successful immigration policy. It was no coincidence that my Prime Minister made me both the Minister for Immigration, and for Race Relations. The two are mutually important.

Parts of the Middle East are ablaze. Those whose lives are at risk should be offered refuge, and that will mean large numbers of people being offered at least temporary shelter in safer countries - including European countries. However, our mistake was in attracting millions who see the EU as a beacon of economic and social opportunity for them. Combine that with a small group of those people who come to cause us harm, a difficult economic situation across our own Continent that stretches resources, and a shambolic and unilateral set of political decisions, and we see how we have wandered into the perfect storm.

Last week the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said "We need to get a grip on this issue in the next six to eight weeks". His words have been echoed by many other leaders. But how?

The situation can be stabilised, but only if we act now and act together, rather than looking for a miracle solution which does not exist. We need to set aside the debate that has become so polarised by those who seek to blur the difference between migrants and refugees: either to let them all in, or to keep them all out. Neither option is sustainable.

So the EU needs to stop trying to reinvent the wheel with grand gestures that would take years to implement correctly. We saw an example of this with the emergency relocation system, which has been a complete failure. Instead we should focus on how we can resettle people most in need directly from the conflict areas.

Now the proposed magic solution is to suspend the Schengen border-free area and effectively begin re-erecting border checks. For some countries this will be effective. I have long argued that border controls are needed on the EU's border with Greece, because it has failed for over five years to live up to its responsibilities when it comes to providing humane conditions for refugees. However, in Britain we think with an island mentality that borders are manageable. Most EU countries have vast land borders with each other and simply putting border controls on a few motorways will likely inconvenience Europeans going about their business far more than many migrants.

There is no single solution to either the migrant or security crises. Instead we need better implementation of what we have in place: external border management, more intelligence sharing, and countries taking responsibility and sticking to the rules. Processing and fingerprinting asylum seekers is not an option but a legal requirement, along with the swift removal of those people who do not meet the criteria for asylum. Allowing refugees to travel around the EU is not an option, yet countries are actively encouraging this secondary movement.

In the EU we have the Dublin Regulation, which is grounded in the principles of international asylum law that say those people fleeing for their lives would seek asylum in the first safe country. Of course, we all agree that Dublin has failed across the EU because of the actions of one country: Germany. Its good intentions have brought terrible consequences. However, Dublin is not to blame and the basic principles behind it are sound, even if the regulation itself can be made stronger, simpler and clearer. Dublin plays a substantial role in preventing the movement of people through the EU, and those countries that cannot be part of the system should be offered as much help as is needed, or they should understand that we will protect ourselves and our borders.

If 2015 was the EU's annus horribilis, 2016 is in danger of becoming the annus terribilis. The situation in the Middle East cannot be controlled, but our response can be. If we go back to another year of grand gestures on one side, and inaction on the other, the EU will continue to be paralysed in the face of its greatest challenge yet. It can reduce the impact of this crisis by focusing on what works, and on policies that are tough but fair for those people and those countries that play by the rules.