Europe victim of own success, magnet for refugees – ex-IOM chief

Hundreds of thousands of migrants are trying to get to Europe. They are desperate in their quest for better life, and neither fences nor border controls or risky journeys to Europe can stop them. European authorities are failing to control the flow, and pressure on society is rising with each migrant. Some nations are trying to shirk their responsibility, deepening the rift within a body that is supposed to be united. Will Brussels be able to find a solution? Is there any solution at all? We ask a man who knows: former Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, Brunson McKinley is on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Brunson McKinley, former Director-General of the International Organisation for Migration, welcome to the show, thank you for joining us, great to have you with us. Now… German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned migration could be “the greatest threat to the EU”, even more so that the Euro crisis. So, why does the EU seems paralyzed when actually prompted to take an action?

Brunson McKinley: There is a real crisis in Europe, Europe is not prepared to deal with it. It is the victim of its own success: peace, prosperity, free, open societies are a terrific magnet to people from the Middle East, from the Balkan region, from all of Africa. You can imagine how great the pressure is to come to Europe, and many-many people succeed in doing so, so the pressure just grows. And Europe is not well-organised to put in place a comprehensive solution and do something about this. They are struggling, I have some ideas of my own, many people have different ideas, but they really do have to get better organised, they have to show leadership, they have to make tough decisions and they have to appropriate the resources needed to get the job done.

SS: We’re going to go through that in detail, but just before we do that: with no solution in sight, like you’ve said, and chaos at its borders - just how disastrous could this be for the European Union?

BM: I don’t want to be too Cassandra-like, but this is one of those issues which divides the Europeans among themselves. There are 28 different policies in Europe; each of the nations in Europe have different interest and different perception of their interest and different approaches, different solutions, and they don't agree at all with one another. Some people are building walls, some people are quietly escorting migrants on to a neighboring country, some are opening the door and saying they want to help refugees, some are even saying they need economic migrants… So, there’s absolutely no unity of purpose: there is no single voice or institution to help put all of those different, diverse, interests and policies together in a comprehensive solution which will give the strong leadership and adequate resources, the tough decisions that are necessary in this crisis.

SS: But we’re witnessed horrific suffering in recent months: refugees drowning in overcrowded boats, suffocating in trucks in desperate attempts to get to Europe. I’m not going to talk about what to do with migration in general, but what has to be first done in stopping this string of tragedies?

BM: Last year, over 3000 people lost their lives trying to get into Europe. This year alone over 2000 people - and we’re only 8 months into the year - so it’s a large scale human tragedy. I blame the traffickers and the smugglers for a lot of this. These are the people who make billions of Euros, trading on the desperation of people who are trying to get in Europe, they put them in the leaky boats, they lock them in the back of lorries, they don’t care about their fate at all, all they care about is the money. One of the very first steps and one of the crucial key steps in any comprehensive solution to the crisis is to put an end to this big buisness that the traffickers have managed to build on the backs of poor people.

SS: The Czech prime minister said the solution to stop the flow of asylum-seekers from Africa is to tackle issues in their home countries. Europeans have already interfered and tried to fix the problems in Libya - and look what happened, what it led to, only more refugees. Can Europe really fix problems in Libya, or even Syria? Is there, maybe, a military solution to Europe’s migrant crisis?

BM: I think, efforts to fix broken countries by international intervention, military or otherwise, have very poor track record. So, I am not here to recommend that at all, but I will say that heart of the comprehensive solution that needs to be put in place is to address the problem as close to the source as one can: in other words, don’t wait until hundreds of thousands of migrants have already arrived in Europe, where all you can really do is argue about who’s going to take care of them - instead, you should try to do something for and with these migrants when they get to traffickers in the countries of transit. And here I mean, Turkey, for example. I mean, Egypt, I mean, even Libya - so I would say, think about working in those countries of transit. Europe has a lot of influence there, it needs to use this influence and it needs to get the active cooperation of the transit countries so that this problem can be treated as near to the source as possible.

SS: Now, wealthy states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, aren’t accepting refugees at all. I mean, the culture is similar there and the assimilation will be much easier - why don’t they help EUrope deal with the flow of migrants? I mean, is it, maybe, time they start hosting refugees?

BM: I think, the Saudi Arabia and other rich countries of the Gulf should be helping more, and I think they are already helping quite a bit behind the scenes through Islamic charities, but I think they can do more: whether you’re coming with an offer of refugee visa or you’re coming with an offer of money or diplomatic influence, then, there’s a role for many many countries - it is a role for an entire international community, UN and other international organisations…

SS: I don’t if you heard the latest news: there is this Egyptian telecom tycoon who actually offered to buy an island off of Europe, an uninhabited island, off of Greece coast or Italian coast - and actually take care of the refugee problem there. You think that could be a solution?

BM: I am dubious about that too. I mean, I applaud the generosity of this Egyptian gentleman, and I think, maybe he is groping his way towards a possible solution, but to do this on an island which is part of the EU territory doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I think, the reception centers should be places which are comfortable and offer appropriate amenities, where people are safe, where they are fed and housed and where the international community, NGOs and UN agencies can go in and determine which people are entitled to refugee resettlement and match these populations with offers that are on the table. I doesn’t have to be an island, but it does cost a lot of money and if our Egyptian tycoon wants to help up with this, I think the only possible answer would be “yes”. But first you’ve got to find the right place.

SS: Sure. Now, mr. McKinley going back to what you’ve said about first taking care of traffickers - now, back in April, Europe agreed to track and destroy vessels that are being used by traffickers. Now, from  moral perspective, wouldn’t that actually mean shutting off all escape routes for refugees in danger?

BM: That’s part of the problem. If it is just the matter of destroying boats you may very well cut off exit routes that people who really need to use them can’t use - so I think, destroying boats is not such a good idea; moreover, it doesn’t really work so well. You can destroy 10 boats and the traffickers will find another 10. You know, much of the boat-traffic is in inflatable rafts, highly unseaworthy, good enough to get across the river, but they are not good enough to get across the Mediterranean in any kind of bad weather, and these are the ones that tend to turn over and go down and people drown. That’s what happened to the Syrian family that has been in the news in the last two days. So, just destroying boats won’t do it. I think, the way to eliminate the traffickers or minimize their impact is to take the management of this crisis away from the traffickers and put it back into the hands of governments and international community. That’s to undercut their base of operation, that is to interfere with their offer to get people into Europe. If you can make sure that people who set forth in boats are rescued in sea, so that they don’t drown, and then are taken to the place where they are protected and screened - I think you will find that much of the market, certainly the economic migrants that constitute a big part of this migrant flow - that would dry up. So, you will find rather quickly, if instead of taking people out of a sea and taking them to Italy, you get them out of sea and put them to a reception center outside the territory of the EU - you will find that the demand for the services of the traffickers would fall off very very sharply, and then, of course, you should also arrest them, they should be put in jail - but, destroying their market is the best way to put them out of business.

SS: EU commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said “Europe would never turn away those in need of protection” - but, as you said, Hungary is building 175 km fence, Bulgaria is fortifying its borders and the French PM Manuel Valls has called for more border guards. Now, these are not the actions of countries opening their arms to those in need - so why is the Euro-Commissioner going against his own words, or is it that example of a divided Europe that you;ve mentioned earlier?

BM: It’s an illustration of different currents affecting European policy - legitimate refugees are welcome, but there are lots of people who don’t fit that category in the flow, so you need some kind of status determination, some kind of screening process upstream - and if you don’t have that, well, then people are tempted to talk about ending the Schengen arrangement, which is a free circulation arrangement among most EU countries, and building fences…

SS: Do you think that would help? Do you think ending Schengen free flow would help?

BM: I think there are better solutions and I’ve tried laying them out here - I think the better solution is screening upstream before people come in. That’s it. People are now talking about limiting Shengen - that is, reinstating border controls. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

SS: In response to the crisis, EU states agreed to taking 32 thousand refugees from Syria and Eritrea in two years. So, how are they planning to handle the 340 thousand that arrived this year alone?

BM: Well, that’s a good question. It goes to show you that if you sit around a table as a committee of 28 and try to negotiate out of the lowest common denominator solution, you come up with something which really doesn’t address the problem at all. The problem is that in Germany alone there are 800 thousand asylum seekers. So, promising to find places 32 thousands over 2 years - it simply doesn’t address the problem. It’s not serious, it’s not an example of strong leadership, tough decisions, adequate resources that will be necessary to really solve the crisis.

SS: Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, William Swing has criticized countries like Hungary for blocking migrants from travelling by train in Europe - should they be allowed to travel undocumented?

BM: I, myself, am not a proponent of building fences. On the other hand, Hungary has a point: that if they are required to process and take care of all these people who are coming across their border because they are a border state of the EU and they have this long border with Serbia across which many-many migrants come - if they are required to take care of all of them, it’s grossly unfair. It’s a little bit like in Mediterranean, when you ask Malta to take care of everybody who arrives in Malta -  well, it’s just not fair. If you aren’t offering alternative solutions, better solutions, comprehensive solutions that will really work and do something about minimizing the flow, managing the flow, resuming control of the borders and of the territory- well then you can hardly blame governments for doing what they feel they have to do…

SS: Here’s another example of how to, maybe, regulate this policy - Germany has dropped Dublin regulation for Syrian refugees, which says migrants can only apply for asylum in the first EU member state they enter. Should other countries follow Berlin’s example?

BM: The rule has always been that the first country to take charge of migrants arrivals should process them, register them for an asylum claim and take care of that claim on the territory. But, you know, that’s been a rule for long, but this rule has never been followed very much, and what happens is that those countries, the border countries like Greece, Malta, Italy, Spain, Hungary now - they don’t buy this, because they think it’s unfair. Of course, people arrive there first because of their geography. So, the Dublin Convention has not worked, and I think it is really part of the problem. It’s another effort to avoid serious, basic, close-to-the-source solutions to the problem by just distributing the “pain”, if you will. It’s not going to work, it’s not going to be politically acceptable across the border.

SS: European border agency Frontex is saying there has been a dramatic rise in fake Syrian passports as refugees become desperate to flee civil war. How can Europe control this, and if it is available to the public, then it must be also available to terror groups, no?

BM: Yes, the problem of fake documentation does exist, and this has been seen in refugee and migration crisis all around the world for many many years. As I said, migrants are desperate. They are willing to give a lot of money to traffickers to get onto a leaky boat or to get locked into the back of a truck - they are willing to give a lot of money to forger to give them phony documents. They are desperate and they will do whatever they can to get into Northern Europe. Now, again, the answer to this problem, I think, is to give them careful screening before they get to Europe. That way, you have a least a chance of detecting which documents are phony, which  documents are valid, what story makes sense and what story doesn’t make sense. You know, it’s a complicated, difficult procedure, but at the end of it you will know who the real refugees are and then you can give them the new life that they want, if you want. And the others… well, the others do not have a claim on your hospitality.

SS: Denmark is cutting social benefits for migrants in half. They actually used to get little over thousand euros each month. As Danish MP put it: “We can’t shut our borders for refugees, but we can make Denmark a less attractive destination for them”. Are more states going to choose to act in the same way?

BM: I think, yes. I think, it’s already happening. You can see that is one fairly easy solution which can be implement on a national basis, state by state. People will pull back on benefits that they give to refugees and migrants, and the idea is to have a lesser offer than your neighbour in the hopes that the neighbors will get more of the migrants and asylum seekers than yourself - and, to a degree, it works. That is one of the reasons why people go to certain countries in preference to others. It’s because the benefits are greater. You can have a sort of downward bidding war, but in the end, that just puts one European country against other European countries. I think, it’s a wrong way to go, I think this deepens the cracks, the fissures in European unity. That’s why Angela Merkel is right saying that this crisis could hurt Europe in fundamental ways, because it sets one European nation against another. That’s not the right way to do it. The right way to do it is to pull together and find a common comprehensive solutions that will stop the flow and put the traffickers out of business. Screen people properly, take the ones you want…

SS: Yes, but that’s as we all know, much easier said than done. And then you have countries coming up with all these creative ways to deter migrants. For instance, in Germany, that you’ve mentioned, they have videos, portraying it as cold and unwelcoming, with migrants being packed into buses for deportation. Denmark, the one that we just mentioned, they also plan to use their famous bacon trade to put off Muslims. Will campaigns like this really work?

BM: I don’t think so. Migrants are actually, maybe, smarter, than they are given credit. The migrants don’t just watch television and then decide where to go. They have cell phones, they talk to their relatives who are already there, they’re very savvy about what countries are more welcoming than others. Germany may have a campaign to discourage migrants from coming, but it sure doesn’t seem to be working. I mean, Germany is on its way to having a million asylum-seekers on their territory, Germany seems to be one of the most popular countries. So, I think that’s a proof than the migrants aren’t really too much affected by advertising campaigns.

SS: Amid all of this, how can countries deal with illegal immigrants already there? I mean, if deported, there’s nothing stopping them from trying again, and legalisation will just encourage more… It does seem like a vicious circle. UK, for instance, is planning for prison sentences for illegal immigrants working in the country. Is this more effective than sending them to detention centers, for instance?

BM: That’s a real problem, that’s the main reason why, personally, I think you have to work on this problem upstream. You have to work on it before people get to your territory, because it has proven next-to-impossible to do anything about large illegal populations, undocumented populations, people who got in in some clandestine or irregular fashion. It’s true for the U.S., my home country, it’s true for all of Europe as well. It’s been true in Russia, for that matter, although Russia is now doing a pretty good job of turning the illegals into legals, regularizing this problem. But it’s not easy at all and I think you’d be better off working to try to manage the problem upstream, rather than deal with the consequences of faulty policies of the past and bad enforcement of laws in the past. I think you’re kind of stuck with the people who are there already.

SS: We were talking to mr.  Brunson McKinley, former Director-General of the International Organisation for Migration, talking about Europe’s migrant crisis and how to handle it and if there’s a way to reverse the refugee flow streaming into the EU. Thank you. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.