Escalating international conflict appears to feed relentlessly into migrant flows, accounting now for almost one million asylum seekers in Europe during 2015. Since the war in Syria started in 2011 millions have found asylum in surrounding countries, with the EU experiencing what might be described as a belated mass influx. Some 759,000 refugees have entered the EU during 2015 via the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly after transiting Turkey into Greece. This compares to 50,000 arrivals via a similar route during the previous year. (See the UNHCR website for the latest numbers.)
According to recent EU negotiations Turkey would now need to patrol its borders more stringently, improve the living conditions of refugees in its territory and provide them with access to labour markets – in return for visa free travel of its citizens to the Schengen area, as well as monetary incentives from the EU.
So are the European answers to the migrant crisis just about borders security, or is there any economics to be considered at this stage?
Why does Europe experience the mass inflow now?
The recent wave of migrant inflows into Europe has frequently been a process of refugees moving onwards, after having spent time in overcrowded camps of neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. These destinations have served as temporary shelters since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Yet large refugee camps are barely a substitute for home communities and labour markets. Turkey, for example, has been slow to open up formal employment for its over two million refugees. Eventually, Syrians move away from areas offering scarce job opportunities in refugee camps and seek informal work further afield. A recent paper by Ceritoglu et. al (2015) attributes the rise of unemployment in Turkish labour markets to refugees’ competition for informal jobs with the local unskilled. As prospects appear to deteriorate further for refugees and natives alike, the conditions are ripe to push migrants onwards, on their EU journey.
What sustains migration in particular destinations?
An analytical perspective providing us with insight into what drives migration into particular destinations refers to the pull and push effects exerted by migrant communities. An increase in the size of the migrant network can initially create jobs within the migrant community; but unless they are able to seek employment and integration outside the network, conditions eventually deteriorate.
In Syrian neighbouring countries economic push factors have now become acute, with refugee communities too large to successfully sustain themselves within the host economy. The mass refugees inflow in Europe during 2015, with the Syrian war beyond doubt the primary driving factor, further results from onwards movement under the strain of labour markets in initial host countries. Economic conditions in transit destinations thus amount to an additional push factor, prioritising the labour market integration of refugees.
Is a refugees’ quota allocation the answer for Europe?
Under a proposed quota system in the EU, member states are to absorb fixed numbers of refugees, based on some calculus, presumably related to economic conditions and the absorption capacity of the host country. Can it work?
A quota system can be easily undone, unless the quota allocation coincides with migrants’ signals and labour market prospects in allocated destinations. Today, most EU refugees follow an uninterrupted path over Turkey, the Mediterranean, the Balkans and then Central Europe, shunning in their way many members of the European single market. For the quota to work, refugees must arrive to open local labour markets, with migrant communities able to sustain themselves as part of the wider host economy. Put simply, the refugees need to be allowed to join the local labour market swiftly. Without access to jobs, good working conditions and appropriate wages, they will not necessarily abide by the administrative allocation.