Is Europe on the Cusp of Another Migration Crisis?
(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Is Europe on the Cusp of Another Migration Crisis?
(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

This article is reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.

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  • There is a high chance that a migration crisis in 2020 results in a situation similar to the one that unfolded in 2015, with Greece again bearing most of the weight of the migration influx.
  • But unlike five years ago, Germany will be more willing to protect the European Union's external border and less interested in accepting a large number of migrants.
  • Turkey will also be more willing to weaponize the country's landmark migrant agreement with the European Union to secure additional diplomatic and financial help from the bloc.

On March 1, Turkey announced it would no longer enforce an agreement with the European Union to prevent migrants from entering the Continental bloc. Since then, tens of thousands of migrants have been trying to enter Greece from Turkey, fueling fears of another looming migration crisis in Europe. In response, the Greek government has increased security at its borders and announced that no asylum requests would be accepted for a month — though it's far from certain whether Greece will be able to contain a continued flood of migrants at its doorstep. Unless Turkey changes its position in the coming weeks, there's a good chance Greece's sea and land borders will once again become the hottest access point for Europe-bound migrants. But unlike the crisis in 2015, Athens will find even fewer EU countries willing to help lift the load this time around.

Turkey Lights the Fuse 

At the heart of the unfolding new migrant crisis is Turkey's willingness to gamble its landmark migrant agreement with the European Union. Turkey's struggling economy is having a direct political impact on the popularity of its government, and Ankara knows it might ultimately prove unable to ward off a Syrian and Russian incursion into Syria's Idlib province. The popularity of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also risks waning amid increasingly angry and cash-strapped Turks, who see the country's large refugee population as partially to blame for their grievances. This was made clear by the country's 2019 local elections, in which the AKP suffered sizable losses among urban voters living in closest proximity to refugees. This, combined with the economic headwinds Turkey has experienced since 2015, has created an even more hostile environment in Turkey for refugees. And in 2019, Ankara imposed tighter residency restrictions on refugees.

Against the backdrop of these mounting economic and political threats, an increasingly desperate Ankara has shown that it's willing to breach its migration agreement with the European Union to secure more support from the bloc. Specifically, Turkey wants more money to help provide for the refugees and migrants it is currently hosting, and more EU diplomatic support in its offensive against Syrian and Russian forces, including support for a no-fly zone and long-term refugee resettlement in northern Syria (which Germany has already given support for, but cannot provide alone). Ankara knows that threatening to scrap the existing migrant agreement can help force Brussels to fall in line. And should the March 5 cease-fire between Turkey and Russia fall through, Ankara will be even less likely to remove this lever of migrants as leverage in its EU negotiations.

Similarities to the 2015 Crisis

A new migration crisis would likely repeat some of the patterns of the previous crisis, including:

Greece's lack of capacity. Greece has very limited room to deal with new migrants and is likely already nearing its capacity. Around 74,600 asylum seekers reached Greece last year, the highest number in the European Union. Some 42,000 of them are trapped in migrant camps in the islands, as Athens does not allow them to move to the mainland until their legal situation is cleared. Reports from the ground say that most migrants are crammed in facilities that are being used well beyond their capacity. In recent months, migrants have protested in some of the islands, particularly in Lesbos, which is home to some 25,000 asylum seekers.

Closed borders along the Balkan migration route. In 2015, many migrants found that countries along the so-called Balkan migration route to Northern Europe, including Serbia and Hungary, had closed their borders. Should another crisis unfold in the coming months, countries like Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia (which are not in the European Union) are likely to again close their borders in an attempt to block the migration route. Hungary, which is an EU member, may also do the same if migratory pressure increases significantly.

More money, less action out of Brussels. Under the European Union's current migration rules, migrants have to apply for asylum in the country where they first enter the bloc, which Greece has long argued unfairly places the burden on them. But a systematic, blocwide effort to distribute migrants across the European Union remains unlikely, as countries in Northern and Eastern Europe will reject any move to alter these rules. If the crisis worsens, and if the number of arrivals in Greece and other countries on the bloc's external border increases, we are instead more likely to see bilateral agreements, under which countries like Germany would accept small groups of migrants in an attempt to ease the pressure on Greece. Brussels, meanwhile, will likely continue to throw money at the problem as it has done in similar situations in the past. And indeed, we've already seen a bit of this, with the European Commission announcing it was sending Greece 700 million euros ($791 million) to help maintain the recent influx of migrants, as well as extra personnel from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (also known as Frontex) to help protect Greece's borders.

Differences From the 2015 Crisis

In addition to these similarities, there are also some important differences that will shape how a potential migration crisis would unfold in 2020 compared with the crisis in 2015:

Stricter EU asylum policies. Some migrants will now have a harder time requesting asylum in 2020 than they did in 2015, especially those who have been in Turkey for years and cannot really claim to be running away from extreme hardship. While this could weigh negatively on some migrants' cost-benefit analysis of whether to attempt crossing into EU territory, the flow of attempted crossings in recent days shows that for thousands of migrants the risk is still worth taking.

If there is an influx of "new" asylum seekers, that is, people who are currently in Syria and have been displaced because of recent events in Idlib, they may have a better chance of successfully obtaining the refugee status, but it will still be hard. In January, Greece introduced new asylum rules that make the application process faster, which also has the goal of making deportations faster — though Athens will probably continue to struggle to enforce deportations, and many of the migrants whose asylum requests are rejected will probably remain in Greece and live in legal limbo.

Germany's skepticism around asylum seekers. While Germany may accept a few migrants from Greece, it probably will not open its borders as it did five years ago. Germany reacted to the 2015 migration crisis by welcoming around a million asylum seekers into the country, which, in the long run, has weakened the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel and contributed to her decision not to seek reelection in 2021. Germany's open-door policy in 2015 also contributed to the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has become the main opposition party since the country's 2018 general election. Germany's reaction to a new immigration crisis would, therefore, probably be different this time around. In fact, the German government has been posting tweets in Arabic, Farsi, English and German saying that Berlin supports Athens' recent efforts to protect the bloc's external borders, which is basically meant to discourage migrants from trying to enter the European Union.

Instead of taking in migrants, Germany is likely to support granting additional resources, money and assistance to Greece to help protect the border with Turkey. Berlin will also reach out to Ankara to try to keep the migration agreement in place, and even propose cooperation on issues such as establishing a no-fly zone in northwestern Syria. Finally, Germany will increase pressure on Russia to de-escalate the conflict in Syria. In this, the problem for Germany is that it has very limited influence on Moscow, a key actor in the war, and has little to offer to Turkey other than EU funds and diplomatic support.

Impact on Italy

At least during an early phase of a new migration crisis, Italy is unlikely to be significantly affected, as its weak economy will make it a less attractive final destination for migrants entering the European Union from Turkey compared with more financially secure countries such as Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Instead, the main threat for Italy is events in Turkey encouraging migrants in other parts of the world to try to reach the European Union. If this happens, migration routes that have been relatively calm in recent years could be reactivated, such as the Libya-Italy route.

In mid-2017, Italy reached a deal with the Libyan government to have the Libyan coast guard begin intercepting migrant boats in exchange for money, resources and training. But this deal is fragile for two key reasons:

  1. Human trafficking organizations who transport migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya, and then to Italy, may decide that the conditions are ripe again to resume their operations, which could overwhelm Libya's weak and fragile government. 
  2. The current Libyan government may also decide that a new migration crisis in Europe is a good opportunity to ask Italy for more money and resources in exchange for keeping their agreement in place.

A significant surge in the arrival of migrants would happen at a very difficult time for Italy. The country is expected to have very low economic growth in 2020, and the impact of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak could put it in a recession. Authorities in Rome recently announced a stimulus package to deal with the economic impact of the outbreak, but an immigration crisis would create additional problems for Rome's already strained coffers. At the same time, the Italian coalition government is fragile, and the opposition League party, which has a strong anti-immigration stance, is polling strongly. An early election in Italy within the context of a recession and immigration crisis would certainly increase the chances of the League winning the vote and accessing power — an outcome that would further spook financial markets and investors' already shaky confidence, given that some League members have pushed for Italy to leave the eurozone.