“Refugee cities” as an alternative to tired old thinking on migration

Pieter Cleppe is a policy analyst, specialized in EU affairs, based in Brussels. He is a non-resident fellow of the Property Rights Alliance

In her “State of the Union”, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU’s long-awaited “new pact” on migration and asylum will be unveiled on Wednesday. 

She thereby stated that “saving lives at sea is not optional” but also said there would be more of a focus on returning those denied asylum, pledging: “we will ensure a closer link between asylum and return. We have to make a clear distinction between those who have the right to stay and those who do not. We will take action to fight smugglers, strengthen external borders, deepen external partnerships and create legal pathways.”

Von der Leyen must be credited for having done her personal bit, as her family helped a Syrian refugee start a new life in Germany. Nevertheless, her new grand plan for migration very much sounds like business as usual, especially given rumours that she would stick to the idea of mandatory relocation of asylum seekers among all member states at times of immigration spikes. This is heavily opposed in Central and Eastern Europe, where it is rightly considered that sensitive decisions on who to welcome are a matter for national democracy. 

It’s easy to predict that Von der Leyen will therefore waste a lot of political capital on mandatory relocation of asylum seekers, something that is very hard to implement in the passport-free Schengen zone, where people can easily travel, away from member states with weaker economic prospects and where they have few connections. What we’ve seen from previous attempts to spread asylum seekers within the Schengen zone is that many of them simply move away from countries like Latvia or Portugal after being relocated there.

It’s unfortunate to see the so-called “new pact” for migration continue with the largely failed policies of the past. Then, let’s assume that this time around, everything will work out fine. That many third countries sign readmission agreements to welcome back citizens that have been denied asylum. That as a result, fewer people try to come to Europe illegally with the help of smugglers. That Central and Eastern European countries welcome a lot more people, who then actually stay there, resulting in smoother integration of refugees and migrants in Southern and Western Europe.

Even in this rosy scenario, major challenges remain. There are currently around 80 million refugees in the world. Even if the European Union would multiply the number of refugees accepted tenfold, many would still need to be denied. 

And that is not even taking into account economic migration. Africa’s urban population is expected to nearly triple by 2050, to 1.34 billion. Even if this would turn out to be a good thing and Africa would boom economically, many will continue to try their luck in Europe.

A 2019 U.N. Development Programme survey among Africans who had moved to Europe found that around 58 per cent of them were either employed or in school at the time of their departure, with the majority of those working, earning competitive wages. So even if Africa does well economically in the next few decades, many middle class Africans will continue to try to make it to Europe. According to one estimate, Serbia, a typical middle income country in the EU’s periphery, may have more pensioners than working-age people by next year, due to relentless emigration. The lure to migrate will remain long after Africa has taken off economically.

Fudging the migration challenge will therefore become ever harder. Looking at how Western countries have dealt with the challenge to fight irregular migration and smuggling, and all the accompanying misery, there really is only one effective way that can be reconciled with respecting the right of asylum, and that is to copy Australia’s model. This involves telling everyone who gets caught entering the territory in an irregular manner that they will need to await their asylum request somewhere before they are able to freely move on the territory. 

In a way, this is what Greece has done since 2016, when it no longer allowed those arriving on Greek islands from travelling to Greece’s mainland, following Northern Macedonia closing the so-called “Balkan Route”, through which many made it to Northern Europe during that time. This contributed to a huge drop in irregular migration from Turkey, and just as importantly, it also led to a 85% drop in migrant deaths in the Aegean Sea. The ill-applied EU-Turkey deal, which foresaw returning migrants back to Turkey, which did only sparsely happen, truly was only a sideshow here. Australia had booked a similar success a few years earlier, providing the example.

What goes on at these Greek islands, but also on the islands used by Australia, in Nauru and Manus, has been well-documented. Whereas success in disincentivising people to risk their lives and put their faith into the hands of human smugglers cannot be denied, a lot of justified criticism has been issued against the conditions under which people are told to await their asylum request, if they even ever manage to get an answer, in the case of Greece. The burning of the Moria camp of Lesbos, following the extra hardship brought about by Covid, is only the latest evidence of the fact that these policies are simply unsustainable. 

These policies also do not provide a solution for those refugees or economic migrants deciding not to migrate illegally, nor do they offer a solution for those refugees denied asylum in Europe which their countries of origin refuse to welcome back. 

One could make the case that it’s not Europe’s responsibility to deal with all the misery in the world, but here, I think Europe’s self-interest in controlling migration flows could well align with the interests of all these those refugees or economic migrants.

What is needed is not only a place to bring those trying to sneak in illegally, which drastically helps to reduce human smuggling. That place also needs to offer a sustainable future for those ultimately denied entry into Europe. 

In the past, I have proposed such a “Hong Kong for refugees”: a city governed by officials from countries with high levels of rule of law, outside of the territory of these countries. In the case of Hong Kong, it were the British, offering peace and protection in a territory away from home, to refugees from Communist China, who did not only found shelter but also stable rule of law, so to develop their life. Such a “refugee city”, as the concept has been dubbed, should therefore not be confused with shanty towns or refugee camps, which are places pretty much run by violent groups instead of by governments from industrialised nations. Think Denmark outsourcing its rule of law to a place outside of Denmark. Perhaps it may not work as well as Hong Kong, but surely offering a place with a good degree of rule of law will easily beat the hellholes many economic migrants and refugees come from.

Both avid proponents and opponents of migration should embrace this idea. It does not preclude being very open or very closed towards migration. It simply offers an alternative to those denied asylum and offers the off-shore territory needed to effectively protect an external border in a humane manner. 

I know very well that politicians would only move to such an ambitious venture when all the other alternatives have been tried, but think about it: is Europe not already pumping fortunes into a badly functioning deal with Turkey and into infrastructure on Greek islands that is ultimately very shaky? What about all the shady business and even human slavery, both inside and outside industrialised countries, facilitated by the presence of millions of people without documents? Why not turn the off-shore territory necessary to protect a border into something that can offer a sustainable future to would-be migrants? Surely, companies should be interested to establish plants and manufacturing facilities over there, which should of course all happen within the legal boundaries set by Europe’s governments. 

Evidently, this place should not be located where people already live. Ideally, it should be close to the sea, to enable economic prospects. Perhaps a grand deal could be done with Morocco: sovereignty over the Western Sahara, which it already occupies anyway, in return for obtaining or renting a number of places there – again, where nobody lives – to locate “refugee cities”, run by Western officials – or officials from countries with a high level of rule of law. Perhaps three to start with that could each host twenty million people, perhaps twenty as a long term goal. Surely, these places would all become effective new states within Morroco’s enlarged territory. Or one could think of many alternatives across the globe. 

In any case, the prospect of something like this ultimately emerging out of sheer desperation in European policy circles has become greater, not smaller, in recent years.