It was the death of a baby at an overcrowded reception centre for asylum seekers in the Netherlands last year that convinced Prime Minister Mark Rutte that Europe was once again grappling with a migrant crisis.
The three-month-old died in a sports hall in a village on the German border. The images of an overwhelmed facility, with families sleeping outdoors, brought home to Dutch voters the extent to which their politicians had lost control of immigration.
Rutte understood that this would be a gift to the anti-immigrant far-right, according to people familiar with his thinking, just as it had been in 2015-16 when a surge of people seeking asylum in Europe fuelled the rise of a new generation of populist politicians across the continent.
Rutte’s response was to promise a crackdown. The shift in stance brought down his fragile coalition government. His VVD party (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) under new leadership then fought a snap election campaign centred on immigration, and even opened the door to working with the far-right led by anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders. The strategy was a spectacular failure. In November, it was Wilders who triumphed at the polls, his Freedom party (PVV) more than doubling its seats. The VVD crashed into third place.
The victory of an extremist like Wilders, who promised to ban mosques and the Koran, sent shockwaves around Europe. It cheered fellow nativists, while highlighting the dilemmas for mainstream parties as they grapple with growing public concern about migrant numbers.
There were 874,000 asylum applications in the EU last year, and almost 650,000 in the first eight months of 2023, on top of 4.2mn Ukrainians awarded temporary protection since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Reception centres across northern Europe are reaching capacity, though the number of people actually travelling to Europe without permission is much lower than in 2015 and 2016.
Nonetheless, the recent surge in asylum numbers is pushing voters into the hands of now established populist and far-right parties, propelling them to the cusp of, or into, office. They are on course to make significant gains in European parliament elections in June and to exert more sway over EU policymaking.
Fearing an electoral backlash, governments are reaching for ever more drastic solutions, especially the offshoring of asylum processing, to reduce the number of arrivals at their borders. They are testing the limits of EU and international law and tying themselves in knots in the process.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s difficulties in enacting immigration reforms have underscored his diminished authority. A bill, endorsed by Macron, aims to reduce appeals by asylum-seekers and speed-up removals while regularising the status of immigrants in critical sectors — thereby appealing to both right and left, the president’s trademark political method.
A toughened up version of the bill was approved by the National Assembly on Tuesday, with the support of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who claimed an “ideological victory”. But several of Macron’s more left-leaning ministers threatened to resign over the legislation, and almost a quarter of his centrist alliance declined to vote for it.
Speaking at an event in Rome organised by Italian leader Giorgia Meloni in Rome on Saturday, British prime minister Rishi Sunak said European societies would be “overwhelmed” unless they curbed irregular migration to the continent.
But his government’s attempt to salvage its legally contentious plan to send asylum seekers arriving across the Channel to Rwanda has ignited a civil war within the ruling Conservative party between moderates and hardliners.
“The immigration issue has become very emotional and it is across the board,” says one European diplomat.
Some politicians worry that the focus on immigration pushed by far-right groups comes at the detriment of effective policy.
“It doesn’t matter if in those countries the problem is really big or not, or if there are even refugees, these [far-right] parties put it at the top of the agenda,” says Katarina Barley, a former German justice minister and now a centre-left member of the European parliament. “And this creates a dynamic in the political discussion, which then is not aimed at solving problems.”
‘A willingness to help’
Immigration, whether by people fleeing persecution or seeking work, has long been a contentious issue in Europe, pitting main countries of entry against others that become destinations.
Some 2.3mn people claimed asylum in the EU in 2015-16, many of them fleeing from Syria’s civil war. Germany, then enjoying a booming economy, took in an unprecedented number with Chancellor Angela Merkel famously declaring: “We can do this.”
“At that moment, there was a giant wave of willingness to help,” says Barley. The issue was “coping with it afterwards . . . At that time we were not prepared for that situation, a lot came in one go. We have to admit that.”
Merkel’s welcome infuriated some of Germany’s neighbours, who worried they would have to accommodate thousands. It fuelled the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, which entered Germany’s parliament for the first time in 2017.
Now the AfD, parts of which are deemed extremist by the German security services, is Germany’s second most popular party. It is poised to win three regional elections in the east next year.
“Migration becomes particularly toxic when the economy goes down,” says Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. “And this is the first time that Germany has had that kind of cocktail in a way in which it had already happened in France, Spain or Italy. That’s what is so dangerous about the situation there.”
In Austria, the far-right Freedom party, which was mired in a bribery scandal four years ago and ejected from government, is polling at 30 per cent and is on course to win parliamentary elections in autumn next year.
Sweden has been rocked by a spate of shootings and bombings by rival criminal gangs which Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has blamed on “irresponsible immigration policy and failed integration”.
With her strident anti-immigration positioning, France’s Le Pen has never been higher in opinion polls and looks increasingly unstoppable as time ticks away on Macron’s presidency.
With polls predicting big gains for far-right and populist parties in European parliament elections in June, lawmakers and member-state officials are racing to adopt reforms to the EU’s migration and asylum rules before the elections.
“Migration has to be solved otherwise it will dominate the political landscape in 2024,” says Manfred Weber, who heads the centre-right European People’s party.
“It’s a question of credibility,” says one EU official. “We cannot go to the election without this. The anti-Europeans will smash us.”
The so-called asylum and migration pact was first proposed in 2016 but has been stuck for years. Its proponents are keen to present it as a solution to the EU’s migration woes.
Human rights activists have criticised the pact for being too harsh. The reforms will overhaul asylum procedures, with a certain number of applicants processed directly at the border on a fast track and held in special facilities nearby while awaiting a decision about their futures.
It would lead to “effectively detention”, says liberal MEP Sophie in ’t Veld from the Netherlands. “None of us wants to go to elections having failed in this, at the same time we are negotiating very close to the limit in terms of what is still acceptable in terms of European values.”
But while adopting the reforms would be an expression of unity, it’s already clear they will not be enough. They would not come into force before 2025 and therefore would not bring down numbers ahead of the European elections next summer.
In the meantime, governments are trying to tighten their own rules and seal contentious agreements with third countries to prevent people from ever reaching European soil, akin to the €6bn EU deal with Turkey in 2016 to take back Syrian refugees.
The EU signed a deal with Tunis in July promising, among other things, €105mn to help police its borders, even though the Tunisian authorities have faced allegations of human rights abuses and illegal pushbacks of migrants into the desert over the border with Libya. The deal has since stalled.
Still, European commission president Ursula von der Leyen sees it as a “blueprint” for agreements with other African countries. The commission is negotiating a similar arrangement with Egypt and has launched exploratory talks with Morocco. Cyprus has called for a deal with Lebanon.
One of the main aims of deals with third countries is to persuade them to take back citizens whose asylum applications have been rejected. Only about one-fifth of the 400,000 or so annual return decisions across the EU is actually carried out, a poor record that corrodes public trust in the asylum system. Germany, France and other EU countries are trying to speed up returns, but they need the countries of origin to co-operate.
Despite the legal obstacles to Britain’s Rwanda deal, several European governments have come out in favour of outsourcing the asylum process, or at least parts of it, to third countries. Denmark briefly pursued its own Rwanda deal before shelving it. Even Germany’s centre left-green-liberal coalition is open to the idea of outsourcing the initial processing of claims.
But such schemes risk falling foul of the Geneva convention on refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights. Activists and lawyers have questioned their efficacy. “It’s a trend, but it’s not the solution,” says Jean-Louis De Brouwer, European affairs director at the Egmont Institute in Brussels, adding it would leave the EU dependent on autocratic and unstable regimes for its migration policy.
Italy’s rightwing leader Giorgia Meloni was the driving force behind the stalled Tunisia deal.
But Meloni also offers a cautionary tale. The leader of the Brothers of Italy, a party with post-fascist roots, was elected last year after promising tough measures to curb the flow of migrants from across the Mediterranean, even pledging a “naval blockade” to stop them.
Instead, more than 153,600 irregular migrants have landed on Italian shores so far this year, an almost 55 per cent increase over the 99,100 that arrived in the same period last year.
Meloni’s government has severely restricted the activities of humanitarian groups that rescue migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean, and vowed tougher treatment and quicker deportations of rejected asylum seekers. But she has had little room to stop the boats.
“There were a lot of expectations,” says Cecilia Sottilotta, a political scientist at Italy’s University for Foreigners, Perugia. “Fast forward to today, though, and she has realised that 99 per cent of the things she thought she could do, she can’t do.”
Last month, Meloni struck an agreement with Albania to build two holding facilities for migrants rescued from the Mediterranean who would otherwise be brought to Italy. But that arrangement is also in doubt after opposition MPs in Albania referred it to a judicial review. Critics in any case say it would likely violate EU and international law.
EU legislation “makes it very clear that asylum seekers under the responsibility of member states have the right to remain on that territory as long as they could be deported”, says Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik.
Even as she tries to crack down on irregular migration, Meloni has had to wrestle with employers’ huge demand for migrant workers as the labour force shrinks due to Italy’s ageing population. This summer, she announced plans to dramatically increase the number of work permits for non-EU foreign workers.
“Even those more conservative, more to the right, member states do recognise that they have a demographic challenge,” says Jennifer Tangney of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.
The EU as a whole is in dire need of workers and migrant labour could plug the gap. A report by the European Commission in July identified “high and persistent labour shortages”. Unemployment reached a record low of 6.2 per cent in 2022, while the rate of vacant jobs was at an all-time high of 2.9 per cent, with healthcare, construction and tech among the sectors most affected.
‘A crisis of perception’
Despite Europe’s pressing needed for labour, including unskilled workers, reducing immigration is touted by conservatives like Weber as the only way to stem extremist parties.
“If we cannot limit the number of arrivals by June next year then the European elections will probably be a historic vote for the future of Europe, with extremists on left and the right [benefiting],” says Weber.
In Greece, centre-right Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has taken a strict stance on migration and was rewarded by voters this summer with a second term by a landslide. His centre-right government has been repeatedly accused by aid groups and the UN of forcibly repelling migrants at its sea and land borders — which is illegal under international law — and for their harsh treatment in detention camps. The Greek government says its migration policy is legal and tough but fair.
But Greece may be the exception. Political scientists point to academic studies showing mainstream conservatives that veer to the right to fend off anti-immigration populists risk legitimising their opponents’ more hardline arguments.
“It never reduces support for the radical right and in some contexts it rather strengthens the radical right,” says Tarouk Abou-Chadi, assistant professor in comparative European politics at the University of Oxford. In the past two years, far-right or populist anti-immigration parties have displaced mainstream conservatives as the largest force on the right of the political spectrum in France, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“The mainstream right are increasingly making themselves obsolete,” Abou-Chadi says.
Progressive politicians as well as officials and experts say that there is a disconnect between the public outcry over migration and the actual number of arrivals. “If you look at the long-term trends in terms of migration, there is not a huge crisis. There is a crisis of perception,” one EU official says.
Asylum claims are still well below the 2015 peak, although authorities are struggling to cope with large backlogs and reception facilities are full. Furthermore, irregular arrivals are only a fraction of overall migration to the EU. The vast majority of people reach the EU legally. Last year, EU countries issued some 3.4mn first-time residence permits.
Some experts believe rising public concern about immigration numbers or irregular arrivals is less significant than the high salience given to the issue by politicians and sections of the media. The radical right has proved adept at blaming other grievances — housing shortages, difficulties in accessing public services and rising prices — on immigration.
In the Netherlands, Wilders profited from a widespread discontent with the political class, says De Brouwer of the Egmont Institute.
“When you have a political elite which has been in power for quite some time, which is out of steam, you open the boulevard to those coming with simple questions and simple answers.”
Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in Rome, Andy Bounds in Brussels, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens
Data visualisation by Keith Fray and Oliver Hawkins