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Responding to Migration Flows: The United States and Europe Consider Similar Strategies

Friday, April 8, 2016

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More than 200 migrants were returned to Turkey this week as a plan to stem the flow of refugees into Europe begins to be implemented. However, despite the European Union’s recent agreement with Turkey, refugees are still arriving at Europe’s borders, leading many member countries to continue enforcing their borders and imposing caps on the number of asylum applications they receive. The enforcement measures by the EU nations have been taken in an attempt to ease growing anxiety among the European public, which has only increased in the wake of the Brussels attacks even though the attackers appear to have been EU citizens. While EU lawmakers continue negotiations to address the flow, the United States is dealing with its own Central American migrant and refugee crisis at the southern border.

A number of the policy options discussed by the international community in Europe mirror some of the steps the United States has taken to address the recent arrival of children and families from Central America. This post looks at proposed policy strategies to demonstrate the similarities and differences between the U.S. and EU approaches.

At The Borders 

In the summer of 2014, an exceptionally high number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) from Central America arrived at the U.S.-Mexican border. One of the first steps taken by the Obama administration to address the crisis was a boost in security at the border. This included relocating 265 border patrol agents from less active sectors to the Rio Grande Valley—the immigrants’ main point of entry. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security sent about 60 ICE Homeland Security Investigations criminal investigators, intelligence analysts, and support staff to the area to target and dismantle human smuggling operations across the southwest border.

In Europe, the refugees mainly came via Greece, which is the largest single entry point for new sea arrivals in the Mediterranean, with nearly 1 million arrivals since the beginning of 2015. Overall, the total number of asylum claims to the EU climbed to nearly 1.2 million last year, far exceeding EU and international expectations. Additional refugees have been arriving in Eastern Europe through Turkey and the Balkans, prompting several European states, including Hungary, Slovenia, and Bulgaria, to take unilateral actions to control their borders, building fences, and other physical obstacles. In early 2016, NATO became involved, ordering naval ships and aircraft to provide aid by countering human trafficking and criminal networks.

In the meantime, some other EU countries have been unilaterally implementing strict policies preventing refugees and migrants from crossing their borders. For example, Austria allows in no more than 3,200 asylum seekers per day and limits the asylum claims to 80 per day. In Sweden, lawmakers recently announced the country will reject up to 80,000 applications throughout the next year.

Interior Responses and Returns

Since 2014, the Obama administration has put into effect a number of measures in an attempt to stem and deter the arrival of unaccompanied alien children from Central America, including higher use of family detention facilities. Apprehensions at the border fell in the fall of 2014 and in the spring and summer of 2015, but as described in a previous blog, the U.S. recently saw a spike in apprehensions. During the period from October 2015 to January 2016, more than 45,000 unaccompanied children and family members had been apprehended at the southern border, more than double the amount of apprehensions during the same period a year earlier. Almost all of those apprehended were from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Prompted by the recent spike in apprehensions, the administration decided to implement new deterrence efforts. In January, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had begun operations to take into custody and remove Central American families without claim to asylum that had entered the country since May 2014. Johnson’s controversial actions spurred a discussion on Capitol Hill, with many Democratic lawmakers expressing concerns about what they called raids targeting children and families who would be in danger if returned.

The EU has recently finalized a deal with Turkey, under which all migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey who do not apply for asylum or have rejected claims are supposed to be sent back across the Aegean Sea.

Due to a lack of common immigration policies and agreement among the member states, the EU’s overall response to the crisis has been mostly unstructured. In Europe, the bloc of 27 member states continue arguments over the controversial quota system proposed by German chancellor Angela Merkel. The so-called Merkel Plan is supposed to ease the disproportionate burden faced mainly by countries where most of the migrants have been arriving—particularly Greece, Italy, and Hungary. Last September, EU lawmakers voted to relocate 160,000 refugees into all the member states based on a specific quota scheme. However, the scenario has been strongly opposed by Germany’s immediate eastern neighbors. The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, comprising a so-called Visegrad Group, have consistently criticized Merkel’s open-border policies, proposing closure of the Balkans refugee road. However, the German chancellor has in turn opposed the group’s “Plan B” proposal, saying that more fences would create an emergency situation for Greece. Meanwhile, some of the migrant-receiving countries are changing how they treat the refugees after they arrive. For example, Denmark is about to cut social benefits for refugees and Switzerland has been seizing any assets from refugees worth more than 1,000 Swiss francs, or about $1,040, to help covering costs of their upkeep.

In an effort to regulate number of refugees arriving at EU borders, the 27-member bloc has recently finalized a deal with Turkey, under which all migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey who do not apply for asylum or have rejected claims are supposed to be sent back across the Aegean Sea. Based on the agreement, for every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey, the EU will resettle one Syrian currently in Turkey’s refugee camps. However, the deal applies only to migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece after March 20, 2016.

The deal has been widely criticized, primarily by humanitarian organizations claiming that such an agreement is illegal under international law, which states that countries are required to assess the merit of each asylum seeker and that asylum seekers cannot be returned to a country that does not offer proper protection. Currently, the number of refugees in Turkey is estimated at around 2.7 million.

International Cooperation

To reduce the migration of children and families out of Central America, the Obama administration has increased diplomatic efforts with the Mexican and Central American governments. In 2015, President Obama discussed a regional strategy with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to deter migration. By November 2015, about $1.5 billion worth of training, equipment, and technical assistance had been provided to Mexico, which for its part has invested around $79 billion in security and public safety. As a result, Mexico deported a total of 28,017 Central American minors over the course of 2015, which compares to 18,169 and 8,577 UAC deportations recorded in 2014 and 2013, respectively.

Moreover, President Obama and other U.S. officials have met with leaders from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to discuss U.S.-Central American cooperation to disrupt smuggling organizations and accelerate development, economic growth, and security in the region. In partnership with the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security also launched an ad campaign in the Northern Triangle countries, providing factual information about U.S. immigration law and warning that those who try to cross the U.S. border without proper documents will be deported.

By November 2015, the U.S. had provided $1.5 billion worth of training, equipment, and technical assistance to Mexico.

In 2016, the State Department revealed its plan to expand access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Central American migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The U.S. will cooperate with Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to set up new processing centers in several nearby Central American countries meant to aid screening migrants fleeing violence. The plan is supposed to help relocation of as many as 9,000 refugees to the United States or other countries. In 2015, the administration also launched a new in-country parole and refugee-processing program in Central America. However, the program has only received 3,344 applications and generated no admissions so far.

Despite many countries’ involvement in humanitarian assistance and efforts to manage the situation at the external EU border through registration, screening, relocation, and return of ineligible migrants, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said these efforts have been just partially implemented and often at a very slow pace. The efforts to engage with Turkey to regulate and manage the migration flows have seen mixed results. Meanwhile, humanitarian and human rights organizations are trying to work with Turkey and other countries in the region with large refugee populations to integrate them there, including granting work permits and providing schooling to the children.


While the scope of the migrant crisis faced by the European Union is vastly greater than the Central American crisis faced by the United States, there have been somewhat similar responses: efforts at the borders to manage the arrivals, efforts in the interior for the migrants who have already arrived, and international efforts to deter or prevent the transit of more migrants to the borders. In each case, the efforts have had at best mixed results, and the continued arrivals place strain on the governments both in terms of resources to manage them but also creating challenging domestic political responses. Ultimately, however, until the situations of violence, crime, and poverty in the source countries are addressed, it is likely that the migrations will continue.

Lazaro Zamora contributed to this post.