Europe's migrant crisis has returned with a vengeance, and disputes between EU member states over how to confront the challenge are plunging the bloc into an existential crisis. In a single week in September, more than 10,000 young males from Africa and the Middle East arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which has a population of 6,000 and a migrant-reception capacity of only 400. Hundreds of thousands more migrants are poised to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa in hopes of reaching European shores before winter arrives.
The migrant flows to Europe in 2023 have intensified in ways not seen since 2015, when German chancellor Angela Merkel invited in more than a million migrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) is expecting 350,000 illegal migrant arrivals in 2023, on top of the 330,000 migrants who illegally entered the European Union in 2022. The actual numbers are far higher because untold thousands of migrants reach Europe every year undetected. (These figures do not include the 6 million Ukrainian refugees who legally entered the EU since the Ukraine War began in February 2022.)
Italy is bearing the brunt of Europe's migration crisis. During the first nine months of 2023, at least 150,000 migrants reached Italian shores, more than double the number of arrivals during the same period in 2022. Tens of thousands more migrants have reached other EU front-line states, including Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Spain.
The renewed surge in migration is being fueled by several factors, including political chaos in Libya, armed conflict in Sudan, and economic crisis in Tunisia. In Libya, at least 700,000 migrants are on their way to Europe, according to Italian intelligence estimates. In Sudan, a key transit country for migration routes between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, approximately 800,000 people have been displaced by the fighting there, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Many of these will eventually make their way to Europe.
Tunisia is now the main hub in North Africa for migrants seeking to reach Europe. A key departure point is the port city of Sfax, situated just 140 miles from Lampedusa, Italy's most southerly point. Tens of thousands of migrants are amassed there and waiting to cross the Mediterranean.
Once in Lampedusa, migrants are taken to mainland Italy, where their asylum claims are processed according to the Dublin Regulation, an EU law that requires asylum applications to be handled by the country through which the asylum seeker first entered Europe.
The asylum process often takes years to conclude because asylum seekers, seeking to avoid deportation, routinely conceal their identity by destroying passports and birth certificates. Many migrants surreptitiously depart Italy for other European destinations, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, where they submit additional asylum applications. Even if their applications are rejected, most migrants are allowed to stay in Europe because deporting them is nearly impossible under European human-rights laws.
The migrant crisis threatens to unravel the Schengen Agreement, which guarantees free movement within the bloc. The recent surge in migrant arrivals to Lampedusa has led Austria, France, and Germany to reintroduce controls along their borders with Italy. "We cannot embrace all of the world's misery," French president Emmanuel Macron explained. "France will not take in a single migrant from Lampedusa," France's interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, vowed.
The EU continues to try to outsource its border controls to non-EU countries. In July, European officials signed a 1 billion–euro agreement with Tunisia aimed at bribing the government there to halt illegal immigration. So far Tunis has not received one cent, owing to intra-EU disputes about whether the agreement, which is modeled on similar deals with Turkey and Libya, is compatible with European human-rights laws.
The EU's failure to honor the EU–Tunisia agreement has led to a surge in the number of illegal arrivals to Italy from Tunisia. On September 22, after an emergency meeting, the European Commission hastily announced that it would "quickly" deliver 127 million euros to help the Tunisian government fight migrant-trafficking networks. This will not be enough to deter Tunis from keeping open the floodgates to mass migration until the EU pays what it promised.
The EU is also struggling to revamp the way it processes and relocates asylum seekers. In June, after four years of arduous negotiations, the EU announced the so-called New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which imposes "mandatory solidarity" by forcing EU member states to accept migrants or require them to pay 20,000 euros for each person they refuse to take in.
It remains far from certain that the agreement will ever take effect, because it must first be approved by the European Parliament, where Euroskeptic parties opposed to mass migration are expected to win big in elections set for June 2024. If current polls prove to be accurate, populists may gain enough seats in the parliament to impose restrictions on the EU's notoriously lenient migration policies.
A key factor in the rise of populism in Europe is that most of the migrants arriving in Europe are military-aged males from Africa and the Middle East who are not legitimate asylum seekers but economic migrants. For a variety of reasons, including education, culture, and Islam, many of them are unable or unwilling to integrate into their host countries.
Mass migration has made Islam omnipresent in Europe, where Islamist-inspired parallel societies are proliferating along with sharia courts, polygamy, child marriages, and honor violence. It is also stoking social chaos and rampant crime, including runaway antisemitism and mass sexual violence against European women.
The Islamization of European society is fueling support for populist parties across Europe. In Germany, where the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany is now the second-most popular party, half of voter support comes from Germans who are not right-wing but are angry about mass migration, according to a recent survey by the Allensbach Institute.
Despite this anger, migrants continue to arrive in Europe unabated, in large measure because many political leaders, especially in Germany, believe that mass migration is the only way to sustain European social-welfare systems amid a demographic crisis in which fertility rates have fallen far below replacement levels in all 27 EU countries.
British home secretary Suella Braverman has noted that Europe's migration crisis is being sustained by outdated international asylum laws — including the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights — that are being systematically abused to allow virtually anyone to claim asylum for any reason, and to prevent any illegal immigrants, even criminals, from ever being deported. Braverman has said that mass migration poses an "existential challenge for the political and cultural institutions of the West," adding that "uncontrolled immigration, inadequate integration, and a misguided dogma of multiculturalism have proven a toxic combination for Europe over the last few decades."
Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister of Italy, described the latest influx of migrants as unsustainable. "What is happening in Lampedusa is the death of Europe." Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki agreed: "The whole of Europe may become Lampedusa if we continue to commit the same old mistakes."
Soeren Kern a research fellow for the Middle East Forum.