Search for common ground on the migrant crisis

Stefan Vospernik – APA

3 minute read

VIENNA: In a non-nondescript office building in downtown Vienna, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development is working to find some common ground among European countries affected by the migrant crisis.

Established by Austria and Switzerland in 1993, it has since grown to 15 member states with a shared interest in trying to lessen the drivers of illegal migration, and better manage the tide of people who leave their homelands, often with the help of smugglers.

Finding palatable solutions is no easy task given the divergent views of member nations who finance the think-tank.

"We are not interested in extreme positions and try to be a bit of an honest broker for the member states," the centre's Director General Michael Spindelegger tells the Austrian news agency APA.

Spindelegger believes easing the migrant crisis will come down to three core things: better border management in the short term; partnership agreements with transit countries in the medium term; and boosting the economic fortunes of origin countries in the long term.

He says ramped up border protection measures have had only limited success in countering the people smuggling trade.

Smugglers will continue their illegal trade and won't be deterred by even the most draconian penalties "if the price is right", says the former Austrian foreign minister, who now acts as a mentor to his successor Sebastian Kurz.

"Migrant smuggling is a booming business due to high demand. There are not many jobs where you earn so much," Spindelegger adds.

He believes that expanding legal pathways for migrants to move is crucial.

"The possibilities to migrate to Europe legally are very limited," he says.

He says there's an opportunity to enhance the European Union's blue card system, which allows people from outside the EU to live and work there, and provides a pathway towards permanent residency.

Spindelegger says there must also be long-term efforts to boost the economies of the countries people are abandoning.

"This will reduce the number of people willing to leave. Consequently, the price of smuggling will drop. That's how you can really strike smuggling organisations at the heart."

And the relentless tide of migrants crossing - and so often drowning - in the Mediterranean Sea, Spindelegger says the EU must continue its military operation to disrupt smuggling and rescue people from sinking boats.

"It has to be done, it's part of the European DNA (to rescue people)," Spindelegger says of Operation Sophia.

But he says it must be accompanied by parallel efforts to improve border management in the Mediterranean.

He sees some potential solutions for Europe in what Australia has done to stop smuggling boats from southeast Asia from reaching its shores.

Australia uses its navy to turn smugglers' boats back at sea. It has also vowed never to resettle anyone who tries to come illegally by boat.

Those who have been caught on smugglers' boats have been sent to Australian-funded immigration detention centres in other Pacific nations.

But while imposing its aggressive border protection policies, Australia has also increased its intake of refugees who come through official channels.

"No-one can jump the queue by arriving on a smuggler's boat at an Australian island, saying 'Look, here I am and you have to deal with me'," Spindelegger says.

"If a country opts for legal migration, it also has to be so firm as to prevent any attempt to bypass the system illegally."