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What the Dutch parliament collapse reveals about European migration

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s resignation could be a bellwether for European Parliament elections.

A photo of Mark Rutte from the shoulders up. He is a white man with short brown hair, and wears rimless square glasses, a blue shirt and tie, and a gray suit jacket.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte attends the Liberation Day festivities on May 5, 2023, in Zwolle, Netherlands.
Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

A bitter divide over immigration policy has brought down Mark Rutte, the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister, demonstrating Europe’s increasingly polarized debate about how to manage the thousands of people risking their lives in hopes of resettling there.

Rutte handed in his resignation on Saturday to the Netherlands’ King Willem-Alexander, ending the longest-running Dutch prime minister’s service and forcing new general elections in the fall. Rutte’s parliamentary coalition failed to reach an agreement about new, stricter measures regarding immigration; Rutte’s party fell out with two coalition partners, the Christian Union and D66, over proposals to create a two-tiered asylum system — temporary for those fleeing conflict and permanent for people fleeing persecution — as well as disagreements over family reunification policy, the New York Times reported Friday. Dutch immigration policy is already stricter than that of many European nations, but a recent uptick in migration from countries like Tunisia and Pakistan has reignited the migration policy debate throughout the continent.

Though migration to Europe has not reached the levels seen in 2015 and 2016 during the height of the Islamic State’s caliphate and the Syrian civil war, economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, conflict in Ukraine and parts of Africa, and political and social crises in the Global South have collided to push people from their home countries — often via unsafe and irregular routes like human smuggling.

But the people who are now attempting to make a new life in Europe are facing a very different political and social context than refugees who arrived in 2015. The foreign policy of European countries, the UK, and the US is also largely consumed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now entering its 17th month. The European right wing, though it controls only a few nations like Hungary and Italy, has more influence than it did in earlier years.

Yet even strict immigration policies, like those recently implemented in the UK, haven’t stopped people from risking their lives to go there or to European countries. Furthermore, a lack of focus on the large-scale, international mobilization around migration makes the process even more dangerous, as the sinking of an Italy-bound ship carrying hundreds of people near Greece last month showed.

Migration trends are increasingly complex

Migration to the EU decreased significantly in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting border closures. In 2019, the EU issued about 3 million first residence permits, which dropped to 2.3 million the next year but picked back up to 2.9 million in 2021. Though these numbers haven’t changed significantly, the number of irregular border crossings — people coming without valid visas and often by illicit means, including by using human smugglers — increased by 66 percent from 2021 to 2022 according to the European Commission.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed migration to the EU, although Ukrainians were already moving to European countries before the war started in February 2022. By the end of May of this year, 4 million Ukrainians had temporary protected status in an EU country, according to Eurostat. Migration from Morocco, Tunisia, and Pakistan has increased, and people continue to flee conflict and repression in Syria and Afghanistan.

Migration from Tunisia appears to be a second-order effect of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Thousands of undocumented migrants have fled places like Mali, where ongoing Islamist violence and a brutal military junta have wreaked violence and terror on the Malian people, as well as Sudan, where two rival military leaders have turned the capital of Khartoum into a battlefield.

People from Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Guinea, and Senegal have also migrated to Tunisia, where they reportedly suffer racist violence and where the government has focused on expelling them rather than allowing aid organizations to assist them, Reuters reported Thursday.

Tunisian President Kais Saied has instituted a racist crackdown on Black African migrants in the North African nation, making claims that irregular African migrants are spreading violence and crime and using his official platform to spread baseless conspiracy theories. “The unspoken goal behind these successive waves of irregular migration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country, with no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” Saied said in a February speech.

Migration from Pakistan is also on the rise; hundreds of Pakistanis were believed to be on the Italy-bound boat that sank in the Mediterranean in early June. A volatile government, as well as economic instability, have pushed many Pakistanis to seek work in Europe. Pakistan was approaching default until Thursday, when a renegotiated International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement unlocked $1.1 billion in funding for the struggling nation’s economy. However, whether Pakistan is able to abide by the agreement and right its economy remains to be seen.

Pakistan will also hold a general election in October, though it may do little to quell the unrest following former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s removal from office and subsequent arrest. The terms of the IMF deal will require the government to implement austerity measures, which will further impact the poor economy and standard of living, as the Economist Intelligence Unit reports. Economic and political instability are expected to persist into 2024.

Europe has become more polarized since the 2015 migrant arrivals

Despite the increase in irregular migration over the past three years, there’s no comparison between current migration trends and those of 2015 and 2016. At that point, millions of people fled the Syrian civil war and the violence of the Islamic State and came to settle in EU nations. In 2015, a record 1.3 million people requested asylum in Europe — about double the previous record set after the fall of the Soviet Union, according to Pew Research.

Despite the fact that immigration numbers are nowhere near 2015’s heights, the UK’s conservative Home Secretary Suella Braverman in March unveiled a radical new immigration policy, as Vox previously reported:

Braverman’s bill ... would deport people who arrive to the UK via irregular migration channels — primarily small boats crossing the English Channel — and bar them from seeking asylum in the UK. The bill has been widely criticized as racist and legally fraught, and both the UN’s refugee agency and the European Court of Human Rights have objected on human rights grounds.

In 2022, Braverman also announced plans to move certain migrants to Rwanda, which she justified as a safe third country despite government repression and regional conflict fomented by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. That policy has not yet been implemented due to legal challenges.

Germany played a pivotal role in accepting refugees in 2015, with then-Chancellor Angela Merkel telling the German people, “We can do this” when she laid out the country’s new refugee policy in August 2015. Germany has had success integrating migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern nations into the fabric of its society, but the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, took advantage of the large numbers of new arrivals to stoke Islamophobic fears and push their anti-immigrant ideology. Though the federal government put AfD under surveillance in 2021 due to concerns about the party’s extremist views and anti-democratic stance, a recent poll reported by Deutsche Welle indicates that AfD has more support among Germans than any one of the ruling coalition parties.

Right-wing and anti-migrant sentiment has been on the rise in EU countries for several years; Hungary’s Viktor Orbán sealed the country’s borders in response to the 2015 migrant arrivals, and many European leaders later begrudgingly praised him for that decision. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki this week denounced the European Commission’s plans to support and integrate migrants entering European countries, insisting instead that the bloc should focus on stopping irregular migration.

Despite the years-long friction over immigration policy in the wake of the 2015 arrivals, EU interior ministers appeared to hammer out a workable solution in June to share responsibility for the unauthorized migrants who continue to travel to European countries. That policy includes a proposed common asylum procedure and shared responsibility for helping frontline nations like Greece and Italy manage immigration flow, according to the Council of the EU.

But the new policy still has to come before the European Parliament, where it could potentially unravel; and if it doesn’t pass before parliamentary elections next year, it might not happen, especially if right-wing parties manage to form a strong enough coalition.

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