Not long ago, Western TV bulletins, radio programmes and newspapers were all full of tragic pictures and stories of tens of thousands of children, women and men trying to escape wars, poverty and persecution to Europe, and losing their lives in the process.
Those pictures and stories were very painful, powerful and depressing. From the overcrowded dinghies, sinking boats, washed up bodies, exhausted families, to the hungry trying to reach refuge on foot or by road and railways.
Europe was divided. Some saw migrants as a threat, unworthy opportunists, deserving the tear gassing they get on some European borders, and they applauded Hungary for building a border fence. Others showed an outpouring of support and were on train platforms with flowers and food welcoming the new arrivals to safety.
That was 2015 and the first half of 2016. But since then fewer pictures and stories were in our newspapers and TV bulletins.
So, is the migrants’ crisis over? Far from it.
The EU’s border control operation predicts there could be 700,000 to one million migrants waiting in Libya in 2017.
What has changed is the European approach to the crisis as well as the route the migrants take.
The Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy has been the central route for migrants to Europe for the last 20 years. But in 2015, a new route was active, from Turkey to Greece through the Aegean Sea.
In July 2015, 80,000migrants arrived in Greece across that route. The following month the number was 130,migrants, and the month after it was over 160,.By October 2015,over 220,migrants crossed to Europe through the Aegean Sea.
Thousands and thousands of migrants were fleeing not only Syria and Iraq, but also Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan, searching for better life, employment, education, healthcare and housing.
Europe, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, chose to take the moral high ground, allowing more than 1.3 million migrants to pass through and settle down. However, the economic cost, practicality and political price were very high.
The EU itself was at stake when far-right parties used the crisis to score unprecedented political gains and weaken the European project. Subsequently, Merkel came under pressure over her refugee policy in the wake of terror attacks by asylum seekers.
Merkel publicly stayed committed to her slogan, “We can do it”, but in truth she quietly reversed her “open door” refugee policy dramatically.
Slowly, but surely, she turned down the waves of migrants on European shores.
A deal, which she personally negotiated, between the EU and Turkey to control refugees, has reduced significantly migration across the eastern Mediterranean. That with the closure of the Balkan route has slowed the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany to a trickle.
According to the deal, the Turkish government agreed to halt the exodus of migrants to Europe through Turkey, and to accept migrants back from Greece.
The deal, signed in March 2016, gave migrants no automatic entrance to Europe. It noted that migrants must register first and wait for their asylum applications to be processed by the Greek authorities. Also, the deal emphasised that not all refugees will get asylum rights to Europe — only the most vulnerable.
According to the deal, economic migrants will be detained in Greece and then sent back to Turkey. In return, Turkey received six billion euros to help housing, schooling and medical care for migrants already in Turkey.
It did work. The number of migrants who crossed from Turkey to Greece dropped from 57,000 in February 2016 to about 3,400 in August, and from 2,000 people a day in 2016 to around 50 a day this year.
The number of deaths have also fallen dramatically, from 366 deaths in the first three months of 2016 to seven in the three months after the agreement. Fewer and fewer migrants were coming to Europe via Turkey, as they found out that there was a great possibility they might be returned.
On the contrary, numbers crossing from Libya to Italy reached a record 181, last year. The number in 2017 is still on the increase.
The number of deaths is still very high. An estimated 5,000 migrants lost their lives in 2016 trying to cross to Italy. Other estimates put the number much higher.
Libya became the new main route for migrants because of its location, political fragmentation and disarray. With no central authority and numerous fighting factions, Libya is a very difficult partner for the EU to work with.
Faced with domestic criticism of her refugee policies as elections loom in September in Germany, Merkel visited Egypt and Tunisia last week attempting to implement a version of the EU-Turkey deal in Libya, in order to stem the tide.
In her talks in Cairo and Tunisia, Merkel pressed for greater efforts to counter the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean. She also asked for more cooperation in accepting the return of failed asylum seekers from the EU.
In Tunisia, Merkel struck a deal with the Tunisian government to take back 1,500 rejected Tunisian migrants from Germany after the attack by a Tunisian asylum seeker on a Christmas market in Berlin, which left 12 dead.
All that came as a part of Merkel’s strategy to speed up the deportation of rejected asylum seekers. The plan included a federal “joint centre for return” to take control of deportations out of the states’ hands and place them under her government. Under the German system, it is the state governments who are responsible for deportations.
Other measures included federal detentions centres to hold deportees until they can be expelled, and more financial incentives to encourage migrants to return voluntarily. Also, better monitoring of potential suspects and more intelligence cooperation.
Immigration authorities in Germany will be given new powers to examine asylum seekers’ mobile phones and SIM cards to determine their identities.
“For the next few months, what matters most is repatriation, repatriation, and more repatriation,” Mrs Merkel is said to have told senior figures in her party recently.
Libya is a priority, Merkel said in her weekly podcast last week. “Without stabilising Libya politically, we will not put a stop to the traffickers and smugglers that operate out of Libya.”
By taking a business delegation with her to Egypt and Tunisia, Merkel was underlining the EU’s desire to curb migration by fostering economic development. “Only when there is overall development can thepressure for flight and for expulsions be overcome,” Mrs Merkel told the Munich Security Conference last month.
On the EU level, the European Commission announced 7 March new plans declaring that asylum seekers must not choose EU nations they apply in for asylum. Such a move would mean Brussels doing away with the current procedure that sees the first country refugees arrive in responsible for any asylum claim.
This would remove the incentive for refugees to attempt to travel across the bloc to their country of choice.
With Brexit and general elections in several European countries looming, the EU’s priority is to handle the migration crisis, with a view to stopping the flow of people making their way towards Europe from sub-Saharan Africa through Libya and across the Mediterranean.
What Europe has done is basically deter migrants and refugees from entering Europe by packages of disincentive laws, deals and measures. It was done quietly but systematically to spare Europe the political, social and security consequences.
It is a fair decision for the bad apples within the migrants. But for refugees who are genuinely running away from civil wars, poverty, religious persecution and discrimination the situation will only get worst.
The new EU Partnerships in North Africa mean that the West will bear the financial responsibility to help the refugees, making sure they won’t risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean or the Aegean Sea and stay put in camps in Turkey and Libya.
Therein lies the problem. Reducing the numbers of the refugees and migrants entering Europe could reduce political tensions in Germany and other European countries. It also can help reduce the death rate among migrants trying to cross open water to reach Europe. However, the migrants’ crisis is not only numbers. Living conditions in refugee camps in Turkey, Libya, Jordan and Lebanon are horrendous and inhumane.
Libya is a lawless country and is not equipped to deal with huge numbers of migrants. The situation in Turkey is not much better. The camps are overcrowded, sexual exploitation of women and children is widespread, and attacks against migrants from the native population are very common.
The asylum process in Greece is also very slow and around 50,000 migrants are already stacked in semi-permanent camps in terrible conditions since late March 2016.
Following a devastating defeat in Berlin state elections in September 2016, Mrs Merkel said she accepted her share of responsibility for voters punishing her ruling Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) Party for her refugee-friendly migrant policy, announcing her plans to step up deportations and clear out a large backlog of asylum cases.
And this exactly what she is doing. It is a success story for Merkel and Europe but it is not so for the vulnerable migrants and refugees who will be on the other end of these policies.