As the UK struggles to come to terms with the horrific attack in Manchester, England, now is the time for a clear-eyed assessment of the unprecedented challenges facing Europe as a whole, particularly at they pertain to the mass migration currently underway, and the difficult, though vital choices that must be weighed.
The Israeli experience in dealing with illegal immigration in recent years yields useful insights, some of which I experienced personally as commander of the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) Sagi Brigade.
This brigade is in charge of securing the Israeli – Egyptian border. Between 2008 and 2010, when I commanded it, Israel was dealing with an influx of migrants from African states, such as Eritrea and Sudan. Tens of thousands of people were entering the country, in an undocumented manner, each year. Yet within a few years, a complete turnaround occurred, and the phenomenon of illegal immigration to Israel via Egypt came to a halt.
The government and defense establishment constructed a state-of-the-art border barrier. They formulated and implemented policies designed to stem the flow. Additional measures included coordination with the Egyptian authorities, to return migrants caught trying to cross into Israel.
Today, in Europe, millions of people are pouring into the continent from Africa and the Middle East; a challenge often framed as humanitarian in nature by the Europeans. In Israel, a similar mindset prevailed.
In my brigade’s sector, when migrants caught at the border were returned to Egypt, Israeli soldiers found it difficult to see people who had walked hundreds of kilometers, and suffered untold abuses by human smugglers, reach the gates of the State of Israel, only to be turned back.
These sights raised many difficult questions among soldiers, as they did more widely for the Jewish people, who themselves had survived the Holocaust and were homeless refugees until recently.
Israel was one of the initiators of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention for these very reasons.
And yet, when dealing with a situation in which ethics collide with national interests, the only rational solution, according to Israel’s experience, is to prioritize goals in line with a country’s security and well being.
A common mistake is to take a specific issue – in this case, the humanitarian aspect of refugee crises – and view it in isolation, as if one was looking at it through a straw, without taking into account additional implications.
On an individual basis, the desirability of a holistic view is self-evident. Wanting to help the homeless is a noble wish, but one would not risk the security of one’s family by inviting unknown people to stay in one’s home indefinitely. Similarly, a family household that barely earns enough to buy food would be seen as foolish if it donated half of its income to charity.
On a national level, similar priorities must be clearly defined when looking at the issue of mass migration.
A failure to act in line with national priorities could, in the case of mass migration, lead to the rise of nationalist and far-right forces within the domestic populace.
According to international law, refugees fleeing dangers who arrive in a safe state lose their refugee status if they again move to another state. In fact, this is what refugees who arrived in Turkey from Syria are doing, when they move on to Europe.
According to the legal definition, once they leave Turkey, they are no longer refugees, but rather, migrants.
During my time as brigade commander, I encountered migrants from Eritrea and Sudan who arrived in Egypt, registered at a UN refugee agency, received a refugee certificate, and UN aid, but then tried to reach Israel to improve their quality of life.
Such migrants constituted more than 95 percent of the people our brigade encountered.
Israel, a small country with limited resources, steeped in a myriad of taxing security issues, quickly constructed a barrier straddling the border with Egypt’s Sinai to check the flow of mass migration.
Yet it was the introduction of technologies that were added to that fence, and which can identify movement from a distance,that ultimately helped stem the flow. When such detection capabilities were integrated with forces that can respond quickly to alerts, the flow of migrants turned into a trickle, before stopping completely.
Israel also created incentives for migrants who had gotten in, and who are not legally refugees, to travel to African states, with payment from the government.
Additionally, many illegal, economic, migrants in Israel are placed in a detainment camp in the south of the country, until they agree to depart the country.
These steps are accompanied by intelligence supervision, designed to ensure that those who have entered are not potential threats.
In a situation of uncontrolled migration, such as that which is currently occurring in Europe, migrants cannot be effectively questioned and screened, and security hazards can embed themselves in this great flow of people, infiltrating Europe. This is dangerous. It places an addtional strain on the capacity to track citizens of European states as they return from countries such as Syria, or Lybia, for example. Resources are finite.
To counteract the threat, Europe may wish to consider acting as one state, and focus its resources on beefing up and enhancing the European Union’s outer perimeter.
Viewing the European Union’s borders as a sovereign, national barriers, and placing border control measures around them would go a long way to helping address the issue.
Unchecked mass migration to Europe forms an existential threat to it.
The entrance of masses of people who did not arrive to absorb the local cultures, and do not intend to assimilate, will invariably change the nature of European civilization.
The EU’s decision-making mechanisms are built in a way that does not currently allow them to respond to such cardinal problems.
If the EU fails to act as one country, its other solution lies in allowing every member state to respond as it wishes, individually.
A significant increase of investment in the police, border police, and domestic security forces, and revolutionizing border security, would go a long way toward creating effective solutions.
Alongside these measures, the international community must begin to create real assistance programs for displaced people, to effectively assist genuine refugees and to create solutions for them inside the failed states from which they come, to decrease the flow of mass migration, and to preserve the security to which all inhabitants of their respective states are certainly entitled.
Edited by: Yaakov Lappin
Co-edited by: Benjamin Anthony
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.