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Why Europe should consider a US-style green card lottery for migrants

Migrants from the Middle East wait outside a train station in Budapest on their way across Europe. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe this year and 2,500 migrants have lost their lives in the crossing attempt. With the current migration trend unlikely to reverse itself any time soon, politicians across Europe need to act fast to agree on new policies to stop the deaths and agree on a long-term solution to the migration crisis. The push factors behind migration to Europe – war, state persecution and poverty, as well as lack of economic opportunities in much of Africa and the Middle East – will continue to persist in the decades to come.

The recent death of 70 migrants in the back of a lorry in Austria serves as a reminder that the misery and tragedy of the migrant issue is no longer contained on the periphery of the Europe on the islands of Lampedusa and Kos. It has arrived in the heart of the continent.

In the absence of a common EU migration policy, each country currently fends for itself. In light of the events so far this year and the projections for the years to come, politicians across Europe need to accept that an EU-wide migration management strategy is desperately needed: no country can solve the current and future migration challenge by itself. They also need to share the burden of migration fairly between countries – an idea strongly advocated by German chancellor Angela Merkel, and put on the table by a group of MEPs in July.

One suggestion would be to implement a common EU-wide asylum system with standardised humanitarian criteria whereby refugees can have their asylum claim processed in an EU member state embassy outside EU territory. Prospective asylum seekers would be enabled to claim asylum before they arrived in EU territory, thus eliminating the need for hazardous clandestine migration across the Mediterranean as well as saving state resources in respect to repatriating unsuccessful asylum seekers.

Refugees would then be fairly distributed across the 28 EU member states. An EU extraterritorial asylum system would help refugees with a legitimate asylum claim and cut out the human smugglers. However, so-called economic migrants would still have to resort to clandestine migration in order to reach Europe.

Introduce a lottery

In order to provide these economic migrants with a legal migration route, the EU could follow the lead of the United States, which has a green card lottery that enables a fixed quota of 50,000 green cards (proof of permanent residence) to be given to labour migrants from a list of countries that have low migration to the US (countries that have already contributed 50,000 in the last five years are excluded). Applicants have to submit their application online, and if they get a notification telling them they have won the “lottery”, they have to present their documents and pass an interview in a US embassy, before being given the right to remain in the US.

Winning big. EPA

Although undoubtedly unpopular with domestic electorates, a common EU visa lottery system could focus on Asia and Africa – and those countries with a high migration pressure to the EU. It would provide a legal gateway for so-called economic migrants to formalise their employment in Europe and alleviate some of the migration pressures on Europe’s southern borders. This system would also enable them to invest their capital into the European economy instead of handing it to the organised criminal gangs.

Cutting out the human smugglers

All EU countries have signed the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and are obligated to grant any person the right to claim asylum within their national territory. In order to claim asylum, migrants have to reach European territory first. Instead of forcing migrants to resort to human traffickers to get to an EU members state, European countries need to enable migrants to apply for asylum in the EU from their country of origin. Human smugglers make billions every year of Syrian,Eritrean, and Iraqi refugees wishing to cross to Europe in order claim asylum.

At the same time a significant number of migrants claiming asylum in Europe are not fleeing persecution and war but instead poverty and unemployment. These economic migrants use and by default clog up the asylum system because it constitutes the only available legal route to Europe. A US-style green card lottery – with a real chance of winning – could help the asylum system focus more on the refugees.

Although economic migrants are a politically contentious issue with voters, there need to be legal ways for labour migrants from Africa and Asia to come and work in Europe. As it stands, employers’ demand for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the low-pay sector throughout Europe acts as a pull factor for economic migrants wishing to escape poverty in their home countries. The lack of appropriate legislation for unskilled and semi-skilled labour migration throughout Europe has created a void that is currently filled by organised human smugglers.

The current legal framework on immigration and asylum in Europe is a relic of the 20th century, shaped by cold war politics and decolonisation. In the era of globalisation EU member states need to institutionalise a common, flexible, and comprehensive legislation that can facilitate international migration according to regional economic demand while simultaneously maintaining our humanitarian ideals. The current patchwork of 28 different national immigration legislations across the EU achieves neither.

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