The issue of refugees is being debated heatedly across Europe today. And with good reason. International studies have shown that the European Union is facing the severest pressure from migration in the world right now and that the riskiest stretch of border is that running across the Mediterranean Sea.
In all likelihood, the situation will remain unresolved for years, if not decades. In order to avoid an aggravation of internal problems, the European Union must be able to implement more forceful measures than so far, mostly in order to mitigate the reasons behind the influx of refugees.
A more efficient and purposeful use of development aid resources would be a step towards allowing the Union to come up with solutions for stabilising the internal situation. Wider international cooperation, including with regional associations such as the African Union or the Arab League, will play an extremely important role. At the same time, it is clear that if Libya, for example, should fail to achieve a semblance of order during an extended period, the pressure of migration on the Southern coasts of Italy and Greece would not abate.
Analyses have found that at least one million refugees are waiting daily in North Africa for their chance to cross over to Europe. Last year alone, 626,000 people applied for asylum in European Union countries, which is the highest number since 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The conflicts that linger or even spread in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries show no sign of reprieve. Vigorous demographic growth and deterioration of the economic situation in the countries under crisis only serve to increase the refugee flows. In addition to all this, the problem is further aggravated by the rapid spreading of Islamist extremism. This is simultaneously one of the reasons behind the migration, and a growing problem for the internal security in Europe.
Estonia is not the only European country where the management of the uncontrollable influx of immigrants is substantially more complicated due to the fact that these are all nation states. The issue is understandably more sensitive in smaller countries or those where this problem has so far been minimal.
Although Estonia, just like Italy, is located at the external border of the Union, the pressure of illegal immigration from the East is obviously nothing compared to that coming from the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, this year there have been more asylum seekers than on any previous year. And this despite the solidarity-based decision of the European Union to alleviate the pressure of the refugee flows from the South by spreading it more evenly across the Member States.
We must understand that Estonia is part of the global space and however much we might attempt to ignore the events in the world, we will not succeed in this. Today, more than a quarter of a billion people live outside their country of origin. About 50 million of them are refugees. Estonia stands to gain a lot by being able to compete better in attracting highly qualified international labour force and by managing the increasing pressure of refugees in the smartest way possible. These measures would first and foremost also help to put a stop to the outflow of our own citizens, or reverse it.
The Estonian government has justifiably followed a conservative line of action in negotiating with our European Union partners in the issue of refugees. In cooperation with countries that have similar ideas, we managed to avoid the implementation of an automatic quota system and retained the right to make our own decisions. We must keep our conservative attitude.
For Estonia, it is important to first create the elementary capability to integrate the refugees into our society, at the same time learning from the mistakes of our partner countries. An important aspect here is that the quicker the immigrants can find employment, the more painless will be their integration into their new communities.
The Estonian media has also considered the impact on our internal security when analysing the issue of refugees. Many evoke the Western European neighbourhoods that have been reduced to ghettos, or the terrorist acts of Islamist extremists. These serve as warnings. Islamist extremism is a lasting challenge to the whole of European security and we must make our contribution to fighting it through international cooperation.
Yet Estonia is not currently threatened by a sudden deterioration of the internal security situation. After all, we are talking about mere dozens of people; furthermore, we have even been allowed to give input in setting the pre-selection criteria. However, this does not mean that our law enforcement, and the justice system as a whole, should not concentrate on further training as of today. How many fluent speakers of Arabic do we have in our police force right now, for example? Not many, I expect.
For me, a smart refugee policy also involves an efficient prevention of possible problems. In many European countries, tensions have grown out of collisions between different cultural customs. Germany as well as the United Kingdom have admitted to the failure of the so-called multiculturalism years ago. Integration can be successful only if both sides remain tolerant. Estonia is an open and friendly country where everyone must be kept safe. I repeat – everyone. Our culture and traditions as well as the people who have turned to us for help.
The issue of refugees, and immigration more broadly, has now become a permanent part of internal policy debate in Estonia. For a long time, we simply lived in a quiet knowledge that this does not yet concern us and therefore there was no need to stir up that hornet's nest. As a consequence, there is still a glaring lack of sensible and well-informed debate in our society. But the situation is sure to improve over time. It is important not to fall blindly into extremes; we must keep an open mind to be able to discuss all the aspects of the issue.