News and Commentary

EISEN: Europe’s Next Refugee Crisis

In 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees arrived at the borders of Europe in a desperate attempt to escape conflict. This wave of mass migration was a large source of controversy in the West, sparking debates regarding how to best cope with humanitarian crises in Syria and North Africa.

European countries such as Germany and France accepted several hundred thousand Syrians and North Africans, which deeply divided the European population. Other countries, including Hungary and Italy, did their best to limit the influx of refugees.

Algeria is currently facing increased political instability and corruption, leading to mass protests across the country. Located in the most northern part of Africa, only the Mediterranean separates Algeria from southern Europe. Algeria’s 82-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, recently announced he would not run for his fifth re-election following weeks of mass protests from disgruntled citizens. Bouteflika is wheelchair-ridden and has not spoken publically since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Although eventually cowing to protestor demands, many believe that Bouteflika still plans to maintain power despite not running for re-election. A recent press release from his administration announced that elections, which are supposed to be held on April 18th, are being delayed to create the Inclusive and Independent National Council, which he claims will be tasked with drafting a new constitution and election date.

Regardless, protestors continue to demand Bouteflika immediately relinquish his power to a younger generation of Algerian leaders and end his more than 20-year reign. If Bouteflika refuses to step down, protestors are only likely to grow more restless and violent, increasing the likelihood of a civil war.

Libya, a country already plagued by civil war, borders Algeria to the east. The Sahel, a region spanning across Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan, partly borders Algeria from the south (only Mauritania, Mali and Niger). Various African jihadist groups, including Al-Nusra, Boko Haram, and Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates, currently operate in this area. Algeria has virtually non-existent border security with these surrounding countries.

Combine the growing political unrest in Algeria, the current civil war in Libya, and expansionist endeavors of African jihadist groups in the Sahel, and what you get is a power void looking to be filled by both rebel groups inside Algeria and jihadist groups outside Algeria.

If a power void is created and these groups fight for control of the country, millions of Algerians will become displaced in search of safer place to live. If Algeria does go belly-up, Europe will encounter its second refugee crisis in under a decade, with Algerians having nowhere to go but up through the Mediterranean and into southern Europe.

This begs the question: How will Europe deal with the millions of displaced Algerians and other North Africans attempting to cross the Mediterranean?

If the European Union (EU) decides to handle the potential refugee crisis similar to how they did in 2015, they risk substantial destabilization of Europe and the EU system. That being said, it’s unlikely that the EU handles their second refugee crisis as they did their first.

The Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 was arguably the largest contributing factor to the rise in populist parties in Europe, who aimed to close borders, salvage “Europe as we know it,” and (in some cases) secede from the EU. If even some European countries handle a second refugee crisis in under a decade analogous to the first, populist parties in Europe will not merely rise in prominence – as they did in 2015 – they will win resoundingly.

The result will be an upsurge in intra-national political division. There will also be more division between EU countries because of the Schengen Agreement and the Common European Asylum System. The former allows those within the EU to move across borders easily, while the latter commits EU countries to a shared responsibility in welcoming asylum seekers.

If just a few countries accept a swarm of Algerian refugees, the consequences will be felt across the entire continent. Compound this with the already existing cultural clashes between Europeans and migrants in Europe from the first crisis, the result will be unprecedented social/political crisis in Europe, which will likely spiral into more political polarization and reactionary fringe-movements. It is therefore in the interest of both EU leaders in Brussels and left-leaning European parties in general to limit, to the greatest extent possible, the influx of refugees.

That being said, if Europe refuses to accept the millions of refugees following a crisis in Algeria, they will still aim to solve (what will be) a massive humanitarian crisis with a high potential for regional contagion. Their best option, aside from full-scale intervention, will be to set up safe-zones for displaced Algerians. Their other option is to nip this problem in the bud before it escalates into a refugee crisis. How exactly they would do this is unclear.

While this foreseeable crisis is currently in an infancy stage, it’s worth keeping an eye on Algeria, the surrounding region, and subsequent responses from the EU.

Follow Joshua Eisen on Twitter.