The Schengen System is Hollowing Out and Something Must Be Done

Schengen, a village in Luxembourg. (Source:

After the pandemic and in parallel with the ongoing war in Ukraine, illegal migration towards the European Union has been soaring again. Authorities, just like the bloc’s external border protection body, FRONTEX, have been warning that the number of arrivals can significantly increase again. We could see that the situation is nowhere near as extreme as it was in 2015, when around 1.8 million migrants knocked on the door. In the past two years, the increase has been steady and this time EU member states have been more skeptical and rigorous.

Illegal border crossings started to rise again with 199 898 registrations in 2021 and 331 433 illegal border crossing attempts in 2022. Data concerning 2023 is of course not final but the European Commission states that 281 872 irregular border crossings have been registered between January and September. This means an increase by 18 percent compared to the same period of 2022.

A huge change in the way the migrants are smuggled inside Europe is in the way of arrival. In the first nine months of 2023, 184 614 sea crossings happened which is 83 percent more compared to the same period in 2022, while arrivals on land decreased by 30 percent. The reason behind this can be the different origin countries illegal migrants are being smuggled from but a different way of working is also there: it is imperative for authorities to rescue boats at sea. Boats that fit more people so the relative costs for the smugglers can remain rather low.

Land Arrivals Curb Europe’s Biggest Achievement

With that said, it is the land arrivals which seem to shape European politics towards abandoning one of its most treasured feats: the free movement of its people, the Schengen Area.

Daily, approximately 3.5 million individuals engage in the act of crossing internal borders inside the Schengen Area for purposes such as employment, education, or visiting loved ones. Additionally, nearly 1.7 million individuals choose to reside in one Schengen country while actively pursuing employment in another. The Schengen agreement thus represents a significant accomplishment.

After these measures came 2023 and a surprising, yet not entirely unforeseen decision more and more countries join in on implementing: the reintroduction of border checks. The reasoning to do so was the European Union dealing with an increase in legal and illegal arrivals by migrants, prompting some member states to temporarily re-introduce border controls within what is normally a zone of free movement. The bloc’s rules allow such action “as a last resort” in cases that are deemed serious threats to internal security or public policy.

Two Objectives: Taking Down Backlogs and Find New Methods

The situation is not only fragile because the sheer influx needs to be managed; it is also important to deal with the ongoing asylum requests because building backlogs means that undocumented, potentially dangerous people linger on inside the European Union. At a meeting organized in October 2023, the justice and interior ministers of the European Union have agreed that one of the most central problems of the current migration situation is pinpointing and deporting those with a failed asylum request, including those who outright pose security risks. Solving the problem of prolonged returns is a priority for more and more member states.

Proposals to increase the requirements for citizenship, identify migrants through DNA analysis, restrict the number of residence permits granted for humanitarian reasons, tighten the requirements for family reunion visas, and eliminate the opportunity to apply for a work visa after an asylum application is denied are just a few of the changes.

This article is an edited and abridged version of a writing to be published in the next issue of Dutch magazine Epoque.

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