The really difficult part of Europe's migration story, officials often said, would begin in 2016. The challenge of 2015 – receiving and processing as many as a million refugees, financing hundreds of thousands of housing units and hiring 3,000 teachers – proved a great success, far better organized than similar refugee crises in previous decades.
But the lingering problem, one that had to be faced this year, was dealing with those who were not refugees. I was told by Germany's immigration and housing officials that 40 per cent to 70 per cent of the people who crossed the Mediterranean or the Balkans last year would not be recognized as refugees or immigrants. They are typically from countries in north and west Africa rarely recognized as refugee sources, are generally seeking casual labour rather than settlement and are generally unaccompanied men.
Everyone expected their fate to be one of the big challenges of 2016. Nobody thought that this challenge would arise in the first hours of 2016, or in such a distasteful and politically loaded way. But the event now known as "Cologne" has thrust these itinerant men into the forefront of Europe's politics, and turned their problem into a continental crisis.
The men identified in the New Year's Eve eruption of purse-snatching, groping and harassment outside Cologne's train station come from this background. They are not refugees: Cologne police reported that the vast majority of assailants were from Algeria or Morocco, countries whose residents could not qualify for refugee status. Refugees and asylum-seekers in Germany do not pose a significant crime problem: Federal crime figures show that their rate of sex assaults is similar to that of the general German population.
Attempts by European opposition figures this week to label them part of the "refugee problem" have missed the point: To a large extent, they and their grey-market lives are part of the non-refugee problem.
Incidents such as Cologne demonstrate the danger of having large numbers of individuals living in your country with neither a pathway to family reunification and full citizenship nor a quick deportation.
Mob incidents of loutishness and sexual humiliation on this scale are not unknown in Germany. They have occurred many times in recent years, in scenes almost identical to those on New Year's Eve, during Bavaria's Oktoberfest celebrations and after soccer matches. But those outrages, involving white people, are treated as regional problems. What made Cologne different was that many of the hooligans were brown-skinned and most of the victims were white.
This fact was seized upon by far-right figures across Europe, for whom the image of a brown-skinned Muslim man groping a white woman has taken on the symbolic political utility that images of black men raping white girls once did in the U.S. South.
There are two key lessons here, ones that European leaders need to learn fast.
The first is that even a large-scale, liberal-minded immigration and refugee system needs to be accompanied by a quick and decisive deportation system. This is both for the sake of the non-accepted migrants themselves, who do not deserve to linger in ambiguity, for the peace of mind of the general population, and, especially, for the genuine refugees and immigrants, who are horrified to find their families subjected to mass demonization and bigotry because a similar-looking group has become a menace.
Deportation is neither cheap nor easy, which is why so many of these guys have stuck around. The European Union's 28 countries have repeatedly failed to develop a co-ordinated inter-
national system of registration and deportation, and existing efforts are hampered by "non-refoulement" laws that prevent many from being returned to their country of origin. But since mass immigration will be part of the continent's future, a faster, better system is urgently needed.
The second lesson is that this is a result not of Europe's open internal borders, but of Europe's closed external borders. Before the late 1990s, such men entered Europe for a few months at a time, on legal short-term visas and with airplane tickets, to do casual labour such as fruit picking, and then returned home, benefiting their communities. After the EU's Maastricht Treaty led to a closed and policed external border, suddenly these temporary, legal figures became permanent, illegal figures who paid thousands to cross the Mediterranean and did not dare move back home seasonally.
Blocking quick movement – either into the continent or out of it – has created a situation that is bad for these men and their families, bad for legitimate refugees and immigrants, and bad for the safety of European streets.