Critiquing the EU Response to the Migrant Crisis

Critiquing the EU Response to the Migrant Crisis

by Yousuf Abdelfatah

The refugee crisis in Europe and the resulting national policies threaten the principle of freedom of movement in the Schengen zone. To resolve this crisis, the EU must reform its existing legislation and enact a comprehensive asylum and immigration policy.

Increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers have sparked nationalist and xenophobic responses…and fence building: Hungary erected a razor wire fence along its border with Serbia. Austria and Slovakia quickly followed Hungary’s lead and announced intentions to erect their own border controls.

It was a sign of things to come. Seven countries have put into place temporary border controls between them and other member states, ending 20 years of free movement. Their border controls do not violate Schengen, as it allows for temporary border controls to be imposed in exceptional cases or times of national emergency.

Further south, in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants, the EU made a deal with Turkey in March 2016. In return for visa-free travel, 6 billion euros in aid, and the promise of revived EU accession talks, Turkey agreed to take back refugees who had come from the country. The deal also includes a provision for up to 72,000 legal Syrian refugees who resided in Turkey to be resettled into Europe based on an ill-defined “one-in, one out” program.

Such an arrangement is not entirely new. The EU has long held that it was the responsibility of the asylum seeker to apply for asylum in the first safe country that he or she traveled to, and established arrangements with its neighbors to return refugees to them. This deal with Turkey is therefore just an extension of this established, yet controversial, precedent.

Greece, meanwhile, did not have the structural capacity to begin the necessary asylum hearings without support from the EU, which was not immediately forthcoming. Even with EU support, expediting thousands of asylum hearings is an enormous undertaking, especially with NGOs  pulling their support from Greek islands in protest of Greek policy.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have denounced the deal, and EU leaders are concerned over the quality of refugee camps and safety of refugees in Turkey. European law prohibits member nations from sending migrants to third countries deemed unsafe. Turkey has refused to change its policies when it comes to refugees or to allow any EU monitoring of the conditions of refugees.

Early on there were signs of success: migrant inflows into Greece dropped in the period following the deal. But those inflows are now climbing sharply. Turkish authorities knowingly patrol the waters at times when they are least likely to intercept smuggling vessels. This is likely because, under the “one-in one out” system, Turkey can only send a refugee to Europe once it has accepted one from the continent, motivating Turkey to ignore human smuggling.

Europe has not honored its side of the deal either. The EU has yet to grant visa-free travel to Turks, or deliver promised financial aid.

The deal also does nothing to address refugees coming from other routes. Even if the Balkans route were shut down, smugglers would still be able to take alternative routes through Western North Africa or across the Black Sea. Smugglers have already begun doing this.

In order to effectively combat and control the refugee crisis, Europe must reform its current asylum policies. In September of 2015, EU member states agreed to relocate tens of thousands of refugees: 66,400 asylum seekers out of Greece by September 2017. However, after the first year of the deal, only about 5,400 refugees have been relocated.  

One of the main issues inhibiting a pan-European response are the Dublin Conventions, which are comprised of two main principles designed to prevent asylum seekers from “asylum shopping” by applying for asylum in EU member states. The first principle is that an asylum decision made by one member on an asylum application can apply to all members. The second principle states that the initial country of entry assumes responsibility for processing asylum applications.

The Dublin system, like the EU-Turkey deal, serves to create perverse incentives for both states and migrants. Border states may be inclined to create an unwelcoming environment for asylum seekers -- so that they will be discouraged from entering the country -- or to push asylum seekers onto third countries. Asylum seekers will be inclined to violate EU laws and not claim asylum until they reach a welcoming country.

The European Commission has suggested a new asylum system in which EU member states would be required to take in a certain amount of refugees which would be determined based on the individual country’s capabilities. The Commission’s proposal was to assign each state a certain quota of refugees to resettle. For every refugee that the state failed to do so it would be fined 250,000 euros. This quota system has garnered the support of France, Germany, Italy and a number of others. It is also opposed by a significant number of mostly Eastern European member states led by Hungary. Due to the intergovernmental nature of EU institutions there is no real way to force states to adopt this type of common asylum policy, and voters in Hungary roundly rejected the quota deal in fall 2016.

If EU member states will not accept such a system, it is more likely that they will accept one in which they are incentivized to resettle asylum seekers through the promise of additional funding. The EU currently already has programs in place that provide funding to countries that have a significant number of refugees and has billions earmarked for aid for refugees in third countries such as Turkey and Jordan. In order to push through any substantial policy reform, these programs would have to be ramped up.

To effectively combat the crisis, the EU must forge a comprehensive asylum policy and enforce it, whether it be by fines or perhaps more palatable incentives. If the European Union is unable to do so, and member nations continue to erect border controls, the continent could face serious economic consequences and the end of the Schengen zone.

Image "Working with Warchild..." Courtesy DFID - UK Dept. for International Development / CC BY-SA 2.0

About the Author

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a second-year student at Rutgers University studying Political Science and Economics with a Certificate in Global Economics. He is an Aresty Research Assistant, studying the obstacles to and effects of social entrepreneurship among youth in the Middle East and North Africa. He also serves on the executive board of the Rutgers University chapter of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, and is a staff member of the Institute for Domestic and International Affairs.

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