How the EU’s internal dysfunction is complicating the migrant crisis

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons, 2015; CC0 3.0

 Since the Arab Spring in 2011, the already heavy flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East to Europe has spiked. Over half of those seeking asylum and braving the risky journey to reach safer European borders originate from countries engulfed by civil wars, persecutions and repressive governments such as Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Eritrea, and Iraq. The problems within the European Union (EU) arising from this increased migration flux depend mainly on the sensible and arduous compromise between managing the rising number of refugees entering the EU and the attempts to ensure that these refugees are settled through legal and official channels. The issues are deepened further when analyzing the humanitarian conditions of these asylum seekers. Once they reach what they believe to be a safer location, the efforts to legitimate their presence on European soil is often in contrast and sometimes even in violation with the EU asylum standards.

         In order to understand why the EU is undergoing so many obstacles when dealing with the arrival of refugees, we have to introduce two important arrangements: the Dublin Regulation and the EU-Turkey deal on the migrant crisis. The Dublin Regulation is an EU law that determines the EU member state responsible for processing those applying to receive international protection. Approved in 2013, the Dublin Regulation requires the country in which the asylum seeker first entered to be responsible for either accepting or rejecting the request. It also blocks asylum seekers from renewing the application process in other locations in order to avoid the phenomenon of “asylum shopping,” which occurs when an applicant submits multiple applications in several EU member states. In fact, because of this law, if an asylum seeker tries to move to another state, they will be transferred back to the member state where they first arrived. The regulation is also supposed to prevent what is commonly known as “asylum orbiting” where asylum seekers are moved from one country to another with no member state taking responsibility for them.

         The Dublin Regulation appears to be a solution to the chaotic situation of migrants, but there are several problems that can be pointed out. Firstly, many humanitarian organizations criticize the fact that the regulation obstructs the legal rights and personal well-being of the asylum seeker, such as the right to a fair examination of their asylum claim, and once accepted, the right to effective protection. Secondly, countries that are more likely to receive migrants initially, are the ones closer to the refugees’ countries of origin. Therefore, this law creates an unequal distribution of asylum claims among member states by placing too much responsibility and often burden on member states that serve as the main points of entry to the EU, like Greece, Italy and more recently Hungary.

         The second solution finalized on March 20, 2016 by the EU, in cooperation with Turkey, is the EU-Turkey deal. Under this arrangement, established because Greece was unable to manage the increased influx of refugees, migrants arriving to Greece would be sent to Turkey if they came through illegal channels or their application for an asylum was denied. An exception would be made for Syrian refugees, as according to the deal, every time a clandestine Syrian migrant is sent back to Turkey, one Syrian already in Turkey would be transferred to the EU, provided that their documents are officially approved. This cooperation between the EU and Turkey, supported by mutual benefits (legalization of migrants’ arrival for the EU, financial aid and inclusion in the Schengen zone for Turkey) is highly criticized. First, it guarantees a resettlement to Syrian migrants only, without taking into account the many refugees who find themselves between the pre-deal and post-deal situation. Moreover, in addition to the EU breaching the UN refugee convention by expelling such a great number of asylum seekers, Turkey cannot be considered a safe third country for the temporary accommodation of refugees. Recent reports by Amnesty International reveal that Turkey did not grant temporary work visas, healthcare and education to its refugees as promised, and that the country also expelled many of them, leading them back to the situation they were trying to escape.

         These two arrangements show how poorly the refugee crisis is being managed by European authorities. Additionally, the crisis has also contributed to three main issues: poor internal organization of the EU, economic hurdles, and the rise of populism and nationalism within each member state. The organization of the EU has been problematic since the establishment of the Union. The root of the matter lies in the fact that there is no sovereign authority that can actually force every member state to cooperate and implement EU laws. In 2015, Germany tried to apply the sovereign clause by suspending the Dublin Regulation in order to better accommodate both the interests of the immigrants and those of the entry-point states. However, the influence of opposing domestic political parties led to an unstable and imprecise intake of refugees, with no clear rules on the costs and numbers of the ones accepted. One solution would be to enforce mutually coercive contracts that would hold each member state accountable to the agreements made in the European Parliament. But the Dublin Regulation and the EU-Turkey law illustrate how unsuccessful international cooperation can be, as those two agreements led to conflicts within the EU and with many humanitarian organizations.

         Another issue is of economic nature. The main factor that triggered negative reactions from European governments to accept asylum seekers was based on concerns with the costs associated with the responsibility. For instance, the migrant crisis will cost around 28 billion euros a year for Germany alone. However, if we calculate how much the alternatives would cost, we can see that they are equally high. There is the financial aid allocated to Turkey amounting to 3.5 billion euros. There is also the so-called “Operation Triton,” a border security operation that gathers intelligence and conducts identification processing, which costs around 3 million euros per month. These numbers show that even if the initial costs of taking in asylum seekers for each individual state seem really high, they are costs that would expire in the long run and that could even get returned if a clear and organized integration program for migrants is created. For instance, former Ambassador to Germany John Emerson, whom The Generation interviewed before he gave the 2016-2017 Bernard Brodie Lecture on the Conditions of Peace at UCLA, discussed how Germany may improve their immigration policies and provided four suggestions:

  1. bilateral commitment that on the one hand requires refugees to learn the language of the host country, and on the other hand it urges the government to provide them an education by hiring people who can speak in their native tongue;
  2. immediate inclusion of immigrant children in schools in order to speed up the process of integration, as children are able to integrate much more rapidly than their parents by speaking the host country’s language without an accent, joining local clubs and supporting local sports teams;
  3. employment of the refugees who are of military age, a group that includes around 70% of male refugees;
  4. a guaranteed path to citizenship which is still very complicated in most European countries.

On the contrary, the cost of temporary measures, like the Turkey Deal or Operation Triton, will simply keep adding up, as they do not include research for a better system of integration for the arriving refugees. If assimilation does not succeed, or is not  attempted, temporary solutions will only further disenfranchise the newly arriving immigrants, making them more vulnerable to the influence of terrorist and extremist movements. In fact, Ambassador Emerson remarked that ISIS used many European, home-grown individuals to carry out the recent terrorist attacks in France and Germany.

         Finally, another phenomenon is appearing out of the migration crisis, especially since Brexit in 2016, namely the rise of nationalist and populist movements. This is best exemplified by the dynamics of the 2017 French presidential elections which saw the fierce competition between the candidate of the populist National Front, Marine Le Pen, and the new President Emmanuel Macron. Other examples of this are the Italian Five Star Movement, characterized by its willingness to close international ties in order to reinvigorate domestic markets and workers, and Germany’s opposition coalition to Merkel’s administration which has fervently requested the closure of German borders from the arrival of more asylum-seekers. All these parties represent what is becoming increasingly clear: European citizens’ desire to stop the migration flow by closing its borders. This for now would mainly affect migrants, but in the future, it could mean the end of the EU as we know it, since the discontent towards the management of clandestine refugees is becoming more and more intertwined with the growing Euro-skepticism of several popular European political parties.

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