A common asylum policy: an EU illusion?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
A common asylum policy: an EU illusion?
Refugee tent camp in Brussels

“There is not enough Europe in the Union. And there is not enough Union in this Union”. The words are Jean-Claude Juncker’s, President of the European Commission, in his state of union speech on September 9 to the European Parliament. In hardly any other policy area is this truer than in EU’s migration and asylum policy.

Juncker started his speech with a passionate call to member states to show more solidarity and to accept proposals for emergency relocation of 160 000 asylum seekers. He reminded us that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee:

“Our common history is marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution, from war, dictatorship, or oppression.” Juncker gave examples of migrations within Europe. Millions of Europeans moved also to other continents.

In 2013, the total number asylum applications in EU was 437 000. In 2014 the number had increased to 630 000. Since the beginning of this year (until August) already 540 000 have applied for asylum. Unprecedented figures but still only a fraction of the total EU population.

According to EUs statistical office Eurostat, Syria was the country of citizenship for 21 % of the total number of first time asylum seekers during the first half of 2015, followed by Afghanistan by 13 %. On third place came Albania, a country which is considered as safe, with 8 %. Refugees with Iraqi citizenship amounted to 6 %.

This trend continued during July and August but the percentage of Syrian refugees increased to about 30 %. A high number of those who applied for asylum have come from Europe, fleeing from poverty and high unemployment in the Western Balkans.

Europe taken by surprise

The influx of migrants and asylum seekers in recent months seemed to have taken Europe by surprise. The countries mostly affected along the Balkan route were largely unprepared and did not receive in time sufficient support from the European Commission to cope with the situation.

EU started to get its act together first in September with a council meeting on 22 September adopting a council decision by majority voting “establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece”.  The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia voted no, and Finland abstained.

The council decided that reception centers or “hot spots” would be established in Italy and Greece where asylum seekers would be registered and fingerprinted. From there 120 000 people – or more considering the approval rates for asylum applications - would be relocated to other EU member states where their applications would be processed.

The council meeting was followed by an emergency summit on the following day which continued into the night on funding to Turkey, EU agencies and international help organizations to care for the needs of refugees. This time the focus was on the protection of EU’s external borders and on external assistance to refugees and to countries in its neighborhood.

But before that, migrants have been subject to violent treatment by authorities on Greek islands and on the borders between Greece and Macedonia and between Serbia and Hungary. During the summer EU observers was noticeably absent from the flash points and did not reign in the countries who violated EU rules.

The example” of Hungary

Only EU member state Hungary knew what it wanted to do – to keep the migrants out of its territory by building a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia and preventing as much as possible those who managed to enter the country from continuing to other more welcoming countries. Now it’s planning to build fences along its borders with EU member states.

By criminalizing entry to its territory, Hungary is breaching United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees (“Geneva convention”), adopted in 1951 and amended in 1967. The convention stipulates that refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay. This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules.

Hungary pretended to act in Europe’s best interests by protecting its borders but of course no-one authorized it to dictate what the rest of EU should do and prevent asylum seekers from passing its territory. And by rubber-stamping rejections of asylum applications, they are preventing refugees from applying for asylum in another country.

According to statistics from Eurostat the second highest number of first time asylum applications (after Germany) during the second quarter 2015 were registered in Hungary– 32 700 or 15 % of all registrations. But chances to be granted asylum in Hungary are slim. The approval rate in first instance decisions during the first half of 2015 was only 12 % - well below the EU average of 46 %.

The scenes we have witnessed in Hungary, but also in other countries along the Balkan route, have been difficult to grasp and even been reminiscent of the Second World War when refugees had no-where to go or were put on trains to “unknown” destinations. The Nazis treated their victims as non-humans, stamped numbers on their arms and misled them about the destinations of the trains.

The Austrian government has strongly criticized Budapest for putting refugees on trains that led them not west to Austria but to a camp in Hungary. This, said the Australian Chancellor Werner Faymann, “brings up memories of our Continent’s darkest period” (International New York Times, 30.9).

But even in countries which are willing to receive the migrants – such as Austria, Germany and Sweden – and where ordinary people and NGOs have made an effort to help them and make them feel welcome, the picture is far from rosy. Border controls in the Schengen area have been reinstated.

Countries that first seem helpful have changed their mind and are doing their best to deter migrants and to redirect them.

According to news reports the main refugee center in Austria was found to be squalid, with inadequate medical care and more than 1 000 people sleeping in the open. The authorities even refused to admit a group from Doctors Without Borders. In all countries there are anti-immigration parties and xenophobic forces that have been attacking absorption centers.

Opposite economic views

In this speech, Juncker said the Commission before the summer had to start a first series of 32 infringement proceedings to remind member states of what they had previously agreed to do. “And a second series will follow in the days to come. European laws must be applied by all Member States – this must be self-evident in a Union based on the rule of law.”

There are legitimate differences of opinion between member states on receiving and integrating economic migrants who are fleeing poverty in their home countries for a better future in another country. There seems to be no consensus among economists about the long-term economic benefits of migration.

According to one opinion, countries with ageing populations have much to gain from receiving migrants and allowing them to start working as soon as possible. They will take the jobs that locals spurn, start their own business, pay taxes and spark new ideas. The second generation will climb the social ladder, become well-integrated and contribute to society in all spheres of life.

The other opinion takes a more pessimistic view. It says that as long as the average unemployment rate in the EU is over 10%, there is no need for low skilled economic migrants. They will not make any significant contribution to the economy. On the contrary they would first need to learn the language and might become a burden if they would not find a job in which case their integration would fail.

They will also increase competition for scarce resources such as housing. Not to speak about the loss of social capital such as trust.

It seems difficult to decide between these two opposite views. Do immigrants by taking jobs that locals refuse, because the latter prefer living on unemployment allowances, drive down the wages of low skilled locals condemning them to depend on social benefits – or will productivity and wages in the long run increase for both locals and migrants?

The right to asylum

But whether or not immigration is in Europe’s economic self-interest, there are international and European obligations to grant asylum to those who are fleeing wars, terror and persecutions. And this has obviously not functioned until now and needs to be reviewed as President Juncker himself argued in his state of the union speech.

The Dublin regulation that requires that asylum applications be dealt with by the first country of entry has been unfair to the front states such as Malta, Italy and Greece where most asylum seekers arrived. The situation in Greece became so difficult that other member states were forbidden to return asylum seekers to the country.

But it is not enough to revise the Dublin system and agree on a fair distribution of asylum seekers among member states. There is a wide diversity in the handling of asylum applications across the EU Member States: According to Eurostat, “this may be linked to differences in the citizenship of applicants in each Member State, and may also reflect asylum and migration policies that are applied in each country.”

A country that does not want to receive asylum seekers will apply a restrictive policy and only meet the minimum requirements in the legislation. The decision process might drag on for years in some countries during which period the asylum seekers are forbidden to work. The member states also differ as to which countries are safe for refugees to return to.

While the average approval rate in first instance decisions is 46 %, it varies greatly by country. The countries with the biggest number of asylum applications, Germany and Sweden, approve 43 % respectively 74 % of them. In France the approval rate is 26 % and in United Kingdom 36 %. And in Hungary, as already mentioned, the approval rate has been only 12 %.

EU is said to have a Common European Asylum System but it is dysfunctional and far from common.While we might disagree on the economic benefits to society of migration, we should be able to agree on the right to asylum and a common asylum policy in EU.

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