Guest Contributor Ali Cain is an M.A. Candidate in the European History, Politics and Society Program at Columbia University. She is additionally the Program Coordinator for the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights (CLIHHR). Her research interests include populism, refugee rights and transatlantic relations.
During her 2019 candidacy for European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen proposed a New Pact on Migration and Asylum to “relaunch the Dublin reform of asylum rules.” Ms. von der Leyen is correct: Europe’s asylum system needs a fresh start. The Dublin Regulation III mandates that asylum seekers register upon arrival in the first European Union (EU) member state he or she enters. At the refugee crisis’ peak in 2015, 1.3 million asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Europe. Many traveled through the Mediterranean Sea, designating Italy and Greece as first ports of entry and, therefore, responsible for processing asylum claims. The influx of asylum seekers has led to immense strains on local governments, inciting animosity against refugees and creating a significant backlog of asylum decisions.
According to Politico, there is a backlog of 90,000 asylum cases in Greece alone. The Greek government recently released a plan to create a “floating wall” to block migration routes on the Aegean Sea and will soon begin construction of closed detention centers that will limit the movement of asylum seekers. At a press conference on February 27, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis explicitly told those who do not qualify for international protection to “not come to Greece”, and warned that they will remain stuck on the islands until they are returned home. Although Greece’s treatment of refugees is appalling, their actions and rhetoric towards refugees demonstrates the depths of desperation which border states are being driven to due to EU inaction. To complicate issues further, the EU received its highest numbers of asylum applications since 2015; the European Asylum Support Office reported that 714,2000 applications were received in 2019. Future migration crises are inevitable, especially given climate change as an increasingly central driver of forced displacement. Commission President von der Leyen must prioritize the reform of the Dublin Regulation to create a cohesive asylum process in Europe.
The Dublin Convention was created in 1997 in response to the Schengen Zone’s development. Under the Convention and its succeeding regulations, geographic arrival points determine state responsibility for refugees. The number of refugees already present in a state are not taken into consideration when determining relocation destinations or places of stay during the processing of asylum applications. Although the Dublin Framework includes rights for refugees that are already solidified under international law, including family unification and speedy asylum decisions, those rights are not enforced equally among EU member states. Following the 2015 refugee crisis, the EU began to discuss reforming the Dublin system to include burden-sharing measures and increased human rights protections. The European Commission proposed a reallocation quota determined by each country’s population and gross domestic product (GDP). The European Parliament suggested amendments to the Commission’s proposal also to include family reunification and prior residence/study in relocation decisions. The European Council must decide whether to implement burden-sharing provisions, but has been divided on the best way to actually relocate refugees since December 2018. The Visegrád countries – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – have refused to accept refugees or abide by quotas.
As a result of Council gridlock, member states have relied heavily on third-party agreements to curb migration. These agreements have been successful in achieving the EU’s overall goal of curbing migration but pose threats to human rights and are not sustainable in the long-term. Although the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey led to a 97% decrease in migration from Turkey to Greece, 3RP reported that over 64% of the 3.6 million refugees living in Turkey are living in poverty. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for the “voluntary” resettlement of refugees in a “peace zone” in Northern Syria. Pushing refugees to return to Syria would violate non-refoulement standards under international law, which mandates that a host country cannot return asylum seekers to a country where they would be in danger or would be persecuted. Furthermore, President Erdogan announced on February 27, 2020 that Turkish authorities will not prohibit Syrian refugees from leaving Turkey to go to Europe, as Turkey is facing an influx of Syrian refugees from Idlib due to recent attacks by the Assad government and Russia. This recent announcement demonstrates the precise issue with third-party agreements: they provide short term reprive for host countries but kick the can of dealing with refugees down the road at refugees’ expense.
The EU-Turkey deal also has implications for those already in Europe. For example, thousands of refugees are stranded on the Greek island of Lesbos as the EU-Turkey agreement prohibits their arrival on mainland Greece. Most recently, protests against inhumane living conditions broke out at the Moria refugee camp, where 20,000 refugees are cramped into facilities built to house 3,000 individuals. These conditions, which are common in many refugee camps throughout Europe, infringe on basic human rights secured under international conventions, including the 1951 Refugee Convention. The EU’s 2015 Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has decreased economic factors that encourage migration from Africa by providing over 50,000 jobs and improving living standards. However, as explained in a recent Oxfam report, European investment in specific countries and regions is tied to migration levels stemming from each origin country. Addressing underlying societal issues like poverty and inequality, and political issues like corruption is not tied to aid. The EU also increasingly has depended upon the Libyan Coast Guard for search and rescue (SAR) missions, which intercept boats and return passengers to Libya. Those sent back to Libya face torture and trafficking in detention centers run by both the government and militias. Forced returns to Libya also violates the principle of non-refoulement.
A report released by the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that member states may now be more open to asylum relocations and burden sharing. In July 2019, fourteen states signed a solidarity mechanism, pledging to relocate migrants across the EU. In September 2019, Italy’s staunchly anti-migrant interior minister Matteo Salvini was recently replaced by migration specialist Luciana Lamorgese in September 2019. Italy’s migration policies have already begun to change as private charity’s boats can now dock at Italian ports. Additionally, a recent European Council on Foreign Relations survey found that a majority of EU citizens no longer see migration as the most pressing issue of concern. Instead, survey respondents reported “health, housing unemployment, and living costs as standout issues.” Although it is easy to get caught up in the pessimism of current EU affairs, all European countries can agree that the current system under the Dublin Regulation is not working. A November 2019 EU Council Presidency report acknowledges the importance of the EU speaking in one voice about migration and concludes that “the more members states have the perception that EU legislation is meeting their concrete needs and taking into account their administrative realities, the more likely it is that the implementation will be successful.” The new Commission’s expressed interest in reforming the CEAS and the designation of €949 million ($1,039,120,000) to the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund presents an opportunity for reform. The EU has also pledged €30.8 billion ($41,608,700,000) for immigration and border control issues in the 2021-2027 budget. Furthermore, the conclusion of Brexit provides a pivotal moment for the remaining 27 member states to reestablish the EU’s joint efforts and cohesiveness.
Migration is one of the most complicated and emotionally-driven issues to nation-states, as it heightens various concerns regarding economic and cultural security. The EU’s current approach in relying on third-party agreements, increasing general border control, and remaining gridlocked over how to better distribute refugees throughout Europe is a significant problem. Border states, especially Greece, and larger financially stable states like Germany, cannot be solely responsible for asylum seekers. The European Commission must push states to reopen discussions and negotiations on reforming the Dublin Regulation.