Fortress Europe: Can the EU handle asylum with both pragmatism and humanity?


Picture of Michael Diedring
Michael Diedring

Member of the Board of Directors at Asylum Access

The European Commission’s newly proposed Agenda on Migration recognises Europe’s legal and moral obligation to save lives and provide protection to people fleeing war, persecution and violence. All EU member states should fully back the proposals, as the right to asylum in Europe is enshrined in Article 18 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and both international and EU law obligate member states to offer asylum and provide safeguards to those needing protection.

People are currently paying huge sums to travel on unseaworthy boats to flee war in Syria, conflict and repression in Africa and the dangerous situation in Libya, because Europe’s land borders are closed. Decisions made with full knowledge of the journey’s life-threatening nature prove these people’s desperation. They have no other option because EU countries provide almost no safe and legal routes to seek asylum in Europe. Existing legal avenues of humanitarian visas, family reunification and sponsorships are not utilised by most member states, driving the demand for smugglers’ services.

The most efficient method of shutting down smugglers is to eliminate the need for their services by providing safe and legal channels to Europe

The EU has now added a naval operation to “disrupt the business model of smugglers and traffickers networks”. However, the most efficient method of shutting down smugglers – a goal we agree with – is to eliminate the need for their services by providing safe and legal channels to Europe. A military operation will lead to more deaths, either directly as collateral damage in this unwinnable “war” against smugglers or indirectly as desperate refugees take even more dangerous journeys when boats are destroyed. The ultimate irony is that these people are fleeing war, persecution and violence; with this military action they are being met with the same.

Thankfully, Europe has also recognised the need for effective search and rescue in the Mediterranean, and has responded by utilising available expertise within the European border agency Frontex. Several European states and private humanitarian organisations have also made ships available to provide search and rescue outside of the Frontex-led operations. As the Mediterranean has become “the world’s deadliest border”, it is imperative that proper search and rescue equipment be in the right location when it is needed. This requires a substantial operation, perhaps even greater in scope than Italy’s Mare Nostrum.  As life is the most fundamental of human rights, further work on establishing search and rescue operations should receive top priority.

But does Europe’s obligation end when people are plucked from the sea? Certainly not.

Given the legal responsibility under international and EU law toward asylum seekers, individual member states cannot rescue without also assuming their share of Europe’s responsibility to provide international protection. This is where the need for “a European solution” and European solidarity are key, as it is unfair for a small number of countries to take responsibility for the majority of asylum seekers and refugees.

Refugees are not refrigerators, and their apportionment should not be a logistics exercise

The Commission has proposed an EU-wide resettlement scheme that includes a “distribution key” as a safe and legal channel to Europe. While the resettlement numbers proposed are miniscule compared to the vulnerable people in need of protection, and resettlement has long been a safe and legal channel open to member states, this new scheme does offer a statistics-based method to apportion refugees. A similar temporary relocation scheme and “distribution key” for those already on EU soil would transfer asylum seekers from member states under the most strain.

While these schemes may contribute to building European solidarity in situations of mass influx and emergency, these models fail to take “the best interest of the individual” into account. Refugees are not refrigerators, and their apportionment should not be a logistics exercise. Refugees are children, women and men, most of whom have undergone traumatic experiences during their flight, seeking stability and a new life. Factors such as ties to a member state – such as a family member residing there, existing language abilities and the strength of the existing ethnic community – should be taken into consideration to promote effective long-term community integration. Without such consideration, and given wide disparities in treatment by member states, refugees will continue to move around Europe to live in places most suitable to their situation – as we would all do if our children faced the same peril.

Protection also includes integration support, which the EU must continue to prioritise. The offer of language tuition and additional job skills training, the recognition of existing qualifications and the opportunity to access the job market, decent health care and housing will all help to create a functioning, taxpaying, member of society.

A new rights-based approach to asylum and migration reflecting fundamental European values is urgently needed. While this situation is complex, and further complicated by the realities of European politics, the status quo is untenable.

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