European conscience - Not all refugees are the same

In the EU all refugees should be equal, but some are more equal than others.

The creation of a single market among European Union member states has brought about major transformations at its borders. A shared set of rules has been developed for importing goods into the EU, while internally, the free circulation of European citizens has made national borders almost invisible, at least within the Schengen area. At this point, it makes no difference whether a load of bananas enters Europe through Finland or Spain, but the same cannot be said of an asylum seeker.

A huge increase in the flow of asylum seekers began in 2013. In 2015 alone, Europe received 1,349,648 requests for international protection. In response, the EU developed a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) intended to harmonise legislation and national practices concerning refugees as well as provide greater protection of their rights. Anyone fleeing from personal persecution or serious harm in their home country should be able to rely on similar asylum request procedures throughout Europe, along with standard reception conditions and interviews to establish refugees status that are respectful of the applicant’s condition (for example regarding language), the chance to appeal a negative outcome and the enjoyment of a number of rights if asylum is granted, such as access to the job market and health care. But in practice, studies and reports produced by research institutes and NGOs, such as Breugel, FIERI and AIDA, indicate that this integration is far from complete. Political responses have been generally weak, and there is a striking lack of solidarity among member states. 

Many of the problems stem from the Dublin principle whereby all asylum applications must be filed in the country where a refugee first enters the EU. In other words, if 157,000 migrants land on the coast of Sicily in one year, Italy will have to deal with them all, deciding which among them is a ‘basic’ economic migrant, who may be directly repatriated, or a potential refugee, who cannot be sent back according to the prescriptions of the Geneva convention, and must therefore be looked after at least until the international protection allocation procedure is completed. Although CEAS is intent on introducing common rules for asylum, it is nevertheless obvious that the system involves an asymmetrical allocation of costs among states which penalises those located on the external borders. This situation has resulted in a few of those countries, primarily Italy and Greece, loosening controls on migrants who wish to file their asylum application elsewhere, despite the Dublin principle and the institution of the EURODAC database, which is designed to collect and share the fingerprints and photos of all new asylum seekers in order to be able to establish the country where the refugee first entered the EU. Depending on your perspective, the failure to apply these regulations can be seen as a form of indirect blackmail against Brussels in an attempt to secure more aid (the view of certain Northern European capitals) or, alternately, as a last resort in the face of an emergency situation (the view of Mediterranean countries). The recent resumption of border checks in a few Schengen countries is one of the outcomes of these political tensions.

Mutual trust among member states is beginning to deteriorate, and the plan to redistribute protection applications (which was proposed by the European Commission and approved in a heavily curtailed version in the face of strenuous opposition) has so far produced laughable results: only 600 of the agreed 160,000 applicants have been relocated. And it’s not just European credibility that is suffering as a result. The refugees themselves are also suffering, being forced to take part in a depressing protection lottery. Moreover, the adoption of ‘safe country of origin’ lists, drafted to automate and speed up the identification of unsuitable protection applicants, does not account for specific cases. For example, Morocco is a relatively safe place but not if you are homosexual. There are also discrepancies in the structuring and handling of interviews by the national commissions called upon to decide the merit of each case, including differences in refugee reception. The European Court of Human Rights and the EU Court of Justice have had occasion to deem some of these interviews inhumane and humiliating. In other words, refugees are being treated unfairly, and their unequal treatment can be pinned on the ambivalent attitudes of governments and administrators. Whereas in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany, Syrian applicants are given international protection no matter what, in Slovakia and Croatia, the level of successful application for Syrians is well below 50%.

Plenty could be done to improve the efficiency and fairness of the European asylum system. To begin with, a reform of the Dublin principle could introduce a truly shared responsibility. And the goals laid out in the “European Agenda on Migration”, published by the European Commission last May, could be implemented in a serious manner. There are many measures with which European governments are fully conversant, but on which there has thus far been no unanimous agreement: a broader reallocation of the applications among countries based on family or cultural relations; an extension of the time refugees can spend outside of the country that has granted them protection; and the development of programs to assist with integration into social life and the workforce once protection has been granted. For the time being, it has been easier to reach an agreement with Turkey – by offering billions of euros and granting other concessions – to ensure that irregular refugees reaching Europe via Turkey are sent back. The agreement aims to reduce the migration flow to the Greek coasts by discouraging human trafficking, but it raises many questions as to how refugees will be treated in future. This is nothing more than a temporary solution that pushes back the existential problems connected to the integration process that the economic crisis had already brought to a head. It also papers over new rifts among groups of member states. In Europe, solidarity is a concept that always sounds very good in treatises but is not matched by the reality of EU policies, which harbour too many different conceptions of what the EU ought to be.


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