Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The EU needs to start breaking down the ‘migration crisis’ to find an effective policy response

Co-written with my colleague Nina Schick for the Open Europe blog 

As the EU struggles to grapple with the largest movement of people since the Second World War, we unpick figures from Germany, which demonstrate there cannot be an EU one-size-fits all solution to this crisis. Encompassing multiple layers, and with competing national asylum policies to consider, the EU and its member states must begin to distinguish the component parts of the crisis in order to formulate more effective policy-strategies to address distinct challenges.

With little coordination on asylum policy at the EU level on one hand, but with 22 countries in a passport-free travel area on the other, even beginning to solve the ‘migration problem’ becomes a typically European quagmire. This is one a characterized by the different national approaches to asylum policy, the push-and-pull between Brussels and the national capitals – or that between the strongest members and opposing blocs.  What’s more, the current movement of people to Europe, is not comprised of one uniform group: it includes refugees and economic migrants – diverse peoples  from Africa, to the Middle East and the Western Balkans. In order to even begin to deal with these challenges, the EU and its member states must begin to distill the various elements of the so-called “migrant crisis” into digestible sections, and address the unique components accordingly.

Policy failings at the national and EU levels

There’s a strong case that the asylum system was not working at the national level even before the Syrian crisis reached its current climax. Consider, for example, the case of Germany. It has been much lauded recently for its humanitarian response to the refugee crisis – with the Interior Ministry estimating that it would accept 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015 alone. The Vice Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, recently said it would more likely be closer to one million –  that’s over 1% of the German population.

Unpick the figures for the first half of this year (see the table below), however, and it becomes evident that there is more than one layer to this story. 40% of asylum applications in Germany between January to August this year came from the Western Balkans: Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia.  (Note: there may be discrepancies between the figures below and the statistics on official asylum requests as the German Interior Ministry has decided it will only use the number of refugees arriving in Germany who register with the police, rather than the number of overall asylum applications. The figures vary considerably, given that not every arriving refugee applies for asylum directly, and many refugees disappear or continue their travel.)
Germany Aslyum Requests Jan To Aug 2015 1 itemprop= Source: The German Asylum Office; Figures compiled by Belgian sociologist Jan Hertogen 

Though the asylum success-rate for applicants from the Western Balkans is only 0.25% (as compared to the 88.5% for those coming from Syria), it still raises the issue that Germany, unlike other member states, did not (until last week), classify some countries of the Western Balkans (candidates for EU membership, and recipients of huge amounts of EU aid), as ‘safe countries of origin’ – which would allow migrants to be deported back as they would not face the risk of persecution in their home states. As such, Germany has been criticised by Serbian and Kosovar politicians for endorsing an asylum policy that catalyzed a ‘brain drain,’ from their countries.
The spike in recent arrivals of Syrian refugees to Europe as the situation has further deteriorated in the Middle East, has undoubtedly sparked the current crisis (evident in how the frontline countries are struggling to cope with the daily new arrivals.) Clearly then, Europe needs to start distinguishing between the groups of people who are arriving, what their motivations are, and who is in most urgent need of help.  The policy-response to each group should be tailored.

This crisis has not only been complicated by national approaches to asylum policy, which lump together economic migrants and refugees under one heading, but it has also been further exacerbated by the fact that those who are denied asylum, often do not leave the EU (less than 40% in 2014.) Moreover, there is no easy way to facilitate deportation as the European countries aren’t police states, and it’s very hard to stop people from entering a country or to prevent them from staying there.
Consider Germany again: in the first six months of 2015, 175,000 asylum applications were rejected (most of them from the Western Balkans.) Yet only about 8,000 of those people were actually returned. Of the 41,044 asylum seekers who were refused stay in Germany in 2014, 62.6% were still on German soil at the end of February 2015. Failings in national asylum policy have, therefore, served as double blow: not only have they facilitated a backdoor route for illegal economic migration – but they have also has taken away space and resources from refugees who are desperately in need of protection.

Steps are now being taken to remedy this at the EU level. In an emergency meeting of EU ministers on Monday, there was an agreement that all the countries of the Western Balkans should be added to an EU ‘safe countries of origin’ list. However, the manner in which migrants from said countries are deported will still vary from member state to member state.  Ministers also agreed that that they will take steps to expedite the deportation of illegal immigrants from the Europe, yet it is unclear how Brussel will help to enforce or coordinate this.

Tailor policy responses

Given the sensitivity of migration and asylum policy in virtually every EU country, it is a domain that is at the heart of national democracy. Any forced Brussels intervention here may backfire badly .(Note, for example, the current animosity from the Central and Eastern European countries to the Commission’s plan for mandatory binding quotas to allocate refugees.)

The scale of this crisis cannot be denied, and yet the lumping together of such a huge and diverse movement of people into one ‘migrant crisis,’ has exposed failings at both the national and EU levels. Add to the confusion the different (and sometimes opposed) asylum policies of the member states, and we start looking at one very typically-European mess. But until the EU starts breaking down and identifying all the component parts of this crisis, and developing tailored policy measures to respond to each one, it is unlikely to find a long-term and sustainable solution.

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