Europe’s Migration Policy

Spearhead Opinion – 30.10.2018

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Any sustainable migration policy must fulfill three broad conditions: for one, it must satisfy the widely accepted ethical and moral standards of a society; second, it must have general democratic support; and lastly, it must be cautious of decisions that entail too much risk and could potentially cause problems in the future for migrants, migrant-receiving-societies and migrant-sending-societies.

Since the European Union declared a “refugee crisis” in 2015, Europe’s migration and refugee policy unfortunately has been unable to satisfy the aforementioned conditions. Unsustainable on several grounds, policies have largely been reactive.

Take Germany’s migration policy for example. Chancellor Angela Merkel opened doors to refugees in September 2015. Then again in March 2016 Merkel went back on this policy decision and pushed for an EU deal with Turkey that attempted to shut the door on refugees again.

Over the last three years hence Europe has been at the receiving end of: severe political backlash against migration, bitter conflict between EU member states and deteriorating public trust. The number of people migrating however has fallen significantly during this time. Between January and August 2018, only 60,000 people crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, whereas 2016 recorded 350,000 people. Regardless, debate over the crisis has continued because the European publics are concerned. The general publics’ faith in the leaderships’ ability to manage migration is deteriorating.

Europe has not had much success convincing EU member states to take responsibility for legitimate refugees. France and the United Kingdom are known to reject asylum seekers. Individuals seeking asylum, even those without a real claim to it, however apply for asylum to these countries regardless, because they often still have a good chance of being able to stay irrespective of the bureaucratic outcome. The absence of rule of law in the admission of migrants is perhaps one reason for the loss in public confidence.

Under the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), EU member states are supposed to adopt the same standards in both recognizing and assisting asylees. This system has so far however been largely ineffective. The United Kingdom last year recognized 19 percent of asylum claims from Iraqis, while France recognized 86 percent. The difference itself is very telling of the failure of the system in this regard.

The Dublin Regulation is another example of the EU’s attempts at tackling migration. This EU law requires migrants to apply for asylum in the very first country they are processed in. This law came with its own set of problems, largely because it wasn’t backed by any mutually agreed-upon criteria by the EU member states. It meant most of the responsibility fell on countries like Italy and Germany, owing to the mere fact that these countries happen to lie at the front-line. Hence in essence, it made no distinction between responsibility for assessing a claim and responsibility for settlement and integration of refugees.    

The EU summit on June 28-29 also took place in the same spirit of getting a hold on the refugee crisis. However it was unable to motivate any concrete changes. For many it did little more than finalize a few symbolic agreements. Under one of such agreements, EU countries were to set up controlled centers on a voluntary basis that were to process migrants’ asylum claims. Those considered eligible would then be distributed among member states that sign up for taking migrants in. The EU also proposed establishing “regional disembarkation platforms” to process migrants outside the bloc. 

So far however, none of these initiatives have been able to cause any substantial changes in the way migration is tackled.

Europe has an ethical obligation to step up. A new discourse on sustainable migration is needed. It must discriminate between Europe’s reciprocal ethical obligation and its nonreciprocal obligations—which, unlike the former, are duties that Europe has towards poor societies regardless of what it gains in return for its contribution.

Europe’s most obvious nonreciprocal obligation presently is to assist refugees who are in imminent danger. For these refugees asylum in Europe is their only hope for safety. The EU has a responsibility to provide assistance and development opportunities to refugees. At the same time Europe also has a nonreciprocal obligation to assist poor countries and help them develop. This will also involve policies that can have impact on a deeper level in terms of bringing about change in the ‘narrative’ with regards to the way people from these countries view their own countries. This needs to figure in the migration policy since most people traveling to Europe aren’t refugees, but aspirational migrants who don’t have much hope in their own countries’ ability to reward them for the same work. This then motivates their decision to migrate with the hopes of starting a better life in Europe.

It is important to point out however, providing humanitarian aid is by no means enough. Relying on humanitarian aid alone can create an inherently unsustainable system of dependency. On one end, it burdens the economy of the country providing the aid, and on the other, it does little to make refugees self-sufficient. What is more important perhaps is for Europe to help create job opportunities for refugees in their host countries. This has worked successfully in several countries that then have been able to create sustainable models which have come to benefit host communities and refugees alike. One example is Jordan. In 2016, Jordan gave refugees the right to work with the help of trade concessions from the EU and finance from the World Bank.        

It is necessary for any future migration policy to have the support of the citizens of Europe. Europe’s migration policy will inevitably influence the kind of future Europe hopes to have. There is a need for a change in approach towards the topic. Sustainable migration is the only pragmatic way of addressing the current state of crisis and also managing future challenges that Europe will in all likelihood face with regards to migration.