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Europe can do more to protect refugees

OpenDemocracy, Berlingske, Index and others, 02/09/2015

For many years European countries have been warned about the inadequacy of their immigration and asylum systems. Now, with increased refugee arrivals and more frequent tragedies, this system is showing all its weaknesses. But refugee arrivals are not the real cause of this collapse. The real reason is political.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, a little more than 430,000 asylum applications have been lodged in the European Union member states since January. 40% of them have been received by Germany alone, while Hungary has taken 1 out of 4 of the remaining ones. This means that 26 EU countries are dealing with just over 180,000 asylum applications, an effort which is all but epic.

Even including the almost 300,000 people who arrived in Italy and Greece since January – mostly Syrians who will be granted asylum - we are still far from experiencing the real refugee arrival pressure faced by much less rich and stable countries like Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia, or, without looking too far, Turkey, home to some 2 million Syrian refugees.

Regrettably, more often than not, politicians ignore facts. With the outstanding exception of Germany, in the majority of the EU countries politicians are competing with each other in sending bad signals to the public. France and the United Kingdom – the latter being a country where asylum applications have remained stable over the last few years - could not find a better answer to the needs of some 3,000 migrants in Calais than to send the police and allocate money to reinforce surveillance. In Denmark – where asylum applications have not increased significantly compared to 2014 - the parliament approved last Wednesday a cut in refugee benefits, with the declared intent to make the country less attractive to refugees. In Poland – where asylum applications in 2014 dropped by 50% compared to 2013 - the country’s president spoke against the possibility of taking more asylum seekers, although the number of asylum applications remained low in the first half of 2015 too.

With a steep increase in asylum applications and little if any help from fellow EU countries, Bulgaria and Hungary have made the bad choice of sealing off their borders. This is certainly not the right answer to those who seek international protection. But the inconvenient political truth is that this comes also as the result of an EU asylum system which penalises countries placed at the border of Europe.

The real problem is not the arrival of refugees, but this desultory, almost hysterical response to it. More than a refugee crisis, this is a political one, where States demand less Europe, when in reality we need more. To save a Europe of solidarity and human rights, we must rethink its approach to migration.

The first thing to do is to fundamentally review  the Dublin Regulation, an unfair mechanism which allows the majority of EU member states to allocate responsibility for dealing with asylum-seekers to a  few frontline countries like Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta and Spain. The latest blow to this system comes from Germany which suspended a few days ago its application as regards Syrian refugees. This decision should be extended to all categories of asylum seekers and applied by all EU member states.

EU countries and the European Commission should build a system where countries fairly share asylum-seekers based on the principles of solidarity and human rights protection. This would help improve the protection Europe affords to refugees and, at the same time, relieve the pressure on some EU countries.

Such developments should go hand-in-hand with improved co-operation with states in the Western Balkans. So far, the EU has pressured them in various ways to hold off asylum-seekers, a choice that has led some of these countries to adopt a series of unlawful measures like ethnic profiling at border crossings and the confiscation of travel documents. Now, the EU has to help these states develop their asylum systems and their capacities to host refugees in accordance with European standards. This will not only help save lives, but also give effect to  the promise to “achieve a greater unity” that all EU and Western Balkans states agreed to when they joined the Council of Europe.

In addition, European states have to provide more legal avenues for refugees to reach the continent, for example by easing humanitarian visas and family reunification rules. This would not only help refugees avoid perilous sea and land routes, but would also weaken the grip of smugglers, who thrive when migration restrictions are harsh.

Protecting refugees is both a moral and a legal obligation. It is not an easy task, but neither is it impossible. We must do more to protect those who flee wars and persecution. With political will, Europe can hold true to its values.

Nils Muižnieks

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