Most of the world’s displaced people do not live in Europe. World Refugee Day reminds us that the EU and its member states can do more to manage migration to Europe effectively and humanely and to assist refugees in low-and-middle-income host countries.
While the number of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide has risen to more than 70 million people, of whom more than 40 million are displaced within their own countries, the number of new asylum seekers in Europe has fallen sharply since 2015.1 The new European Commission should explore politically feasible reforms to the common asylum system and Europe should assume more responsibility for refugee protection world-wide.
Four years ago, the mass inflow of refugees from the Middle East to the EU exposed the structural weaknesses of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) that will be 20 years old this October. Yet even today, the EU has still not overcome disagreements among its member states over urgently needed reforms. This failure is especially significant in light of the fact that the number of irregular migrants newly arriving in the EU is at a five-year-low–due to the EU-Turkey agreement, the closure of the Western Balkan migration routes, and more recently the closure of the Central Mediterranean migration routes via Libya. The new European Commission that will enter office this November should use this window of opportunity to reform CEAS while the number of arrivals remains low and leaves space to establish new procedures and institutions.
Since 1999, the EU has worked on CEAS to harmonize protection and refugee reception standards across the EU. Yet, successive Dublin regulations have left the pre-Schengen system in place whereby countries of first arrival are in charge of receiving asylum seekers, processing applications, and hosting recognized refugees, and returning unsuccessful asylum seekers to their countries of origin. If this system had ever become fully functional, it would have allocated responsibility for refugee protection quite unfairly among EU member states. In the event, the system has never really worked and disorder and human rights violations at the external EU border have followed.
Politically feasible reforms to CEAS
Our policy-oriented research shows that one way forward is for the EU to take more responsibility for the implementation and funding of the common asylum system. This approach would go beyond the EU’s past focus on mostly making rules for EU member states to follow (while member states face strong incentives to circumvent some of these rules). In particular, the EU should increase support for countries of first arrival, financially and through specialist staff, to implement speedy and fair asylum procedures. The EU is also well-placed to assume more financial and logistical responsibility for returning unrecognized asylum seekers on the basis of its return and readmission agreements with countries of origin. An effective asylum system, combined with more opportunities for legal migration, would reduce incentives for irregular migration to Europe as well as the perceived pressure on member states to attempt to seal the external EU border to prevent irregular entry.
Global responsibility sharing for refugee protection
Beyond Europe, the EU can do more to work with international organizations to improve the situation of refugees and other migrants. Even in a country as unstable as Libya, IOM facilitates the safe return of stranded migrants to their countries of origin, while UNHCR identifies and evacuates particularly vulnerable migrants to third countries. Globally, the largest groups of refugees remain Syrians, Afghans, and South Sudanese, most of whom are hosted in neighboring low and middle income countries with the support of UNHCR and other humanitarian and development donors. Particularly when international organizations operate in conflict zones, they need not only sufficient funding, but also the full political support of member states to operate safely and effectively. Yet, in 2018, available funding world-wide covered only 56% of humanitarian needs.2 The EU should work with other high-income countries, for example through the G20 process, to close this funding gap and to lend its full political support to international organization as they provide humanitarian assistance to refugees and other migrants under very challenging circumstances.