In the campaign for the upcoming German federal election that will take place on September 24, asylum policy has only recently entered the public debate. The turning point may have been the televised debate on September 3 between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main contender, Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament. The pair spent a lot of their air time discussing asylum policy and the economic and social integration of refugees – without, however, ever disagreeing on anything substantial.
This seems remarkable because the German government’s approach has shifted radically from (almost) inviting Syrian refugees to Germany in the autumn of 2015 to helping to shut down the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkan refugee routes in the Spring of 2016 and the Central Mediterranean route more recently. Yet, this shift in policy was neither acknowledged by the Chancellor nor challenged by the contender – nor, indeed, does any other mainstream party raise this issue. Voters critical of prevailing asylum policy would have to turn to the radical left (LInke) who would invite anyone to Germany who wants to live here (although one parliamentary leader, Sahra Wagenknecht, now says this is a “vision” rather than a policy proposal); or to the radical right (Alternative for Germany) who would eliminate the individual right of persecuted individuals to protection and change the German constitution and 1951 Refugee Convention accordingly.
The absence of serious debate about asylum policy is unfortunate because all is not well. It is true that far fewer migrants are now dying in the Mediterranean – mostly because fewer migrants are getting on boats in the first place. However, migrants in Libya are still stuck in deplorable conditions; they need external support, including from the EU, to return to their countries of origin. Moreover, EU assistance to three million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey, following the controversial 2015 EU-Turkey deal, helped to improve substantially the living conditions of many refugees by virtue of providing cash assistance for subsistence needs, better access to health care and education, and gradually expanding employment and business opportunities – all of which made many refugees remain in Turkey rather than move on to Europe. Nevertheless, both Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz took a dire view of future EU-Turkey relations, raising the question of how future cooperation for the benefit of refugees may be organized.
Going forward, the EU therefore needs a three-pronged strategy for its refugee policy: First, robust agreements with migrants’ countries of origin and transit from the Middle East all the way to West Africa are required to curb irregular migration to the EU while ensuring that displaced individuals are effectively protected close to their countries of origin. More funding for UNHCR to ensure that refugees can lead decent lives in their countries of first asylum would further help to achieve this objective.
Second, some asylum seekers will always arrive in the EU and their number may well surge again at short notice. Therefore, the EU member states of first arrival (mainly Greece and Italy) need the logistic and administrative resources in place to accommodate a large number of asylum seekers when necessary, process asylum applications quickly, return unsuccessful applicants to their countries of origin or other safe countries, and offer secure livelihoods to those who are allowed to stay. Most of these services need to be provided in EU member states of first arrival for reasons of practicality and efficiency. However, if would be unfair if these member states had to bear all the cost. The benefits of free travel are enjoyed by all EU member states that participate in the Schengen area. Therefore, responsibility for managing the external border and receiving asylum seekers should also be shared.
More support for non-EU countries that host refugees and for EU member states that receive asylum seekers would go a long way towards equitable burden-sharing. However, when small countries receive a huge number of asylum seekers in a short time, such support may not go far enough. Therefore, the third component of a comprehensive EU asylum strategy must be opportunities for resettling recognized refugees directly from third countries to the EU (particularly through UNHCR) and a commitment to fairly distributing recognized asylum seekers among EU member states (rather than expecting member states of first arrival to host them all, as the present Dublin system would have it).
Given the diverse tasks implied by this comprehensive refugee policy, it seems clear that not all member states will (or even should) participate equally in each and every task. Also, while it would be desirable to allocate many responsibilities to the EU level for efficiency reasons, relevant institutions would take time to develop and member states contributions to the EU budget would need to be raised significantly – which would require a consensus among member states that may be difficult to achieve. Furthermore, individual member states may already be addressing potential refugee situations in ways that are difficult to categorize but are still important, such as Poland granting work permits to many Ukrainians who might otherwise apply for asylum in Western Europe.
In these circumstances, “optimal” task allocation to member states requires that member states should be able to specialize in line with their political preferences, geography, income level, history, and immigration experience. The tasks involved are as diverse as hosting recognized refugees, funding UNHCR for the upkeep of refugees in third countries, securing and managing the EU’s external borders, seconding administrative staff and border guards to Greece and Italy, and offering legal employment opportunities to medium- and low-skilled immigrants to establish legal migration as an alternative to irregular migration.
Besides, a rigid quota system for allocating refugees to member states may not be workable if it obliges some member states to receive refugees that do not want to live there in the first place (even though the European Court of Justice has recently confirmed that a quota system could be established by qualified majority rather than consensus). Portugal with its very welcoming approach towards refugees, within its limited financial means, provides a warning example: many asylum seekers who went there from Italy or Greece found it difficult to make a living and moved on to other EU member states where they found diasporas to connect with and more favorable employment prospects and social support systems.
When the German election is over, the European Commission and the member states should put the concept of flexible solidarity center-stage as they develop a comprehensive refugee policy and asylum system. However, while the notion of flexibility is easy to accept – member states contribute in line with their preferences and capacities – there must also be effective solidarity: All elements of the policy must be implemented and the financial burden equitably shared. A useful starting point would be a formal monitoring system for members’ contributions and an associated peer review process, similar to the Trade Policy Review Mechanism of the WTO. This would give all parties a better understanding of both, what needs doing and what is already being done by whom. Beyond monitoring, the best way of sharing the financial burden equitably is to have the EU budget pay for as many expenses as possible and increase member states contributions accordingly.
Slightly revised version of a showCASE op-ed of the same title, published September 20, 2017.