Although fewer irregular migrants enter the EU now than in 2015 and 2016, there are important shortcomings in the EU’s external border management and refugee protection systems. Several inter-connected policies need to be pursued simultaneously and vigorously, in a spirit of flexible solidarity among EU member states. In our 2018 MEDAM Assessment Report, researchers from the Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration (MEDAM) set out a comprehensive strategy for EU asylum and immigration policies that is both politically feasible and effective.
The number of irregular migrants arriving in Europe has fallen sharply since 2015 and 2016 when more than 2.5 million people sought asylum in the EU. But the main measures that are associated with reducing the number of irregular immigrants –the EU-Turkey agreement, the closure of the Western Balkans migration route, and cooperation with the Libyan coast guard and other problematic actors in Libya–have important shortcomings. The situation along migration routes in Libya and the conditions on the Greek islands are testimony to this.
The EU still faces the same major challenges in the areas of refugee protection and immigration: reorganize the EU asylum system, secure the external border, curb irregular immigration through cooperation with countries of origin, and support developing countries that host large numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. These challenges are inter-connected and require a comprehensive approach with broad support by all EU member states.
However, member states are affected by immigration in substantially different ways and the political preferences of policy makers and voters also vary widely. As a result, the compulsory distribution of asylum seekers to all EU member states using a fixed quota system failed, and resistance from individual countries has stalled recent attempts to reform the European asylum system. Furthermore, the various migration-related policies place different demands on the logistical, administrative, and financial capacity of member states.
Cooperation among member states and EU institutions in migration-related policies can now only be effective if organized according to the principle of ‘flexible solidarity’. Member states need to contribute actively so that the EU can put together a comprehensive response to the numerous migration-related challenges (‘solidarity’). At the same time, not all member states need to contribute to all policies to the same degree; rather, they may concentrate on areas where they have a comparative advantage based on their financial means, administrative capacity, history, etc. (‘flexibility’).
Several inter-locking policy interventions should be implemented at different points in the migration system: In EU member states, asylum procedures need to be accelerated; effective return policies must be put in place for those that are not allowed to stay in the EU; and member states should cooperate to offer meaningful opportunities for legal immigration and employment. In countries of transit, the EU and its member states should work with the authorities to improve border security and curb irregular migration. Assistance should be offered to migrants who wish to return to their countries of origin as well as to refugees with a valid claim to protection. Providing development assistance that improves public services in countries of origin may enhance livelihoods and reduce incentives to emigrate. The EU and its member states may support the provision of vocational training in the context of skills partnerships that equip participants for employment in local labor market and also lead to legal migration opportunities to the EU. Furthermore, the EU and its member states should fully participate in the global sharing of responsibility for refugees. This would include offering places for resettlement and financially supporting low- and middle income hosting refugees and helping them to fully integrate into local economies.
Each of these interventions promises to result in some positive impact, even if implemented in isolation. But it is only by implementing them in combination that policy makers can decisively shift the incentives faced by potential migrants and materially improve the unsustainable situation found along the irregular migration routes to Europe. For example, accelerating asylum procedures will have little effect unless effective return policies ensure that irregular immigrants do not simply remain in the EU after their asylum application has been rejected. In turn, an effective return policy depends on country-of-origin authorities being willing to readmit their citizens, although this will be unpopular with many of their voters.
Only by analyzing and understanding the often complicated interlinkages and interdependencies can the EU’s asylum and immigration impasse be overcome, and sustainable proposals for asylum and migration policy reforms be developed. “An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality is dangerous. Given the volatile situation in Libya, the EU needs a comprehensive approach” says Matthias Lücke, project head of the Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration (MEDAM). “With the number of migrant arrivals down, now is the time to make progress on sustainable migration management in the EU.”