By Ia Tserodze, Alumni of the University of Oxford and DePauw University and Project Assistant at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C.
Photo: EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
Equality does not constitute sameness – asylum seekers require particular treatment in accordance to their needs during the first years of their entering the European Union. The future of these refugees remains uncertain due to the ever-shifting EU immigration policies and unforeseeable developments in their home countries. The issue of immigration will not cease to exist even if the situation is stabilized: Since the topic will continue to maintain its relevance, a future strategy needs to be developed without waiting for a change to push this to occur. The long bureaucratic processes of asylum-seeking, together with recurrent changes in asylum laws, result in the migrants’ lengthy waiting times in the refugee camps, which often cannot provide adequate reception conditions. Further difficulties arise after asylum is granted, as the problem of seeking housing emerges. Hence, the refugees cannot aspire to a higher standard of living, unless the conditions at camps improve or they are relocated to a different Member State. The latter, however, remains a controversial matter, as certain Member Sates refuse to aid border countries and resist the requirements set by the EU.
An ideological conflict on the issue forms the root cause of rifts among the Member States. The abundance of arguments can be condensed into two key positions: on the one hand, Germany leads a group of Member States openly stating their desire to offer protection to as many people fleeing prosecution and war as possible. These states support the implementation of a relocation scheme, which would require each Member State to take in a designated number of refugees based upon their capabilities. Hence, these nations believe that refugee resettlement in Members States is the sole way of living up to Europe’s moral and legal obligations, as well as supporting border states.
On the other hand, another group of Member States, most prominently the Visegrad Group (V4) comprised of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, oppose Germany’s proposal, as well as any other policies that obligate them to take in refugees. The majority of anti-immigration sentiments stem from concerns over insufficient resources and facilities to ensure effective integration. Security concerns over radical movements have been further employed as supportive tools for the argument. This EU-level ideological conflict has also pervaded into national politics, with this second group and its policy positions often supported by Eurosceptic parties.
The word “ideology,” however, remains ambiguous and easily changeable: these arguments have been formed based upon current circumstances and perhaps do not represent long-established, overarching ideologies with regards to the general theme of immigration. Differences in the histories of individual Member States could have instigated the mentioned divide, as certain nations are more accustomed to receiving immigrants than others; larger communities that already host immigrants are more receptive than societies, which have traditionally been more homogenous.
Caught between the two poles are border countries, specifically Italy and Greece, that remain flooded with refugees yet do not possess the political credibility to leverage negotiations in favor of their positions. The living conditions in Greek refugee camps fail to meet European standards; there, refugees live in former factory buildings or thin and shoddily-built tents. 70,000 people are currently waiting to be processed, settled, or deported while living without heating and electricity. Moreover, both Greece and Italy continue to deal with the problem on their own, as the EU does not impose sanctions for noncompliance, and although countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic have been the most notorious in their refusal to take any refugees, almost none of the other Member States have successfully met their quota either, rendering it impossible to enforce consequences. Italy, under the new leadership of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, has adopted a stance rather different from the one of his predecessor, whose policies allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants to enter the EU. The nation’s new policy directive has been sent out to police stations around the country stating that 16 new detention centers are to be opened, where migrants will be detained prior to their deportation. Such instability in both Greece and Italy facilitates failure in effectively carrying out security screenings and registrations, allowing migrants to freely move to other states in the Schengen Area.
Due in part to the lack of solidarity with the above Member States at the EU’s external borders, EU-wide immigration initiatives are widely disputed and often fail due to the disagreements amongst national views. As a result, only a common, European solution can successfully address this issue.
To this end, the European Commission launched an Agenda on Migration in May 2015. The key aspect of the proposal is the relocation scheme, which aims to reduce the pressure on border countries by redistributing refugees from Italy and Greece according to a scheme of quotas. Despite the proposal’s promissory nature, as of December 2016, less than 8,200 out of 160,000 people have been relocated, increasing opposition from certain Member States. For the proposal to achieve its full potential, the European Commission must keep the mandatory redistribution quota system in accordance with constant evaluations of each Member State’s economic and demographic capacities. In order to further alleviate the burden on Greece and Italy, the Commission could expand the possible migrant registration and fingerprint processing areas for entrance into the EU. Complete implementation of the Agenda would result in the introduction of “hotspots,” which function as centers for different agencies to identify and register migrants.
Apart from EU-wide policies, however, the issue will remain at an impasse until the EU furthers its influence outside of its borders. Guidance is essential for returning irregular migrants and for establishing safe routes through which displaced people can legally reach the EU. The Commission should negotiate agreements with countries from which many asylum-seekers are less likely to attain refugee status in Europe to ensure the speedy repatriation of people whose asylum claims are rejected. The latter could function similar to the EU’s joint Action Plan with Turkey, which is designed to stop irregular immigration from Turkey to Greece. The Plan states that all persons arriving illegally in Greece must be returned to Turkey—for every migrant that is returned to Turkey, the EU commits to resettle one Syrian from Turkey to a Member State. The agreement too, however, has been opposed both on practical and ideological levels: the implementation procedures have been slow, and EU’s financial aid for Turkey has been compared to a payment for dealing with migrants – an act that is ethically questionable.
Turkey has, thus far, been successfully fulfilling its responsibilities: the number of arrivals in Greece has dropped since its introduction. Greece, on the other hand, has been unable to send refugees back, returning only 95 thus far. Concerns have been expressed on the admission processes as well, since the interviewers have been reported to be culturally insensitive and unaware. Not only do the admissibility regulations remain convoluted and largely unmonitored, but they also vary from island to island.
Thirteen nongovernmental organizations have recently drafted an open letter to the Greek Parliament asking it to oppose any changes to legislation supported by the Joint Action Plan. The letter states that removing existing safeguards would result in more migrants on the already overcrowded islands, more detention centers, fast-tracked asylum proceedings, and increased deportations. Indeed, the primary goal of the European Commission should be an effective implementation of asylum policy in line with the principles of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This can only be achieved with strict and effective monitoring of the entire process, both within and outside of the EU. An additional possible step could be to allocate further funding from the Refugee Facility Fund to NGOs active in the refugee crisis in Turkey. Such assistance could reinforce cooperation with non-governmental bodies, who would in turn ensure a transparent information exchange on the refugees placed in Turkey.
What the EU lacks is consensus, which cannot be reached without a steady and transparent flow of information. If the freedom of movement is to be maintained while also giving adequate consideration to security concerns, the main emphasis should rest on the strengthening of the outer borders rather than the reinstallation of internal boundaries. In support for the latter, the EU has already officially approved a new Border and Coast Guard. The agency is intended to support FRONTEX – an EU body facilitating cooperation between border authorities in each EU country and providing technical support and expertise – by enlarging its staff, purchasing its own equipment, and deploying them in case of emergency situations. While it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the new European Border and Coast Guard, more can be done to publicize its creation, powers, and operations. The Commission could conduct more unannounced on-site visits in order to ensure the implementation of Member States’ action plans to strengthen external borders, publicize its visits and findings, and demonstrate transparency in addressing concerns about external border security.
As Europe stands divided, no suggestion can better improve the current turmoil than its own motto — “United in Diversity.” When the European Union embraces its own innate, most fundamental ideals, so can the newly-emerged diverse population embrace the land upon which they can now freely live.