By Sophie des Beauvais
The European Union was created as a model for peace, democracy, and cooperative decision-making. But in the last four months, more than 1,650 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, in part because of the failure of the EU to act quickly and collectively to address an unprecedented refugee crisis. The only way to resolve this crisis is for EU members to engage in deeper and long-term cooperation. Member states must create a common asylum system that dictates policy, or else the lives of even more migrants may be compromised.
As with many similar predicaments of this nature, the refugee crisis that is currently challenging European values and unity is quite a complicated one. On one hand, the civil war in Syria has led to “the biggest movement of people since World War II,” according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), while the post-Arab Spring state of anarchy in Libya has made it easier for the 4 million people leaving Syria to reach Europe. This reality accounts for the 219,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2014, a figure nearly four times larger than for the year before.
However, if Europe is not responsible for what is happening on the other side of the Mediterranean, and cannot enforce peace and democracy in the region, the EU is liable for the staggering increase in migrant deaths. Mare Nostrum, the Italian search and rescue program implemented in October 2013, was shut down at the end of 2014 by by Matteo Renzi’s government because of a lack of financial and political support from the EU. The ambitious and costly program was replaced by Operation Triton, an initiative led by the EU border-control agency (Frontex), with less than a third of Mare Nostrum’s budget (3 million euros a month) and a narrower area of patrol.
After the April 19 incident, where a migrant ship capsized, costing nearly 800 lives, a European summit was held and the European foreign ministers promised to devote more resources to Triton. “The situation in the Mediterranean is dramatic. It cannot continue like this. We cannot accept that hundreds of people die when trying to cross the sea to Europe,” declared Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. François Hollande also declared Paris and London would join the UN Security Council in demanding a military intervention in Libya to stop human trafficking.
However, these measures do not go far enough, as the continued and unnecessary death toll among asylum seekers proves the inefficiency of any regime short of a European common asylum system. Under the Dublin regulation, which establishes each member state legally responsible for the examination of the asylum application, determines the first country that an asylum seeker arrives in is responsible for the examination of the asylum application, and the right to remain applies only to that country.
Mediterranean countries, like Italy, argue the regulation places them under a disproportionate burden. However, other bordering countries like Germany or Switzerland claim Italy is often negligent in fingerprinting applicants in order to let them pass through the borderless Schengen zone. To effectively resolve both this inequity of responsibility and the bureaucratic loop hole perpetuated by it, the European Asylum Support Office must deploy teams in Italy and Greece to help them process the migrant applications. Furthermore, a new program must be implemented to speed up the repatriation of illegal immigrants.
Yet asylum policy is negotiated in Europe at the EU level through legislative measures harmonizing common minimum standards for asylum, the creation of the European Refugee Fund, and the Temporary Protection Directive. Such is a common EU response to a mass influx of displaced persons unable to return to their country of origin, and only ensures their temporary protection.
European laws also add protection for refugees that go far beyond those in the 1951 UN Convention. Even if the U.K. argues economic migrants rescued from the Mediterranean should be returned, that is unlikely to happen for human rights purposes. And at least for the time being, individual countries determine how many refugees they will welcome. Since there is no existing mechanism to share asylum seekers, disparities are high among member states. Last year, 626,000 people applied for asylum in Europe. Although Germany accepted 41,000 of them, Sweden welcomed 31,000, whereas France accepted only 22 percent with 15,000 refugees, and Britain 11,000.
Another question is whether it is possible to stop the skyrocketing increase in asylum seeker smuggling across the Mediterranean. Australia is notorious for intercepting migrant boats and sending them back to their country of origin. In fact, the government argues that just one boat has made it to Australian waters since December 2013, and that boat’s passengers were transferred to the island-state of Nauru Island with the distinct purpose to refuse them asylum. Human rights groups reprove Australia for abandoning its obligation to protect asylum-seekers, but Prime Minister Tony Abbott argues, “the only way to stop the deaths is to stop the boats.”
Indeed, the best way to stop the boats may be to process asylum applications on the African coast, an alternative proposed by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière. It’s not a cheap option since the EU will have to pay North African countries to establish an infrastructure for these admissions, and it will require a stable regime to operate such a bureaucracy. Moreover, these camps will probably attract vast numbers of migrants from elsewhere in Africa, which means EU member states will have to determine their share of refugees—a proposition made by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European commission—and rejected migrants will have to be sent back home.
This solution is quite unpopular among European states like France, the U.K., Poland, and Hungary. The European Commission established that quotas implemented at the EU level—calculated according to each country’s GDP, population, unemployment rate, and the number of refugees already there—would force France to host 14 percent more asylum seekers, Germany 18 percent more, and Hungary 11 percent more. Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, added it would be a short-term measure to resolve the crisis and that Europe would not decide which refugees each country has to accept within its borders. Cooperation between member states to establish a real common asylum system, with a commitment to heavily revise the outdated Dublin regulation, are both fundamental to resolving the refugee crisis. The political and democratic ambitions of the EU will again show their limitations if member states do not find a solution to the deaths of thousands of migrants seeking brighter futures.
Sophie des Beauvais is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]