By Nick Micinski
European Union interior ministers made headlines last week by suggesting that the Schengen Area was on the brink of collapse. Ministers also threatened to cut off Greece from Schengen if it did not control its border with Turkey.
These warnings mark a new stage of crisis within the EU. But while EU ministers are concerned about the end of free movement in Europe, what we are really seeing is the unraveling of asylum as a universal human right.
The Schengen Area—the 26-country zone of free movement across the EU—was created two decades ago, ending passport checks at internal borders and creating a common visa policy. This right to free movement was essential to the unprecedented economic cooperation and growth within the EU throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Since last September, five countries (Austria, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, and Sweden) have instituted temporary checks at their internal borders.
Last Monday, interior ministers floated the idea of a two-year suspension of Schengen because of the large number of refugees entering the EU. Donald Tusk, European Council president, warned: “We have no more than two months to get things under control.” Ministers also threatened to “ring-fence” Greece by sealing the northern border with Macedonia if the Greek military did not reduce the flow of refugees from Turkey.
This is not an attack on Schengen—this is an attack on asylum.
The right to claim asylum was enshrined in international law in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it is rooted in 19th century European customary law. The 1951 and 1967 refugee conventions were ratified by 148 countries. The right to seek asylum is a solidified international norm that guarantees individuals can seek protection if they are being persecuted due to their political beliefs or because they belong to certain groups. Without asylum, the world turns its back on individuals facing tyranny in their home countries.
But when EU ministers say that “it’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected,” they suggest that the Greek military stop refugees from claiming asylum in Europe. This is a euphemism to justify pushing boats of desperate refugees fleeing war in Syria and Afghanistan back to Turkey.
Asylum is being dismantled piece-by-piece. First, the Dublin regulation sets out that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach when they enter the EU. For a few months, it looked as if Germany would ignore this rule and accept most Syrians who traveled through Austria and Slovenia from the Hungarian and Croatian borders. More recently, EU officials are developing a list of “safe countries of origin” (such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) to which asylum seekers can be fast-tracked for deportation without having their cases properly heard. The refugee conventions state that asylum claims must be reviewed on an individual basis, but the list of “safe countries” ignores this right. Considering the recent persecution of Turkish academics for denouncing state violence against Kurds, can the EU really consider Turkey a safe country?
Additionally, EU “carrier sanctions” discourage airlines from allowing passengers to board without visas, and European countries do not offer temporary visas to allow refugees to fly to the continent in order to claim asylum. This system has created a firewall between conflict zones and Europe, ignoring the reality that letting refugees fly to Europe would prevent thousands of needless deaths in the Mediterranean every year. Most refugees would choose the cost of a plane ticket over paying on average $3000 to put their lives in the hands of criminal gangs and smugglers’ networks.
The right for family reunification for refugees already living in Europe is also under attack. The European Court for Human Rights has consistently defended family reunification as a fundamental human right. But last Tuesday the Danish parliament changed a rule so that individuals who are granted refugee status can only apply to be reunited with their families after three years. Previously, refugees could apply for reunification after one year. This change aims to deter migrants from coming to Europe, but will leave children, spouses, and elderly family members languishing in refugee camps for years.
The dignity of refugees is also being compromised. Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark are now confiscating the possessions of refugees, such as jewelry, in order to defray costs. In Cardiff, asylum seekers were made to wear colored wristbands at all times in government housing, reminiscent of Nazism. These policies would be unimaginable if applied to European citizens, but somehow considered necessary when a law-abiding foreigner seeks sanctuary and protection.
Finally, it is now illegal to help refugees even when they are drowning. In January, five volunteers from Spain and Denmark who were rescuing migrants off the coast of the Greek island of Lesvos were arrested on human trafficking charges. This appears to be an attempt by Greek authorities to show Europe that it is serious about border control. Tragically, 31 refugees drowned this week because lifeguards were prevented from helping them before they entered international waters.
This is the end of asylum as we know it. These changes unravel both spirit of asylum and its legal underpinnings. It is now more difficult than ever to legally get to Europe and claim asylum. Once refugees arrive, they are scapegoated, demonized, impoverished, and humiliated.
International law needs the right to asylum because it is a guarantee at the individual level of protection from tyranny. It actively affirms that everyone deserves the simple right to live. We need asylum for our own self-interest, too—to ensure that if someday our government targets us, we can seek asylum with our neighbors.
Without asylum, we block persecuted dissidents from “voting with their feet” by leaving repressive countries, we leave innocent people stranded under authoritarian regimes, and we abandon our solidarity with opposition groups, protesters, and human rights activists. The unraveling of asylum reveals something fundamental: the erosion of our belief in equality. It reveals plainly that some people are legally protected from the chaos and brutality of war and others are not.
While EU ministers will decry the crumbling Schengen, we should be more concerned about the unraveling of asylum. Filippo Grandi, the newly appointed head of UNHCR, has a challenge ahead of him. European officials are actively preventing refugees from getting to Europe. Let’s hope 2016 is the year humanity finds itself again. The world needs asylum, but it is slowly slipping through our fingers.
Nick Micinski is political science doctoral student at the City University of New York and research associate at the Ralph Bunch Institute focusing on immigration and refugee policy, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconciliation. Previously, he worked for three years on refugee resettlement and integration in London at the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]