By Solon Ardittis
Since the outbreak of the European Union’s refugee crisis in the autumn of 2015, which resulted in the unplanned arrival of well over a million migrants and asylum seekers, several initiatives have been put to the test to upgrade the regional bloc’s ability to manage its external borders. However, save for considerable increases in the levels of EU funding allocated to migration and asylum issues, few of these initiatives have gone beyond piecemeal or reactive responses to the crisis’ constantly evolving dynamics. This not only reflected the deep state of unpreparedness of both the EU executive and the member states to address the refugee crisis, but it also resulted in a gradual loss of confidence in the EU’s ability to protect its external borders, which led to a growing number of unilateral and uncoordinated actions by national authorities to suspend their implementation of binding EU agreements on internal borders and asylum-seekers. A number of recent initiatives related to the bloc’s external borders have the potential to change this status quo by scaling down some of the most distressing causes and effects of the migrant crisis in Europe.
The EU-Turkey agreement on migration was launched at the end of March 2016, stipulating that for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. The underlying principle of the agreement is that it will prevent Syrians from resorting to paying ruthless smugglers to transport them across the Aegean Sea through the establishment of a legal and safe route for entering the EU. After heavy criticism by numerous non-governmental organizations and migration experts who questioned Turkey’s status as a safe country, not to mention a number of other issues of legality, the agreement is now emerging as one of the most effective responses to the migration crisis since 2015. According to the latest report on the implementation of the agreement, the average daily arrival of migrants from Turkey to Greece is now around 80, compared with almost 2,900 at the height of the crisis from June through September 2015. Despite suggestions that Turkey might soon suspend its obligations, the agreement continues to hold. In addition, speculation about the EU eventually agreeing to grant a visa-free regime to Turkish nationals by the end of the year further secures the viability of the EU-Turkey agreement.
Another recent development is the launch on Oct. 6 of a European Border and Coast Guard Agency. This was a long-awaited decision following the emergence of new irregular migration and security threats in a number of neighboring countries. While it is too early to judge its exact leverage on the EU’s immigration control capacity, the new agency has at least set out to alleviate a number of systemic weaknesses in the bloc’s existing technical and strategic ability to surveil its external borders. This includes the establishment of a monitoring and risk analysis center that will not only focus on immigration but will also cover issues of cross-border crime and terrorism, as well as a mandate to work in third countries through the appointment of liaison officers and to carry out systematic checks of EU citizens at external land, sea, and air borders.
The EU is also set out to enter negotiations for “migration partnerships” with key countries of origin and transit, initially including Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and Ethiopia. This development, too, has been criticized by a number of NGOs and migration policy experts in view of the human rights records of the third countries in question. The purpose of these partnerships, which will take the form of tailored agreements developed according to the situation and needs of each partner country, will be offer financial and technical assistance to prevent irregular migration of their nationals and transit migrants into the European Union.
Is the EU’s Capacity to Manage its External Borders Up to Standard?
The array of recent developments is reflective of the EU’s resolve to step up its strategy and means for tackling the increasingly complex migration and asylum challenges facing the continent. However, save for the newly-established European Border and Coast Guard Agency, the bulk of these initiatives largely entail what has been referred to as the outsourcing or externalization of immigration control policy. This is generating increased concern from a large number of NGOs who are pointing to the dangers of entrusting third countries with poor human rights records and often discretionary uses of rule of law with a major component of the EU’s immigration control policy.
However, well founded as it may be, this concern does not take into account the EU’s failure to establish a fully functional immigration policy entailing a balanced and effective contribution from each member state, which would comprise an active policy of intra-EU solidarity and responsibility sharing. The poor track record of the EU relocation program to date, which entailed the redistribution of asylum-seekers based in Greece and Italy to member states not along the EU’s external border, is a clear illustration of this inability to reach consensus on a comprehensive policy. Add to this problem the increasingly disparate national immigration policy doctrines expressed within the European Union, as well as the growing populist discourse ahead of a number of major national elections. The selective outsourcing of some elements of the EU’s immigration policy to third countries must therefore be viewed as a necessary evil to help reduce some of the current tension at the Union’s external borders and to enable the EU executive and the member states to gradually engage in a less passionate examination of the continent’s common immigration policy.
Solon Ardittis is Managing Director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organization, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA, Bonn). He is also co-editor of ‘Migration Policy Practice’, a bimonthly journal published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
[Photo courtesy of Thijs ter Haar]