Treat the root causes of the asylum crisis, not the symptoms!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Refugees arrive at Lampedusa. [Noborder Network/Flickr]

Current migration debates are defying the core values residing at the very foundations of the EU. In his State of the Union address, President Juncker should issue a compelling call for a common policy tackling the root causes of the asylum crisis, write Sergio Carrera and Karel Lannoo.

Sergio Carrera is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and Associate Professor at the University of Maastricht. Karel Lannoo is Chief Executive Officer at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

The tragedy of asylum-seekers across the EU is the subject of widespread discussions of an unprecedented scale. The events have created a general climate of shock and discontent over the inability of European leaders to deal effectively with such a critical situation.

On Wednesday, September 9th, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, will deliver his ‘State of the Union’ speech before the European Parliament. This intervention provides a unique opportunity to move things forward in the asylum crisis. Yet, will the Commission take this occasion to propose those actions that are most needed?

Up to now, EU responses have been disappointing, both in scope and in ambition. The central problem is that current EU policy debates have lacked a proper focus: What is this ‘crisis’ really about?

There are two key challenges behind the current asylum crisis:

First, existing EU rules do not fit the purpose. The so-called ‘Dublin regime’, which lays at the basis of the current European asylum system, does not work in practice. The Dublin regime, which dates back to 1990, assigns responsibility for assessing an asylum application to the first EU state of entry.

This rule has put immense strain on those states located on the EU’s common territorial external borders, where asylum applications have mainly concentrated. It is also forcing asylum-seekers to remain in these states, irrespective of other circumstances and their wishes.

Current events are explicitly revealing the unsustainability of these draconian rules. The recent decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop sending Syrian asylum-seekers back to the EU state from which they first entered the EU sends an unequivocal message: the regime has lost credibility with key EU leaders and is no longer being respected in practice. 

A second challenge relates to the systemic failure of states like Greece, Hungary and Italy to adhere to the rule of law. This failure arises from the lack of institutional capacity to provide adequate ‘first-reception’ conditions to asylum-seekers and to extend to them treatment that complies with internationally recognised human rights obligations.

EU asylum and border laws are based on ‘mutual trust’. This assumes that all EU states’ asylum systems are fit and ensure proper governance standards. The images taken from the ground are telling the world a completely different story.

So, are any of the EU responses proposed to date capable of addressing these challenges? In short: as of now, not really.

The Commission has presented a few proposals. Most notably, it has recently advanced plans for a new quota system for the distribution of more than 150,000 asylum-seekers arriving in Greece, Italy and Hungary to all EU member states and another system aimed at sharing the financial burden among all EU member states of coping with the arrival of asylum-seekers.

Unsurprisingly, these ideas have been controversial and have not found much support in a majority of EU member states. One the reasons may be that the prescribed ‘cure’ does not actually address the causes of the ‘disease’.

True, some EU member states are not living up to their commitments to common EU values of equal sharing of responsibilities. Yet, the Commission has so far taken an excessively cautious approach. Rather than focusing on the root causes of the asylum challenge, it has tried to alleviate its most visible effects using a ‘crisis-management’ approach.

Indeed, the EU quotas plans have been justified on the need to face an ‘emergency-led’ situation that requires a quick fix. Yet they still reside within the remit of the Dublin system, which is in fact affected by a deeper malady.

The main dilemma facing these initiatives is the persistent hope that the Dublin regime can still be ‘saved’ by adding mechanisms addressing exceptional crises, but retaining the current unfair regime of distribution of responsibility. Ideas such as the quota plans still see the protection of refugees as a border/burden-sharing issue instead of a joint obligation.

Many voices have called for more ‘solidarity’ and more ‘sharing of responsibility’ between all EU states to face the asylum crisis. Yet, the question still remains, how to best put these EU values effectively into practice?

Everyone knows that there are no simple ‘solutions’. Sending more EU funding to the countries concerned has been already tried and it has not worked. How can we ensure effective use of financial capacity-building against the background of inadequate observance of the rule of law?

Similarly, a ‘quota’ distribution system will offer neither medium- or long-term answers as long as it is still anchored in the Dublin rules. Other plans such as relocating asylum-processing centres in third countries or granting the status of ‘safe third countries’ to neighbouring states that patently do not qualify as such, cannot possibly offer sustainable answers to a dilemma that is primarily intra-European.

What should the Commission do? In his State of the Union speech, Juncker should not give priority to short-term – crisis-management – ‘solutions’ within the remit of the Dublin regime: devising temporary or ‘exceptional’ fixes for systemic problems is not the most efficient way to move forward.

A key concern for a majority of EU member states is one of institutional capacity in sharing responsibility. The answer here should be “more EU”, not less. The Commission should call for the Dublin regime to be urgently replaced by a European Asylum System based on a new innovative model of ‘institutional solidarity’.

This system should take the shape of a Common EU Asylum and Borders Service, endowed with the competence to examine asylum applications and independently implement the distribution of asylum seekers. This would chiefly overcome the current limits in competences of the EU External Borders Agency (Frontex) and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).

The Commission should also do more to build its own capacity to better ensure that all EU member states duly implement existing EU asylum and borders laws, and that they fully comply with the rule of law on the ground.

Current migration debates are defying the core values on which the EU is founded. Juncker’s State of the Union speech should therefore give priority to a common policy tackling intra-EU governance challenges, and hence treat the root causes of this asylum crisis.

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