Analyst: Most refugees want to work

Muslim migrant. Brussels, February 2016. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

The majority of refugees do not want to be beggars or dependent on the state. They want to be productive. But right now, there are no integration systems in the EU that allow for this, Angeliki Dimitriadi told EURACTIV Slovakia in an exclusive interview.

Dr.Angeliki Dimitriadi is Research Fellow with the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreigh Policy ELIAMEP and Visiting Fellow the European Council on Foreign Relations ECFR.

Dimitriadi spoke to Zuzana Gabrizova, Editor-in-Chief of EURACTIV Slovakia.

Recently, the European Commission presented two options on  how to reform and possibly harmonise the EU asylum system, accompanied by a solidarity component. How long is this overdue in your view? 

Long overdue. A lot of what happened in 2015 was the result of the systemic problem in the EU asylum system.  Up until now, we had regulations that sought to harmonize the system, but it was very much left up to member states to implement them. 19 impeachment procedures have started against member states, because they have not implemented the directives. That alone gives an indication of how behind we are.

But like most things, when they take place at the times of crisis, I am not sure whether what has now been proposed is necessarily the best way forward.

In what way? Basically two scenarios have been outlined, both of which imply further burden sharing, which might be problematic.

One proposal involves a lot of burden sharing. (In the other), we distribute, from the beginning, asylum applicants in the EU. For me that is what should be happening. The second proposal though maintains the processing on the frontline states, mostly Italy and Greece.

These countries are asked to do the registration asylum processing, detention and returns. If the asylum process goes through, and if they have high influxes, then the proposal suggests a distribution mechanism, sort of that we are supposed to be doing now. Thus, one proposal maintains the status quo and tries to adapt it in times of crisis to make it more flexible. The other one is a more radical overhaul of the system.

Irrespective of those two courses, there were also additional suggestions in the document that the Commission released. They would like, for example, to penalize, to an extent, intra-EU movement for those who are either applying for asylum, so they are waiting for their application to be processed, and for those who have received protection but still undergo secondary movement.

Homeless Roma passes in front of pro-refugee billboard. Brussels, March 2016.

The issue at its core is how can we make sure that a person stays in the country where they have applied for asylum. We are going to start punishing them by limiting, for example, what the state would give them in terms of monetary compensation so that they can support themselves. Now they are proposing to switch it into in-kind contributions for those who attempt secondary movement. And there are various other suggestions on the table.

This is problematic, because the point of the system should not punish people or deter them from moving within the EU. It should be to establish incentives for them to stay in the given country for the X number of years, and then ideally open it up and allow them to move freely.

I know the assumption is that everyone would move, but in fact we have no evidence of that. Internal movement takes place usually for family reunification or because integration is failing. If we were to harmonize the integration systems, we probably would see less secondary movement.

This was the case for the approved relocation scheme. Was it a bad approach?

If you ask the refugees which country they want to go, the overwhelming number of them is going to list maybe 5 countries. There is a reason though for that and that´s what we are not looking into. First of all, they choose them because they have family there, which is important also for integration. But the major aspect is that the overwhelming majority of the member states are actually not offering any assistance in the settlement process.

Take Greece, for example. Greece changed its asylum system, back in 2010, 2011. It has on paper an excellent asylum system. In practice, the government does not offer any support. Once you are acknowledged as a refugee, once you receive your refugee passport you are literally on your own. To find food, shelter, integrate, learn the language. There is no state support mechanism to allow you to become a productive member of society.

Take Germany or Sweden; they have a system in place that does all the above. Politicians have argued that the refugees choose countries on the basis of the monetary assistance offered – it’s not the money that is the issue, it is the process, the fact that there is a system that allows the individual to feel useful and productive. There are language courses and vocational training courses and prospects for employment – which is another huge problem right now, in many member states facing high unemployment.

For the countries that have linked asylum with integration, the new arrivals eventually can become self-sufficient and start giving back to the host society. The majority of the refugees do not want to be beggars or dependent on the state, they want to be productive. But right now there are no integration systems in the EU that allow for this.

Is there any research or data on how the migrants within the current wave react to the changes constantly made regarding the conditions on which they may or may not enter European countries?

ELIAMEP is part of a consortium led by the University of Warwick, funded by the ESRC. The project is called Mapping and Documenting Migratory Journeys and Experiences, and it started in late 2015. We attempt to track the refugee flows in the Med and understand how policies impact the decision making of arrivals.

For example, we had researchers on the islands in the summer when the Syrians arrived, at the time of the German Willkommen. You could see the impact of the policy on the route. I do not think it changed the destination, I think Germany was the destination to begin with but it made them to want to get there faster, because there was always concern about how long is this Willkommen going to stand.

The view from Damascus. Neukölln, March 2016.

In the second phase of the project, we are going to look at how the EU-Turkey deal and the relocation mechanism have affected their decision-making, and their choices. It would also be interesting to look into the prolonged detention which is taking place at the Greek islands for those who fall under the scope of this EU Turkey deal.

Central European countries have been reluctant to implement the agreed relocation scheme. Have you found anything that can justify their stance?

The refugee crisis has been an easy picking for lot of the member states, actually for a lot of the political leaders. The overwhelming number of the refugees, if not all of them, are actually fleeing from the exact same threats that we are facing. They are fleeing Daesh, they are fleeing al-Qaida, civil wars and conflicts. Are they security threats themselves? No. It was Paris that changed the discourse, drastically. Paris and then Cologne.

The Paris event is striking, because lot of the fuss was made about them having entered through Greece. But if you look at what happened, their passports were checked and no alert was in the system. If there had been an alert, they would have been stopped. There have been cases where they were stopped when intelligence was shared.

So the problem is intelligence sharing. It is not the refugees enabling potential terrorist to come in. This does not mean that we do not need registration, on the contrary it is imperative to know who enters the EU. But knowing who enters is different from discouraging entry.

ISIS vs. Christmas. Brussels Lockdown, November 2015.

The relocation scheme was never meant to address the whole scale of the problem. But still, how important is it within the mixture of measures?

It was a very important political move, in the sense that it was the first time that European member states could show solidarity. It was a very concrete step. The fact that it has not worked is also a very concrete indication of how serious we are taking this solidarity. It was not a solution, but it had political significance. It was sending a message to frontline states that they are not alone in this and that everyone else would step up and assist.

This is the most problematic. We had this positive message coming out of Europe, and then at the implementation phase, we got the complete opposite. Of course, one thing to note is that the failure of the relocation scheme is not entirely the fault of the member states. True, they have not opened up sufficient number of places. But there also have been delays from the Greek side, because of purely technical and administrative issues. There is not enough personnel to process the registration for the relocation. There is not enough personnel to process the asylum claims for those who would enter the relocation scheme.

Is there a direct link between the economic state of Greece, and the capacity to handle what is needed in the refugee crisis?

For some things. There is a direct link when it comes to the asylum service. Because if the asylum service was not curtailed by the economic crisis and the hiring freeze that has taken place, then it would have been able to bring in people from outside the civil service, outside the public domain, people who work with migrants and asylum seekers for a long time in the NGO community etc. They have not been able to do that, which means they had to find civil servants in other positions that are willing to basically transfer to asylum service, receive training, and then be put to work. As you can imagine, there are not that many people who are keen to do that.

The Slovak interior minister claimed that it took Greece too long to ask for additional help from the EU and member states. Is that so?

Yes, that is absolutely true.

What is the situation on the ground?

There are 50,000 stranded in Greece. They will have to be processed and stay in Greece, which is a figure that the country should be able to deal with. There are also those detained in the islands, at the hotspots and other facilities that applied for asylum to prevent their return to Turkey. On one day, the asylum service received roughly 2500 applications – and the asylum service can process at best 10,000 per year!

Asylum officers assisted by EASO experts are now being asked first   to check the admissibility of the claim on the basis of whether Turkey is a safer country or not. If they deem it to be inadmissible, then they will return the people to Turkey, where in theory they should be able to apply for asylum there. If they deem it to be admissible, it means that the asylum process will take place in Greece under the regular procedure. In other words, the Greek asylum service has the toughest job in the world.

What will this crisis do to the EU politically?

I think it has shown, to a very large extent, that the whole talk about values and norms is fascinating, but not very realistic. To an extent this makes sense: we cannot base a policy just on ideas and abstract values.

On the other hand, if realpolitik is the way the EU is going forward with this, and that is the indication, then we need to think long and hard about what kind of union we want, because if this becomes an EU in which the member states get to pick where they come together and when they go back and turn nationalistic, then it’s a doomed project.

Anti-racism demo. Brussels, October 2014.

If we decide we are going to tackle things as one, it means we are going to tackle everything as one. The good, the bad, and the ugly.  That we are going to support each other even if we are disappointed with each other.

I can understand if EU leaders or EU citizens feel disappointed with Greece, because this has not been a government that has given the impression that they are working hard to address the refugee influx. But at the same time, this is not a situation that any member state alone would have been able to address.

Everyone keeps stressing the need to protect the external borders, but I suspect we all have a different understanding of what that entails. How do other member states understand guarding the maritime border? What would they have done differently? Sank the boats? Prevent them from entering their territory? I do not believe this would have happened. It is not feasible, and it is most certainly not legal, ethical or humane. So when we refer to external border controls, what do we mean? And whose border is it?


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