How can refugees be distributed fairly among EU member states?

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

Refugees walk towards the Hungarian border. [Freedom House/Flickr]

Solon Ardittis asks where the proposed migrant relocation quotas come from, on what basis they are calculated, and why so many member states are reluctant to accept them.

Solon Ardittis is Managing Director of Eurasylum Ltd, a European research and consulting firm specialising solely in issues of immigration and asylum policy on behalf of public authorities and EU institutions. He is also joint managing editor of Migration Policy Practice, a bi-monthly journal directed at senior policy makers worldwide.

Intra-EU relocation quotas have been under discussion for a number of years now. But until the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ started to hit the news earlier this year, the debate around relocation only referred to beneficiaries of international protection, and therefore to third-country nationals already enjoying a legal status in one of the member states. Consensus within the EU at the time was already limited. It is therefore of little surprise that it is even more limited now that the debate around relocation is set to include asylum seekers whose protection claims have not even been examined yet.

So, how should the concept of relocation be approached?

There are probably two main options. The first would be to take the view that relocation quotas should follow a bottom-up approach and therefore result strictly from a specific request from each member state indicating the number of asylum seekers it is willing to accept. Some member states would be likely not to issue any requests, others would submit a request for a very limited number of asylum seekers and others, like Germany, would offer to welcome 800,000+ asylum seekers. Member states would calculate their national requests on the basis not only of the political will and capacity at central government level but, also, just as importantly, on the basis of expressions of interest received from local and regional authorities. While national public opinions would also of course merit inclusion in the list of variables affecting the national requests, they would probably be too difficult to measure in any systematic way, not least in view of their highly fluctuating nature since the beginning of the migrant crisis.

Under this approach, the total figure at EU level would then be calculated on the basis of the national requests and the figure’s appropriateness would be assessed accordingly. In view of the current resonance of the migrant crisis, and the increasing interest expressed by many cities and towns across Europe in accepting asylum seekers, it is likely that the total EU figure would exceed the 160,000 asylum seekers which the European Commission recently proposed, following a logic that to this day remains unclear. One caveat to this approach would be that, to the extent possible, asylum seekers would also have a say on the member states where they would be relocated, based on family ties, language skills etc.

The second model would consist of taking a more ‘scientific’ approach to the quota distribution criteria. This would entail basing the criteria on relevant and verifiable variables such as the GDP, geographic size and population density of each member state. In a report for the European Commission prepared by Eurasylum and Ramboll in 2010, a simulation exercise had been conducted to determine the number of beneficiaries of international protection that should be relocated to each member state, compared with the current numbers of beneficiaries accepted by each member state. The results of this exercise were worthy of notice, to say the least.

They showed, for example, that member states such as Austria and the United Kingdom should receive around 70% fewer beneficiaries of international protection than they currently do. In Belgium, France and Germany it should be 60% less, and in Italy 55% less. On the other hand, a number of member states should receive substantially more beneficiaries of international protection than they currently do. For example, based on the above criteria, it should be + 700% in Hungary, + 750% in the Czech Republic, and + 3,000% in Luxembourg.

Either of the above models would have the merit of being fair, transparent and comprehensible, unlike the current EU approach of imposing mandatory quotas on all member states indiscriminately, and possibly also imposing sanctions on unwilling member states. The current EU approach is unlikely to generate consensus in any foreseeable future and has the potential to damage the EU’s existing asylum and immigration system, with a growing number of member states deciding to suspend the implementation of the Dublin and Schengen rules.

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