‘Innovative ways’ of evading responsibilities for refugees

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

Refugee children outside their tent in an olive yard next to the refugee camp of Moria, on Lesbos island, Greece, 21 January 2020. [Dimitris Tosidis/EPA/EFE]

A regrettable result of the EU-Turkey Statement from 2016 is that the model continues to serve EU member states seeking innovative ways to evade responsibility for refugees, writes Charlotte Slente.

Charlotte Slente is the secretary-general of the Danish Refugee Council

Five years ago, the EU’s approach to refugee protection took a turn with the launch of the EU-Turkey Statement. The statement and its intentions were met with widespread disbelief. Five years later the arrangement has become a reference for policymakers and somewhat of a blueprint for evading protection responsibilities.

Consequences of the containment policy

There has been no shortage of reports of the devastating consequences of the containment policy resulting from the arrangement with Turkey for the women, men and children seeking protection in the EU over the past five years of implementation of the statement.

The EU-Turkey Statement has contributed to a recurrent and endless cycle of overcrowding, substandard living conditions and extremely poor access to services on the Aegean Islands.

Humanitarian actors on the ground, including the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), and others have regularly and consistently reported on impediments in the access to the asylum procedure, lack of access to legal assistance and extensive use of detention.

Heart-breaking reports also highlight the deteriorating mental health state of refugee children caused by the unsafe and undignified conditions on the islands and the uncertainty and limbo that asylum seekers are held in over many months.

The protection gaps and the flaws of the containment policy resulting from the EU-Turkey Statement are evident.

The ripple effect

An equally critical but less tangible result of the EU-Turkey Statement, however, is the inspiration that the model continues to serve to EU member states seeking innovative ways to evade responsibility for refugees.

The European policy response to asylum and migration has a disproportionate focus on the small fraction moving irregularly towards the EU. In the proposed new EU pact cooperation with third countries on the control and management of irregular migration, and the prevention of onward movements of refugee populations has a central role.

The EU-Turkey Statement is referenced as a model for the foreseen “deeper engagement” with selected partner countries.

While core elements of the new EU pact related to internal affairs continue to divide EU member states, common ground – as reiterated at recent Council meetings in the past week – is much easier found when it comes to further enhancing migration cooperation with countries outside the EU.

The underlying logic of the approach is to seek to control and reduce the number of people seeking protection in the EU and increase the return of rejected asylum seekers through close collaboration with third countries.

A Danish legislative proposal currently being debated takes it all a step further and suggests the transfer of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark to a country outside the EU for processing of their asylum claim.

Importantly, the third country would host those found in need of international protection. The proposal has met fierce criticism from the collective Danish civil society.

Apart from obvious human rights concerns, a key concern raised by DRC and others is the negative impact the model will have on international cooperation on refugees. If a country such as Denmark fails to shoulder its share, there is a real risk that refugee-hosting states will follow suit with potentially devastating consequences for the protection of refugees.

This concern is shared by UNHCR in their observations provided in response to the public hearing on the legislative proposal, underlining that such an approach “may undermine the international protection system” and is “inconsistent with global solidarity and responsibility sharing”.

Global responsibility-sharing

Five years after the launch of the EU-Turkey Statement the protection implications resulting from the arrangement are evident, and the ripple effects and potentially negative impact on global refugee protection undeniable.

The EU-Turkey Statement and the Global Compact for Refugees both partially emerged out of the political crisis in Europe in 2015-2016.

While the EU-Turkey Statement was designed essentially as a model for evading responsibilities for refugees in Europe responding to the panic of policymakers, the Global Compact on Refugees on the other hand recognised the need for global responsibility sharing as a central and paramount element of a functioning global asylum system to which all States must deliver.

With close to 80 million people forced from their homes, we need further unpacking and implementation of the commitments of the Global Compact on Refugees, rather than more third country arrangements inspired by the EU-Turkey Statement.

When responsibility-sharing fails, and a few countries carry the responsibility alone, displaced people are not protected as they need and are entitled to be. Externalisation efforts by the EU and member states contribute to further tipping that balance.

There is a need for more solidarity and responsibility sharing, not less. And there is a need for innovative and rights-sensitive ways to increase protection and solutions for refugees, not for evading protection responsibilities.

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