Taking stock of the refugee crisis

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

Even an end to the Syrian conflict would not stem the flow of refugees, given the instability in other parts of the region. [Freedom House/Flickr]

In view of Donald Tusk’s warning this week that the European Union had “no more than two months” to tackle the migrant crisis, the time has come to pause and appraise some of the key recent highlights in this policy area, writes Solon Ardittis.

Solon Ardittis is Director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organisation specialising in migration and asylum policy affairs. He is also co-editor of Migration Policy Practice.

Danish and Swedish plans to seize any valuables worth more than €1,000 from newly arrived migrants, in order to cover for their reception costs, have created a somewhat destabilising precedent. This initiative has been severely condemned by the United Nations refugee agency, who has called it “a deeply concerning response to humanitarian needs”. Although they must still be approved by parliament, the plans indeed put into question many of the fundamentals of refugee law and the principles set out in the UN Convention on Refugees.

Ethically, they are also difficult to justify: would one invite guests at home and then ask them for their watches and smartphones at the end of the meal? While designed to act as a deterrent for further immigration, these plans largely reflect the current state of mind among public opinion in many parts of Europe.

For any political observer, it is indeed striking to witness the radical volte-face in public opinion that occurred over the past six months: from unrestricted solidarity during the initial months of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ to growing animosity towards migrants and refugees ever since. Of course, the Paris terror attacks and the increasing number of crimes committed by newly-arrived migrants in many parts of Europe have taken their toll.

Over the past 12 months, Germany has seen the arrival of some 1.1 million refugees. While Chancellor Merkel’s open door policy had originally drawn on a combination of both humanitarian and strictly economic and demographic motives, most political commentators today would agree that the full implications of such a policy had not been sufficiently weighed up at the time.

The exact political consequences of the recent Cologne events, which have caused a major blow to the Chancellor’s policy rationale, are still difficult to measure. However, in the short term, the intentions expressed by Angela Merkel over the past couple of weeks clearly show a serious backtracking in Germany’s approach to the refugee crisis.

This is reflected in the proposed withdrawal of refugee or asylum-seeker status from anyone sentenced to a non-parole prison term, and their proposed deportation, despite the fact that it would be legally very difficult to send anyone back to a war zone. Arrivals in Germany have also been declining drastically over the past few weeks – from 10,000 to 3,000 a day.

Angela Merkel failed. Berlin, January 2016.

Recent events have further produced some unexpected initiatives in some European countries. Norway decided last week to offer newly arrived migrants classes in ‘Western sexual norms’. Belgium has also announced that courses on ‘respect for women’ for non-European migrants and refugees would become obligatory in the coming weeks. These initiatives clearly go one step beyond the language and integration courses that most member states have traditionally been offering to newly arrived migrants.

However, while classes on women’s rights, gender equality and democratic values are of course fundamental whatever the future migratory intentions of the newly arrived migrants, it is also important to keep in mind that the purpose of the EU relocation plan is only to offer temporary protection to migrants fleeing the war in Syria and in the neighbouring countries, with a view to them returning to their countries of origin at the end of the conflict. Therefore, it is essential that such courses focus on facilitating migrant integration rather than full cultural assimilation.

It would be very optimistic to suggest that the EU relocation system is working to plan. The latest figures made available by the European Commission speak for themselves. As of 18 January, of the 160,000 people that were to be relocated under this scheme, only 4,237 places were made available by 17 member states.

The member states in direst need for this plan, such as Greece and Italy, have been among those that have benefitted the least. To date, only 82 migrants (out of the 66,400 planned) have been relocated from Greece and 240 (out of the 39,600 planned) from Italy. There is little doubt that the EU relocation plan has been ill-founded and has drawn on very limited support from a number of member states. While enshrined in the EU Treaty, the principle of intra-EU solidarity is not one that can be easily imposed on member states without their explicit endorsement and their agreement to act on it.

The Syria peace talks have so far produced very few tangible results. However, whatever the outcome of the Syrian conflict and the possible democratic elections called for by the Vienna process, it is unlikely that the current refugee influx will come to a halt in the foreseeable future. The reason for this is that solving the Syrian conflict will do very little to address the increasing number of other threat factors in the Middle East, most notably the terror activism of Islamist groups in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

EU policy is therefore likely to evolve towards a considerably more protectionist approach to immigration and border management, and to a considerably more hesitant implementation of the Union’s fundamental principles of solidarity and humanitarian doctrine. The EU Summit on 17-18 March, which is due to focus predominantly on the migrant crisis, will be crucial in this respect. As Donald Tusk stressed this week, it will be “the last moment to see if our strategy works. If it doesn’t, we will face grave consequences and the EU will fail as a political project”.

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