Monday

18th Dec 2017

Magazine

Refugee crisis, the vain search for solidarity

  • Many asylum seekers stuck in hotspots in Greece face heartache and pain. (Photo: Fotomovimiento)

More people died crossing the Mediterranean to seek better lives in the EU in 2016 than ever before.

Despite widespread search and rescue efforts, over 4,600 people perished after leaving from north Africa and Turkey.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • An EU hotspot in Samos. The EU commission has absolved itself from any responsibility for violence in such places and says the fault lays with the member states. (Photo: Joseph Boyle)

It is a figure that shames the EU and one that challenges a long-held narrative that Europe is a beacon for its treatment of refugees and respect for human rights.

Instead, EU policies on migration, asylum, border control and security have exposed deep political rifts among member states, as the concept of solidarity becomes ever more elusive.

Populist groups in Austria, Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands have used the crisis to weaken the EU and inflame tensions against immigrants.

They are following in the footsteps of established government figures in central Europe. In August, leaders from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland reiterated their opposition to refugees and asylum seekers with Muslim backgrounds.

France, meanwhile, managed to dismantle and shut down the so-called Jungle in Calais, where around 8,000 people had camped out in a desperate bid to reach the UK.

But the big EU plan had always been to somehow undermine the business of migrant smuggling, save lives while doing it, overhaul EU-wide asylum rules, and cut lucrative deals with countries like Afghanistan and Nigeria to send the unwanted back to where they came from.

The EU has had some moderate success in keeping people from arriving, while shoring up controls with the Warsaw-based agency Frontex and evolving it into a more powerful and larger European border and coast guard agency.

Between February and March, heads of states and governments managed to largely shut down the Western Balkan route, enhance border controls, and sign off a migrant swap deal with Turkey.

The shaky Turkey deal

Turkey, which hosts some 2.7 million Syrian refugees, promised to keep them from crossing the Aegean to reach the Greek islands. In exchange, the EU agreed to set aside €6 billion to finance refugee projects inside Turkey and lift short-term visas for their nationals.

But the Germany-backed plan soured following a failed coup against Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in mid-July. The EU wanted Turkey to reform its anti-terror laws but Ankara refused amid repeated threats to scrap the deal altogether.

Despite these diplomatic rows, the European Commission wants to keep the deal intact, fearful of a repeat of 2015 when over 800,000 arrived in a matter of months near the year's end.

Tens of thousands are trapped in Greece as a result. Those who managed to arrive on the Greek islands from Turkey are pushed into overcrowded camps where violence is rampant and women and children are at risk of sexual and physical abuse.

Infants as young as four have allegedly been assaulted at so-called hotspots, an EU concept where arrivals are screened and registered before their asylum claims are heard. The EU commission has absolved itself from any responsibility and says the fault lays squarely with the member states.

The hotspots in Greece and Italy had also been intended as a clearing house for a mandatory relocation scheme aimed at distributing 160,000 people over two years.

Since its September 2015 launch, the plan has failed to deliver any meaningful results as EU states baulk at being forced into meeting quotas. Even commission president Jean-Claude Juncker made light of it in November when he quipped that Luxembourg was unable to find any refugees willing to relocate to the Grand Duchy.

"We found 53 after explaining to them that it was close to Germany. They are no longer there [Luxembourg]," he said.

Broken asylum laws

The admission highlights the EU's shattered asylum policies, as reception and conditions in EU states vary widely. With that knowledge, refugees and asylum seekers tend to flock to Germany and Sweden as a matter of preference.

The two nations, along with Austria, Denmark, and non-EU state Norway, set up internal border control checks in May and has extended them into 2017 out of fear refugees would want to settle on their territories.

Austria had even threatened to shut down its Brenner Pass border with Italy, a major transit route to Germany and northern Europe.

The commission, meanwhile, proposed to reform asylum rules known as Dublin that determine which member state is responsible for an asylum seeker's claim. The May proposal included a controversial plan to impose a €250,000 "solidarity contribution", paid by the member state, for each person they refuse to accept under the Dublin transfer rule.

Some states are pushing to morph the "solidarity contribution" into a concept known as "flexible solidarity" where governments would have more say over EU asylum rules. The phrase has since morphed into what the Slovak EU presidency is now calling "effective solidarity".

All this happened amid a backdrop of growing insecurity following terrorist attacks in Brussels in March, in Nice in July, and to a smaller extent in Germany. The EU launched a broad package of security policies that, in some cases, also aimed at controlling migration as the EU commission piled on intense pressure for Italy and Greece to fingerprint every arriving asylum seeker.

The fear is that measures imposed in 2016 risk unravelling in 2017. EU officials remain wary of the deal with Turkey. But focus has shifted to Africa. In October alone, a record number of 27,500 people arrived in Italy from Libya.

Many more are likely to do the same in 2017 as the death toll continues to climb.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

Magazine

Europe in Review 2016

EUobserver wishes you a new Europe! This year's Europe in Review edition looks back at all the events of 2016 that will define the coming year.

Opinion

Let refugees help the EU

To solve the Syrian refugee crisis the EU will have to take a leadership role and work effectively with refugee and diaspora communities who can serve as agents of change.

Opinion

EU needs greater input from refugee groups

Local authorities and NGOs have a wealth of experience and knowledge in migration and asylum issues. EU institutions should draw on these resources.

Magazine

Ceci n'est pas une EU army

EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini got tired of repeating the phrase "this is not … an EU army", but 2016 saw France and Germany leap forward on military integration.

Magazine

Europe in Review 2016

EUobserver wishes you a new Europe! This year's Europe in Review edition looks back at all the events of 2016 that will define the coming year.

News in Brief

  1. EU-UK Brexit trade deal by January 2021, official says
  2. Bitcoin is 'deadly', Danish central bank warns
  3. EU Commission wants to ban 'legal weed'
  4. France files €10m complaint against Amazon
  5. EU negotiators reach deal on 'circular economy'
  6. Poll: Tight race in Catalonia days before elections
  7. EU: Israel built 8,000 settler homes in six months
  8. China agrees to promote London as centre for yuan

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  2. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  3. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% plastics recycling rate attainable by 2025 new study shows
  4. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  5. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  6. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  7. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  9. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  10. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  11. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap
  12. European Friends of ArmeniaEU-Armenia Relations in the CEPA Era: What's Next?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EU16+1 Cooperation Injects New Vigour Into China-EU Ties
  2. EPSUEU Blacklist of Tax Havens Is a Sham
  3. EU2017EERole of Culture in Building Cohesive Societies in Europe
  4. ILGA EuropeCongratulations to Austria - Court Overturns Barriers to Equal Marriage
  5. Centre Maurits CoppietersCelebrating Diversity, Citizenship and the European Project With Fundació Josep Irla
  6. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceUnderstanding the Social Consequences of Obesity
  7. Union for the MediterraneanMediterranean Countries Commit to Strengthening Women's Role in Region
  8. Bio-Based IndustriesRegistration for BBI JU Stakeholder Forum about to close. Last chance to register!
  9. European Heart NetworkThe Time Is Ripe for Simplified Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling
  10. Counter BalanceNew EU External Investment Plan Risks Sidelining Development Objectives
  11. EU2017EEEAS Calls for Eastern Partnership Countries to Enter EU Market Through Estonia
  12. Dialogue PlatformThe Turkey I No Longer Know