Sunday

22nd Jan 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.

  • 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 first published in EUobserver's Europe in Review 2016 magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Caritas EuropaEU States to Join Pope Francis’s Appeal to Care for Migrant Children
  2. UNICEFNumber of Unaccompanied Children Arriving by sea to Italy Doubles in 2016
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers"Nordic Matters" Help Forge Closer Bonds Between the UK and the Nordic Region
  4. Computers, Privacy & Data ProtectionThe age of Intelligent Machines: join the Conference on 25-27 January 2017
  5. Martens CentreNo Better way to Lift Your Monday Blues Than to Gloss Over our Political Cartoons
  6. Dialogue PlatformThe Gulen Movement: An Islamic Response to Terror as a Global Challenge
  7. European Free AllianceMinority Rights and Autonomy are a European Normality
  8. Swedish EnterprisesHow to Create EU Competitiveness Post-Brexit? Seminar on January 24th
  9. European Jewish CongressSchulz to be Awarded the European Medal for Tolerance for his Stand Against Populism
  10. Nordic Council of Ministers"Adventures in Moominland" Kick Off Nordic Matters Festival in London
  11. PLATO15 Fully-Funded PhDs Across Europe on the Post-Crisis Legitimacy of the EU - Apply Now!
  12. Dialogue PlatformInterview: Fethullah Gulen Condemns Assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Zero Waste EuropePublic Support Needed to Promote Zero Waste in More Municipalities
  2. Belgrade Security ForumEU Cannot Afford to Ignore the Western Balkans as Populism Surges
  3. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen Calls for an Investigation on the Assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey
  4. World VisionAmid EU Talks on Migration, Children on the Move Remain Forgotten and Unprotected
  5. Centre Maurits CoppietersAlex Salmond Receives Coppieters Award for His Service to Scotland and Europe
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsStrong Support for Hamburg Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
  7. Swedish EnterprisesHow to Use Bioenergy Coming From Forests in a Sustainable Way?
  8. Counter BalanceReport Reveals Corrupt but Legal Practices in Development Finance
  9. Swedish EnterprisesMEPs and Business Representatives Debate on the Future of the EU at Winter Mingle
  10. ACCAFifty Key Factors in the Public Sector Accountants Need to Prepare for
  11. UNICEFSchool “as Vital as Food and Medicine” for Children Caught up in Conflict
  12. European Jewish CongressEJC President Breathes Sigh of Relief Over Result of Austrian Presidential Election