Big changes in EU migration governance
It has been a year since the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement. The flow of asylum seekers and migrants through the Turkey-Greece corridor has been reduced to a trickle.
By contrast, flows from Libya to Italy continue at a sustained pace, a testament to political and economic hardships on the African continent. The increased movement over the last three years has put the EU under pressure, and has often led to drastic political and policy responses.
Public debate tends to focus too much on criticism and forget the important steps taken to strengthen European governance of asylum and migration. Yet, there have still been at least ten notable developments.
First, although it remains premature to speak of the replacement or radical modification of the first safe country principle, the inadequacy of the Dublin Regulation has been proven. Responsibility for asylum-seeking is now shared among member states after first registration, not upon arrival - as was the case in the first safe country principle.
The European Commission has introduced relocation quotas to alleviate pressures on front-line and main destination countries. These are likely to transform from an emergency solution into a more permanent mechanism.
Second, cooperation with origin and transit countries has finally become a top priority, years after the European Agenda on Migration and Mobility.
In principle, such forms of dialogue are correct, but in practice all other issues become conditional and the burden of asylum seeking and migration management is laid on the weakest and poorest of states. It therefore neglects that several origin and transit countries are unable to fulfil what is asked of them.
Migration cannot be the only factor guiding the EU’s foreign policy, and prioritising concerns over migration control may involve sacrificing other priorities, such as human rights protection for both refugees and migrants, development aid, or trade.
Third, the Schengen interruption mechanism is no longer a taboo. It has become acceptable that if an emergency arises at the EU’s external borders, internal border controls may be reintroduced to limit and discourage flows into and across member states, as well as to appease national electorates.
Fourth, exceptional border regimes (see Greece) may be created at the EU’s external borders when large inflows of refugees or migrants are registered. Such regimes come at the expense of asylum-seeking procedures and unfortunately go hand-in-hand with the second point above, regarding cooperation with origin and third countries.
Fifth, there has been a high concern for preventing the loss of human life and combating criminal networks that take advantage of people’s despair. Policies aimed at preventing such losses have been temporary and, in part, contradictory.
Nonetheless, it is certainly a positive development that public awareness of the tragic plight of refugees and migrants has increased.
Sixth, a transnational civil solidarity movement has emerged in Greece and Italy, as well as in transit and final destination countries such as Germany and Austria. This spontaneous movement benefited from substantial state and international aid.
Civil society actors have played an important part in the management of the emergency, initially in search and rescues. Then, as flows diminished, these organisations have assisted in first reception, accommodation and long-term integration.
Seventh, the establishment of the EU Border and Coastguard, a dramatic development in institutional and legal terms, could be seen as an example of solidarity in dealing with a global phenomenon. However, it mainly concerns border management, whereas the management of asylum-seeking remains largely national.
The EASO, the European Asylum Support Office, remains a small and rather marginal agency within the EU institutional and political landscape, despite calls from the European Commission in March 2016 for a proper European Asylum Agency.
Eighth, emphasis on the fight against human smuggling has increased, but more research and policy innovation is needed to effectively combat the phenomenon.
Smuggling is a lucrative business, but one deeply rooted in local communities. Accessing the international protection available in conditions of safety remains a Catch-22 challenge, but the EU needs to address it.
Ninth, the capacity of single migrants/refugees and their families to execute a journey has increased exponentially in the era of smart phones. Single individuals can obtain and exchange information in real time with other actors, negotiate options, seize opportunities and navigate obstacles in dynamic ways.
This phenomenon that ‘exploded’ in recent years has unearthed many questions. Does it simply facilitate movement? Does it create new demands for migration or respond to pre-existing drivers? Does it disempower smugglers and governments? A better understanding of this new phenomenon is crucial.
Last but not least, the refugee emergency has made it clear that hard and fast distinctions between asylum-seekers and labour migrants are difficult to apply. In reality, people have both political and economic motivations to move.
However, individual or family migration cannot be explained solely with political or economic motives. Both factors play a part, though with differing degrees of importance. Policy should reflect the amount of freedom individuals have over their own actions.
A team of scholars, politicians and policy makers will cast light on these developments at the State of the Union in Florence on 4-5 May 2017. Here, and elsewhere, we need to create innovative policies that respond to the complex dynamics of population flows in the 21st century.
Anna Triandafyllidou is a professor at the Global Governance Programme (GGP) of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS), European University Institute in Florence, Italy.