A workable asylum policy in line with European values could be pursued by a Schengen-style coalition of the willing.
The European Commission has presented a proposal for a new European asylum and refugee policy, although much is still to be worked out. Commitment to a solidarity-based, intra-European reception of refugees whose asylum applications have been recognised will be terminated.
In this sense the national governments—not just the Visegrad states—have been successful. In future, solidarity will not be promoted by a positive incentive system or by clear sanctions.
Governments which do not want to accept the number of refugees calculated for them will be financially responsible for the deportation of an equal number. If these fail to be deported, those governments must take the deportees to their country and deport them from there—how might that be for the refugees who have been pushed back and forth?
Governments, however, have still to commit to this. Why should they? If they don’t, nothing changes. Refugees remain as before in the countries of arrival, permeate there or continue to migrate—unregulated and uncared for—and further diffuse. The impression among the populations of the European Union is confirmed that the union is not in a position to deliver a satisfactory refugee policy.
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To facilitate deportation at Europe’s external borders, the commission is proposing ‘readmission agreements’. If, as hitherto, this does not succeed, nothing again will change. There will certainly be no mass repatriations as a result. Conversely, if only a few are repatriated, Europeans will hardly notice it. Perhaps Hungary and Poland, with their deportations already, above all should demonstrate the European loyalty to the rule of law which they are dismantling in their own countries.
The Dublin agreement is no longer to matter legally, although still de facto. For family reunifications it can be ignored. Otherwise, the southern-European countries of arrival will remain responsible. If they are overwhelmed, they can ask for take-up by other countries. They could also do that before—without appreciable success. So there is no incentive for change here either.
Essentially, the commission’s aim is to organise deportations more quickly and effectively and to close Europe’s external borders as completely as possible. This is not even the lowest common denominator of all European governments but only of those who want if possible to keep all refugees out of the EU.
Many questions remain. In particular, where and how can an examination of the right to asylum take place which is ‘exterritorial’ and at the same time sovereign and is commensurate with existing law—let alone human rights?
And what has been gained from the commission’s proposal? In practice, at most, a strengthening of family reunification.
What is lost? An opportunity to serve the well-understood, long-term interests of the EU—to overcome the poisoning of societies by hateful discourses on migration, specifically through functioning, just and thus socially-easing regulations, which would strengthen democracies; to build constructive co-operation with Africa; to find a wise, measured response to the economically dangerous loss of population, and all in all to end the EU’s moral self-contradiction, which will further undermine its cohesion.
What would be an alternative?
A common European asylum and refugee policy which corresponds with our values can only succeed if it is freely supported by a majority of Europeans. It also needs the co-operation of the refugees or the other migrants—to be distinguished from them—because migration cannot be regulated by compulsion alone.
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It must therefore, at the same time, be impartial towards all involved and take their interests into account. Solidarity is only sustainable when it is freely manifested, when justice is respected and when people’s interests are recognised and incorporated as realistically as possible.
Justice today must be conceived and realised globally. A realistic European refugee and migration policy can therefore only succeed if, particularly in Africa, the EU simultaneously intensifies development co-operation, which offers people in their home country—or at least close by—a perspective for life.
This will not be possible overnight. Central, however, is the insight that cities and municipalities in Africa should be much more points of co-operation for development, because, as in the EU and globally, they are more solution-oriented than national governments. This has long been known in development co-operation. Here, the EU can massively support town twinning, which already exists and can be connected up and expanded.
Partnership exchanges on good administration, infrastructure for education, health, housing, sanitation, waste management and so on are essential and very promising. A key task is to build reliable governance which ensures a functioning infrastructure and administration.
Of course, massive private-sector investments are indispensable. However, these will only succeed, sustainably and in the interests of both parties, if companies are willing to engage in good governance with the public administration, especially in the municipalities, and civil society. This matches their own interest in secure and profitable investments, because good governance ensures social peace and stimulates responsible co-operation and economic dynamism.
Even if this succeeds, there will continue to be migration. People will seek better living and working opportunities, even if they are not acutely forced to flee by civil war, dictatorships or, for example, a climate-induced drying up of their sources of life. They must have legal immigration opportunities so that they are not in fact dependent on the right of asylum which does not fit them—that leads to accusations of abuse and creates resistance.
Moreover, what they are currently sending home in terms of financial support worldwide far exceeds the development ‘aid’ financed by Europe, the World Bank or private donors. That is why they are often sent to Europe by their families.
We must take this context into account in a realistic European asylum and refugee policy. For that to succeed, we must simultaneously intensify our development co-operation and frame it more effectively. It is also important to distinguish between asylum and flight, on the one hand, and labour migration on the other, and to find different, workable paths for both.
Then we can refute the concern that successful reception of refugees could act as a ‘pull factor’ towards Europe which overwhelms the EU. In fact, as migration research shows, 95 per cent of African refugees remain in Africa and as close as possible to their homeland. This is certainly not just about money and living standards.
Furthermore, we cannot choose between stopping or drastically reducing flight and migration on the one hand and allowing them to happen on the other. Rather, the choice realistically lies only between regulating them fairly and in the common interest or building destructive walls that do not last and that harm everyone.
In the latter case, misery will continue to spread, unregulated and private, leading in European societies to ever more fear and brutality—on all sides—in light of the loss of control. This promotes right-wing extremism and threatens our democracies.
Against this background, a European asylum and refugee policy first needs a common European procedure for admission—the right of refugees to remain in the EU—or repatriation. For this, places have to be found. All attempts to set up such places outside the EU, for example in north Africa or artificially ‘extraterritorial’, have so far failed and will continue to fail.
Initiatives to force north-African states to set up border camps are not only against their interests. They also undermine fruitful co-operation, which is necessary to achieve a satisfactory regulation of migration (including repatriation) and a better relationship with Africa. If we leave it open whether the places should be located inside or outside the EU or wherever else, no solution will be found.
Places for such asylum procedures can only be set up within the EU. This however requires a reliable regulation for the decentralised reception of persons entitled to asylum or right to remain (subsidiary protection) and also of such persons who, for whatever reason, cannot be repatriated. At the same time, repatriation of those who are not entitled to remain must be regulated.
We must not allow such new European testing centres to be overcrowded, as they are on the Greek islands. No country will voluntarily allow such ‘hotspots’.
The EU should set up several places to assess claims for asylum and right to remain in various European countries (not only in the southern countries of arrival), with the examination carried out under common law. The Dutch or Swiss procedure can serve as a basis. This provides for a fast and at the same time careful, transparent and therefore confidence-building procedure: every refugee or family is offered immediate legal assistance and at the same time civil-society organisations can ensure transparency.
For a period of about three months (including revision procedure), it is reasonable that refugees should have to stay at the location of the examination. If this gives them a fair chance of entry, they will remain there. With this asylum procedure, the rapid ‘preliminary examination’ which is currently being proposed for political motives—but which cannot be legally serious and would sow mistrust—becomes superfluous.
Those who do not have the right to be admitted should be repatriated from these places. Anyone granted asylum or a (temporary) right to stay or who could not be repatriated should be able to obtain a place of residence in the EU. We must abolish the grey areas of unsolved cases in which people are kept in the dark for years.
All attempts to ensure a reliable ‘distribution’ of recognised refugees through compulsory allocation of national quotas have so far failed and will continue to fail. Paradoxically, reliability can only be based on voluntary take-up. This requires incentives which meet the interests of host countries and municipalities.
Such incentives can be offered by a ‘European Integration and Development Fund’ for municipalities, as this is about the financing of European asylum and refugee policy. Municipalities ready to take in refugees could apply for the financing of integration costs, as well as match funding for their own projects.
The application should be simple, non-bureaucratic and secure against misappropriation or corruption by means of integrity agreements such as Transparency International has developed. Funding should be valid for at least five years. Available funding for the recovery of municipalities after the coronavirus offers a favourable opportunity.
To anchor the reception of refugees reliably in local society, mayors could form ‘development advisory councils’ in pursuit of the United Nations sustainable-development goals. To this end, they should invite representatives of organised civil society and business, together with elected members of the municipality and its administration. Together, they could work out longer-term development perspectives for the community: reception of refugees, sustainable climate measures and infrastructure investments alike.
Decisions would still be taken by the elected institutions but the prior collective elaboration of the joint development strategy would bring citizens together and favour implementation. In this way, reception of refugees in municipalities would receive broad support in local society. At the same time, this would ‘square the circle’ of an effective direct participation of citizens which is compatible with representative democracy.
Offers for take-up of refugees could be shared with the ‘hotspots’ by municipalities, so that refugees could consider where they wanted to go in Europe during their asylum procedure. A matching system could mediate among the preferences of municipalities and refugees. The decentralised take-up of recognised refugees would follow the completion of their procedures in the hotspots.
In such voluntary co-operation—which led to the introduction of the Schengen system—European states would declare themselves ready to take in recognised refugees and to pass them on to municipalities, within their jurisdiction, which have declared themselves ready too and on which refugees have decided.
Refugees would have an obligation to stay in the municipalities they have chosen, as long as they receive financial support. Municipalities would at the same time be well advised to develop means to bind refugees voluntarily to their places—for example via education, housing (the chance of home ownership), work, healthcare, and social contacts and relationships (sports and culture).
Since participating member states would have formally assumed the obligation to take in a fixed number of refugees from the ‘hotspots’ or the states in which they are located, the ‘distribution key’ which they would have set in advance among themselves would have to be retained as a safety net. The less this safety net came to be relied upon, however, the greater would be the social consensus on reception.
The Integration Fund should be financed by all the countries of the European Union. States which did not want to take in refugees would contribute via financial support for the European asylum and refugee policy—however without the chance that their municipalities’ projects could in turn be financed from the fund. As this strategy could at the same time support municipalities in their recovery, the fund should also be financed from the planned EU recovery fund.
Gesine Schwan is a German political science professor and chair of the Basic Values Commission of the SPD. The party nominated her twice as a candidate for the federal presidential elections.