Migration policy in Europe: Time for reforms

Image: picture alliance / dpa

With the beginning of the war against Ukraine, refugee movements within Europe have increased significantly again – and with them the migration policy of the European Union is moving back into focus. But while most of the more than three million refugees from Ukraine in the EU are welcomed with open arms, migrants at the southern borders of the EU continue to have completely different experiences. At the end of June, the media posted news of people dying or suffering serious rights violations attempting to cross the border into the EU mounted.

Europe is still unable to find a constructive approach to people seeking protection. There are still no guarantees for secure asylum procedures, international law is not being implemented and, last but not least, the border regions particularly affected by migration are not being sufficiently relieved.

In the face of wars, climate change and hunger crises, migration will become one of the key political challenges for the EU.

For years, the EU has been looking for a uniform migration and asylum policy. However, solutions are repeatedly blocked, the differences between the states are too great.

Even small successes are celebrated

Even small agreements are presented as successes in this situation. Italy’s Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese spoke of a “historic step” when an EU delegation arrived in Bari to prepare the transfer of a first group of migrants to France. She explained that for the first time the EU solidarity principle, which Italy had been calling for four years, would be supported by a “very large number of member states”.

However, that is a very optimistic portrayal of the so-called voluntary solidarity mechanism agreed by 21 EU countries in June. The treaty is primarily intended to relieve the southern countries of Italy, Spain, Malta, Greece and Cyprus, where many refugees arrive. However, only 13 of the 21 countries have actually agreed to accept migrants. They have made commitments for about 8,000 people, Germany will take on 3,500 of them. The other states will only support the solidarity mechanism with money and personnel. But there are also other countries like Hungary and Austria that are strictly opposed to the redistribution of refugees.

The number of refugees is increasing

But even human rights organizations are not convinced. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than 35,000 people have already arrived in Italy this year. The border protection agency Frontex registered 44 percent more border crossings on the central Mediterranean route than in the first seven months of last year. The United Nations counted almost 1,000 dead or missing in the central Mediterranean only this year.

However, a second central point of the solidarity mechanism is also criticized: the screening regulation. This stipulates that all persons who do not meet the requirements for entry must go through identification and security checks at the external borders, as well as health checks and vulnerability checks. Aid organizations are already describing the conditions at the external borders as deplorable and now fear that the situation will become even worse with the screening regulation. For this reason, this solidarity mechanism is also a shame, criticize human rights activists, in reality it is a further step towards sealing off the EU.

Europe is closing itself off more and more

According to human rights activists, the scandals in which the border protection agency Frontex is obviously involved also fit into this image of “Fortress Europe”. There, longtime boss Fabrice Leggeri had to resign this spring. Investigations into the illegal refusal of migrants in the Mediterranean are considered to be the background. According to them, executives at the Warsaw-based agency deliberately covered up the fact that Greek border guards were bringing refugees back to the open Mediterranean Sea. Rejections of people seeking protection at the external borders – so-called pushbacks – are illegal under international law.

The outcome of the elections in Italy later this month will have a major impact on current developments in Europe’s migration policy. There, a victory for three parties from the centre-right alliance seems very likely. In the election campaign that has been raging for weeks, the situation in the Mediterranean is an important point. The will of the election favorite Giorgia Meloni from the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia: a naval blockade off the coasts of North Africa, camps for refugees, early sorting out of those not entitled to asylum. The Libyan security forces, who could “help protect Europe’s borders”, also play an important role in their plans.

Fear of the election in Italy

It also doesn’t seem to bother her that Libya has been playing a more than dubious role in the refugee movement for years. Reports of serious mistreatment of migrants by security forces are repeatedly published. Reports are now circulating that refugees are being used in a targeted manner to destabilize the borders – similar to what happened on the Polish-Belarusian border last winter. At that time, the suffering of the people was used as a kind of “weapon” by the regime in Minsk, obviously supported by the Kremlin in Moscow.

Europe lacks a constructive, coherent and functioning migration policy. The reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is on hold as some states prioritize strengthened border protection and the return of migrants, while others prioritize their solidarity-based distribution and improved reception mechanisms. If the EU continues to tacitly tolerate clear violations of human rights at its external borders, it will continue to accept humanitarian crises. The consequences of the Ukraine war are creating new distribution struggles in EU societies. These make it more difficult for the federal government, for example, to implement its migration agenda, which provides for more legal access for immigration – including in the labor market, where migrants are needed. Europe can no longer afford an incoherent migration policy in the long term. Because in the face of wars, climate change and hunger crises, migration will become one of the central political challenges for EU societies.

Legal contradictions

For years, situations have been deliberately created at Europe’s external borders that elude public perception and legal reappraisal. Media and non-governmental organizations are prevented from traveling to the special zones that have been set up. In fact, national borders for migration policy are no longer the clearly defined lines seen in atlases. Whether a migrant reaches European soil or not does not primarily depend on the border fences, but essentially on what is happening on site – and on the changing requirements for the deployment of the border police. In the Mediterranean, responsibilities, sovereignty and operational areas vary depending on the coast. Poland, on the other hand, was able to create a zone on its border to protect it from unpleasant images, which remained closed even to parliamentarians from other European countries, not to mention humanitarian workers, the media or human rights organizations. In Germany, the former government invented the legal “fiction of non-entry” for a large number of asylum seekers in 2018. In this fiction, those seeking protection in transit centers on German soil have not legally entered the country and therefore do not have the rights to be granted upon entry. Some border regions in Europe are now gray areas of the judiciary and the observance of human rights – and thus ultimately an expression of a policy of deterrence that allows government action in almost lawless areas.

Politically, those seeking protection are left alone and repeatedly robbed of their rights. Since there is no functioning mechanism for transparent asylum assessment procedures for those seeking protection and politicians rely unilaterally on security forces and restrictive measures, migrants are increasingly opting for offers from smugglers and choosing increasingly dangerous routes. Overall, the migration policy of the EU states is characterized by externalizing migration, i.e. outsourcing migrants and legal processes to third countries, and violating procedures that serve to protect human rights. The political reflexes since the summer 2015 are manifested in a further developed security structure. For example, the European border protection agency Frontex operates in significantly more places than before. In addition, Brussels hardly reacts to illegal push-backs.

It has now become a cynical routine to announce deaths at Europe’s external borders. But it is by no means simply acceptable that people die trying to migrate to Europe. But that is precisely what is at least partly a politically desired reality.

Divided EU

At the end of May, the largest UN conference on migration in four years took place in New York. Without any media attention, the delegates negotiated a non-legally binding document to protect migrants and increase engagement in their integration, which was eventually adopted. However, the EU did not find a common position, having three different approaches: those EU states who flatly oppose migration, those who call for the further development of protective mechanisms for migrants and more legal access and those who do not want to position themselves or take an intermediate position. The representatives of Hungary, for example, emphasized that the country would not fit into any of the three international categories – countries of origin, transit and destination – and thus placed itself more or less outside of the migration process. But even left-wing governments in the EU like Spain are increasingly focusing on the security discourse. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez praised the border guards for their efforts without regretting the fatalities. Some EU member states are now following with interest models such as the UK’s attempt to outsource asylum checks to Rwanda. All of this shows that international refugee protection is crumbling.

The countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea are particularly challenged by their location on the EU’s external borders. Their political answers are therefore often particularly restrictive. At the same time, countries such as Italy and Greece are likely to have an aging population. In the medium term, they will therefore need immigration to ensure their economic growth and their health systems. Convincing aging and shrinking populations that migration is valuable and necessary is likely to become a new challenge for European migration policy.

Future migration policy

The protection of migrants’ human rights of migrants have been under enormous pressure worldwide for years. Europe is no exception. However, in view of its own right to respect human rights, the EU in particular must ensure that all those seeking protection have access to asylum procedures and fair examination procedures. At the same time, the states at the external borders must be relieved. However, this will only succeed if the EU is willing to resolutely pursue infringement procedures in the area of migration. After the scandals of the recent past, Frontex urgently needs to be subjected to human rights monitoring that will enable parliamentary control of the border protection agency. Cooperation with countries of origin and transit must be expanded. The possibilities for regular immigration routes should be presented transparently on site. Recent experiences with the integration of Ukrainian citizens should be monitored and evaluated in order to derive best practices for other groups.

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